College bound: desktop, laptop or tablet? PC or Mac?

laptop_MH900405386Another broken or stolen laptop? Are you sure about that?

Are you going to be that one who calls home begging for another computer because your laptop was stolen or it dropped out of your backpack. Mom may lose patience with that one after having forked over $2k for the MacBook Air. Besides, do you really need it?

Let’s think this through carefully. What do you really need?

Here’s my assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of your computer options (on Scale of 5):

Desktop PC Laptop PC Tablet Mac desktop Mac laptop
Ease of Use  5 4 2 5 4
Portability 1 4 5  1 4
Reliability 5 4 4 5 4
Capacity / Function 5 4 2  5 4
Cost 5 4 4 1 1
Risk of Loss or Breakage 5 2 2 5 2
Overall Score
(total ÷ 6 categories)
4.3 3.6 3.1 3.6 3.1


Here for updates on this topic:
The Best Computers for College: desktop, laptop or tablet? PC or Mac? pt 2
Laptop, Tablet, or Desktop? Google Docs or Office 365? Which technology is best for high school and college?

Desktops are old fashioned, you say?

Desktops have become, like cars, an afterthought: the average age of American cars is eleven years now, the highest it has ever been. That’s because they’re built better than ever and have all the functions consumers need. What hurt GM, Ford and Chrysler as much as anything over the last five years is that they’re products are very, very good, so people don’t need to buy new ones as often as before. A 2003 automobile is as good as a 2011, and there’s not much a 2013 offers that the ’03 can’t — other than the built-in Bluetooth or a few overly redundant safety features.

And these cars are lasting a long time now. Same goes with PCs: Microsoft’s biggest problem with Windows is that the Windows 7 program is very, very good, very very stable, and there’s little reason to upgrade it anymore (they tried for years to dump XP, which is still solid, useful and widely used). So desktop PCs aren’t so much old fashioned as they are, like a good car, just there.

Now, if you want a Mac, go for it. But you’re gonna pay for it, be it a desktop or a laptop. A Windows 7 PC will cost you less than your smartphone, and you will have a hard time breaking the screen or leaving it on your seat at the movies.

A Windows 7 laptop costs about the same as a desktop and has the added benefit of portability. But do you really, really need to carry your computer around? Some teachers will allow it in class, although I hear more and more about professors who ban them from classrooms because kids are on Facebook rather than focused on class. If I were in college, I’d have a laptop. The ability to take it with me is just that important.  BUT… I’d probably break it or lose it inside of the first semester.

Above all else is cost, which is why 82% of college students use a PC, i.e., Windows-based desktop or laptop. (I’m guessing that most of those are laptops.) As the expert is quoted in that article:

Another reason PCs are winning out with students: price. Desktop PCs are at their cheapest during September when students are going back to school… with prices starting at $200 for a dual-core desktop PC. (The iPad Mini
costs $329.) “The desktop PC is simply a wiser, more realistic investment for any student this fall”

I strongly recommend a decent new or lightly used Windows 7 PC or laptop. As the article points out, a decent PC will start around $200, and there’s no need to go much higher than that, even with a full desktop setup with monitor, keyboard, mouse, and speakers.

Used Equipment

We work with our students to make sure their equipment is available, proper, and functional. I can get a good Win 7 desktop (with monitor etc.) or laptop from anywhere between $100-$200, depending on the capacity, and with a 1 year warranty. Not bad. So let me know if you’re interested.

My Own Equipment

I use four computers, three laptops and a desktop, all PCs, and all HPs. My laptops can serve as a desktop when I plug it into a wireless keyboard, mouse, speakers, and external monitor setup. One laptop is for upstairs, one is for taking with me, and the other is my old workhorse, a seven year old HP that still goes and goes. I bought my desktop because I wanted a better 2nd monitor and higher overall performance, storage, speed, and so on.

So you know, I run Windows 7 on the old laptop and Windows 8 on the others. I also have a Windows Phone that syncs beautifully with my 8 machines and all my Office Programs, especially OneNote (organization) and Outlook (email). I’ll probably buy a Surface tablet, but I’m waiting for built-in mobile broadband, which is coming later or next year. I can wait. That’s me.

What about you, and what about for college?

What about cell phones?

You can do all that on a smart phone. But not very well.  And a little better on a tablet, but, again, not very well. A laptop does it all, with portability. But that, too, comes at a cost in functionality and risk of damage or loss. The best solution for that list is, I hate to say it – a desktop.


