When did laptops become a standard purchase for college?
October 9, 2013 9:06 PM   Subscribe

That is, when did the vast majority of US college students/their families start seeing laptop computers as a necessary purchase before going to school?

Obviously in, say, 1950, no student bought a laptop before heading off to college. In 2013, the vast majority of college students buy some kind of laptop before heading off to school, even for those who have no intention of studying computer science or technical anything.

So when did laptops become ubiquitous in college? I know at some point in the late 20th century, probably those more technically-inclined purchased them, but I'm particularly curious about when they basically became a standard college accessory. Also sort of curious if there was a time when desktops were ubiquitous but then were taken over by laptops. (I went to college in the second half of the 2000s and nearly everyone I knew had a laptop.)

I'm asking this from a US perspective, but other perspectives are welcome! I realize the situation is totally different in many other places. And I also realize there are still those for whom a laptop computer is an unaffordable or otherwise unattainable purchase, but I'm mostly asking about this from a US, middle-class view.
posted by andrewesque to Society & Culture (100 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Also sort of curious if there was a time when desktops were ubiquitous but then were taken over by laptops.

Yep. I graduated in 1998, and almost everyone had a desktop. A few weirdos had laptops that they brought to lectures to take notes.
posted by jaguar at 9:10 PM on October 9, 2013 [6 favorites]

I started at a nowhere state school in 2002, and at that point there were a fair number of people who had them, but a fair number more that didn't, and we had to buy a separate quite expensive wireless card to get online, but there was a wireless network. Four years later, I was having to stake out outlets with religious fervor because they had become quite common. So that seemed to be the tipping point.

In 1999-2002, when most of the people I knew where first starting school, yeah, basically everybody I knew hauled a desktop off with them.
posted by Sequence at 9:11 PM on October 9, 2013

I went to college (US, 1998, both parents in computers my whole life) with a desktop. Some people had laptops but few took them places. There was no wireless. We had built-in wired connections (Ethernet) in our dorm rooms, I think for the first time that year. Most if not all dorms had a small computer lab, and there were a few large labs on campus. Lots of people didn't have computers at all; of my 4 roommates, I think 2 did and 2 didn't. Many of my housemates did not have computers. My friends (same year as me) in electrical engineering had laptops, but again mostly used them at their desks in their dorm rooms. Occasionally they'd take them to the library or down to a common area.

By 2004 when I went to law school everybody had a laptop. Wireless was ubiquitous. I don't know how the undergrads were but I think similarly equipped.
posted by katemonster at 9:13 PM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Laptops were relatively rare among Canadian undergraduates in 1998, getting more common but not ubiquitous among graduate students in the US in 2002, and basically de rigueur for grads and undergrads by about 2005.

But it wasn't fashion, but simple practicality: the decade between 1998 and 2008 was also the time period in which laptops came down in price substantially, while increasing in power sufficiently to replace desktops. Laptops are easier for most students not just because you can take them to class or the library, but because you have to pack up everything you own for at least the summer, and they are easier to pack and transport. The only students I knew with desktops were all graduate students who didn't do have to leave their university for field research, and who lived in the same room/apartment for years at a time.
posted by jb at 9:14 PM on October 9, 2013

Another data point: I started college in 1996 and had a desktop. I had exactly one friend with a laptop, and it seemed amazingly wonderful and extravagant. I don't remember seeing more than a few laptops around campus by the time I graduated in 2000.

I started grad school in 2005, and literally everyone had a laptop. So the switch happened sometime between 2000 and 2005.

Worth noting: there was no wireless internet on campus when I graduated in 2000. Obviously, the rise of laptops and wireless are closely related.
posted by lunasol at 9:15 PM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I started college in 1992, many people had desktops, but many others still went to the computer cluster to do work. No one had a laptop (they didn't really exist). We got in dorm wireless in 1993, I think. In 1996, when I graduated, most everyone had a desktop, but I don't think I knew anyone with a laptop. I kludged together a portable PC in 1995 from a 386 tablet and a keyboard and it drew a lot of stares when I flew with it, but it worked.
posted by pombe at 9:17 PM on October 9, 2013

I remember almost everyone having a laptop when I started college in 2004.
posted by entropyiswinning at 9:18 PM on October 9, 2013

Response by poster: These are great! And my age is definitely showing in this question, haha.

It makes sense (duh!) that desktops were commonplace at one point, so I'm also curious when that became a thing? Sometime in the early-mid 1990s?
posted by andrewesque at 9:19 PM on October 9, 2013

In the Usenet newsgroup soc.college.admissions, "laptop vs. desktop" was still an occasional topic of discussion around 2000, but by 2002, the answer was almost unequivocally laptop.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:19 PM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

More anecdata: I also had quite a few friends with no computers 1996-2000, and it wasn't seen as a horrible inconvenience. Lots of people wrote papers/surfed the internet/etc in computer labs. Funnily enough, I was already a budding internet addict but never had internet in my room or apartment throughout college - it seemed unnecessary since I could just do whatever I needed to do in the computer labs.
posted by lunasol at 9:19 PM on October 9, 2013

Response by poster: by 2002, the answer was almost unequivocally laptop.

Haha I remember a friend who had a desktop my freshman year, and it seemed horribly inconvenient. It's scary how fast technology changes!
posted by andrewesque at 9:22 PM on October 9, 2013

Incidentally, you can browse an archive of those debates over laptop vs. desktop for college here.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:23 PM on October 9, 2013

I started college in 1996. We had a desktop, but we've had a desktop since 1982, so that probably doesn't count. When I moved for grad school in 2000, I figured I'd better get a laptop (and I got a really pretty and small Sony VAIO which rapidly fell into pieces--literally--thus precipitating my move into Macs when I replaced it with an iBook in 2001 or 2002).

My struggle as a teacher these days is convincing students that they really need to buy their very own... PRINTER.
posted by wintersweet at 9:23 PM on October 9, 2013

Midwest, 1998-2000ish, I had a desktop at school with me, but many people didn't--I lived in a share house with maybe a dozen people, and I want to say that the desktop/no computer split was about 50/50. No one had a laptop. There were a couple of computer labs that were open 24/7, and my roommate (who didn't have a computer) used mine a lot, but it definitely wasn't yet a thing that everyone had.

I'm not totally convinced that there was a period in which almost everyone had desktops--I sort of get the impression, from my experience and having siblings younger than I, that it went some people have desktops/some people use the computer lab to everyone has either a laptop or a desktop to everyone has a laptop.
posted by MeghanC at 9:25 PM on October 9, 2013

Started (private, small but well known) college in Fall 2003 -- everyone had a laptop, including me. We had wireless internet in the dorms.

There was a big computer lab on campus open 24-7, and we used it a lot as a study space (like how we used the library).

