As students head back to school and college after the long summer break, it’s vital they have the right laptop, peripherals and software. Save money and get the right PC as PC Advisor helps you make some grade-A choices.
Recently I visited an old stomping ground – the dingy pub outside my old journalism college, where many post-press hours were spent. Granted, a decade has passed since those heady days, but it was still a shock to see just what a transformation the place has undergone and to discover just how much two drinks in London can conceivably cost.
Then again, from what I remember few students relish springing for a round even at bargain prices. College life can be a financial balancing act, with students struggling to pay for essential equipment for the terms ahead while maintaining funds for an active social life. Essential kit these days, of course, often includes a PC.
When I was a student, email, the web and access to your own computer were all still around the corner – if I wanted to type up an overdue essay I'd have to wait for my turn on a PC in the library. But technology has become an integral part of college life, assisting with communications and research.
There's so much IT kit out there, it's a tough call deciding on the most practical and sensible items – which is where PC Advisor can help. We also tackle and throw in considerations of cool gadgetry such as phones and iPods. After all, you want to impress during freshers' week.
A new PC for university?
It's now something of a given that ready access to a PC is the least every student should expect. Since PC Advisor reviews show you can buy a PC for as little as £240, it's hard to argue that the cost of providing a laptop for your offspring to do their coursework isn't worth it.
However, if you're planning to equip school-age kids with their own PC, you'll want to make sure homework research is all they get up to. So take precautions regarding their online access - and keep the PC where you can see it.
Assuming you've decided to splash out, then, consider how much you're willing to spend. And do you want a Mac or a Windows PC? For creative courses such as photography, music subjects that involve notation and sound editing, graphics, illustration and other design disciplines, an Apple Mac is the best choice. The course will probably be taught on a Mac, and other students will be using Apple Macs.
Looking beyond university, creative industries from newspapers and advertising agencies to architectural and design companies are traditionally Mac environments. They will expect prospective employees to be skilled using software on this platform.
It's worth keeping an eye on the Apple Education microsite for a bargain. A t the time of writing, Archicad 10.0 was being offered online as a free download. Anyone registering downloaded software within a month received an unlock code that was good for a year.
In most other cases, a PC will be more suitable. Low-end models of some of the best-known brands of laptop and desktop PC are sold through supermarkets and the likes of Woolworths.
You can be fairly certain these big names won't go under halfway through the student year, making that extended warranty you bought as worthless as, er, a student IOU.
You may be able to get hold of marginally better specs by choosing lesser-known companies, but read up on them first. We've heard far too many tales of small PC retailers going bust after undercutting the big boys and other budget rivals, leaving customers with no support. So spend what you need – £800 or so for a really decent PC or laptop, often with a printer thrown in – but don't cut corners on the important stuff. We've provided a few examples , but prioritise RAM over hard disk space.
Protect yourself when buying student kit
Buy on a credit card - purchases over £100 are automatically protected in case the item doesn't show up or is faulty or otherwise unsuitable. And avoid pricey financing deals. Students will get into enough debt without paying silly money for deferred payments. We're not convinced extended warranties make financial sense, either.
Be careful about who you give your money to. There are plenty of companies on the lookout for suckers keen enough on bagging a bargain that they omit to read the fine print of a deal or check that the company concerned even exists. Pulling people into online scam sites is as simple as setting up an online shop and tagging pages with some targeted keywords such as 'cheap student laptops' or 'bargains for students'.
Any legitimate company should be easily contactable by phone or email and have a traceable company address. It should offer secure transactions via a respected third party – look for PayPal or other secure servers. If you have your doubts, head over to the ConsumerWatch forum or type the company's name into a search engine and see what sort of experience others have had.
You can find bargain-basement and clearance deals at almost any established site – from Dell and Dabs.com to PC World, Tesco and Sainsbury's. Another useful tip is to choose a product that fits your needs, then Google the product name along with the keywords student+voucher.
If you know what you're looking for, hidden discounts can sometimes be unearthed.
Student printers and other bits
Mono laser printers have all but disappeared in favour of inexpensive colour inkjet printers. These, however, can be a false economy for those who only type out essays. Eke the best from a printer by setting it to print in draft mode by default. This uses far less ink and depletes those notoriously pricey ink cartridges far less quickly. You could also use InkSaver – a program that ensures the bare minimum of ink is used. Get more printing tips here.
An MFD (multifunction device), or all-in-one printer, is a great idea for students. They cost as little as £50 and can photocopy reference material, scan in documents – some will even digitise the text – and print your essays. They take up hardly any space, too. There are dozens of multifunction printer reviews here.
Keeping in touch at university
Text messaging and instant messaging over broadband, along with email, make staying in touch quicker, easier and cheaper than ever – although parents will always prefer a letter or an actual visit. Webcams – often built into laptops – mean you can have video chats, while VoIP (voice over IP) services such as Skype or the web-based Jahjah make things cheaper yet. If you need a handset try Skypestyle.co.uk, where students qualify for 10 percent off.
A cut-price calling plan for your landline phone will help keep standard phone call costs within reason and can be combined with some attractive broadband deals.
