Toeing the line on back-to-school PCs

PC makers push multimedia capabilities and 64-bit processors, but schools are a bit more conservative. Photos: Computers for class

Michael Singer Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Singer
6 min read
College students will have more than their fair share of choices when picking their PCs for the upcoming school year--assuming their universities are copacetic with the systems they haul to campus.

PC makers such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Sony and Toshiba are cramming entertainment features into their laptops and desktops in order to offer a one-stop shop for productivity, entertainment and communications. Apple Computer also has entertainment features built into its Mac OS X operating system, which powers its iBooks, PowerBooks and various desktop models.

However, universities aren't nearly as multimedia-happy as PC makers and take a more conservative tone when establishing PC purchasing guidelines for students. Many are recommending laptops over desktops, and several are asking for the more established Windows XP Professional OS or Mac OS X over the next-generation operating systems.


What's new:
PC makers such as HP, Dell and Gateway are gearing up for an aggressive back-to-school buying season.

Bottom line:
While companies are targeting freshmen with promotional prices for their latest revved-up desktop systems, many universities and colleges recommend students use notebook computers with either Windows XP or Macintosh operating systems.

More stories on this topic

While few, if any, universities ban a particular PC configuration, many have contracts with vendors that give students and faculty specific systems, making the multimedia features PC makers are cramming into their computers a nice-to-have rather than a must-have for campus life.

Even with all of the bells and whistles being offered by PC makers, students may want to check with their school's PC requirement policies before shelling out for a new system.

Students at the University of Missouri-Columbia, for example, coordinate their purchases with TigerTech (formerly Computer Spectrum), which acts as a sales consultant for the university. For students looking for a desktop, the university recommends either a Dell Optiplex GX280 or Apple 17-inch G5 iMac. When it comes to laptops, TigerTech says most students would do well with either a Dell Latitude, an Apple iBook, or an Apple 15-inch or 17-inch PowerBook. Students aren't required to buy the university-recommended PCs. But if they do, they can get a discount of up to 10 percent.

While remaining semi OS-agnostic, the staff at the University of Missouri recommends using the Microsoft Office desktop productivity suite, as well as buying a 512MB USB flash drive. However, the university does not suggest students use Microsoft Works or WordPerfect for word processing or the XP Home Edition because it does not network as well as Windows XP Pro, according to Megan Cawan, student and auxiliary services representative.

back-to-school PCs

Jay Lambke, president of GovConnection.com, a sales consultancy for universities such as the University of Notre Dame, University of Minnesota, Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Oklahoma State University and the University of Pittsburgh, breaks the PC buying process into three categories:

•  A hard mandate--a buying strategy used by private schools where the university includes the PC along with the tuition.

•  A soft mandate in which the school has relationships with specific vendors but only supplies recommended hardware and software configurations.

•  No mandate, where the school assumes that students will supply their own PCs and outlines a set of preferred requirements.

Beth Ann Bergsmark, director of academic and technology services at Georgetown University, suggests campus computers run Windows XP Professional, but students aren't locked into one particular operating system. The university has also seen its different schools move toward using specific vendors. Georgetown's School of Business has a relationship with Lenovo's PC business (formerly IBM), while the majority of PCs sold to students at its schools of medicine and law come from either Dell or Apple, the two reigning sales champs in the education sector, according to market researcher Gartner.

"Gateway is also a strong player, and Lenovo has had a couple of wins in the last couple of months, but students are choosing more business class machines," Gartner analyst Leslie Fiering said. "They are sturdier, more reliable and have longer buying cycles, so service and support will be higher, although it comes at a premium."

With this new generation of PCs, specific trends are emerging. More models are shipping with Windows Media Center Edition as the default configuration instead of Windows XP Professional or XP Home Edition. The Media Center operating system is similar to other versions of Windows XP but adds a second interface where people can display pictures, play music, watch videos or record television shows using a remote control.

Upcoming PC models are also shipping with additional multimedia features such as DVD burners and TV tuners, which turn the computer into a television. Larger hard drives, dual-core Intel Pentium D or Advanced Micro Devices Athlon 64 X2 chips, and PCI-Express technologies are also showing up as featured highlights of the fall buying season.

Multimedia is campus king
Several PC makers have already announced their lineups for the back-to-school season with a heavy emphasis on entertainment.

On the desktop side, Dell is offering its Dimension 5100 tower starting at $899 and its 5100C compact computer for $1,049 with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, a Media Center Extender, a TV tuner and a DVD burner. Dell's recommended notebook selection for students includes its Inspiron 6000, Inspiron 9300 and its Inspiron XPS Generation 2.

HP has started shipping its Pavilion a1000n series desktop and its Media Center m7000n series Photosmart PCs to retailers, while consumers can order its Pavilion d4100e series through HP's online configure-to-order channels. The company is also offering an array

of Compaq Presario desktops including its SR1500NX series at prices starting around $579. The PCs also bundle HP ImageZone software and its LightScribe direct disc-labeling technology.

In the notebook category, HP is highlighting its relationship with six-time Tour de France cycling champion Lance Armstrong with its HP Special Edition L2000 Notebook. The "statement" computer, which is expected to ship next week, is powered by Advanced Micro Device's Turion 64 and will sport the LiveStrong logo, along with a copy of Armstrong's autograph on the keyboard, the companies said.

Gateway's back-to-school line of retail desktop PCs also features Windows Media Center 2005 operating system. The company is beefing up its desktop systems such as its $1049 840GM model with a 16x double-layer multiformat DVD optical drive that reads and writes and a 250GB serial attached hard drive, Intel's high-definition audio, three Ethernet ports and seven USB 2.0 ports. In addition, the computers come with a faster PCI Express slot for future graphic card upgrades.

"Desktop has the advantage in price, but the notebooks are the hot sellers," Gartner's Fiering said. "That is where kids will throw them in the backpack and take them to class or to the library."

Fiering added that while a machine with a dual-core processor is not a necessity today, it will become a checklist item in the 2006-2007 timeframe. That's when chipmakers Intel and AMD expect to be shipping the bulk of their dual-core processors.

Laptops trumping desktops
Research from Current Analysis suggests that wide screens and thinner and lighter systems are selling better than their desktop replacement counterparts. While laptops weighing between 6 and 7 pounds make up about 45 percent of the total laptop market, analyst Sam Bhavnani with Current Analysis says sub-6 pound thin and light categories are gaining and now make up 25 percent of the market.

That's no surprise, given that laptops in general are outselling their desktop counterparts, Current Analysis found. The firm showed that notebook PCs sold more than desktop versions for a solid month back in May. The research firm is reporting another milestone on Thursday. Its sales report for the second quarter shows that laptops outsold desktops for the first time in a three-month period. Notebooks now make up 51.9 percent share of the total PC market, according to Bhavnani.

In some cases, universities are helping fuel the sales of laptops over desktops. The University of Florida, for example, requires students to use laptops by their junior year; university bookstore representative Marcus Keys says Dell Latitudes and Apple PowerBooks have been hot sellers.

Tablet PCs represent another emerging trend. While price had been a barrier, Gartner's Fiering notes that handwriting recognition has improved enough that it's being picked up by more university physics, chemistry, math and engineering departments.

Lambke said his site has seen more higher education and K-12 schools looking at tablet PCs, thanks in part to PC makers such as Lenovo and HP, chipmaker Intel and software maker Microsoft, which offers a tablet PC-specific operating system.

"Of the 2,000 PCs that a school would schedule to buy with us, Lambke said, "we're seeing them set aside about 100 or so as a pilot program to see how it works."