My parents didn't own their own computer at that point, but my mom had a laptop from work (she's a teacher), and they did have dial-up. Which I used *obsessively* in high school.
posted by rue72 at 9:25 PM on October 9, 2013

Response by poster: Monsieur Caution -- thanks so much! I am getting a kick out of these, especially things like:

"I know that Dell has 300Mhz PentII's with 14.4" screens for the low $2000's now which really isn't bad at all," from this thread
posted by andrewesque at 9:27 PM on October 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I started in 2003 with a laptop and would say prob 2/3 of my classmates did, too.

But my internet was wired for my entire college career.
posted by charlemangy at 9:33 PM on October 9, 2013

I entered university in 2006. At that point, laptops were considered enough of a necessity for students that they recommended that everyone have one, and they sold laptops to students at a discount and even offered scholarships to some students. I got a free laptop, basically. All university-issued laptops were also given free tech support by student IT workers.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:33 PM on October 9, 2013

I chose a desktop when going off to college at a fairly academic, sciencey East-Coast school in 2001. My roommate also had a desktop but we were both a bit unusual and had chosen desktops because we were frugal. She had a flat-panel monitor to save some space on her desk that felt especially unusual--I don't think anyone else had one. The school had a program where you could buy computers through them and the models they'd selected were both laptops. Wireless internet wasn't really a thing yet then, and got phased in slowly over the next four years.
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:34 PM on October 9, 2013

Another data point: I graduated high school in 2001 and got a laptop for graduation (my first ever), and brought it to college that fall. Most people had laptops, except the engineering students and hard-core gamers, who felt that laptops were underpowered and overpriced. That said, most of us had Dell Inspiron 4000s (they were heavily marketed to us and they had interchangeable color covers!) which were underpowered and overpriced, so there's that.

One thing to note is that wifi was not widespread nor were wifi cards in laptops. I definitely hardwired in my dorm room. There was wifi in common areas but I didn't have a wifi card. I remember being super jealous of a friend sophomore year who could pick up the wifi in the coffee shop on campus, while I had to bring a cord. I got a wifi card soon after that (PCI I think), and then in 2004 I got a laptop that had wifi built in.
posted by radioamy at 9:34 PM on October 9, 2013

In 1998, I applied to Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and they made a big deal out of the fact that all incoming freshmen got laptops. This was sort of novel at the time but several other schools had similar laptop policies.
posted by zsazsa at 9:37 PM on October 9, 2013

1999- I got a laptop and about half of the people I went to college with had them. But they were really expensive still (mine was a 3 in 1 graduation/birthday/Chanukah present from my grandmother).
Some people had desktops, but many just went to the computer lab.
posted by rmless at 9:37 PM on October 9, 2013

I graduated in 1994. My sophomore roommate had an Apple Macintosh Classic II as did a close friend, but most everyone else I knew used word processors or the computer labs.
posted by cecic at 9:40 PM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

It makes sense (duh!) that desktops were commonplace at one point, so I'm also curious when that became a thing? Sometime in the early-mid 1990s?

I left for college in 1990. I took a desktop. On my floor of 16 rooms, 32 people, I think there were maybe two of us.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:44 PM on October 9, 2013

The relative affluence of a given school/area will impact your findings. For instance, I graduated from a moderately-priced state school in rural Ohio in 2005. Almost none of my classmates used laptops, and the computer labs were in heavy use there.

The semi-private grad school in a city that I graduated from in 2008? Many students had laptops, but not all.
posted by sugarbomb at 9:46 PM on October 9, 2013

I was in college from '99 to 2005 (yeah, I know), and my first laptop was a college graduation present.

I think if I'd been a freshman in 2003-2005 I probably would have arrived at college with one, and a lot of my college friends who are a little younger had them.

When I graduated in 2005 there still wasn't reliable wifi on campus, so laptops were still something to write papers on and connect physically to ethernet in the dorms. Nobody brought them to class, and they were not omnipresent in the way they likely are now.

In my freshman and sophomore years, a lot of people in the dorms had desktops in their dorm rooms for schoolwork. By the end of college I don't remember seeing that as much, and a lot more people had laptops.

That said, I went to a shitty school with crappy tech resources, in general. I'm sure MIT and the Ivies had campus-wide wifi by then.
posted by Sara C. at 9:47 PM on October 9, 2013

In Maine, All 7th and 8th graders statewide were given (Apple) laptops starting in the Fall of 2002, with the intent that the program would expand to High School students as those 8th graders moved up through the grades - so by the Fall of 2006 every HS Senior in the sate (down through 7th grade) would be issued a (school owned) laptop. By June 2009 the program was issuing 64,000 laptops per year. The program was cutting edge in it's day, but by the time those kids hit college (and probably a bit earlier) having access to a laptop for work was as normal as breathing.
posted by anastasiav at 9:49 PM on October 9, 2013

2003 at VPI/Virginia Tech.
posted by a halcyon day at 9:52 PM on October 9, 2013

Random data point:

I remember friends of mine who were being heavily recruited by prestigious STEM-oriented schools (circa '98-99) being offered free laptops to sweeten the deal. Which makes me think they might have been more of a thing at particularly tech-focused schools.
posted by Sara C. at 9:52 PM on October 9, 2013

I bought a wordprocessor for use in college around 1991, because it was so much cheaper. By 94, though, I had a desktop. But I was still ahead of most of my classmates in Arts and Social Sciences programs. The engineers and comp sci guys had computers. But most of my classmates just used the computer labs to complete their assignments. Around 94, people who could afford it sometimes had computers, but it wasn't very common where I was in Vancouver.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 9:56 PM on October 9, 2013

Undergrad - started in 1984, the school I was at "gave" (included in tuition) everyone a desktop PC that wasn't really IBM PC compatible, though it ran MS-DOS (technically, ZDOS, but it also ran MS-DOS up to version maybe 5.0?). The school made a pretty big deal about it.

Grad School -- started in 1997, bought a laptop in 1998, I think that was pretty unusual at the time.

Pretty useless as datapoints, I know.
posted by jclarkin at 9:57 PM on October 9, 2013

As others have answered, 2000-2005 was the big change over. I went to college in 2003 and I and 60-70% of my classmates had desktops with wired internet. By the time I graduated in 07 it was closer to 40-60% laptop vs desktop with most people using wi-fi. Wireless routers were still somewhat expensive and unreliable until the mid 00s, but by 07-10 they became cheap commodity hardware. Before reliable wireless people were stuck to their desks anyway so it made sense to have a cheaper and more powerful, but stationary, computer. After people didn't need to be plugged in and with the continuing growth in power available for about the same price of previous desktops, it didn't make sense to sacrifice portability for cost/power anymore. Any computer on the market these days can do 95% of what you previously needed a big tower to do. Unless you're a hardcore gamer or video editor, the tradeoff isn't worth it.
posted by fishmasta at 10:17 PM on October 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

1997: UNC requires incoming students to have laptops.
posted by thelonius at 10:22 PM on October 9, 2013

Wow, Australia seems behind the times! I started uni in 99, no one had laptops but the yuppies. By time I graduated in 2003 (ish) that had increased to maybe 4 people in a an undergraduate class of +100 - so still very rare.
posted by smoke at 10:27 PM on October 9, 2013

I went to uni from 89 to 94, and I got my first computer (a Mac LCIII) in around 1993. Until then I had to go to the university Mac Lab to type out my history papers.

