As August winds down here in the United States, students and parents are looking ahead to the start of the school year in a few weeks. Although I’m not currently in school, this time of year always tingles my memories of new textbooks, the transition to autumn, and strolling a college campus.
I’m also deeply envious of today’s students and the technology options that are available. I arrived at school with a Commodore 64 system in four bulky boxes, and the newest advance on campus at the time was having telephones in every room, versus shared phone booths in each hall.
If I were headed to college in September, these are the things I’d want to bring with me. I realize many TidBITS readers are already familiar with what I’m going to talk about here, but you probably know someone who’s gearing up for school. If you’re reading this article on the TidBITS Web site, you might want to click the Send via Email link to share the information with a student you know; if you’re reading in email, click the link below to send just this article.
Laptop versus Desktop — A student’s academic life tends to be limited to small spaces when it comes to computing. The Mac mini is appealing for this reason, particularly if you’re budget conscious, but it still requires an external keyboard, mouse, and monitor (which you may already own), all of which take up valuable room and are a pain to schlep back and forth on school breaks. I’d much rather use a laptop that incorporates all of those elements in one package. Better yet, a laptop is portable, so you can work on research papers in a dorm room, library, or coffeehouse. During my senior year of college, I packed a Classic II into a bulky case, slung it over my shoulder, and biked to the campus newspaper office or a study room in the English department when I felt like getting out of my dorm room; a laptop would have been so much easier. To this day, I use a laptop as my main machine because I work in several different locations (in fact, some people would say that my freelance life is just an extension of my college days, complete with the occasional all-nighter to finish up projects).
I currently use a 15-inch PowerBook G4, but I’d probably be more inclined to go with an iBook G4 for school. It’s more durable, costs less (especially given a typical college student’s budget), and offers enough processing and graphics power for most general schoolwork. Since it’s something I’d be carrying most of the day, the smaller and less-expensive 12-inch model ($950) is more appealing to me. However, the 14-inch model ($1,200) offers a DVD-burning SuperDrive instead of a Combo Drive (both can be configured with more RAM – up to 1.5 GB – and a larger hard drive – up to 100 GB). If you’re enamored of the 12-inch size but want a SuperDrive and an overall faster machine, the 12-inch PowerBook G4 costs $450 more. (All prices are from Apple’s online Store for Education; individual colleges and universities may offer slightly different deals or special bundles.) For more specific Mac buying advice, don’t forget to check out Adam’s "Take Control of Buying a Mac" ebook.
Happily, all of Apple’s laptops now include AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth 2.0 wireless capabilities for connecting to Wi-Fi networks on campus and coffee shops (wireless Internet and caffeine… is there a better college combination?).
I’d forgo buying an extra battery, since power outlets seem to be in abundant supply in the usual college haunts, but it’s not a bad idea to carry a small power strip on occasion to share the outlets with fellow students. And definitely buy a Kensington security cable ($45) to anchor the laptop to a desk when you’re not using it; theft insurance is worth looking into as well.
To carry the laptop, you’ll need a good bag, a topic I’ve covered in TidBITS before (see "Buying a Laptop Bag" in TidBITS-725). Although I’m partial to messenger-style bags, a sturdy backpack might be better for carrying books, too. No matter what you choose, I recommend getting some sort of laptop sleeve to help protect your laptop (some bags include a padded laptop pocket).
In either case, I (and most IT support staff) highly suggest paying the extra money for AppleCare ($185 for iBooks, $240 for PowerBooks). Although it doesn’t cover problems that arise due to neglect or accident, components that fail after the initial warranty period are covered.
And speaking of problems, don’t go to school without an external hard drive for making backups, or at the least a large spindle of blank CDs and DVDs. Your data is just too important to work without backups, as I’ve learned first hand and from numerous horror stories about students losing important papers (even dissertations!). For more advice on backups, see Joe Kissell’s "Take Control of Mac OS X Backups."
iPod — I suspect that most students will want an iPod (if they don’t already own one) for their music. I listened to tunes constantly while working on homework, and the portability of the iPod can’t be beat. It also means that you won’t have to pack boxes of heavy music CDs to cart home when next summer rolls around.
But if I were headed to school again now, I’d also buy a microphone for the iPod, such as Griffin Technology’s iTalk ($40). I’m not a good paper-based note-taker, so an iPod recording device would be great for capturing lectures for review later.
Of course, the basic combination of iTunes and headphones is another good option for the budget-conscious or students who always have their Macs at the ready. The iTunes music sharing feature, which allows other students to play (but not copy) your music sees heavy use on some campuses.
Speakers — Another change from the days I was in school is amplification. I owned a bulky shelf-sized stereo system for playing music, but these days all you really need are decent speakers. I use a set of $170 Harman/Kardon Soundsticks II at the office, but the company’s Creature II speakers, at $100, would work just as well in a dorm room. Either set plugs into a Mac’s audio out port, or an iPod’s headphone jack. In addition to playing music from either device, you can host movie nights by playing DVDs on the Mac.