I will next post my Computer Tool Kit list for you with essential programs, features and file management tools. Feel free to call or write with any questions.

Technology should not be a problem!

– Michael

  • Well, I broke down and bought a tablet. I left my laptop on the screen porch overnight, and I didn’t like the humidity from a storm. Oops, Lesson learned: laptops are easily lost. This one lasted me 3 years, so I won’t complain. And I won’t miss the broken down-arrow key that I was told would cost $300 since it could only be fixed by replacing the entire keyboard. Now I have to spend that, at least, so I decided to just leave it and get a tablet.

    I’m typing this now on a pretty cool flip-out keyboard on a Surface RT. I actually like this thing! The unit is $349 and keyboard another $120. You don’t need t get the keyboard, as it has a usb port for external keyboard/mouse and the on-screen keyboard is quite good, certainly as good as the one on my wife’s Ipad.

    As far as usability, it’s a Win 8 but not the full desktop version, which is not needed. It only means that I can’t load up some thirdparty software like my WordPerfect or Adobe Suite. I won’t miss those.

    So, here’s a nice solution! Just hope I don’t drop it in the lake on our Maine vacation next week… Btw, I didn’t lose any data with the laptop because everything is on the cloud. Setting up the Surface took only a login to have all the same settings as all my other Win 8 machines. Nice!

  • Surface RT update: Confident it would meet my needs, I took only the tablet on vacation. All my important work files are on the cloud, so there’s hardly any need for me to even touch the smallish, 32g hard drive on my Surface RT. I did move tons of photos over to the cloud in case I wanted to look them over with my family. Between work and personal storage, I have about 80 gig, although most people wouldn’t need hear that (you get 5 or 7 gig free with Skdrive, which integrates beautifully with my Surface and Win 8 machines),

    My only problem with files on the trip was an old, encrypted WordPerfect file that I needed but couldn’t open without WordPerfect itself,. Since the Surface RT doesn’t allow 3rd party standalone programs, I was out of luck. Had I previously stored it as Word file it would have been fine, but no matter, I found what I needed. Otherwise, I direly miss Outlook, which isn’t available on Surface RT until the 8.1 update coming in October, None of these would be a problem with the $800+ Surface Pro, but it’s not worth the difference for me (if Outlook were not coming to RT I’d have to buy the Pro).

    Otherwise, I’m very, very pleased with the Surface RT. The touch functions rock. The on-screen keyboard is great and accurate, and I’m really liking the Win 8 experience. Instead if reaching for a mouse, I just touch or flick the screen and bam! Nice.

    Now, about the $100 “touch” keyboard. I’ll say two nice things about it: 1) the magnetic attachments is great: locks in quickly and it really helps the tablet sit firmly on my lap; 2) it’s blue and looks great. That’s it. Typing on it sucks. You have to hit the keys exactly on the head using arched fingers (like my hated piano teacher used to say when I was a kid, “Arch your fingers…” agggh). When it’s not on a hard surface the edges bend and the outward keys don’t hit well, especially the Control and Delete keys which I use all the time. As soon as I get back I am so exchanging this for the standard, spring-loaded keyboard that costs an extra 10 bucks.

    Overall, I highly recommend the Surface RT.

  • FYI, this article from Microsoft on upcoming Outlook RT notes that 61% of tablet shoppers find the Office integration the single most important feature in a tablet:

    And I agree. And I failed to include this in the value of a Surface, as laptops usually charge extra for Office, which makes the RT actually $100 cheaper than it’s already low $349 price.

  • Surface RT update: If you have one, and it’s not doing what you’d like it to do, please let me know. I’ve run into a couple walls, but I’ve also found some neat and easy solutions. Here are a couple examples:

    – The “Reader” app doesn’t allow for annotations as does Adobe’s Acrobat pdf reader, and you can’t load Adobe on an RT (The Surface Pro you can, because that’s a full computer). Solution? Open your pdfs in Word and voila. You can actually do a lot more in Word than you can in Acrobat.

    – Flash doesn’t always play on websites. I wanted to watch the US Open while sitting on my porch, so I went to and hit watch live… and I got the Flash not installed error. Uggh. A little searching around, and it seems that Microsoft has limited flash functionality on Surface RTs to specific websites (youtube, among them). I suppose this is better than Apple’s solution, which is no flash. But there is a workaround, although a potentially dangerous one if you’re not careful.

