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Back in the high life again: Take your Mac to school

by Remy Martin, August 23, 2001

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Much of the United States has entered what we call the “dog days of summer.” Temperature and humidity rise, football season is still over a month away and we fear that dreaded overdose of strawberry shortcake. As an added bonus, we can add the wailings of the entire Macintosh community – from the fanboys to the pessimists – to the melancholy in the wake of Mr. Jobs’ unspectacular keynote. I too hoped that this article would have been able to highlight an LCD iMac or Asia Carrera-worthy G4 tower in this article, but it seems that will have to wait for another time.

In the next four to six weeks, hordes of people in their late teens will enter a defining period in their lives as they leave home in search of education, identity and free beer (just kidding on that last one, parents). I am, of course, talking about the students across the country entering their first semester of college. Computers are now an integral part of learning, and many students will get a computer to call their own for the first time in their lives. And although that college or university T1 line is looking a lot less heavenly since Napster has hit the fan, there is still reason to put careful thought into what sort of computer you will buy for school.

There are many Macintosh lovers out there who would love to have their kids take their Macintosh to school. Indeed, Apple has put a strong emphasis back into education and has recently surpassed Dell to again become the number one retailer of computers to the education market. Still, this may be of little comfort to those who fear that bringing a Mac to school would be worse than having an alcoholic in a boy band (or a Cubs fan as a New York senator). The primary consideration in deciding if the Macintosh goes to school should be the comfort of the user. A 1.7GHz (yes, they are that fast) Dell is of no use to a person with no clue as to why a mouse would have three buttons or how to work around a problem installing software that can’t find “ipl386.dll”. On the other hand, if computer support rests solely on that computer having “Intel Inside,” you might just want to live with those problems. To help you weigh your decision, I thought that I, as a recent college graduate, would examine some of the things that you may agonize over as you decide what type of computer to take to school.

The first factor to examine is compatibility with the school’s network and availability of software. At the most basic level, the Macintosh will be able to access a typical campus network. Every Mac since the fall of 1997 has built-in Ethernet, and the Mac OS supports Internet standards like DHCP for network access. Most college networks are now IP-based, so your Macintosh should be able to access most important campus resources such as printers with no problem. Custom software to search a library catalog or sign up for classes is being replaced by Web apps available to anybody with a browser. There are some issues to be aware of, however. Certain campus documents may only be available via Windows Networking; a client like Thursby’s Dave will be necessary to access those types of networks from the traditional Mac OS. Some campuses use things like print accounting software, proprietary network authentication methods or Windows-only information access software that may not be available for Mac OS. Many institutions make software available for student use on the network as well. If your campus is mostly geared towards Windows, you may have to shell out money to get software that the campus makes available for free for certain classes. To be sure, it is always good to know ahead of time what connecting on campus entails. Most information can be gleaned from a Web page, but an e-mail or phone call to Computing Services will help answer any specific questions that you may have.

To be honest, software availability is not a concern for the large majority of computer users on campus. The programs that address a large majority of a student’s needs are the word processor, the Web browser and the e-mail client. Thankfully for us, the Macintosh Business Unit at Microsoft makes top quality software in each of those categories with Word, Internet Explorer and Outlook/Entourage, respectively. Of course, there are also Macintosh software packages to handle pretty much anything you need to do. Microsoft offers the Excel spreadsheet app, which can handle most of the numbers and charts you will see, and the PowerPoint presentation package to round out its Office productivity suite. Apple makes a competent productivity suite in AppleWorks as well. You have SPSS and Stata for more hardcore statistics; Mathematica, Maple and Matlab for math and science; and CodeWarrior for computer science. The budding filmmaker will be surprised at what a G4, DV camera and iMovie can do.

