All I want for graduation is a PDA

Computer Life column for June 5, 1999

Richard Gordon

When I was a kid, the generous grad gift of choice for many families was a used car or a typewriter.

If your family has a graduating high school senior heading off to college in the fall, you may be tempted to run out and buy a computer to give to the graduate right now, particularly since prices are falling and performance is increasing.

It seems like ancient history now, but even a year ago, a decent computer for under $1,000 seemed like a dream. This spring, there are full computer systems selling for less than $600, with good systems in the $900-$1,500 price range and great systems for under $2,000.

And their processors all dash along at speeds of at least 300 MHz.

Before you and your credit card make a purchase, pause to ponder a few issues.

Even though the prices appear low now, chances are good that there will be more capable systems available at current prices later this summer. You may be able to stretch your computing dollars a bit by making the promise to buy a computer now, but actually making the purchase in August.

However, if the graduate is a novice computing user, you may want to buy the computer this month or next, allowing him or her to spend time this summer learning to use the system. Of course, if your graduate will be working at Dewey Beach all summer while the computer sits in your house in Bear, that defeats the purpose of buying early.

If your graduate will not spend time learning the computer this summer, it makes more sense, again, to purchase the system in August, closer to the time your college-bound graduate will actually use the system. If your graduate begins learning the computer just before going off to college, the odds are much better that what he or she has learned will "stick."

You should also wait until your graduate has heard from the college of his or her choice about the computing requirements for incoming freshpersons. How a computer connects to a college's network or what kind of network the college uses can affect the computer your graduate should bring to campus.

If my son were a college-bound high school senior, I might buy him a PDA (personal digital assistant) like a 3Com Palm Pilot now so he'd have some tangible foretaste of what's to come. Over the summer, even if he were working at the beach, a soccer camp, or a music workshop, he could begin using this portable device that would continue to be useful in college.

Then, in August, he and I would pick out a computer for him to use at college-based on information from the school, his interests, and my debtload.

For under $1,500, your graduate could have a PDA to take to class and a full-featured desktop system back in the dorm.

At today's prices, a computer will make a more cost effective graduation present than a car-and the insurance costs are lower.

Tip of the week

Don't believe me? Then take it from a reader.

Last week, this column talked about the importance of preparing for power outages by using a Universal Power Supply (UPS) unit and by backing up your work regularly.

One reader responded by writing with the story of a power outage on a perfectly clear day:

"A car struck a power poll down the road and took down some wires. Of course my machine went down. After power was restored for about 20 minutes, it went out again. This time it caused the read arm to drop onto my hard disk and scratch it. I could not get my computer to start up after that as the disk was damaged beyond readability.

"I was down for three weeks and lost everything I had not backed up."

This reader then spent about $130 on a UPS unit that gives him 6 minutes of power, "more than enough time to save [my work] and shut down." Since he has over 25G of data and programs, he reports that having the UPS and doing his back-ups religiously has saved him hundreds of dollars.

Copyright © 1999, The News Journal Company

Computer Life Index

Richard Gordon helps support faculty, staff and student computing at the University of Delaware. E-mail questions, comments or suggestions to, or write him at The News Journal, Box 15505, Wilmington, DE 19850. Although each note cannot be answered individually, reader comments and questions will often be incorporated in future columns.