This was pre World Wide Web, although there was something called Gopher and Archie (I stuck to Netrek).

We had an open stack at the library, so you had to use card catalogues to find books, and large reference volumes to track down journal articles.

The Reserved Reading Room had photocopies of journal articles.

I went back to school in 97-99 and it was at that time I got my first email address.

I bought my first laptop in at the beginning of 2005. It was fucking massive.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:51 PM on October 9, 2013

In 2001 it was probably a slight majority of students with laptops vs. desktops, but it wasn't odd at all to have a desktop. (It generally just meant that you hadn't gotten a computer quite as recently.) If you had a laptop chances are it never went anywhere out of your room, perhaps to the library but then you'd have to bring an Ethernet cable and find a jack to plug it into, and bring a power adapter because the batteries sucked, and who wants to do that really...

But somewhere in the following four years it suddenly become standard to have a laptop, and maybe more importantly it became borderline-socially-acceptable to carry it around. (Campus WiFi probably drove that change to a large extent.) I think you would've been a bit of a tool to bust out a laptop in the student coffee shop in 2000/01, but by 05 you'd just be one of many.

There were public terminals, not in the true greenscreen sense but just locked-down PCs, all over campus in building lobbies, which anyone could log into and use to check their email and other remote-access stuff. It wasn't really hard to get along without a laptop, even if you wanted to check your email between classes. The terminals got a lot of use when I was an underclassman and gradually fell into disuse and were almost completely gone by the time I graduated. (Same with the wired phone system; cellphones because ubiquitous over basically the same period of time.)

I was surprised recently when I went to a continuing ed class how many people (95%) brought laptops and unabashedly multitasked the whole time. I could only imagine a few of my undergrad profs would have pulled a full-bore Untouchables Al Capone if someone had done that.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:11 PM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Started college in 1999 and while my life then is shrouded in the mists of time I definitely got my hands on a Gateway laptop sometime shortly thereafter. We had cabled Ethernet in the dorms, and the brand new underground tech center had just opened with Ethernet plugs everywhere so you could take your laptop down there and write/research. I seem to recall laughing at the thought of toting it around though; in its bag and with its cords and power blocks and swap-out Zip™ drive it must have weighed 25 pounds. Definitely saved that trouble for crunch time. Lecture halls didn't have anywhere to set it up except on your lap, and having a whirring heat machine sitting on me wasn't appealing. Plus the usability wasn't optimized for quick computing yet—programs weren't quick to respond and the computer itself was just slow, which wasn't conducive to the speed my collegiate learning environment operated along. Battery life was wretched, which made the power chunk necessary and so seating options were limited.

Freshman year one of my two dormmates had a desktop. The other one didn't bring a computer to school. (Oh that was another thing the computerless roommate had to keep Soulseek running 24/7, so the computer rarely left its Ethernet tether in our joint.) It seemed like most kids had some sort of computing device with them within a few years, but it was fairly rare to see them out and about with them in Fall 1999.
posted by carsonb at 11:12 PM on October 9, 2013

I went to university in the UK from 1991-1994. Most people did not have their own computers, and went to use the ones on campus for schoolwork. Or we hand wrote our essays! I was nerdy, and I spent my first student loan buying the parts to build my own desktop, which I used for gaming, rather than schoolwork. During this time period, the internet started to become a thing. I had a copy of NCSA Mosaic in my third year, which I took to my first job after graduation - and most people had no idea what it was.
posted by Joh at 12:06 AM on October 10, 2013

I was at university in the UK from 1996 to 2000, then from 2001 to 2003, and I'm probably quite representative of my cohort. In my first three years I used the college computer room for email and handwrote most of my work. In my final year (1999-2000), my dad built me a desktop and Ethernet ports were installed in all the college rooms, and I had a printer so could type my essays.

I had the same desktop when I started at graduate school in London in 2001, and I don't remember many laptops being around then.
posted by altolinguistic at 12:34 AM on October 10, 2013

I started college in the US (big wealthy Ivy) in 1999. I got a brand new desktop, as did everyone else I knew. It was great for running SETI@Home (and Napster). Before the desktop arrived, I worked in the computer room. This was just before candy-coloured iMacs started appearing all over campus, and computers were still drab grey-beige boxes.

From around 2001 onwards, shortly on the heels of mobile phones becoming ubiquitous, laptops became increasingly common. In around 2001-2002 they started installing wireless routers all around our residential houses and a lot of people had laptops - the freshmen definitely did. Few actually brought them to class and even by 2003 it was uncommon enough that many professors - and indeed I - found them irritating. In 2002 I got a cheap second hand laptop which I kept wired in, but lugged to the library to work on my thesis. It didn't have a wifi card: my carrel had an ethernet port, as did everywhere else, including the dining halls. I still kept my desktop though, and moved between the two computers - it took about a year to transition completely to a laptop.
posted by tavegyl at 12:40 AM on October 10, 2013

Wow! Interesting discussion. When I began college in 2004, I got my very first laptop. It was a 15.4" HP Pavilion DVZ5000 (yes, I still remember the model!), came with Microsoft Windows XP, and it was ahead of its time...but needed a WiFi router card to connect to the University's WiFi network (which was new for fall 2004). A bit kludgy, but it worked. It had a parallel port, an Ethernet and modem port, DVD burner, had a memory card reader, and was just... versatile. I used it for everything, and it lasted me through 2008, when the screen broke off unexpectedly. As it was outside warranty by then, I got a new DELL Inspiron laptop for $900, which lasted through 2012 (when I sold it, I don't know if it works anymore), but quickly showed its' age. I then got another new DELL in 2010, a top-of-the-line Inspiron, but then sold it to someone in 2011 when, fed up with DELL and my laptop's continued weird issues, finally moved to Apple. Never looked back, and am LOVING my MBP running Mac OS X Mountain Lion (10.8.5). I can't wait for Mac OS X Mavericks (10.9), and despite being skeptical at the beginning, was very happy to move to Apple.

So, there you have it. My ancedata. A long string of laptops that served me well, but also didn't deliver well in the end. Let's hope my MBP will last me a while; I upgraded the RAM in it from the base 4GB to 10GB, as well as added a hybrid Momentus XT hard drive. I'm weirdly old school, and use my SuperDrive almost daily.