    If you lower the Security settings on your desktop browser and/or turn of ActiveX filter and Smart Filter, the flash content should play. BUT BE CAREFUL: USE ONLY ON TRUSTWORTHY WEBSITES!!! AND RETURN THE SECURITY SETTINGS BACK TO DEFAULT WHEN YOU’RE DONE. Did I say that loud enough? In other words, do not ever lower security settings on websites that are not in your best interest… ahem, as in adult material, torrents and sites with knock-off content or that are just ad sites (like DON’T DO IT. Some Ukranian hacker will own your nice little tablet in no time. Eventually the war between Adobe and Apple and Microsoft will end when the internet moves entirely to HTML5. It’s already happening, but for now, we have to live with the hateful Flash.

    Otherwise, I’m very happy with this little machine. I’ve dropped it several times already, with no ill effect, except a little bruise on the corner than hit the tiles in my office. Oops.

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  • Surface RT update: about a month into using my Surface RT, and thought to add a couple observations:

    * I had trouble with the “touch” keyboard (that comes in colors), but I’m really liking the spring, or traditional, keyboard. Both secure to the tablet magnetically and stay on pretty well. If you lift it by the keyboard the tablet won’t fall off, although with movement it will, so be careful. The attached keyboard is especially useful for balancing the tablet on my lap so I don’t have to hold it up with my hands.

    * Microsoft will be phasing out the RT and selling instead the “Surface 1” or something like that. It will still use Windows RT and have its limitations (no outside programs). If you want a good deal on an RT unit, now is the time to buy. They are dumping new ones for under $300 with the keyboard included.

    * I really like this machine. The Win 8 touch interface works brilliantly, and I find myself enjoying reading things online more than I ever used to with it.

  • Surface RT update, Nov/ 2013

    I’m now a few months into this machine, and with Microsoft launching the Surface 2, I’d like to add the following notes on my experience with the Surface RT

    * In running my business, I need full Windows 8, which the RT does not provide. However, as a 2nd device, I hardly miss a thing from the full Windows. When I need specialized programs, it’s on my desktop. I just don’t need them when I’m on this machine.

    * The touch keyboard of the original Surface sucked. MS claims that the Surface 2 keyboards are stiffer and more responsive, and I hope so. I am happy but not entirely with my Surface spring-loaded keyboard, which is not always responsive if it is not on a hard surface. Right now I’m typing this with ease on the keyboard on my lap. I’m guessing that the new keyboards are much better. Be sure before you buy.

    * I have trouble getting used to small keyboards, since they jam up functions that are spread across a desktop unit. My biggest problem with this one is accessing function keys and “end” and “home” navigation, which I use all the time on my desktop. Still figuring these out 3 months into it.

    * touch screen keyboard: I find myself using it more and more. Could be getting used to, or it could be that I’m only now discovering its utility.

    * I really do like the magnetic attachment of the keyboard to the unit: so easy and fluid.

    * Touch screen experience brilliant: simply brilliant. When I’m on my desktop, I miss the ability to point and shoot on the screen directly, especially for scrolling, resizing, and managing my windows and desktop. I use a Win 8 touch mouse, but it doesn’t come close to the ease of the touch. Microsoft truly has this one correct.

    * Touch screen experience not so brilliant (one complaint) : the right/left click functions of the touch screen aren’t always immediate and tend to be different in different contexts. Additionally, the select functions aren’t easy with my fat fingers, as I have trouble grabbing the edges of the highlighted text and expanding or contracting it to where I want. I find myself going back to the keyboard or mouse for that too frequently.

    * Touch screen v. mouse: I rarely use a mouse on my Surface unit. Just don’t miss it enough to have it always on.

    * Some limitations on the RT that have impacted me are not having full access to Windows Explorer integrations with my SharePoint online file storages, but I remedied it by “Mapping” the network drives, which is so much easier to do in Win 8 than in previous versions.

    * Had I paid the extra $500 for the Surface Pro I wouldn’t be significantly happier, especially since the 8.1 update which gave me Outlook. I will give MS this: the Win 8 email client gives an easier, happier mail and calendar experience than Outlook. BUT, it is not Outlook, and I need all those other, amazing things that Outlook can do.

    Just a few thoughts for now, but I do want to report that I am very, very satisfied with this machine and that I do not have the urgency to go buy the Surface 2. If you are still looking into these units, I heartily recommend it.

  • Btw, if you are having any trouble with accessing network files within the Win 8 apps environment, please let me know and I’ll show you how. It’s easy, but you need know a couple tricks

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