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Saturday, August 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Practical Mac

Best computer for school? MacBook

Special to The Seattle Times

I've always had a weakness for stationery, and the end of August is when it's worst. I can get lost in a drugstore's overstocked aisles of back-to-school gear for half an hour or more looking at notebooks and art supplies, reminiscing back to that transitional window between summer and fall.

But students today are just as likely to find themselves bathed in the LCD glow of the computer aisles of electronics chains. The question of which computer to take to school has become more important than which type of pens to buy.

In years past, I'd suppress my inner Mac booster and point out that you should weigh the school's operating system suggestions (which typically means Microsoft Windows) in your deliberations, and I'd note in fairness that a Windows laptop can be better suited for some people.

Boy, am I glad I don't have to do that anymore.

Get a MacBook.

As we've discussed in this column before, the Intel-based MacBook can run Windows, either directly using Apple's Boot Camp beta (which was recently updated to version 1.1 and will appear as a full-fledged feature in the upcoming Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, www.apple.com/macosx/bootcamp/) or using virtualization software such as Parallels Desktop (www.parallels.com).

If your school requires you to use some Windows-only software, you can simply launch Parallels and run Windows within a separate window in your Mac OS X environment, or restart the machine from Windows using Boot Camp.

To me, of course, the most compelling argument for taking a Mac to school is the enormous headache you'll avoid by not having to worry about viruses or spyware. This Windows plague is still not an issue under Mac OS X, a point that I think many virus-weary Windows users have a hard time believing. School can cause plenty of headaches on its own.

I also used to debate the merits of choosing between a desktop and a laptop computer, but with wireless Internet access available on campuses, in libraries, and at coffee shops, today's students are more mobile than ever. And although an iMac can offer larger screen sizes, it's tethered to your desk. (The new Mac Pro tower does offer the best performance of any current Mac model, but that seems like overkill for school needs unless you're going to spend your time doing massive number crunching or graphics or video work.)

In fact, the only choice you might have to make is whether to buy a MacBook or the better-performing MacBook Pro. Although the processor speeds are fairly close (1.83 GHz or 2.0 GHz for the MacBook vs. 2.0 GHz or 2.16 GHz for the MacBook Pro), the aluminum-encased pro offers larger screen sizes and better graphics processing. Other niceties include a backlit keyboard (great for taking notes in dark lecture halls), audio-in and -out ports, and an ExpressCard slot; devices for the latter are just starting to appear, such as memory card readers or FireWire 800 adapters.

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And for you parents: the iSight camera built into the MacBook or MacBook Pro will let you see your college-aged kid's face, using iChat video conferencing, more often than holidays or long weekends when the laundry has piled up.

Choosing a laptop isn't quite enough, though. I definitely recommend adding more memory to the machine, which will improve performance; the stock 512 MB of RAM in the MacBook and low-end MacBook Pro configuration will run Mac OS X adequately. Check dealram.com for memory deals, which are almost always cheaper than buying the memory from Apple.

To protect your data, purchase an external hard drive and set up a reliable backup system. If something is going to go wrong, you know it'll happen during finals.

Lastly, spend an extra $30 or $50 on a Kensington notebook computer lock, a cable and lock that secures the laptop to help ensure that someone with sticky fingers doesn't walk off with your academic workhorse. It's one thing if someone steals your favorite pen, but losing your laptop is one headache you don't want to deal with.

Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to carlsoncolumn@mac.com. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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