In case you can't tell, I'm a bit anal-retentive! But, hope my piece of data helps somewhat :) It does look like 2000-2006 was the transitional period. Almost nobody I knew in 2009-2011 had desktops in their rooms, come to think about it.
posted by dubious_dude at 1:12 AM on October 10, 2013

I started university in the UK in 2000. Most people who had a computer in their halls room were people studying computer science or at least something which specifically required a computer to do. Computers then were expensive - my mum bought a desktop for my dad in 1999 that cost over £1000, not because it was top of the range, but because that's what it cost to buy a computer then. I don't remember many laptops at all - computers were desktops.

Also, you could get internet access in your room, but it was very expensive - this was pre-broadband - so most people just went to the computer blocks or the library to use the internet or write there. (the blocks were open 24hrs, so I spent a lot of time there at night using ICQ and Bolt.) I had a word processor but only because I won one in a competition - I wouldn't have been able to afford one otherwise. We didn't have the internet in our student house either, as it was probably dial-up back then for domestic customers.

Before I went to university, I was going out with someone who had fairly wealthy parents and ADSL (?) in their home, and he had a Sony Vaio. He was the only person I knew who had a laptop. This article suggests that they were at least £1k to buy at the turn of the millennium.
posted by mippy at 1:57 AM on October 10, 2013

Started in a fancy uni in the UK in 1999. I had a second hand laptop. Lots of people had desktops, and we had real vt220 terminals for checking email, although they were replaced by locked down PCs pretty quickly. No WiFi on campus. When I finished, laptops were standard.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 1:59 AM on October 10, 2013

I started college in 1994, and brought my desktop basically as a game machine and word processor. Only certain dorms had in-room internet, and those were 9600-baud serial lines. In my dorm, I had to use dialup. And we're not talking "dialup ISP" at this point; it was just a number that dropped you into a Unix shell. If I needed to browse the web graphically on that fancy Mosaic browser, I had to head down to the computer lab. But I actually used this cool program in my room called Slipknot to fake a graphical web browser wrapped around lynx.

In my sophomore year they started installing T1 internet in dorms, and I had a job as a tech helping out (as an "RCC", on the "SWAT Team"). We also didn't have DHCP or automatic anything at the time. We had to go into each and every student's room individually and set up Trumpet Winsock and bootp on their Windows machines (mostly Windows 3.1 at the time; Win95 was brand new and scary), or similar things on Mac (which was a lot less popular in those pre-OSX days), with a (landline, of course) phone to call in to the central office to activate things. The real nerds with this brand new "Linux" thing were figuring it out on their own.

Very few had laptops. And bringing them to class? I maybe saw 1 or 2 people do that.

All that to say: Before the common perception of internet, and before wifi, it didn't make as much sense to own a laptop. A laptop was expensive, fairly bulky, with extremely short battery life, and rarely connected to the internet. So its benefits were few (basically a word processor to use outside on a nice day) and those who had them were either extremely nerdy or rich.
posted by jozxyqk at 2:47 AM on October 10, 2013

Oh yes - when there was a fire drill in our building, you'd often see students carrying their towers outside with them, just in case it wasn't a false alarm.
posted by mippy at 2:52 AM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

In 1997 I was a freshman in one of the top computer science departments. I had a laptop and most kids in my department did, but my friends outside CS were very hit or miss. The school made a huge deal of its wireless infrastructure as a selling point, because it was not entirely standard at that point.

The laptop didn't leave my dorm room. I did have a giant clunky Palm Pilot that I carried around, so I was pretty super high tech.
posted by Stacey at 3:10 AM on October 10, 2013

I started university in 2003. Engineering majors were required to have laptops. Most of my other friends had desktops. I had a laptop but didn't really need it. I ended up doing most of my work in computer labs anyway.
posted by neushoorn at 3:18 AM on October 10, 2013

> 1997: UNC requires incoming students to have laptops.

No - I started at UNC in 1997 and although the Campus Computing Initiative (CCI) was promoting bringing a computer (and offering desktop and laptop special pricing through corporate partnerships), there wasn't a requirement until 2000 and at that point it was (per your link) a laptop requirement. They had a special deal with IBM by that point, but I seem to recall that Dell was a partner in the pre-requirement years. Now, of course, Apple is one of the options - they got tired of fighting to have everyone on the same two Thinkpad models (for ease of servicing) because everyone was bringing a Mac. :)

I was a lab assistant for the introductory computer science class in my senior year (2000-2001) and then when returning for grad school (2003-2004) and I feel like there was a sea change in the usage of computer labs (where we kept "lab hours" for our students) even just between those time periods, and even with the laptop requirement.

I came to school with a desktop my freshman year (comp sci major) and my first summer job, I used the money to purchase one of the CCI-offered laptops (Thinkpad 600 FTW!)
posted by clerestory at 3:51 AM on October 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I switched over from desktops to laptops in 2001 or 2002, and had borrowed laptops occasionally earlier (from people my parents' age). I was on the early side, but not the absolute earliest.
posted by jeather at 4:36 AM on October 10, 2013

I started law school in 1999; my class was the first at this school that was required to buy laptops.
posted by payoto at 4:42 AM on October 10, 2013

I started college at a very nerdy school in 2004. I'd say that probably 5% of the folks in my dorm had desktops, and another maybe 20% had clunky desktop replacement laptops. I don't know anyone from my class that didn't have a laptop by the time they graduated.
posted by phunniemee at 4:49 AM on October 10, 2013

Big 10 engineering school from 85-89. Personal computers of any kind were still a luxury item. I took an Atari 800 XL with me my freshman year but left it home all future years. I think we had 1 guy in the frat house with a computer, which we all lined up to use to write our papers.
posted by COD at 4:57 AM on October 10, 2013

Started undergrad in 1999 with a brand new Dell desktop. I don't think I knew anyone with a laptop. After I got accepted to grad school in 2004, I bought a new Dell laptop. It wasn't a requirement but highly recommended and we had one class that we had to bring a laptop to the final.
posted by Nolechick11 at 5:08 AM on October 10, 2013

In 1998, I applied to Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and they made a big deal out of the fact that all incoming freshmen got laptops. This was sort of novel at the time but several other schools had similar laptop policies.

I went to Bentley College just outside of Boston, where laptops had been a requirement for all students starting in 1985. It was one of the first programs in the country to do so.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 5:09 AM on October 10, 2013

At my school, in 1999 not everyone had a desktop even, and we used the computer lab a lot. Dark ages I tell you! By 2001 nearly everyone had a desktop, but by 2002 it was common to have a laptop. 2003 the majority owned one and 2004 it was ubiquitous, as in 100% of the incoming freshman class had one.
posted by yeti at 5:23 AM on October 10, 2013

Dispatch from the dark ages... In Fall of 1981, when we returned to campus for the start of our senior year, one of my classmates brought along an IBM 5150, which had come out about a month earlier. That model was pretty much the first desktop designed for personal use and we computer center geeks were agog; the IBM-Selectric crowd (who had mostly received their electric typewriters as high school graduation gifts) didn't really get it.

