Laptop vs. Desktop. The main argument for a desktop today is cost: You'll still pay a premium of several hundred dollars or more to get a laptop with performance equal to a desktop. And if you're a real power fiend who needs the fastest machine available, desktops still have the edge, especially in the superhigh video performance required for extreme gaming.
For nearly everyone else, though, a laptop is a good choice. In addition to the obvious advantage of portability, notebooks take up far less space in cramped dorm rooms. And if mobility and battery life aren't your prime concerns, you can get big notebooks with 14- or 15-inch displays for $1,500 or less. One cautionary note: Theft, unfortunately, is endemic in college housing, and laptops make tempting targets. If you go with a laptop, get a Kensington lock -- and use it.
Specifications. Unless you have some particularly intense need, any processor being sold today will be more than adequate. Don't spend a lot of money for power you don't need. The easiest and cheapest way to increase performance is by adding memory: 128 MB is the minimum for Windows XP, and 256 MB is strongly advised. Get the biggest hard drive you can, especially if you plan to download or rip a lot of music.
A CD writer is a good choice, and a combo CD-RW/DVD-ROM is even better. But you can probably get by without a floppy drive unless you have old disks that you need to read.
Displays. Tiny laptops are cute, but that small display will get old fast. Try to get one with at least a 13.1-inch screen, or plan on using an external monitor. Unless budget constraints are absolutely critical, a flat-panel display is a better choice for a desktop display than a CRT. You can get a 15-inch LCD display with 1,024x768-pixel resolution for less than $500 and a 1,280x1,024-pixel 17-inch for under $700.
While CRT monitors of equivalent viewable display size and quality remain somewhat cheaper, LCD monitors take up far less space and throw off much less heat. And lugging a 19-inch CRT up three flights of stairs to a dorm room is an experience you'll never want to repeat.
Networks. Ethernet ports, which look like oversized phone jacks, are standard on most computers today. For college use, don't even consider getting one without this feature because Ethernet networks are the standard for campus communication and well as for reaching the Internet. Though you can add an Ethernet card later to either a laptop or desktop, a built-in port makes life much simpler. With Ethernet, you'll find that you'll rarely use a dial-up connection, but nearly all computers come with built-in modems anyway.
Wireless. In addition to wired Ethernet ports, wireless Ethernet, known as 802.11b or Wi-Fi, is becoming ubiquitous on campuses, with service available in dorms, classrooms, labs, and sometimes even outdoors. If you go for a notebook, try to get one that has wireless capability built-in. While you can add it to notebooks using a PC Card, the antenna sticking out the side is a nuisance and can cause serious damage to the notebook if handled roughly. (All Apple models, desktops and laptops, are wireless-ready, awaiting only the installation of a $98 AirPort card.)
Operating Systems. No choice here. All new Macs ship with the new OS X installed. A copy of OS 9.4 is also included to allow you to run older applications that require Apple's "classic" mode. All Windows computers now ship with either Windows XP Home or Windows XP Professional.
Not much differentiates the two versions of Win XP, but one very cool and little-known feature of Pro can be extremely handy. It's called Remote Desktop Connection, and when enabled, it can allow you to log into your computer from any other Windows PC connected to the network. If you're visiting a friend off-campus and want to give him something stored on the computer back in your room, you can fire up Remote Desktop Connection and retrieve it.
Software. It's simple: Don't buy any that you don't absolutely need right now. The publishers of big and expensive software packages (Microsoft, Adobe, Autocad, Wolfram Research, Waterloo Maple, Macromedia) offer "academic editions" at a fraction of the retail price. These are generally identical to the retail packages but are restricted to student use by license and are available only at campus bookstores to students with a school ID. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BusinessWeek Online