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Mac to School 2006: The $2,000 Challenge

As a student headed for college, my mind is preoccupied with gearing up for the upcoming year. I need to think ahead about what I’ll need at school, because I’m on a student’s budget where every dollar counts. What Mac gear would be best?

When I proposed writing this article to TidBITS, Adam Engst gave me a challenge: with a theoretical $2,000 to spend, how would I balance value and quality to equip myself adequately for school? That includes buying hardware, software, and peripherals for class, for the dorm, and for traveling. Here’s my ultimate college computer setup (and note that many of the prices here assume an educational discount; check Apple’s Store for Education for details on Apple educational pricing.

Mac or PC: Because People Still Don’t Know — It seems almost foolish even to mention the prospect of purchasing a Windows-based PC – this is, after all, a Mac publication – but there are schools out there that require students to have Windows-based PCs. Luckily, thanks to Apple’s Boot Camp (for booting into Windows) and Parallels Desktop (for running Windows inside Mac OS X), nearly anything a PC can do in Windows, a Mac can do equally well, also in Windows.

For most tasks, a new Mac running Mac OS X is the best bet for students. Macs include a slew of great applications (free and otherwise), are virtually immune (as of this writing) to viruses and malware, require less maintenance than PCs, and tend to last longer. And while it might be hard to imagine living on a constrained student budget, being able to put off buying your next new computer for a bit longer leaves more money for other necessities.

Desktop or Laptop — No contest. I believe this can be adequately analyzed with nothing but questions: Can you bring an iMac with you to class to take notes? Or to the library to work on a project with classmates? Or to Starbucks for a coffee-fueled study session?

If you’re in a dorm, the decision becomes even more obvious: Why would you want a huge hunk of metal and plastic (plus separate display if necessary) occupying the ten-by-twelve two-person closet space the college calls a residence?

What if you’re on break and headed home – wouldn’t it be nice to have the option of bringing your computer with? And why would you choose stationary over portable when the laptops almost directly compete with desktops when it comes to specs?

See where I’m going with this? Don’t even think about buying a desktop Mac.

MacBook vs. MacBook Pro — Since we’re on a student budget, and are looking for a machine suitable for student tasks, the cheaper MacBook is a perfect choice: it’s fast, well-equipped with AirPort Extreme and a Combo drive, comes with great software, and is undeniably hot. Looking. Hot looking. Or “cute.” Some people prefer “cute.” Either way, it merits envy.

The 13.3-inch screen provides enough real estate for most any school/fun-related tasks, and the 60 GB hard drive is usually more than enough for a music-listening, paper-writing student. (More media-inclined individuals may want to opt for an upgrade, but for most, 60 GB should be plenty.)

The MacBook also offers Front Row – a piece of software that provides an easy-to-navigate iPod-like interface for your media content – and the Apple Remote, another perfect-for-dorm-video-watching feature.

The MacBook Pro, most noted for its larger displays (15-inch or 17-inch) and fast video card, is a great machine too, but only the video-editing/graphics folks should consider it, along with those who need to play games to survive. However, it prices itself out of my budget.

Also, even though you’re on a budget, I strongly recommend that you opt for purchasing the AppleCare Protection Plan ($183 extra), which extends the warranty to three years. It’s really a personal preference, but if you intend on keeping your machine for more than a year (which, if you’re taking it to college, is probably the case) then AppleCare can prove invaluable with a computer guaranteed to take a beating in daily use around campus. (Note, though, that if your budget is tight right now, you can put off adding AppleCare for up to one year after purchasing the computer.)

13-inch 1.83 GHz MacBook, plus AppleCare: $1,232

In addition to the computer itself, several hardware extras end up on my list.

RAM — Yes, RAM. There are times when I cry myself to sleep at night thinking about the paltry 512 MB of RAM preloaded with the MacBook. Then the sadness turns to anger when I see how much Apple charges for upgrades. I’m going to go out and say you need to buy an extra 1 GB of RAM for the machine, just to keep your sanity. Sure, 512 MB is bearable, but just barely. I’ve purchased a 1 GB card from for about $80, so shop for a price similar to that ( is a good place to start).

1 GB DDR2 PC5300 SO-DIMM: $80

Notebook Bag — I know what you’re thinking: “Is a notebook bag really hardware?” My response: Can you download it? No. Then yes, it’s hardware.

It’s important to choose a bag that suits you – its style, its size, its price. Since the MacBook is still pretty new, the bag selection isn’t exactly overflowing, but there are plenty of good options. Timbuk2 makes some nice bags catered to the 13-inch size, as does a creative company called Crumpler. I’d suggest checking out Apple’s Notebook Cases section of their online store, where you can find bags designed specifically for the MacBook. $100 is a decent price point, but you may need to go up a level to get that Perfect Bag. Keep in mind that you’ll also be carrying notebooks and textbooks, so you need either a notebook bag with enough room or a sleeve that will protect your laptop from everything else rattling around in your backpack. Jeff Carlson offered more advice on choosing a bag in “Buying a Laptop Bag”, 05-Apr-04.

