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Back to School Software

Last week, I imagined myself in a college student's shoes and offered several recommendations for Mac-related gear to take back to school (see "Mac to School 2005" in TidBITS-793). Perhaps because I'm drawn to shiny electronic toys, I focused on hardware from the iBook G4 to cellular phones and handheld organizers. This week, prompted by a few email messages, I want to cover some of the software that should run on all that cool hardware.


Before I jump into specific titles, though, I need to follow up on a few points from the last article based on feedback from readers.

I mentioned that getting an inexpensive inkjet printer was a necessity, because you don't want to be waiting in line for a shared printer when a paper is due. But Ted Lomatski pointed out that "inkjets are not the way to go, especially for students who print out a high volume of papers (unless things have changed from my day!). The high cost of ink cartridges does not make sense. I have found that you can buy a new HP LaserJet, and the cartridge will last the year, most probably, and you will save money in the long run. I have also found that HP cartridges do not go up in price as do those of other manufacturers."

David Nicholson noted an essential device that completely slipped my mind: a USB flash drive (also known as a pen drive or keychain drive) "for those times when only sneakernet will do." Flash drives, which have replaced floppy disks as the best form of easy, portable storage, now come in higher capacities for less cost than when they were introduced: for example, a quick check at dealram.com today finds a 1 GB USB 2.0 flash drive for about $55. TidBITS sponsor Small Dog Electronics also offers USB flash drives that are better designed than the norm, and of course, an iPod shuffle does double-duty as a flash drive, and the hard drive-based iPods can also be used as external storage devices.


I finally bought a flash drive for myself last year after I had to turn in a Macworld article while on a camping trip (I was writing about laptop batteries, and testing them away from power sources). There was no phone or Internet access at the campsite, of course, but the local ranger station surprisingly had two PCs - connected via a T1 line! If I had owned the flash drive at the time, I could have copied the Word file to it, then inserted it into a PC's USB port. Instead, I ended up disconnecting one PC from the network, copying the Internet settings to my PowerBook, and connecting my machine to their connection via Ethernet. It wasn't quite the great outdoors experience I was hoping for.

<http://www.macworld.com/2004/10/secrets/ novmobilemac/>
<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/ B0001FV3AK/tidbitselectro00/ref=nosim>

Finally, Forrest Snyder mentioned that as an alternative (or supplement) to buying AppleCare for a computer, some credit card companies include extended warranties on purchases you make with their cards. Check the fine print on your card's terms of service to see if you can take advantage of this type of deal.

Now, on to the software!

Word Processing -- There's no getting around it: students write papers, lots of them. Although it's often overkill for simple papers, the king of this particular category remains Microsoft Word. Microsoft sells a $150 Student and Teacher edition of Microsoft Office 2004, which also includes Excel, PowerPoint, and Entourage and is cheaper than buying Word on its own at the normal retail price of $240 (unless you're upgrading a previous version of Word, which costs $110). (See "Word Up! Word 2004, That Is" in TidBITS-734.)

<http://www.microsoft.com/mac/products/ office2004/office2004.aspx? pid=office2004>

If you've recently bought a new consumer-level Mac (iMac, iBook, or eMac), you can use the included AppleWorks 6 software, the suite that includes a page layout, graphics, database, and presentation capabilities, as well as compatibility with Microsoft Office file formats. To be honest, I haven't used AppleWorks in years, so I can't comment on how well it functions, but the basic tools are there for students.


Apple's more modern offering, iWork '05, includes the visually friendly Pages, a combination word processor and page-layout application (see "iWork and iLife Together at Last" in TidBITS-762). I've not had an opportunity to use Pages much, certainly not for long documents such as term papers, but it does seem capable and it interfaces nicely with the iLife '05 suite, which can be advantageous when you need to add visual supporting information such as photos and illustrations. You can also export documents to Microsoft Word format, which is important since I imagine most professors use Word, and with Internet access prevalent on most campuses, papers can be submitted electronically.


iWork '05 also includes Keynote 2.0 for creating presentations, which I find more enjoyable and less frustrating to use than PowerPoint. iWork '05 costs $80 retail, or $50 for Apple's academic discount price.


Not everyone needs the bells and whistles of Word or Pages, however. If you're looking for a simple text editor, you can't go wrong with Bare Bones Software's free TextWrangler. If you need more text-munging power (if you're learning Web design or programming, for example), you can move up to BBEdit, which Bare Bones offers at a student discount of $50.


Lastly, I should point out OpenOffice.org, a free suite of Office-type applications that run in the X11 windowing system under Mac OS X. I've not used them, so I can't judge how well they work.


Research and Organization -- Most typical schoolwork involves accumulating lots of information, and more importantly, being able to pull it all together when you need to. Several programs for the Mac attempt to do this, with varying degrees of success. Fortunately, Matt Neuburg's vigilant quest for the ultimate snippet-keeper has resulted in TidBITS having perhaps the best collection of reviews in this field. See the series "Conquer Your Text" as a starter, which includes such worthy programs such as Tinderbox, DEVONthink, and NoteTaker. Also make a point of checking out "Best Footnote Forward: Papyrus 8.0.7" in TidBITS-514 for a look at the bibliographic program.


For my own work, I started using Circus Ponies NoteBook after reading Adam's review "The Well-Worn NoteBook" in TidBITS-745. I use it as a good central repository for notes and deadlines related to my ongoing projects.


Of course, a Web browser is likely to be the most-used tool in your collection, whether it's accessing Wikipedia or current events. Adam is partial to OmniWeb (see "OmniWeb: The Powerful Web Browser" in TidBITS-742), while I still prefer the simplicity of Safari. To store Web page information for later, consider the page-downloading utility Webstractor (see "The Simple Brilliance of Webstractor" in TidBITS-737).


Financial Software -- Although college students often subsist on minimal incomes, having a program such as Quicken or Moneydance will help keep track of where the money is going (see "Moneydance Eases a Tax Burden" in TidBITS-775). For many students, college marks the beginning of their financial independence, especially now that so many arrive at school with credit cards - trust me, you do not want to miss a few credit card payments accidentally.


Once you start earning money as a student, the tax man will be wanting his cut as well. In the U.S., at least, Intuit's TurboTax is the main option for the Mac, though Intuit also offers an online version of TurboTax that you can use through a Web browser.


The Virtual Halls of Academia -- I realize that my list above just scratches the general-purpose surface, but it hopefully provides a good jumping-off point. I'm deliberately not getting into specific disciplines such as the sciences, broadcast video, and others, since they probably have specific software needs that are assigned by the professors. Apple's higher-education Web pages include many programs (including third-party software) broken down into general categories.


You can also use the TidBITS archives to discover other utilities, big and small, that we've found useful over the years.



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