I'm a senior in Business at the U of A, get a PC tablet!
My 'background' before giving advice...I'm a senior at the U of A and also worked 3 years for the largest Community College District in the country. I've taken classes in 3 counties and 2 State schools. I currently do web and graphic design and double as a PA (personal assistant) while in school. My work station is a MacPro with dual 30" cinema displays. I use my boss' MacBook and Imac on a regular basis. I own 2 quadcore PC desktops, a 17" Sony Vaio, and Gateway PC Tablet.
Your first 2 years in college, unless you're attending a vocational or specialty school, will have little to do with your major or career. Most of your classes/focus will be about the same anywhere you go- English, Math, History, Humanities, Science, Social Sciences, etc... All of these classes require note taking, tests, and the dreaded '20 page final papers'. By your Junior and Senior years, you'll probably upgrade to a newer laptop at which time you'll have a reference point to define your needs/wants in a computer.
If I could take all of the computer experience and go back to my Freshman year, I'd still pick a PC Tablet.
1. You can write or type your notes directly on the computer. With Microsoft OneNote, you can highlight, color, and draw diagrams with a single pen, take snapshots of your instructor's PowerPoint slides, search your notes...-- Imagine studying for a test and rather than flipping through 50 pages of notes, you only have to type in a keyword and everything you've written/typed on that subject is automatically pulled up.
2. It really is a PC world. Several of the classes I've taken required PC-access. The software for our Business Math classes is only compatible with PC. (even Mac Office 08 users ran into snags). Virtual PC and Bootcamp are not that great. Your professors will most likely post their lectures and study guides in PowerPoint and Word. The lines to use the computer labs in most schools are ridiculously long- especially around midterm and finals week. (Envision 40,000 of your closest friends needing to write papers or study for an exam...and 30,000 only have the school computer labs to rely on)
3. I really really wanted a Mac, because they looked so cool and the OS seemed way better.... but now I can honestly say that I dislike Mac. I would much rather use Dreamweaver, Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign on a PC. Microsoft Office for Mac is a nightmare...and really a horrendous attempt at bringing Office to Mac users. I don't notice any less crashes or hangs on the Mac...I always run into formatting and font issues when I start a document on a PC and continue it on a Mac in the same program (and vice versa). By the time you load your Mac with all the software you need for school (even with a student discount)- you could've bought both a PC and Mac for the same amount of money. There's no compelling reason to get a Mac for college. The only thing, in my opinion, that Mac beats PC in, is its ability to use 32GB of Ram for film editing...but even then- if you can afford to dish out $8,000 for a setup like that, then you can afford to own both PC and Mac.
3. As much as Gateway sucks in quality, their tablets are the absolute best on the market for the money. The screens are made by Waacom, the leaders in the touchscreen industry. They offer a 14" tablet screen which is 2" bigger than any other brand. They start as low as $750- and most likely your school has a contract with Gateway so that you can service your computer for free on campus and are covered in the event of damage or theft. If you get a tablet, you won't regret it. (forgot to mention that the screen swivels 360 degrees so you can show your study mates your screen without passing around the computer).
4. Some college 'must haves', for either PC or Mac, that you'll really really want to consider for the sake of your eyesight (and sanity):
a. an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Working on a tiny computer is fine in class, on the go, or for group work...but there are going to be nights where you are on the computer for 8 hours at a shot-- and you don't want to spend 8 hours hunched over a laptop while you squint to see the screen and strain your wrist using a touchpad mouse. An ideal screen would be 22" and up, but 19" is a modest size that works too.-- You can also use your LCD monitor as a DVD player/tv which saves space and justifies the extra cost. If you're a fast typist, then you might notice a lag in wireless keyboards and mice. A good wired option would be a backlit keyboard- If you have a roomate, they'll appreciate you being able to work with the lights out.
b. Microsoft Student 2008. For citing papers, a lot of professors don't permit Wikipedia as a source-- so Encarta is a great alternative that has pictures, interactive maps, and video clips. The graphing calculator is awesome and way better than using the TI-84 with it's outdate black and grey screen. There's a translator for English, French, Spanish, Italian, and German (will help you on your foreign language classes)
c. Microsoft OneNote. It's a great way to save your notes from every class. I used to use Word for note taking, and found myself with 5,000 documents a semester. OneNote keeps it all organized, indexed, and automatically saves as you go- so you'll never lose your info. You can record the lectures as you go, and each recording is filed with the date and time you took it.
d. an extended battery. Most classrooms have electrical outlets available to students, but it's comforting to know that your computer has 6 hours of batter power vs. 2-3 hrs in a regular battery.
e. good pair of headphones. Just throw your iTunes library on the new laptop, and you can tune out your surroundings while you work.
f. a B&W laser printer ($70) and high quality laser paper. A lot of teachers will require your papers, reports, and presentations to be submitted in Laser quality. I've even known professors to knock off points for Inkjet or thin copy paper. If you run into this requirement, having the ability to print your work at home is way better than standing in line at Kinkos or the school computer labs at 3am.
g. an external hard drive. You'll have a stroke if your computer crashes and all of your files aren't backed up. Best to make life easy and backup your files once a week or so.
Getting a Tablet PC and the above-mentioned items will keep you within your $1,500 budget. One last piece of advice, regardless of the computer you pick-- do NOT go for the cheapest thing you find. Get a Core 2 Duo, and at least 2GB of RAM. While you're at it, you might as well get a built-in mic, webcam, and dvd burner. If you go with something cheap like a Celeron with 1gb of RAM- you'll waste a lot of precious time waiting for your computer to catch up to you and the machine will be worthless when you try to sell it later on.