That year I got hired on by a project geared towards identifying an effective format for manuals for WordStar, an early word processing program that became popular in the mid-1980s. WordStar aspired to be the default choice at our college and others. All five of us (undergraduates) were instructed to teach ourselves the program and then write a manual for it: we received a small stipend and the use of an IBM 5150 for our trouble. Most people used an index-explanation approach, e.g., look up the feature you want and consult the page telling how to do it. I made an 11 x 17 laminated card with a fake document that I annotated with explanations, e.g., look at the bold text and see the little note explaining how it's done. The backside was a compendium of commands. The day I arrived with my single sheet and saw everyone else schlepping in thick binders full of instructions was... interesting. To this day I think it was the better approach, but oh well.

In 1985 I started grad school and my parents gave me a Leading Edge Model D, which was the first lower-priced third-party manufactured IBM-compatible machine. It had a lovely amber screen and I was a devotee. Almost no one else had a desktop.

In 1987 I took a job at a fairly prestigious consulting firm. We were each issued financial calculators but no desk tops; there was a computer room that enabled about a third of us to use them at a time. There were professional word processors who enjoyed dedicated equipment, but the rest of us shared. I brought in the Model D because I got so frustrated by the situation, which was viewed somewhat askance by the firm elders. The younger staff ultimately confronted the partners about the need for all of us to have our own computers and they made the switch in early 1988.

In 1990, our office acquired its first portable computer, a Compaq model known as a "luggable," for the road warriors to share. It was a heavy DOS-driven box with a keyboard that folded down to reveal a 7 inch screen and floppy disk slots. I lived in LA at the time and loved using it on the front porch of our craftsman-style home in Santa Monica. It just fit under the seat on airplanes. I had a few friends with Mac laptops who snickered at it, but I was happy. Meanwhile our office desktops were now running Windows 3.0.

In 1992, my office desktop died. Now travelling about 50 percent of the time, I made the case that it should be replaced with a laptop and a monitor (although my then-partner stuck with desktops for their superior processing power). But I've never looked back: laptops (and now tablets) forever.
posted by carmicha at 5:23 AM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I started school at a small, private research university known mainly for science and engineering in 2002, and I seem to remember most of my class having laptops. The school made a big deal about wireless internet in the common spaces on campus, though we only for wireless in the dorms a couple of years later.
posted by capsizing at 5:24 AM on October 10, 2013

1996-1999, UK, at a well regarded but not red-brick university. Nobody that I knew had a laptop; not many people had desktops, mostly the computer science students. Often they were self-builds, where we were very pleased to have only paid £500 for the constituent parts of our cheap-ass Celeron with 64Mb of RAM or whatever it was. We were just discovering MP3s and Winamp visualisations (this was some kind of geeky stoner CS student secret) but we were struggling to decode MP3s reliably while simultaneously using our computers for assignments. In about 1998 I acquired a second hand 14.4Kb modem, but still largely used computer labs for internet access.

Lots of people still didn't really use computers and mostly read library books and did all their work with pens on pieces of paper. The internet was still a geek thing that was difficult to search but contained wisdom in places like Usenet and IRC. Also mostly only for geeks, was the university email account, accessed via PINE.

A couple of people entered into relationships with people they had MET ON THE INTERNET but everyone else knew this was a laughable idea which could only end in tragedy. Later events proved them right.
posted by emilyw at 5:48 AM on October 10, 2013

To my surprise my engineering student son left his laptop at home when he went to campus this fall - the default gizmo in his program is now the ipad. Actually left the laptop at home . . .
posted by citygirl at 5:48 AM on October 10, 2013

I started undergrad in 2005 doing a dual degree at Parsons School of Design/Eugene Lang College.

Not only did everyone have laptops, everyone had Apple laptops.
posted by rachaelfaith at 6:06 AM on October 10, 2013

I started college in 2000, and my entering class was the first class required to have laptops (if you didn't have your own, the school had some bulk deal with IBM to provide low-cost laptops, and there were opportunities for need-based subsidies). It was considered a novel program, especially because the school didn't even have wifi by then.
posted by greta simone at 6:08 AM on October 10, 2013

I started college in 1996 at a small liberal arts school; probably a third of the kids then came in with their own brand new Win95 desktops, and another 10% or so on Macs. Laptops were very rare, but not unheard of among the 1% who could afford them. I was a Win 3.1 special snowflake, one of *four* on campus, because I'd gotten a desktop my senior year in high school.

In my experience, 1997 was the interesting year, because that was the year most kids came to campus not only with their own computer, but with previous experience in email and IMing and the general online experience, and had thus assimilated these habits into their daily lives. For most '96ers, this was All New, and even almost 20 years later now, my '97 friends are all much more interested in technology and using it in their daily lives, whereas my '96 friends remain relatively Luddite in comparison, don't prioritize technology upgrades, etc.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 6:09 AM on October 10, 2013

I had a desktop when I started in 2002 but had a laptop by the time I graduated. My sister, who went to the same school 4 years prior, chose her dorm because it was the first one on campus wired for internet.
posted by florencetnoa at 6:19 AM on October 10, 2013

At my small private engineering college, a universal laptop per freshman class started in about 1998. I began college in Fall 2003 and bought the college-mandated laptop - part of the purchase price covered software licensing.

All of my contemporaries who went to state schools and everywhere else were selecting their own laptops during summer 2003.
posted by bookdragoness at 6:19 AM on October 10, 2013

At UNC in 2001 I was required to buy a Thinkpad, and did so, but I still used my desktop for most things because laptops at the time sucked and wireless Internet was... not great. Especially since I had to plug in a "Cisco AiroNet" card that sometimes didn't work.
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:23 AM on October 10, 2013

Some other data points:

The movie Legally Blonde came out in 2001 and has a famous scene where Elle is in the bookstore buying a cute laptop. She was starting Law School at the time. It looked like it was required for all the students.

Also in 2001, the HIGH SCHOOL in my town started issuing laptops to every student; by 2003 every high school student had one.
posted by CathyG at 6:46 AM on October 10, 2013

I started college at MIT (so, think cutting edge of technology) in 2004 and many people had laptops but certainly not everyone. Some people didn't even have desktops, but MIT is of course overflowing with computers. Smart phones didn't really exist yet and nobody I personally knew texted, but we did have cell phones. People still brought ethernet cables to college and expected to use the wired network much of the time.

I did have a laptop, but I never used it in class to take notes - that wasn't very common. Virtually everybody, the whole 4 years that I was there, took handwritten notes unless it was a seminar-type class about research.

By the time I graduated in 2008 pretty much everyone had a laptop and almost everyone had gotten rid of their desktops. However, due to the computation-intensive nature of a lot of MIT work, almost everybody I knew (including me) also used the computer clusters provided by the school. Also, by the time I graduated, people were starting to have smart phones and text instead of calling, but I wasn't terribly unusual in that I still had a simple black and white dumbphone and never texted.
posted by Cygnet at 6:51 AM on October 10, 2013

Started engineering school in 1998, graduated with a liberal arts degree in 2002. When I started, everyone in the engineering dorm had a desktop, and by the time i graduated, nearly half of the students in my classes were toting laptops.

