Whether you're attending college for the first time this fall or you are a returning student, now is the time to think about whether your PC is ready for the upcoming academic year.
More likely than not, your school has a recommended minimum hardware configuration for all students accessing their computer resources. If you can't find this on their web pages, call their technical support hot-line, or check to see if they have an on-line 'knowledge-base' of information regarding their campus computing resources.
If your computer meets their recommended minimums, then you are halfway there. If not, determine if you will need to purchase a new computer or if you can add specific components (such as memory, additional hard drive space, or a network card.) If your computer is over three years old and never been upgraded, then it will probably need some kind of an upgrade. Much older than that and it may not meet their minimum requirements. Ignoring those minimum requirements will only add to your frustration when you arrive on campus.
If you've decided that you need a new computer, check to see if your college or university can provide you with vendor discounts -- or better yet, recommended configurations designed specifically for your school. Don't assume that just because your local retailer has a computer for less that it will meet your needs for the next four years. The workstation configurations established by your school are intended to provide students with a workstation suitable for use throughout their college career, not just until the standard one-year warranty (sold with those retail store configurations) runs out.
Next is the operating system. More likely than not, your school will support Windows 2000 or later, Mac OS X, and some standard Linux distributions. More likely than not your school will NOT support (or perhaps even PERMIT) Windows 95/98/Me or MacOS 9 or below running on their network. If your computer came with Windows 98/Me, then it will probably run Windows XP but if it is slower than 800MHz, or has less than 256MB of RAM, it won't run it very well. Those same guidelines apply to Mac OS X as well. Even if your school permits the use of Windows 95/98/Me or MacOS 9 or below, security upgrades for these operating systems are no longer available and thus they should not be used on any Internet-connected computer.
If your hardware meets your school's requirements but your operating system needs an upgrade, before buying a retail upgrade, find out if your school can provide you with a free (or inexpensive) upgrade. The same goes for virus-protection and anti-spy-ware programs. Some schools will not even allow your computer to communicate on the network if malware is detected.
Finally, find out if your school offers discounts on (or even free access to) the most popular personal productivity applications. While frequent software upgrades are often unnecessary in personal productivity settings, they can be critical in an academic setting where instructional materials are dependent upon a particular version of an application. Once again, your school may even offer discounts on discipline-specific applications.
Don't have a computer? Don't panic. Talk to your school and find out first if they have requirements for computer ownership. If they do, then all of the above advice applies. If they don't have such requirements then learn about the extent of their computing facilities on campus. On some campuses, these facilities are maintained by individual departments and accessible only to students of that department. On other campuses, theses facilities are centrally owned and operated by the university and open to all students. Many colleges and universities offer a mix of both.
If your school offers extensive computing facilities available over a wide range of hours and in a wide variety of locations, then maybe you don't need your own computer. Still, if your school offers wireless access across campus, a notebook -- or even a wireless PDA -- can be an invaluable tool. A desktop in your dorm room can even act as a central server for file storage so you don't need to carry around removable media or worry about inadvertantly leaving your work in a computing lab somewhere on campus.