Mac or PC? Which Platform is Right for a College Freshman?

You always hear about the Mac vs. PC debate in technology news. It’s an argument that’s been around for as long as the computers themselves, but most of these debates argue for their usefulness in business or graphic design. With college campuses getting more and more hi-tech (most have campus wide wireless, high speed access in the dorms and library, major virus protection programs, etc.) choosing a computer for your college career has become more and more important. You need something that is reliable, compatible, and cost efficient. Hopefully I can give you some pointers on how to weigh your options efficiently, while at the same time not spending thousands of dollars.

Let’s start with the basics.

The major difference between Macs and PCs used to the base processor. Macs ran on Apple/IBM/Motorola built PowerPC chips (which includes the G3, G4, and G5) and PCs ran on Intel (Pentium and Celeron). But as of January 2006 all new Apple computers began to house Intel processors rather than PowerPCs (original reasons included Intel chips’ lower temperatures and lower power requirements). Now that the chip is here it also has better speeds than the PowerPC G5 and it allows you to have both Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows XP running on the same machine via Boot Camp, although it’s still a public beta and there’ve been mixed reviews on how good the integration is.

Now, all this is very important info if you’re going into a major like computer science, engineering, graphic design, or another major that deals with top shelf computer programs that need a fast processor behind them. But for most majors it doesn’t really matter what kind of chip is inside. This doesn’t mean go to school with a computer that has a processor in it from five years ago, because you won’t be able to run any new software, but you also don’t need the fastest money can buy. There are a few major things to look at in hardware.

1) Hard drive: 40 GB, 60 GB, 80 GB, these numbers DO mean something. This is the amount of information that can be stored on the computer. 40 GB is not too much these days, especially if you’re going to have two operating systems on the same drive (as you may choose to with the new Macs). In my opinion, if you want enough space for everything and still have a good amount left over, you should go at least 60 GB on a PC and at least 80 GB on a Mac.

2) Memory: More memory basically means you can more things running at the same time. Most computers, notebooks and desktops, now have a standard of 512 MB SDRAM, and that should be plenty for any college student (if you want to be extra insured then upgrade to 1 GB SDRAM, but 512 MB is enough to run plenty of applications and games with any problems).

3) CD/DVD Drive: Take a look at what the drive does. You HAVE to have computer that will run DVDs, although that’s not a problem because you don’t see computers without this feature. But if you want to be able to burn CDs and/or DVDs then make sure the computer will do that.

Keep in mind that if you go through the manufacturer’s website (, you can get discounts and/or for being a college student, as well as customize many aspects of your computer including the ones listed above.

Operating System:
You’re going to need either Mac OS 10.4 (Mac OS X Tiger) or Windows XP. Both systems have their pros and cons, so it can be a little hard to decide. The big question that people have is about compatibility. Here are a few very important things to remember though.

1) Your school’s network WILL support both. Just because you have a Mac doesn’t mean you’re not going to be able to connect to your school’s network, do class work, etc. There are VERY FEW classes which require a PC, and in that case remember that your major probably has a full PC lab for your use, your library has PCs for your use, and if nothing else you’ll have friends who own a PC and I’m sure you could use their computer a little bit. But the bottom line is that is VERY rare. All universities and almost all classes fully support both systems (I’ve had many professors that bring their Mac Powerbook to class).

2) The software you need for college is available for both Mac and PC. You’ll have to have Microsoft Office, mainly for Word and PowerPoint, and this program is available and current for both systems. If you type a Word document on your Mac it will show up perfectly on your professor’s PC and vice versa.

3) If you’re a gamer (I sure am), you can get plenty of good titles for the Mac. Most of the time their network play capability is compatible with players using the PC version. There definitely are more titles exclusively for the PC, but if you like to play a few games in your downtime, you still have a formidable selection.

So, if compatibility doesn’t really solve the debate, where does the difference lie? Security. Mac OS X, aside for being slightly more secure and definitely more stable than Windows XP, does not have near the number of viruses, ad ware, spy ware, etc. that can assault it. Usually these things are automatically downloaded and run on Windows without the user being aware, but since Mac OS X doesn’t run .exe files they just sit on the desktop until you delete them, if they even download at all. This is where I’m going to pitch buying a Mac more. You pay a little more, but you don’t have near the number of potential problems. Some of my friends have to reset their PCs at least once a year to wipe out everything that’s weighing it down, while my Mac has never had one problem. The schools try to protect their PC users and even give free software to do so, but it doesn’t help that much.

Desktop vs. Laptop:
Very simple. Laptop is portable, you can take it anywhere on campus to work on things and access the internet in most of those places. Desktop is a little better for things like graphics and music/video recording and editing. If you’re not going to do any of that, go with a laptop.

This is where PCs have the advantage. PCs (I’m referring Dell specifically) are certainly more affordable than their Mac counterparts. Mostly due to having a larger market share (more sales means cheaper product), and a little due to have a slight deficit in the quality of components, but not to the point where you’d notice. And remember that you have to buy more than just the computer. You’re going to need to have Microsoft Office and I highly suggest having your own printer. So if the family is on a budget that is certainly something to consider.

Macs revel in their security and immunity, but that immunity could change overnight. They also have a more stable OS than Windows which means less crashes and less of a chance of having to spend money on repairs (but that doesn’t mean that Macs NEVER break down). PCs are much less stressful on ones bank account as far as initial spending goes. They do run a slightly higher chance of needing future service, and they don’t come with the software pack that Macs do (Macs have iLife, a couple top games, and several other perks pre-installed), but if you just need a computer for word processing, e-mail, and basic internet that’s not a huge deal. What it really runs down to is how long you want the computer to last (and be effective in the ever evolving software market) vs. how much you can spend. If you’re looking for a basic machine that will meet your basic needs I suggest taking a look at Dell’s laptops. They’re affordable, well built, and they offer student discounts and offers. If you want something a little pricier but more secure (for the moment) go with a Mac. Apple’s online store offer good deals to students as well, and both companies allow many customization options.

My Picks:
Dell Inspiron E1405 Notebook
MacBook 1.83 GHz White w/ Upgrade to 80 GB hard drive

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