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A computer lab is a space which provides computer services to a defined community. Computer labs are typically provided by libraries to the public, by academic institutions to students who attend the institution, or by other institutions to the public or to people affiliated with that institution. Users typically must follow a certain user policy to retain access to the computers. This generally consists of the user not engaging in illegal activities or attempting to circumvent any security or content-control software while using the computers. In public settings, computer lab users are often subject to time limits, in order to allow more people a chance to use the lab, whereas in other institutions, computer access typically requires valid personal login credentials, which may also allow the institution to track the user's activities. Computers in computer labs are typically equipped with internet access, while scanners and printers may augment the lab setup. Computers in computer labs are typically arranged either in rows, so that every workstation has a similar view of one end of the room to facilitate lecturing or presentations, or in clusters, to facilitate small group work. In some cases, generally in academic institutions, student laptops or laptop carts take the place of dedicated computer labs, although computer labs still have a place in applications requiring special software or hardware not practically implementable in personal computers.
While computer labs are generally multipurpose, some labs may contain computers with hardware or software optimized for certain tasks or processes, depending on the needs of the institution operating the lab. These specialized purposes may include video editing, stock trading, 3-D computer-aided design, programming, and GIS. Increasingly, these have become the main purposes for the existence of traditional desktop-style computer labs, due to rising ownership of inexpensive personal computers making use of the lab only necessary when the expensive, specialized software and more powerful computers needed to run it are required.
In some settings, traditional desktop computer labs are impractical due to the requirement of a dedicated space. Because of this, some labs use laptop carts instead of desktop setups, in order to both save space and give the lab some degree of mobility. In the context of academic institutions, some traditional desktop computer labs are being phased out in favor of other solutions judged to be more efficient given that most students own personal laptops. One of these solutions is a virtual lab, which can allow users to install software from the lab server onto their own laptops or log into virtual machines remotely, essentially turning their own laptops into lab machines.
A media lab (often referred to as "new media lab" or "media research lab") is a term used for interdisciplinary organizations, collectives or spaces with the main focus on new media, digital culture and technology. The MIT Media Lab is a well-known example of a media lab.
An Internet café differs from a computer lab in that usage of a computer lab is generally free for those with access, while Internet cafés charge for computer use. The term 'Internet café' is often used interchangeably with 'computer lab' but may differ from a computer lab in that users can also connect to the Internet using their own computer or device, and users of a computer lab generally do not need any equipment of their own.
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- Dennis Keohane for Beta Boston. Sept. 24, 2014 A look inside the MIT Media Lab
- John Markoff for the New York Times. April 25, 2011 M.I.T. Media Lab Names a New Director