Be wary of tying yourself into an 18-month contract, however, as the penalties for early termination can be severe. Most students move two or three times, so avoid any inflexible but initially inexpensive deals.
Depending on the PC or laptop you choose, a copy of either Microsoft Word or Works Suite is likely to be thrown in. If it isn't, you'll need to budget for some word-processing software on top – but it won't necessarily cost as much as an off-the-shelf package from your high-street PC store.
Don't simply install the software already in use on the home PC or laptop. While it's within the constraints of most standard software licences – including Microsoft Office's – to install programs you own on a second PC as a backup, this extends to the licence owner only and must be used in the same location as the PC on which the primary version is installed. Two people can't have simultaneous access to the same copy.
You should be wary of cutting corners and bidding for cut-price software on eBay, too. The auction site is making concerted efforts to crack down on fraud – software infringements among them – but steer well clear unless the software is provided in its original shrinkwrap, with a serial number.
Don't accept a deal where a licence key is offered after you've coughed up. You'll find it either doesn't materialise or doesn't work. Even if it does, it's 99 percent certain to be a duplicate of someone else's licence key, making your copy illegal and you liable.
Besides, there are easier ways to save money. Not only can students get discounts on a lot of hardware, but there are special student editions of some of the best-known software. Parents looking to help kids from junior school to A-level may already have wised up to the existence of Student and Teacher editions of Microsoft Office (around £87 inc VAT) and the combined Microsoft Student with Encarta Reference Library for just £44 at Dabs.com.
Other Microsoft offerings aimed at the education market include Digital Image Suite, Project 2003, MapPoint and FrontPage 2003. Mac users can grab Office for Mac Student and Teacher Edition for £109, while iWork 06 – a suite of photo editing, Final Cut Express HD video-authoring, Keynote presentation and music editing tools – costs just £55 when bought alongside a new Mac.
Need an office?
Assuming a set of general productivity tools is a must, consider either Ability Office or the equivalent word-processing, spreadsheet, presentation, database, photo-editing and personal finance applications available under the Tesco Office banner.
These are based on the MS Office kernel – they have similar layouts and operate in much the same way, but cost about a tenth of the price. They are compatible with Microsoft Office, as well as other well-known office software, so you'll find them suitable for all but real-time collaborative working.
Sun's StarOffice and the open-source OpenOffice are good alternatives for those who need to create and edit office programs, but you'll find these freebies aren't as compatible or fully featured as those Ability Software has created. For a more in-depth look at viable alternatives to Microsoft Office, as well as details of other free and low-cost software to consider, see our Office alternatives feature.
Wring the web dry
A related option is to use online applications. While many interesting developments are being driven through 'media-rich' sites that combine social-networking and photo, video, mapping and opinion-sharing, other online developments are stripping things down so people can work effectively and collaboratively over the web.
Google Docs & Spreadsheets is one of many programs of its type that let you create fairly basic word processed and spreadsheet documents that you save, store and access online, with no expensive 'bloatware' choking your PC. Such tools aren't as capable or comprehensive as the established commercial alternatives, but are useful when you're in an internet café with no software.
Such online applications are designed to be streamlined, free versions of familiar everyday programs, they are generally adept at opening and saving to formats in which you may receive documents from others over email: various formats of Word, Excel, PDF and so on.
If you're about to buy a laptop or PC, it will have some photo-editing tools already – Vista offers some basic editing and tagging photo management tools, or you can download Picasa 2.0.
A better bet is a budget program such as Adobe Photoshop Elements. The latest iteration, Elements 5.0, costs £60 but is just £80 as a package with Photoshop and Premiere Elements 3.0. Shop around at online software stores (or use the online price search on PC Advisor's reviews section) to find older versions of popular programs such as Paint Shop Pro knocking around for the price of a DVD.
Students needing to embed simple video footage into presentations will find that free tools such as Microsoft Movie Maker can help with very basic edits. Beyond this you'll want an editing suite such as Roxio or Nero. For more complex editing, time spent in the college media lab will pay more dividends than any outlay you're likely to invest, unless videography is your chosen subject.
Mac fans have many creative essentials provided as part of the iLife suite that's bundled with new Macs. GarageBand, in particular, has had loads of coverage for its part in helping bedroom musicians produce tracks that sound decent enough to interest record labels and music producers.
Coming back to reality, however, tools to organise the workload will come in handy. RememberTheMilk is one of the most aptly named programs for those who are prone to daydreaming and, like its counterpart 30 Boxes, is both web-based and free. You may have already discovered the latter on Facebook, as it's also available as an integrated applet via the social-networking site.
Don't discount free tools that help you get ahead. SurfSaver.com is a research tool that can be used to 'clip' items from the web and store them for reference, while mind-mapping tools can help with essay planning.
Blinkx.com is a web crawler that tracks down items by customisable keyword, phrase or search result type and stores them in a desktop folder for you to draw on whenever you wish. It continues to seek suitable results each time you're online and uses a number of search engines to track down items of interest.
RSS feeds for sites you rate are another real timesaver, while non-Vista users will find hunting down relevant items on their desktop far more efficient with the use of Google Desktop or another PC-bound tool. Vista has a fast and effective built-in search.
