Do homework before purchase

Justin Brewer works on his laptop in the College of Charleston’s Addlestone Library. Brewer is a junior double majoring in mass communications and studio art.

If your child is starting college this year, you may be confused by the dizzying array of laptop computers available and unsure of what to buy.

The good news is that colleges and universities will spell out exactly what your student needs, and those requirements will be narrowed even more when your child starts concentrating on a major.

"Almost any laptop that you pick up will exceed the technical specifications," says College of Charleston student computing support coordinator Frank Hamilton. "It's the warranty, the safety features and the software that make the difference."

Currently, 55 percent of universities require students to have computers for college, and almost 70 percent say they will recommend or require it within the next two years, according to Dell Computers.

If buying a computer is still on your to-do list for this school year, this weekend is a great time to get a bargain, with many retailers offering sales and the state of South Carolina observing it's annual tax-free weekend, college computer experts say.

But before you buy, do your homework. For one thing, laptops are preferred, if not required, over desktop models because of their portability.

"I take my laptop with me practically everywhere I go," says Kellie Ryan of Charleston, who will start her third year at Clemson this month. "It's always in my book bag."

At the same time, the smaller "Netbooks" and "iPads" are not a viable option as a students' primary laptop, according to colleges in South Carolina. They typically do not meet the minimum requirements.

"The common laptop is the primary communication instrument for most students," Hamilton says. "Some students have smart phones with Wi-Fi, and it's possible to set those up (for college use)."

Rusty Bruns, chief information officer at Charleston Southern University, said he does not recommend a specific computer.

"Instead, I recommend going with a major retailer or computer company like Toshiba, Dell or Best Buy," he says. "You'll get better service going to a place that is well-known."

Hamilton says some students who come to orientation sessions already own laptops from high school or received them as graduation gifts.

"It's often Granddaddy and Grandmama that buy it, and unfortunately, it's not always evident that they have taken the time to look at what we recommend," he says.

Bruns says most students arrive on campus with new units, but it's not a requirement.

"As long as the RAM (random-access memory) is where it needs to be, a used computer is fine," he says.

Students at many colleges and universities, including all of the local schools and most others in the state, can get discounts on Dell models through its Dell University program.

Those eligible to purchase through the program are college-bound high school juniors or seniors; incoming or current college students; parents or legal guardians purchasing on behalf of their child who is planning to attend or is enrolled at a college or university; high school, college or university faculty and staff members; and college or university alumni.

Many schools also recommend and offer discounts on Apple laptops, but Hamilton cautions that students who purchase Macs also need to buy Microsoft Office for Macs.

"I refer students and their parents to the website, where they can find our recommended laptops," Hamilton says. "We don't try to force people to do anything, but they can use the features that they find on that website, if nothing else, as a checklist when looking into additional options."

Once your student arrives on campus, he can get assistance in setting up his computer.

Clemson, for instance, offers laptop setup workshops during orientation and move-in weekend where students can ensure that their laptop has the necessary software and learn about things such as setting up wireless, network resources, laptop security and more.

Computers are less expensive when they come without the programs required by colleges, Bruns said.

Hamilton agreed.

"Oftentimes the 'bargain' laptop parents and students find on a store display may not be the anticipated bargain once our recommended software, accessories, etc., are added," Hamilton says.

For instance, students who buy the recommended units through Clemson will receive a laptop preloaded with Windows 7 Professional 32 bit OS, Microsoft Office Suite, McAfee Antivirus Enterprise and other recommended software. Those who don't can get those programs added at the school's Laptop Support Center.

"When we bought mine, we thought we were getting a bargain," says Ryan. "But it turned out that my computer didn't have anything I needed, and by the time we added it all, we probably paid more than we would have if we had gone through their program."

In fact, she says, they learned their lesson and this year purchased a laptop for her brother through Dell.

"It was an expensive lesson, but worthwhile," she says. "I'm sure he got a better deal than I did."

Search for a bargain

The Tax Free Holiday is Friday-Sunday. Students who don't live in the state but go to school in South Carolina can order online and have their computers shipped to a South Carolina address to receive the tax savings.

"We emphasize that if they purchase one and mail it to a College of Charleston address, it's here waiting when they arrive and they can save a couple of hundred dollars," says Frank Hamilton, student computing support coordinator at the College of Charleston.

Also, Hamilton says students with ties to the military can get discounts through base exchanges.

Finance if necessary

Many colleges will allow students to include the cost of a computer in their financial aid package. Contact the financial aid office at your school for details.

Purchase coverage

"We recommend a robust warranty of at least three years that calls for replacement of the computer in the event of accidental destruction and guarantees next-day repair," Hamilton says.

Some companies will send parts via next-day mail so students can fix computers themselves. The college's support desk will help when necessary.

"Many of them still have warranties in place, so we don't open cases, use screwdrivers, ball peen hammers or anything like that," Hamilton says.

If necessary, companies often will send certified repair technicians to meet students on campus to fix their laptops.

Charleston Southern University chief information officer Rusty Bruns says supplemental coverage provides "peace of mind. A couple of years ago, we had a girl here who tripped and knocked her friend's laptop off a desk and the screen shattered. The best deal we could find to get it replaced was $500. Accidental protection is worthwhile protection."

Preloaded programs

If you do not order through the university's program, your computer will not be preloaded with the specific software or virus protection needed. Many computers come with 60- or 90-day trial versions.

"The biggest problem we see is the 90 days on virus protection and all these apps that the kids start using, and after 90 days, they stop," Bruns says. "For instance, after 90 days of Office 2010, students can't open their work."

Check with the college before paying full price for additional software. Many offer programs at a discount.

Add safety features

Hamilton suggests that students purchase a laptop locking cable. The cables are designed to be looped around a table leg or other secure object. Most new laptops have an oval slot on the case that the cable end goes into, and once a key is turned or a button pushed, the inserted prong expands or is twisted. To forcibly remove the lock requires cracking open the laptop case, negating any value from theft.

Additionally, many colleges offer students the opportunity to register their laptops with the public safety department as a deterrent to theft.

Back up your work.

Students also should consider buying a high-capacity external hard drive or online backup system to protect their work.

Know your network

Most institutions have their own secure wireless networks for student use. Hamilton warns that students should be wary of using unsecure networks that are available in many areas of Charleston or other college campuses.

"People complain about getting bad wireless service in some of our dorms," he says. "Of course it's bad, because we don't have it in those dorms."

Brenda Rindge can be reached at 937-5713.