Back to School: The Evolving Computer

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When I headed off to college, first-person shooter games and the famously illegal Napster (Nasdaq: NAPS  ) file-swapping service were both hitting the big time. For all their fun, they also carried drawbacks: One was against the law, the other took a big bite out of study time, and both required serious computational horsepower.

This meant that I wanted to head off to school not with just any computer, but with a brand new juiced-up computer. (OK, I was also a little bit of a geek.) At the time, my options included such familiar names as Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) and Gateway (NYSE: GTW  ) , but also legacy names like Compaq, which later became part of Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) ; IBM, which sold its PC business to Lenovo; and Packard Bell. The latter's still out there, but does anyone actually own a Packard Bell?

I ended up with a top-of-the-line PC made by Micron (NYSE: MU  ) , whose computer division is now part of MPC (AMEX: MPZ  ) . It had a processor measured in megahertz (Mhz), a hard drive that barely entered gigabyte territory, and it had to be hooked up to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse to be useful at all.

Eight years later, my younger brother's just heading off to start college, but his need for a robust computer is no less important. Instead of Napster, Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iTunes now keeps students' hard drives far more filled than mine ever was. Meanwhile, video games are also bigger and badder than ever; digital photography is consuming ever more hard drive space and processor power; and who could possibly bear to have their computer slow down even a little bit while updating that all-important Facebook profile?

Notebooks are now increasingly popular on campus, and today's models could easily run circles around my hulking freshman-year desktop. It's also far more common, and far more important, for students to have their own computer, rather than relying on campus computing centers.

The evolution of the college computer has been a mixed blessing for the companies selling them. Though the market has expanded by leaps and bounds, prices have been squeezed, and margins are far slimmer than when I plunked down a few thousand for my Micron.

The landscape has also changed. Though Dell and HP (thanks to Compaq) are the industry's two major players, Apple's sleek designs and iPod-assisted cool factor have put it back in competition as well. Foreign rivals are also much tougher; Lenovo has major presence thanks to its IBM acquisition, Acer just bought Gateway, and Sony, Toshiba, and Fujitsu are also snagging U.S. sales.

Despite all this change, however, one thing remains very much the same about computers on campus: their vulnerability to spilled bee -- uh, I mean, soda.


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