The web is one of the most valuable tools around – and we don't just mean for cribbing for essays. Many students live in a hall of residence, flatshare with free broadband or are able to piggyback someone else's connection. Don't depend on this, however.
Above all, the web connection needs to be reliable. Depending on how students manage their finances, signing up to a broadband contract with a minimum duration of a year or more may not be wise. The last thing they need is to be cut off partway through researching their dissertation because someone forgot to budget for the bill.
Broadband is now so inexpensive, however, that there are plenty of £10-per-month subscriptions around. It may not be the fastest, but you've always got access to expertise and opinion online.
Consider buying third-party broadband hardware – routers start at just £50 or so and, since the connection can then be shared throughout the household, the connection costs can be cut. A subscription to PC Advisor gets you a free Wi-Fi router and Maplin offers student discounts, while shopping online can provide decent savings. Consider signing up for a broadband deal that only ties you in a month at a time.
Security and other concerns
You may think that having a PC or laptop with a TV tuner is a shortcut to a free television. While it's certainly a space and cost-saving plan, the down side is that it falls foul of TV licensing regulations.
Web-borne nasties are a bit of a worry, too. But the threat of actually losing a laptop or PC – along with all the work, recorded TV shows and precious MP3 collection stored on it – is much more of a concern.
When considering the design of your chosen laptop or PC, you need something robust – but you probably want something you can lock down too. Password-protect access to the PC if you don't want Jones from down the corridor copying coursework; also consider a Kensington lock to physically prevent theft (uk.kensington.com). Far too many student lodgings are in draughty, insecure buildings. Make even a half-hearted attempt to secure the PC or laptop and they'll probably move on.
Insuring possessions is another very good idea, but ensure you've followed the insurer's advice about locks on doors and windows. If you've bought a laptop, check that your policy covers use outdoors and at lectures. Many class a laptop as something static that lives in a study or bedroom, while others won't cover them at all.
Endsleigh has a special Out And About insurance deal (phone 01242 866 400 for details).
Another dull but worthwhile exercise is the old backup routine. Believe us, it won't seem quite so boring in the event of a hard disk failure. If nothing else, copy college work on to a USB memory key you take with you so you've always got a copy. Backing up online or to an external drive is better yet.
Finally, there are ways to save on life's little luxuries. Students are often inundated with attractive offers from banks, insurers and others during freshers' week, so free CDs, discount train travel and endless iPod cases will probably clutter their room. You can even get a 'free' PlayStation 3 games console with a fairly hefty mobile contract at The Link.
Not all such deals are the bargains they seem, but we should point out that there's a free MP3 player (or a Wi-Fi router, as mentioned above) if you subscribe to PC Advisor, or your pick of MP3 players if you buy music via Napster To Go.
Four ideal PCs for students
- £699 inc VAT
- 13in MacBook with Intel Core 2 Duo 2GHz processor; 1GB RAM; 80GB hard disk and optical drive
Apple supplies more than decent email, web browsing, text editing, photo-tagging and manipulation software with its new Macs – there's also the respected GarageBand application in Apple's iLife suite. See the Apple Store for Education for details of discounts on hardware and software to which you may be entitled, including a cut-price version of Office for Mac.
Sony Vaio vgn-n31mw
- £551 inc VAT
- 15.4in laptop; Vista Home Premium; 1.7GHz Intel Core 2 Duo dual-core; 1GB RAM; 120GB hard drive; multiformat dual-layer DVD writer
Sony Vaio vgn-n31mw
Just by typing in the word 'student' on the Dabs.com site we quickly found a 15.4in Sony Vaio that would more than meet our needs. As well as more than adequate specifications, it comes with a three-month subscription to Norton Antivirus, Roxio EasyMedia Creator 9.0, Microsoft Works 9.5 and Skype VoIP (voice over IP) software. Dabs was discounting it from £646, simply because it wasn't new.
Medion 6486 Tesco PC
Medion 6486 Tesco PC
Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Tesco… the supermarkets are all at it, selling PCs and laptops – not to mention DVD recorders and LCD TVs – for really low sums. Medion carved out a name for itself selling through Aldi and has since grown into a respected brand in its own right. This desktop PC isn't the cheapest going, but it's got a TV tuner (with freeview channels) as part of its media centre credentials, so you won't need a TV, DVD or CD player on top. You also get 2GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. Such specs will easily see you through a three-year course and beyond. Sensibly, Medion has cut corners on the software side, bundling Ability Office-based apps we're happy to recommend.
EI SYSTEMS 3101
- Free (with broadband deal)
- 15.4in laptop; 1.73GHz Intel Celeron M430 processor; Windows XP Home; 256MB RAM; 40GB hard disk drive
EI SYSTEMS 3101
PC World is offering a free laptop if you sign up for Orange Broadband. If you don't like the look of the XP Home EI Systems laptop on offer, there are several other models under the same scheme. The caveat is that you need to sign up for the £15-per-month Orange Broadband Starter service for two years. That said, the first three months are half-price. This deal may serve you better than choosing a bundle of services that involve you tying yourself into a relatively expensive mobile phone contract as well as a landline service to get 'free' broadband.