A data point: 802.11b (the first really widespread wifi standard) equipment went on sale in 2000. Without wifi, laptops are a lot less useful.
posted by Oktober at 7:13 AM on October 10, 2013

Australia - started Uni in 1994.

When I started I didn't have a computer and used the shared computer labs for writing essays etc. I think a majority of people then did not have a computer.

by about 1996 - 1997 I had bought a cheap desktop and almost everyone I knew had a cheap desktop. Windows 95 and Pentium chips seemed to change everything.

But I don't ever remember seeing a laptop / notebook computer on campus. Even when I was finishing in 1999 or so they seems really rare.
posted by mary8nne at 7:38 AM on October 10, 2013

My acedata:

My boyfriend in 2001/2002 was a philosophy student at the local Uni in the UK and he and all his housemates (who were IT-y) had desktops (I think he may have got his as learning support actually) but they also lived in a Uni owned house very close to campus and had ethernet connections in their rooms - I suspect it would have been dial up/less PC-y in a normal privately rented student house. He still went to the 24/7 computer blocks occasionally to write essays without distractions. (also one of his housemates had a booming pirate dvd selling business going, so his desktop was very souped up with dvd-r drives, which was very ooh-lala at the time.)

I went to Uni in 2003 with a laptop (but my family has always been very techie so I'd had various hand-down laptops for a couple years before) and lived in halls with uni ethernet access for the first year and then a house with broadband for second year and then back to halls/uni-net. I think all my flatmates had a laptop of some sort with the exception of the invisible flatmate, who was a hardcore gamer. Not that many people brought them to lectures though (no wifi, no plugs) and all our essays etc. were printed out (programming was burnt to cd or on a floppy! I had to buy an external floppy disk drive for that!).

My evening jobs at Uni included being the benevolent dictator of a computer block in the law school, which was always busy. As was the one in my department which I occasionally graced with my velvet glove.

When I went back to uni for my MSc. in 2007, I took my laptop occasionally if I had a long day but it still wasn't as easy as it is now. Right now I work in academia and the tablet is very much the thing. We have well used PC blocks and PCs in the library but every time I go into the library itself, just about every "social" seat is occupied by a student with a tablet of some description. Library staff have been issued tablets, lecture theatres are being upgraded to support more wifi and lecturers are all meant to be thinking digital etc.
posted by halcyonday at 7:42 AM on October 10, 2013

Here's a broad study of The American Freshman: Forty Year Trends (PDF), with a graph on page 27 that plots broad personal computer usage starting around 1985 at 23.5% for women and 31.4% for men, increasing above 50% for both genders (a bit higher for men) by 1995, and rising to above 85% for both genders in 2005.

I'm having some trouble finding articles on trends of desktop versus laptop adoption, but this article has a lot of varied adoption rates and anecdotal comments on policies from individual schools.

Now, the broad trends are going towards tablets, citing laptops as "bulky and slow," though others are trying to tell students you can't write a paper or throw a party with your tablet (though this is clearly not true, as there are plenty of keyboards and office apps for tablets, and a growing number of "DJ" apps).
posted by filthy light thief at 7:45 AM on October 10, 2013

Oops, I have to correct my laptop date. I got it in 1995, or very late 1996. So I guess that was pretty unusual, even for the EE department.
posted by jclarkin at 7:52 AM on October 10, 2013

I owned a desktop PC when I started an undergrad in biology in Canada in 2003. I didn't get a laptop until I went into grad school in 2007. At that time it was pretty much expected to have access to a computer. If people didn't have a computer before coming to school, they bought a laptop.

Those that already had a computer were pretty split between laptops and desktops (although that split was highly correlated with how many games you had on your computer).

I am currently TAing a lap where the students are specifically told to bring a laptop and I am expected to have one to give presentation via a projector.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 8:20 AM on October 10, 2013

In 1996, both my sister and future husband went away to school. Neither had computers at all, and this wasn't at all unusual. In 2002, I did, and I bought a new desktop and used computer labs between classes. In 2003, a younger friend went away to a school where school-branded laptops were required, which seemed weird. But by 2004, everyone I knew in my own school was beginning to cart around their own laptops and in grad school in 2007, I was an absolute throwback in that I still only had a desktop. 90% of my peers owned macbooks.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:26 AM on October 10, 2013

I started uni in Australia in 1995, and bought a pentium 100 desktop about halfway through first semester. My first assignments were typed on a typewriter word processor. I didn't know anybody with a laptop, and don't recall seeing them until the Panasonic Toughbook in 1997/ 98 (and that was geologist friends who worked in the mines). We still had to use the uni computer labs for programs such as SPSS, and most people used them for printing.

All students had free dial-up internet from January 1995, though. This was a sandstone (research-intensive, Ivy League equivalent) uni.
posted by goo at 8:34 AM on October 10, 2013

College in 1991. It was one of the first colleges to require a computer for all incoming freshman. The computer were all desktops.

In 1994 I upgraded to a laptop. I was the only person in all of my classes to have a laptop. I had to have special permission (learning disability) to bring a laptop to classes for taking notes.
posted by LittleMy at 9:06 AM on October 10, 2013

My older brother went to college in 1997 without any computer, but by that point he was in the minority. He got by using his roommate's computer and the computer labs for two years, then bought his own desktop. This was around the same time that the University moved all of its registration processes to the web instead of by phone.

I went to the same school in 2000, and brought a second-hand desktop. I knew a few people who had laptops, but it wasn't standard to bring them to class. By the time I graduated in 2004, I'd say that about 10% of people brought a laptop to my undergrad science lectures, and most medical and law schools required their students to have a laptop.
posted by twoporedomain at 9:07 AM on October 10, 2013

I bought my first laptop right before starting uni in 2004 (Canada) and pretty much everyone had a laptop, although only about 10-20% of people brought them to class, for whatever reason. I don't remember anyone having one in high school, though (even at home - desktops were the norm).

As soon as laptops became affordable and powerful enough for daily use, they were the obvious choice for anyone living in a dorm or on-campus a lot - you can get so much work done in libraries etc. while waiting for class. I get the impression that they're more common in undergrad classes now - probably since they're so much lighter now, you can carry them everywhere more easily.

