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These days, a computer is an essential item for every college student. But with so many options out there, it's easy to go overboard and spend way too much on computer features and extras that you don't need.

Here are some things to consider and ways to keep your computing costs down:

Mac or PC?: We would never take sides in this debate. The good news is usually either one will work fine for most college students. Some programs do require a specific type of computer, though, so it's important to check on that before making your purchase. For example, many graphic design programs require a Mac.

Check your school's recommendations (and special deals):
Many schools have a section on their Web sites advising students about their computer needs. This may even be broken down according to specific majors. Also, check to see if your school offers any special discounts for major vendors – many schools do.  

Use school resources: Many schools now offer free or low-cost printing to students at on-campus computer centers, which can save you the cost of buying a printer. Computer labs often offer workstations with programs such as design software, which may spare you the expense of buying those pricey programs yourself.

Laptop or desktop?: Laptops tend to be more expensive and can get damaged or stolen more easily, but their portability and convenience are big advantages for college students. 

Bigger isn't necessarily better:
Students who will live on campus must keep space limitations in mind. "I would suggest a monitor no larger than 17 inches," says Jonathan Lucia, director of residence life at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama. Not only do big computers take up too much room, Lucia points out that most residence hall furniture has surfaces that would not support anything larger and heavier than that.

Think education, not entertainment: A college computer's primary role is to help with studies. The first priority is to make sure it can perform all the necessary functions for your particular school-related needs. The ability to burn DVDs or make fancy videos is, in most cases, something you can do without.

Software: At the very least, most students will need the basic Office components: Word, Excel and possibly PowerPoint. These can be expensive to buy separately later, so make sure they come pre-installed in your computer. Depending on the student's major, they may also need other programs such as Photoshop or Adobe.

Netbooks: Netbooks are very popular right now, but for college use they have both pros and cons. On the upside, they are extremely light and portable – this Acer Aspire One weighs around two pounds – and can easily be carried around in a backpack. But in order to stay small, netbooks sacrifice components such as disc drives.

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Storage: Students need ample memory, especially if they will be dealing with large files. They also often need to move files from one computer to another, so be sure to stock up on flash drives. No student wants to spend hours working on a project only to lose it when the computer crashes, so consider setting up a virtual backup account with a service like Mozy or StudentBackup.

Security: Viruses and other threats can damage your computer and destroy valuable files. Make sure your computer has a good virus program.

Connectivity: In a poll of college students by the Wi-Fi Alliance, nearly half of all respondents said they would give up beer before doing without Wi-Fi, if forced to choose. Luckily, most campuses do have wireless access in at least some public areas. If your computer doesn't have a wireless card, try a USB wireless adapter like this Linksys model. You'll have instant wireless access – and the adapter can easily be moved from one computer to another. Students staying in a dorm lacking wireless internet should be sure to pick up some Ethernet cables.

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