All of these tools are widely used for instruction and work with the Macintosh. I could go on for a long time, but you can see for yourself all of the available software using the Macintosh Software Products Guide at Apple. Unless there is custom Windows software or the instructor is using examples in class that are Windows-specific, there should be no trouble completing class work when using a Macintosh. The safe bet is to always contact the school’s computing services department for more information. An even safer bet, especially for people in the sciences, is to contact the various departments at each school and see what they have to say about the idea.

On a side note, a question I am often asked is, “How important is Microsoft Office in a higher education setting?” The answer is difficult but really depends on how often you will be sharing documents. Although AppleWorks comes with filters and translators for Microsoft Office file types, if you are sharing with people who use Office files a lot (especially if you are sending them files) it is best to get Office for accuracy’s sake. As far as features are concerned, there is not that much of a drop-off in real functionality between AppleWorks and Microsoft Office, outside of Excel. Although Word has some features such as a grammar checker and check-spelling-as-you-type, none of them will necessarily make you a better writer. Don’t expect the grammar checker to be sufficient for a lab report, let alone a paper in a writing or literature class. No number of bells and whistles will make you a better writer. That’s why I write in BBEdit and let the editors worry about my mistakes.

Not all of college is hard work – there will be plenty of diversions along the way. Although the Macintosh platform is not for the hardcore gamer (get a PlayStation2 – trust me), there are enough games for a person who wants to use his or her brains or improve the fast “twitch” muscles in his or her fingers. (Hint to you students out there: Download Snood. If you ever find you are lacking things to do, including ways to procrastinate, Snood can help.) And if music or movies are what you are into, you can get a Macintosh with CD-RW or DVD capabilities.

Other considerations:

OS X

OS X is a special case. It is Mac OS, but it really isn’t Mac OS because it is Unix-based. Quite honestly, most campuses won’t be supporting OS X because there has not been enough time to see exactly how it’s going to integrate into campus networks. Then again, with the Classic compatibility environment, pretty much anything that you can do in OS 9 you can do in OS X, at least in the software realm. While I encourage those who like the bleeding edge to try using OS X every day, make sure you can boot into OS 9 just in case.

There are advantages to OS X because it makes a lot of Unix software directly available on your Macintosh, either locally or remotely. For science majors, this is a great benefit. But OS X can also bring security risks. Therefore, unless you know what you are doing, disable file sharing, Web sharing, FTP access and remote login in the Sharing system preferences. If you need remote access, always use an SSH client.

Special Mac deals

Apple offers an educational discount, so make sure you choose “Education” at the Apple Store to get your deal. Apple is currently running several promotions in an effort to sweeten the deal of buying a Mac. First, there is the offer of a free Lexmark color printer. Although it isn’t the best available, it is free. You can also choose to take $69 off of more expensive printers. When taking a printer to school, remember that consumables cost money. Inkjet cartridges can run $30 or more each, which can add up after a while, especially at high quality. I have found that an inkjet is good for drafts, but unless your school charges for printing, save your money and use it sparingly. Apple is also offering $100 instant rebates on a Rio MP3 player, HP digital camera, Visor Edge and two types of Canon DV cameras. While these offers shouldn’t make or break your decision to buy a Macintosh for school, it is worth knowing that they exist.

What about a monitor?

Apple’s LCD displays are really nice and are great if you can afford one. With 17" and 19" monitors so inexpensive, you can get a third-party monitor; Sony and Mitsubishi make some very nice flat-screen CRTs. If you want a CRT and can’t stand beige, Sony’s Vaio line can give you what you need.

Why is Apple memory so expensive?

Nobody knows why Apple charges so much for RAM, but it simply isn’t worth it, especially for the iMac and Power Mac. Installing RAM is a five- to fifteen-minute process and if you are a little queasy, you can take it down to your local CompUSA and have them do it. Since you can buy 1GB of RAM (four 256MB DIMMs) for what Apple charges for a 128MB upgrade in its store, you can see why I think it’s insane to buy memory from the Apple Store. Check ramseeker.com or dealram.com for the best prices.

As always, questions and comments are welcome.

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