Now that I've graduated, I love my comfortable, powerful desktop with its huge monitor, and am not likely to ever buy another laptop (although I do have a little netbook for travel).
posted by randomnity at 9:12 AM on October 10, 2013

Bentley's mobile computing requirement started in 1984. I have the 1996 laptop in my office, a Compaq Armada 1120. The seniors that year had a behemoth that was more like a mobile desktop and had a monochrome screen. To check email they would start the program, go to lunch, and then use the program. It took 45 minutes to start it (Lotus Notes).
posted by jwells at 9:21 AM on October 10, 2013

I attended uni briefly in New Zealand in 2007 and very few people seemed to bring laptops to class. I bought some chunky secondhand Dell thing which needed a wireless card that I don't remember if I ever even worked out how to use. Never took it to class. My student flat didn't have wifi - and I was living with Engineering students! - and I remember having to walk to campus to use the internet on the university computers, which were only available until something like 7pm. It was difficult for me because by that time I was used to using the internet for everything, and in hindsight I think it contributed to my not even lasting one semester.

I went back to uni in Australia in 2010 (humanities/social sciences) and I'd say at least half the students in any given class were using laptops. This year, I'd say almost everybody is using some kind of electronic device, though I've noticed over the last couple of years a significant increase in people using iPads or other tablets. I'd say about 2/3 of people are using laptops, most of the rest are using tablets, and of course there's the odd holdout still using pen and paper.

I'm also intrigued by the extremely high proportion of Macbooks I see in my classes. I have a bit of a game going of 'spot the non-Apple notebook'.
posted by lwb at 9:26 AM on October 10, 2013

1995-1999 at an Ivy (so I assume this anecdata is skewed a bit in terms of family wealth). I would say a majority (and by 1999, nearly everyone) brought desktops. (Mine was an original Pentium, 100 Mhz, running Windows 95.) A lot of people used the computer labs, even people with computers in their dorm room (most labs' computers were being constantly upgraded pr replaced by new computers with faster processors and more memory, and usually had needed (expensive) software).

I don't remember seeing many laptops around, although I spent much of my summer job money in 1997 on a Dell laptop for no good reason.
posted by odin53 at 11:15 AM on October 10, 2013

I started college at a small, private liberal arts college in the fall of 1995. We had a desktop at home (that wasn't connected to the Internet) but we didn't have the money to buy me a computer for college. I was not alone in being computer-less -- I'd say only about half of my class bought or brought a computer, and I don't remember anyone having a laptop, they were all desktops.

I graduated in 1999, having never had a computer of my own. I would use my roommate's computer (when I had a roommate who had a computer) or, more frequently, I worked in the computer labs. A lot of people did that. Everyone carried around a floppy with their Eudora settings on it for accessing email and saving files. My senior year, when I had to write my comprehensive exam, I borrowed a laptop from the freshman I was dating (hee), and I recall it being a tiny, slow, annoying thing to use -- but I could use it in one of the library carrels and not have to write my comp in the computer lab, which was the most important factor for me.

I was also the computer help person for my dorm my senior year, so I got the joy of helping all of our freshmen residents set up their computers. There were a lot more freshmen with computers than when I was a freshman -- probably close to 75%. There were three or four laptops, but the rest had desktops, either the behemoth Mac G3 all-in-one or some flavor of early G3 desktop (and there was the one poor girl with a Windows machine (and I had to install a NIC for her)).

I purchased my own laptop about six months after I graduated from college, when I realized that I wanted a computer that wasn't the one in my office at work. Most people I knew at that time still had desktops, though; I was a bit advanced, having a laptop. But by the time I started law school (in 2005), laptops were absolutely required. So in 8 years, the landscape went from 50% having any computer at all, to everyone absolutely having to have a laptop computer. Big shift.

[I did have a law school classmate who did not have a computer and relied on the computer lab in the library. Everyone agreed he was insane.]
posted by devinemissk at 11:25 AM on October 10, 2013

When I started college in 1989 (that date is not a typo), I had a laptop computer. It was an NEC Multispeed, and looked like this one. In my dorm (which housed 38 people), there was one other person with a computer, and it was a desktop. My roommate had a typewriter.

From 1995 to 2001 I was an adjunct professor at two different universities, and also worked nights at a computer lab. I never saw a single student with a laptop in the classroom during that time, and the computer lab was jam-packed with people writing papers.

From 2005-2007 I was again an adjunct, at a third university, and by that time, I saw people with laptops everywhere on campus, including in classrooms. That university started closing its computer labs in 2007 because they were not being utilized, and although I'm no longer there, I know it doesn't have any computer labs now. I wish I knew when the last one closed, but I do not.
posted by OrangeDisk at 11:41 AM on October 10, 2013

I went to a state school for EE from 2000 to 2004. My first year laptops were pretty rare (I owned both a laptop and a desktop because I was a computer nerd), I don't remember anybody in the dorms who didn't have some sort of computer, though. I think by my senior year most new freshmen were bringing laptops, but in my classes there were still only a few people taking laptops to class. (At least for my purposes taking notes on a laptop wasn't as good as doing it by hand).

I remember a few years back I saw a chart of the relative sales of laptops vs. desktops, and the chart was slowly moving from desktop-dominated to laptop-dominated, but there was always a spike toward laptops near the end of summer for new students, and a spike toward desktops around the end of the year people upgrading family computers for the holidays. I think the crossover point for the end of summer sales was sometime around 2003-2005, but I don't remember for sure.
posted by ckape at 11:43 AM on October 10, 2013

I started college (women's New England liberal arts) in 2001. I brought a Sony Vaio (20GB, same as my current flash drive, ha!). Most of my friends and others on my dorm floor had laptops. No wireless, I don't think, but there were Ethernet jacks in dorm rooms and at study areas in the library. We still frequently used computer labs for productivity's sake--audiogalaxy, AIM/Trillian and dead/livejournal were very distracting.
posted by emkelley at 12:06 PM on October 10, 2013

I trotted off to a small liberal-arts undergrad college in Virginia in 1991 with a laptop, but this was unusual. In fact, only a minority of students brought a computer of any sort, but desktops were absolutely the norm (plus a few who had "word processors" instead.) The only reason I had a laptop is that my dad bought it for me off of a friend of his who wanted to upgrade. Worth noting that the portability factor of the laptop was not quite "there" yet -- you avoided the desk-hogging fuss of having a tower, keyboard, and monitor, but my Toshiba was too heavy and clunky to casually schelp around in your bag to use wherever and whenever. In 1992, I became one of a tiny minority of students who had a modem and knew about BBSs, thanks to a friend who showed me the way. My college did not have any sort of even rudimentary internet access while I was there.

It was commonplace in my personal experience for families to have a personal computer starting in the mid-late 80s, but I grew up in a middle-class suburb where a lot of people have military or engineering backgrounds and knew that this was not a universal norm. I remember 1997-98 as the time when things flipped and owning a computer became a more mainstream assumption among people not predisposed to an interest in the technology for its own sake.
posted by desuetude at 12:08 PM on October 10, 2013

I started at a large state school in 2002. I had a laptop, but it was provided by a scholarship. I honestly don't recall the laptop/desktop split at the time, except to say that most people had computers in their rooms, and it was common to see both. You hardly ever saw a laptop outside of someone's dorm room, though.

By the time I graduated, in 2006, laptops were the norm, and you would see people carrying them around campus. Those people were still clearly in the minority, however.

