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Back to School shopping includes computers for all grade levels

There was a time when students took their hi-fis back to college, but today most entering students bring a computer instead. Napster has made computer geeks out of many students, and besides being a research tool the computer is now a form of recreation.

When buying a computer there are several choices and no one computer stands out above the rest. It's what's inside the box that's important. Each user has different needs, which may require upgrades or basic accessories. No reference is made in this article as to the superiority of a PC or an Apple or why a certain computer is easier to use.

College students

Before you shop for a college computer, check with the university to see whether there are any hardware or software requirements, because classroom work is usually done through a server.

Wilson Ng, owner of Los Altos PC, said add-ons make a big difference at the college level.

"Buying a computer goes beyond a fast processor and a huge hard disk drive. Today's student has new priorities. It's how quick you can access information outside the PC, namely, the Web," Ng said. "The main ingredient for a PC should be a fast Internet connection in the form of a DSL arrangement from the local telephone company or an Internet connection with a 56K modem."

Shopping for a college computer isn't any different from shopping for a home system as far as hardware specs are concerned. The big choice is deciding whether you want a notebook or a desktop. Ng suggested a used notebook because of the cost.

"A laptop is great for travel and convenience in college. You can use them in classrooms and in libraries. They are easy for getting onto the Internet and you can take down information and study the notes afterwards," Ng said. "When you get back to your room you can download the information to the desktop."

Desktops are a better value when it comes to hardware because you get more for less. The drawback to the desktop is you lose the portability factor, but you can get all the basics with the unit.

High school students

Writing reports with a word processor, using the Internet and having electronic encyclopedias for research requires a computer just as powerful as a college student's machine.

In most cases the computer will also be the home computer for the family. The decision is, are you buying the computer for the high school student or the family?

Yukio Manage, owner of Dent Computer of Los Altos, said you can get some good computers at this level for $500-600 including a monitor.

The absolute minimum processor size for your new desktop PC should be a Pentium III processor, with a 600-733MHz (megahertz) processor, 30GB (gigabyte) hard drive and 128MB SDRAM memory.

A 40GB drive is nice for storage, but you don't need that lmuch space unless you download every MP3 song ever made.

For music you need a decent set of speakers (about $60) and a good sound card. Other items for a high school student would be a CD-RW read-write and a zip drive to backup homework.

Elementary school students

The earlier you start teaching a child basic computer tasks like starting a program, typing, loading something from a CD and simple games, the more they will become interested in school computer activities.

"A child's attention span is not as cultured as a high school student's, so they lose interest quickly if they have to wait for the computer to react," Ng said. "For that reason I would suggest at least a 700MHz system."

Another item that holds a child's interest is a colored printer. A scanner would be helpful and a 17" monitor will keep a child interested longer.

For a technically minded child, it might be an excellent time to build an inexpensive unit just for the experience. Building your own computer costs around $350, give or take a few pennies. You can build your own computer at either of the Los Altos computer locations mentioned above.

If building your own computer doesn't appeal, then start with an inexpensive model as your first computer. For schoolwork, the IBM compatible PC or an Apple iMac can be satisfactory as long as you know what you want to do with the computer.

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