Q: Would an iPad work as a computer for my first-year college student, or should I just get them a laptop?

A: The technology options for college students continue to grow with netbooks and tablet PCs as potential alternatives to the traditional laptop computer.

Which device is best suited to your child’s needs depends on a number of variables, including the course of study, the software programs that are necessary, your budget and the complexity of the tasks to be performed just to name a few.

As a parent of two college students myself, here are my thoughts.

The quickest way to understand your student’s needs is to evaluate what software programs will be required as part of their course studies.

For instance, if they are going to need to edit images, work with video, create graphics packages or presentations, the best bet is a traditional laptop.

If their courses don’t require any specific software programs other than basic word processing, they could likely get by with a netbook computer, which is like the Smart Car of the computer world. They aren’t terribly fast and won’t be much of a gaming device, but they generally have adequate storage, great battery life and are considered the best bang for the buck for basic college tasks. Even if it works for the first year or two of college though, you can expect that it won’t be enough computing power as their workload increases.

Netbooks also have smaller screens and lack CD or DVD drives, so everything that gets installed must be on the Internet or a flash drive unless you buy an external optical drive (but then you are getting closer to the price of a traditional laptop).

Some universities have moved everything to “the cloud,” making netbooks much more functional, so be sure to check with the school to see what they are supporting and suggesting.

Even though I can often travel with just an iPad on short business trips for basic needs like email, web surfing or basic word processing, if I need to do anything sophisticated with a spreadsheet or graphics, it can be pretty inefficient.

It’s possible that your child could get by with just an iPad (with a Bluetooth keyboard) but by the time you get everything you need to make the iPad functional, you could easily have purchased a laptop, which is always the better collegiate machine.

If you decide on a traditional laptop, then the inevitable Mac versus Windows questions comes up. Your child’s specific software needs may require one over the other, but in most cases you will be able to use either.

Macs are generally more expensive (starting at $999) but they are still less prone to Internet-based attacks (although this is slowly changing) and tend to have fewer nagging compatibility issues because of the closed nature of the operating system.

Windows-based systems will be less expensive to start (starting at $400) but they are the biggest targets on the Internet, so make sure you include a solid security software package (I don’t like free anti-virus programs for college students, who tend to engage in risky online behavior).

I prefer Intel processors over AMD and tend to increase the RAM for better performance (I suggest a minimum of 4GB).

If the computer needs to double as an entertainment device, step up in screen size and processor speed from the entry-level models — and there is no such thing as too much hard drive space with a college student.

Finally, since theft of laptops and mobile devices is common in a college setting, I’d highly recommend that you review my column on ways to track, lockdown or remotely erase your mobile devices: http://www.eastvalleytribune.com/blogs/data_doctors/article_31009df0-621a-11e0-adf2-001cc4c002e0.html

• Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the “Computer Corner” radio show, noon Saturdays on KTAR 92.3 FM or at www.datadoctors.com/radio

Readers may send questions to evtrib@datadoctors.com

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