One small thing that, I think, would mark someone as a person who started college in the early 2000s: the cell phone as a late-teenage rite-of-passage. Most people I knew got their first cell phone a little before going away to college, and those that didn't usually got them when they started driving. This seems quite natural to me, but in retrospect it was mostly a reflection of where the technology was at the time. In 1998, 18-year-olds didn't have cell phones; by 2005, 14-year-olds did.
posted by breakin' the law at 12:18 PM on October 10, 2013

I entered college in the US in 2003. I remember being told by someone during a campus tour that laptops got stolen more often than desktops.

I got a desktop, but an iMac, so it was small. It really seemed like it was 50% laptops and 50% desktops, but every student had a computer.
posted by inertia at 12:55 PM on October 10, 2013

I graduated from an unremarkable state school in '04 and few had laptops. But my friends at the fancy pants expensive liberal arts school almost all had laptops. This bothered none of the comp-sci students at my school as we could crush them in Statcraft while their measly graphics processors couldn't keep up with our Zerg rushes
posted by munchingzombie at 2:36 PM on October 10, 2013

I am a professor at a public commuter college in the year 2013. I would say about half of my students have laptops. Of the remaining half, many have a desktop at home, frequently shared with family members. Many do not have internet access at home. Some of the laptop-less have tablets of varying usefulness. Overall, computer labs are still extremely popular on our campus and are used for everything from doing online homework to writing papers. The socioeconomic digital divide is a real thing.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:12 PM on October 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

I would peg the tipping point as the introduction of the "Dual USB" iBook in May 2001 (just in time for the school buying season). It included many features that had previously been restricted to desktops or expensive laptops, like CD-RW drives, more than one USB port. It passed the magical five pound threshold and was finally small enough to fit reasonably in a backpack instead of a laptop bag. It also retailed for $1299, which was cheaper than a desktop from even five years ago.
posted by wnissen at 5:29 PM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I started high school in 2003 and every freshman got an iBook (or powerbook... I can't remember). After using a laptop for 4 years of high school, I couldn't even fathom not having one in college.

My older brother started college the next year but took a desktop because he was a gamer. In fact, he still doesn't own a laptop - uses a desktop at home and got an iPad last year to carry around.

Hydropsyche makes a really great observation though... I would bet more than 50% of students at my local state commuter school don't have laptops. Or if they do, they have some crappy netbook that is so wonky that they just prefer to use the computer lab at school. I used to teach at a middle school that STILL doesn't even have a computer lab. Many of my students didn't know things like: where to type a web address, what the Microsoft Word icon looks like, or how to copy and paste text. Yet ten years ago I had my own laptop in high school. MASSIVE socioeconomic digital divide.
posted by raspberrE at 6:12 PM on October 10, 2013

I went to school with a desktop in 2002 and so did everyone else. By 2004 most of us had laptops.
posted by snarfles at 7:39 PM on October 10, 2013

It makes sense (duh!) that desktops were commonplace at one point, so I'm also curious when that became a thing? Sometime in the early-mid 1990s?

For me personally? 1994. I started college in 1992, used a combination of the campus computer lab in the basement and a stand-alone word processor in my dorm room for two years, and then in 94 got my first desktop. (For comparison's sake, my family had had a computer since 1986 or 87, but the idea of buying my own computer to take to school with me wasn't even on our radar in 1992.)

Also, when I started college (at Rice University) email addresses were only given to undergraduates if you filled out a form to request one, and you were supposed to have a legitimate research need for one. Friends at other colleges like Smith and Mt. Holyoke got them automatically, if I remember correctly, and by 1993 or 1994 so did students at Rice. By the time I graduated in 1996 almost everyone I knew had a desktop computer and it was common for students to play networked games like Civ between dorm rooms. The Internet was a thing (I coded my first web page in 1995), but I probably spent more time on Usenet.
posted by MsMolly at 8:42 PM on October 10, 2013

I started college in 2004 at a mid-sized private school, and most (but not all) of the freshmen had laptops. More of the upperclassmen had desktops, and there were a few people who just used the computer labs. You almost never would bring a laptop to class, and there were only a few places on campus that had Wi-Fi. My dorm was an older building, with DSL modems in every room. By the time I graduated in 2008, professors were starting to have laptop policies to prevent distractions, Wi-Fi was available everywhere but the dorms, and I only knew one or two people who didn't own a laptop. Just after I graduated, they added Wi-Fi and proper ethernet in all the dorms, too.
posted by yuwtze at 9:36 PM on October 10, 2013

I worked at Best Buy selling computers while I attended college in 2001-2004 in Minnesota.
2003 was the first time I saw more people buying laptops for college than buying a less-expensive desktop. That was right about when good laptops started selling for less than $1000.
My school didn't add WiFi until late 2004 - I remember it being really impressive to other students when I brought my laptop to class and could connect to the internet. There were always weirdos before then who would bring a laptop to type their notes, but it wasn't really a thing at my school until then.
Another limiting factor was the use of specialized software. The business school required people to use MS Project, which wasn't a part of the standard Office suite for students and teachers, so that work still had to be done in the labs.
posted by Coffeemate at 10:00 AM on October 11, 2013

Started university in Fall 2002, at that time I would estimate about 95% had some variety of computer, with slightly more laptops than desktops. The laptops generally did not go along to classes until Wi-Fi coverage became more universal on campus around 2003-2004. Then Apple started including a free iPod with purchase of a laptop in late 2004, and that plus wireless access resulted in ubiquitous laptops, with more than half being Apple.
posted by jraenar at 11:20 AM on October 11, 2013

At Sydney University Education faculty in 1991 I had a desktop. I was into IT stuff and got a laptop in 1994, near the end of my course, as did one or two other classmates. I remember a powerbook quacking when the button was clicked in a lecture. There were a couple of palmtop computers too. I had a 2nd hand Atari Portfolio. Others had HP100lx devices. These ran DOS and could run a spreadsheet. I used mine for chem lab calculations.
In 1995/96 my masters class had zero laptops in evidence, and I didn't bring mine (I was working full time, as were the other participants, and this was evening classes) but I majored in computers in education and the course was held in a computer lab. But really, we took notes on paper and typed up assignments, or wrote PASCAL programs at home. I did have a pocket of 1.44mb floppy disks to cart home source code.
And for a related contemporary data point, my wife got given an ipad as part of her enrollment at UWS this year, so very few of her classmates take a laptop, nor does she.
posted by bystander at 5:05 AM on October 12, 2013

hydropsyche makes an excellent point: at the community college where I'm an adjunct, maybe 70% of my students have a computer at home (often a desktop shared with a whole family). The others don't and don't have internet access at home.
posted by wintersweet at 9:16 PM on October 12, 2013

Uh, oops... I started university in 1999. Graduated in 2003.
posted by neushoorn at 10:47 AM on October 13, 2013

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