Laptop computers are a popular choice for many college students because of their portability, but my primary computer in college was actually a desktop computer that I kept in my dorm room. Since a lot of classes for my data science major took place in computer labs, it made more sense for me to use a desktop computer for doing homework, taking virtual classes, and completing other activities, since I couldn’t really bring a laptop to class. Here are questions that students can ask themselves when choosing a desktop computer for college to determine if this option will work for them. I won’t be recommending any specific brand or computer, but rather helping students narrow down what they will need from their device.
Do I need access to a computer during class?
Since a lot of classes for my major were in computer labs, students did not need to bring their own laptop to class and would often take notes either with a notebook or on a tablet with either a stylus or external keyboard. For students that don’t need to bring a computer with them to every class, a desktop computer can be a great option for completing assignments and other course materials at home or in their dorm.
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What operating system should I choose?
Some professional applications or fields of study use software that is exclusive to one operating system, and some tools such as third-party screen readers and magnification software are proprietary to one operating system as well. A popular example of software that is exclusive to one operating system is JAWS, a popular screen reader for Windows, so users who wish to use JAWS would need to purchase a Windows computer.
In my technology-focused majors, students were not required to purchase a specific operating system, but did receive recommended guidelines for purchasing a computer, including minimum RAM and display settings. I went with a Windows computer because I use a lot of Microsoft products.
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How will the computer fit on my desk?
At my college, all on-campus students are provided a desk in addition to a bed, a set of drawers, and access to a closet, and students are generally not allowed to change furniture unless they have a disability accommodation (which I did not need). The measurements for my college desk are as follows:
- The desk tabletop measures 22″ x 43″
- The desk itself is 30″ tall, excluding the hutch
- There is a bottom opening that is 24″ wide, and three drawers on the side (note that they do not have drawer pulls).
These measurements should be taken into consideration when choosing a desktop computer, as chances are there will not be much room on the desk tabletop for other devices or tools. My desktop computer would take up the majority of my desk space, though I still had some extra space on the side for a whiteboard, lamp, and smaller peripheral devices.
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How many of my assignments are computer-based?
With very rare exceptions, all of the outside class assignments for my college classes have been paperless and required students to use the computer at some point in the assignment/testing process, whether that was creating a Word document or taking an exam on the course website. This means I was often working for hours at a time on the computer, so using a desktop computer would feel more comfortable, and I didn’t have to worry about the reduced desk space since everything was on the computer anyway.
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Am I taking a lot of virtual classes?
I live with a chronic illness, so I always took at least 50% of my classes online or in a hybrid program each semester so that I could better manage my time and work on assignments during different hours of the day/night depending on how I felt. Having a desktop computer set up made it easier for me to focus and work for long periods of time at my desk, and it didn’t bother me that I couldn’t take my computer with me to other places since I prefered to work in my dorm anyway.
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Should I use multiple monitors?
One of my favorite things about using a desktop computer in college is the ability to have multiple displays that connect to my computer so that I can display multiple programs at once without having to constantly switch windows or tabs. My computer has a total of three different monitors that I set up in my college dorm, including an external TV screen that can connect to my computer with Google Chromecast or another wireless display. The TV screen was on a stand next to my desk in two of the dorms that I lived in and also supported wireless screen mirroring for my tablet and phone, which was helpful for watching online content or demonstrating different features on my device.
It’s worth noting that users can also “dock” their laptop and connect it to another monitor, along with an external keyboard and mouse, so that they can use their laptop computer with a desktop setup.
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What size screen should I get?
Some desktop computers have an “all-in-one” setup, while others allow users more flexibility with choosing a screen size. While some people with low vision prefer to use larger screens so that a large amount of information can be displayed on the screen at once, others may prefer to use smaller screen sizes that fit into their field of view more easily or that are more portable. Multiple monitors can also provide a larger workspace and can be adjusted to have portrait (vertical) or landscape (horizontal) displays.
My personal computer has a 22-inch screen which is comfortable for me with my field of vision and supports display scaling at a level that is comfortable to me. I’ve used external monitors of various sizes to accommodate for fluctuating vision or tasks that required a larger screen.
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What kind of programs will I need to use for assignments?
As a data science major, a lot of my assignments involve writing code and using a variety of different software for data analysis and statistics, often running multiple programs simultaneously. At the time I was taking classes, the laptop I had couldn’t keep up with running all of the programs I needed for my classes, along with the assistive technology programs I had running in the background, and it was much more straightforward to use my desktop computer since it had more memory and had improved display scaling/large print settings.
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What about other peripheral devices?
I have a few different peripheral devices that connect to my desktop computer that I use for my classes, including:
- A large print keyboard for typing- I love my Keys-U-See keyboard!
- External mouse
- Microphone for recording audio for presentations and talks
- Camera for recording videos
- Amazon Echo Dot that serves as an external speaker
- External TouchMat monitor that is a key feature of my HP Sprout computer- the TouchMat can be used to scan in text or serve as a video magnifier
- USB flash drives for storing external data or program settings
I connect a USB hub to my computer to accommodate for the additional peripheral devices, and have found that they help me tremendously with getting the most out of my desktop computer, and their small/portable size means that they can be stored more easily when not in use.
- How To Make Keyboards Easier To See
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Can I use this computer for entertainment?
While a lot of this post has talked about using desktop computers for college classes, they are also great for participating in recreational activities or for entertainment purposes, such as gaming, watching movies, creating digital art, or writing. Students should check the software requirements for games or hobby software to ensure that their desktop computer will be able to run their favorite programs.
Summary of questions to ask when choosing a desktop computer for college
- Do I need a computer during class, or can I use the computer lab?
- What operating system should I choose? Is there a specific requirement in my major I should know about?
- How will the computer fit on my desk?
- How many of my assignments are computer-based? Will I be spending a lot of time at the computer?
- Am I taking a lot of virtual classes? Is it okay if my computer isn’t portable?
- Should I use multiple monitors to display several programs/windows at a time?
- What size screen should I get?
- What kind of programs will I need to use for my assignments?
- Can I connect other peripheral devices to my computer? How will I organize them?
- Can I use this computer for entertainment/relaxing?