Heading off to college? Here’s my suggestion: buy a used laptop from Craigslist and install Ubuntu onto it. Seriously. You don’t need a new computer for college. If you’re pursuing a liberal arts degree, you really don’t need a brand new computer just to write all the papers you’ll write. If you’re pursuing an engineering degree, the chances are high that your department’s computer labs are better than anything you can buy for yourself.
The value of computer labs should not be underestimated, even for liberal arts students. In addition to hopefully beefy hardware with properly installed and maintained software, there’s a very important social component to using computer labs. This is not to say that’s just an opportunity to watch lulz videos on YouTube with your pals, of course. The people you meet in your classes and your degree program are kindred souls, and you should get to know some of them. Whether it’s a team project, or help with a tough assignment, or simply making smalltalk, the interactions you can have in the computer lab are an important component of the social college experience, and you should not avoid them by locking yourself in your dorm room to plug away on your fancy new workstation.
That janky old laptop you buy from Craigslist will not be as attractive a target for theft as a brand new computer. If it does get stolen, you won’t be out as much cash. No, it won’t be a speed demon, but what do you seriously plan to do with it? Type some papers, read some emails, Facebook, maybe watch some Internet pornography? It’ll sit unobtrusively on your desk, under a pile of papers, until you need it. Even if the battery doesn’t work, you can still lug it with you to plug in at the library or the coffee shop when you need a change of scenery.
You’re not going to play games on your college laptop. Your roommate, or someone in your hall, will have an Xbox 360. Someone else will have a PS3, and there’s a strong chance that there’ll be a Wii somewhere, too. Make friends with these people and play their games. Save yourself the grief of soda spilled into your own precious gaming console. Save yourself the trouble of kicking people out of your room when they want to play RockBand every night during Finals Week. Take the time to learn a couple new card games, too: Euchre, Golf, whatever. Going old school — you know, without electricity — can be a fun and super portable way to enjoy games and meet new people, too.
You’re also not going to use your used laptop as a media PC to stream movies in your room. Oh sure, you can, but you’ll be watching those things alone: none of your friends are going to want to crowd around your 14″ laptop screen to watch anything. For more social viewing opportunities, rely on those friends with XBox 360s and PS3s and big TVs. You can, however, load up your laptop with MP3s so that you can rock out (with headphones on if you have a roommate) while cranking out that paper on Plato’s Republic.
The used laptop you buy from Craigslist should be used to help you get some schoolwork done, and little else. Ubuntu provides everything you need. OpenOffice can open and save files in Microsoft Word format, so you’ll have no real trouble integrating with most of the campus systems. In the event that your school uses a classroom management system like Blackboard or Desire2Learn, you may have the occasional situation that requires some goofy ActiveX control, or proprietary shim component. See the paragraph above about the computer lab.
Ubuntu will keep you safe from the Wild West that is a dorm network. You can be absolutely sure that a good many of the computers on the dorm network are compromised by malware. There’s also a slim chance that some miscreant in your building fancies himself a hax0r, and will probe and poke at every device he or she can find. Your Ubuntu laptop will not easily become a victim, and it might even become a conversation starter.