If an iPod is the center of your music universe, dock speakers such as the Bose SoundDock ($300) or Altec Lansing’s InMotion3 ($180) are pricier but more portable options. I haven’t used either, so I don’t know what type of sound quality they offer, but it could be enough for a small space such as a dorm room. (Playlist Magazine has a good collection of reviews of this type of speaker.) Remember too that an iPod connected to speakers makes a fine alarm clock, and believe me, you’ll be needing one of those.
iSight — They try to put on a brave face and stiff upper lip, but parents miss their kids when the brood are away at college. To stay in touch without paying long-distance phone charges, equip both sides with iSight cameras and use iChat to engage in audio or video chats. An iSight also enables freshmen to keep tabs on the high school friends you vowed you’d always write and stay in contact with, but who, over time, normally drift away. The fat bandwidth pipes at most colleges and universities make videoconferencing a pleasure, as long as the folks have a decent broadband connection at home.
Remember, too, that you don’t need an iSight to do audio and video – I just like it because of its design, small size, and ease of use. An iBook or PowerBook includes an internal microphone that you can use for voice chats, and a FireWire-equipped camcorder (if you have one) will also work. I’m hoping the day will come when digital still cameras, which mostly seem to be equipped with a video feature, can be plugged in and used as a video chatting source.
If you’re not interested in video or audio, plain text is a great way to communicate; it’s how I now spend most of my time touching base with my mother who lives in California. Where before you’d have to set aside a block of time to talk on the phone, now you can pop into iChat (or Microsoft Messenger for communicating with Windows-using parents on the MSN instant messaging network), check in with the folks, and then head off to class.
Printer — I’ve heard that some professors accept assignments via email, but most seem to want cold, hard paper to mark up with their vicious red pens. There are, no doubt, plenty of places to get something printed (campus computing center, library, local Kinko’s, etc.), but you’ll find yourself at the mercy of building schedules or per-page printing charges. Instead, buy the least expensive inkjet printer you can find. When a project is due and you don’t have much time, it’s much better to print out your own copies than to rely on someone else to do it for you. Check Dealmac for specials; you can easily find a decent printer for under $100.
Make sure to keep extra paper and a spare cartridge around too – it’s painful to run out when you’re under a deadline, and believe me, that is exactly when it will happen.
Phone and/or Handheld Organizer — Finding a college student without a cell phone these days is almost impossible. I couldn’t begin to go into the various models and options, since the phones change often and are offered by different carriers. (Check with the college to see which cell phone providers have the best on-campus reception.) But I can suggest a few guidelines.
I still couldn’t care less about having a digital camera in my phone (though the image quality continues to improve over time), but I’ve reached the point where Bluetooth is essential. I hope to never again manually enter a name and phone number using a phone’s keypad. With a Bluetooth-enabled iBook or PowerBook, use iSync to synchronize your contacts from Address Book. (If you have too many phone numbers to fit into your phone’s memory, create a new group in Address Book called "Cell phone" and then, in iSync, specify that only that group be synchronized.)
Many of the recent crop of phones include rudimentary calendar features, but if you’re schedule-challenged, consider a Palm Treo 650, which incorporates a Palm OS handheld with a cellular phone. Palm lists the Treo 650 as "starting at $300," which means the price depends on the phone carrier you choose; a phone and a calling plan deal can offer it for as low as $250, but if you already have a plan and just want the phone, the price can head north of $600 just for the Treo. You can find better deals on the older Treo 600 model, but it doesn’t include Bluetooth.
If you prefer to keep your calendar separate from your phone, you might want a separate Palm handheld. Although I’m hearing from more people who don’t use their Palm handhelds anymore, I think college is an ideal environment for electronic organization. With so many class schedules, study sessions, and things to do, having all of that information manageable in one handheld device makes sense.
Of the current lineup of Palm OS handhelds, I like the $250 Tungsten E2: it’s thin and light, has a bright color screen, and includes Bluetooth for easy syncing. The included Documents to Go software is a nice addition for being able to store Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents, but not essential. For those on a tighter budget, the $100 Zire 21 is a bare-bones organizer that does the basics and not much else.
What about handhelds that run the Pocket PC/Windows Mobile operating system? Honestly, I don’t have much experience with the current crop, and have never liked the cumbersome Windows-Light interface. They also don’t communicate with the Mac out of the box, though you can get around that by purchasing Mark/Space’s Missing Sync for Windows Mobile ($40) or PocketMac Pro from PocketMac ($42, but educational pricing is also available).
Mac to Class — Looking back over this list, I realize that the costs can rise pretty quickly, especially considering that tuition isn’t cheap, either. Fortunately, as noted earlier, students can take advantage of education pricing from Apple and other companies, which helps cut the costs. But I also think college is a special environment these days, where a computer is much more than a glorified typewriter. Perhaps more so than in the business world, a Mac and its orbiting accessories are as much a part of the student life as coffee and ramen noodles. They’re used at all points of the day: studying, completing assignments, communicating with friends and family via email and instant messages, watching DVDs, listening to music, organizing schedules, and even playing games.
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