Notebook bag: $100

iPod — Every student needs an iPod. It’s just The Way Things Are. Whether you’re a music fan, someone who enjoys podcasts, or you just want to sport the white earbuds to relay your hip stature, an iPod has you covered. There’s also the listening-to-lectures-on-your-iPod thing, if you’re into that whole education business. And, thankfully, to satisfy the masses and meet the requirements of the federal government’s new An iPod For Every Student Act, Apple is offering a free iPod nano ($179 value after rebate) to any student who purchases a Mac notebook by 16-Sep-06.

1 GB iPod nano: $0.

Printer — Aside from offering a free iPod to students, those who buy a Mac before 16-Oct-06 get $100 off (via rebate) a new printer, too. I’d recommend the HP Photosmart C3180 All-in-One – a printer Apple sells for $100. It’ll print and scan and copy, so you’ll have all the tools you need when it comes to finishing your papers.

HP Photosmart C3180 All-in-One: $0

USB 2 Flash Drive — This is a definite must. Since the demise of the floppy disk, mankind has been searching for an easy method of storing and transferring files – and USB flash drives have pretty much assumed that role. They’re perfect for quick transfers, for storing and backing up essential files, and are portable and durable – just put them in your bag or slip them into your pocket. I’d recommend no less than a 1 GB stick, which should be enough to carry archives of reports, presentations, and various media files. The trick to buying a flash drive, though, is finding the best deal. For example, I recently spotted a deal at selling a 1 GB flash drive for only $5 after rebate. Searching around is your best bet; you should be able to get a decent 1 GB drive for no more than $30. Again, dealram is a good place to start looking.

1 GB USB 2 Flash Drive: $30

External Hard Drive — Backup, backup, backup. Get that? Backup, backup, backup. The worst thing that could possibly happen to you is losing all your data to a hard drive failure (or worse: user failure). Backing up seems like a waste of time, because of the utter lack of instant gratification for your effort. But it’s unquestionably important, as any student who has suffered a catastrophic hard disk failure the night before an important paper is due will tell you. A good 160 GB external FireWire drive from a company like LaCie – check out the LaCie d2 Hard Drive Extreme with Triple Interface – will provide you plenty of space to produce backups, and there’ll be lots of room left over for any extraneous media files hogging up your MacBook’s internal drive.

160 GB LaCie d2 FireWire/USB2.0 Hard Drive: $170

Speakers — The only thing that makes me cry as much as the MacBook’s included RAM is the frightening condition of its speakers. System alerts? Sound great. Music? Not so much. So a good speaker system is something to consider, especially if you’re into media. Students tend to resonate to two particular systems: JBL’s Creature II Speakers ($100) and the Harman Kardon SoundSticks ($170). Points to the Creature Speakers though for coming in multiple colors (and for being about $70 cheaper).

JBL Creature II Speakers: $100

All that snazzy hardware is nice, but you’re also going to need software to actually get your work done.

Included Software — The MacBook comes with several education-worthy applications, including OmniOutliner, which is great for organizing papers or projects and taking notes. It also includes iLife ’06 (which includes iWeb) and, of course, Freeverse’s Big Bang Board Games, for those moments in class where the teacher is, you know, not teaching.

Included Software: $0

Microsoft Office — Behold, the only piece of software that actually matters. Sure, there are other, less-expensive office suites, like the free NeoOffice. But in the end, compatibility and reliability trumps all. Everyone will be using Microsoft Office, so using it yourself assures compatibility. Word has a great notebook mode which makes it easy to take (and record) notes on the fly, and PowerPoint is… well, PowerPoint. Plus, buying Office:Mac Student edition before 12-Sep-06 saves you $50 through a rebate, bringing the price down to $100. (Also, check with your school store: they may sell it for less.)

Microsoft Office Student and Teacher Edition for the Mac: $100

Schoolhouse — Recently I came across a program called Schoolhouse, a freeware application designed to help you organize and manage classes and assignments. It’s fairly simple, but offers a lot of school-specific features, including a basic but handy grade calculator and graphing tool. Plus, it’s free.

Schoolhouse: $0

SuperDuper! Undoubtedly my favorite backup application. The first time you run a backup, SuperDuper creates a full, exact, bootable copy of your disk. Every time the program runs after that, it uses a feature called Smart Update to copy only files that have since been changed. It’s also scriptable, has numerous scheduling options, is very customizable, and has a great interface.

SuperDuper!: $30

That brings the total to $1,842. Taxes and shipping, where applicable, will probably eat the rest of our $2,000 budget.

And remember: the items listed here are suggestions – your mileage may vary, depending on your priorities (and budget). It’s also important to check your university’s bookstore – they typically offer numerous deals on hardware and software that could save you hundreds.

[Dan Pourhadi is a freshman college student and wannabe writer from Chicago. He has contributed to MacAddict Magazine, Macteens, the Daily Herald newspaper, and is a blogger at The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW).]

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