The sticky days of August signal that summer is having its last hurrah. The new college year is just around the corner, and students begin to turn their minds to classes, dorms—and what to pack. At the top of everyone's list are the modern tools of campus life, the tech that gets students through their academics and socializing. Even upperclassmen find the start of a new school year is a good time to ask for upgrades.
The good news is that prices that have fallen through the years have taken an added dive during the recession. The bad news is that the choices multiply. New tech always emerges to make the decisions tough. Netbook or notebook? Simple cell or smartphone?
We've scanned five key categories of tech for collegiates. While these can be used for entertainment, the emphasis is on work and communications.
Portable PC. For Windows PCs, the choice used to be between a desktop and a laptop. Laptops won the battle as their prices dropped. Now an added option is a netbook, a superlight and inexpensive portable with prices starting around $300.
But suddenly, it isn't so hard to find a full-powered notebook for around $300. Best Buy this week (as of August 17) has several models listed for $330 or less, including an Acer notebook for $280. And most students would want the notebook with its built-in DVD player, 15-inch screen, and the power of a real PC. Less capable netbooks might still appeal to students who want the PC with them all the time as they flit between classes. The vast majority need only to occasionally lug the computer to the library, and that's doable with a 7-pound notebook.
Those with more money to spend should consider an Apple Mac notebook. They start at a steep $1,000 for models with a 13-inch screen but offer easier-to-use software and better support than Windows counterparts.
[Learn more about choosing a netbook for traveling light.]
Safety first. Their mobility makes those notebooks more vulnerable. Take three simple steps to ensure that precious papers, research and notes don't get lost. Most important is an external backup drive, such as a Seagate FreeAgent. A version that holds 500 gigabytes of data can be had online for $70 or less and includes fairly simple software for making backups. To further simplify the process, add about $50 for a Clickfree Transformer cable that makes it super easy to copy data to any external drive.
Second, get an online backup account, such as a $5-a-month account from Mozy.com. The service protects against somebody stealing the laptop and external drive. Finally, buy LoJack for Laptops. The service currently runs about $30 a year and can help recover a lost or stolen notebook.
[Read more tips for saving your laptop and its data.]
Print it. Colleges haven't abandoned good ol' paper yet. So the dorm room also needs a printer. With the focus on producing lots of paper cheaply, choose a laser model such as the Brother HL-2140, which can be found online for less than $100. Sometimes the multifunction Brother MFC-7340 can also be found for $100 or less and adds a scanner and fax. If the student is into photography or other imaging and will want color prints, buy the Kodak ESP 5. At about $130 online, it costs more up front than competing inkjets. But it will save money on ink. Prints from other inkjets cost two, sometimes three, times as much to produce. The Kodak printer also comes with a built-in scanner.
Wireless wonders. Choosing a cellphone depends on the need for a smartphone's Web access and software, such as games and applications that can identify a song that's playing. In other words, most college students do just fine without a smartphone and its expensive monthly data bills.
But a simple cellphone doesn't mean a crippled communicator. Collegiates will love the full qwerty keyboard for messaging with the Sanyo SCP-2700. The phone also includes a 1.3-megapixel camera, Bluetooth, and GPS for navigation. All of these features are in a phone that can be had for $0 with a two-year contract from Sprint that starts at $50 a month with unlimited messaging.
Those able to afford the brains of a smartphone should buy the iPhone 3G. The iPhone has an impressive lead over competitors with all those serious and silly applications in Apple's App Store. The iPhone 3G now costs only $100 with a two-year contract. But that contract will run $90 a month with unlimited messaging.
Family touch. Less about getting things done and more about staying in touch is a digital photo frame. It's a good touch for a homesick freshman or even a jaded upperclassmen who's bad about calling parents except for money. At least a frame can serve as a reminder of good times with the family. A great balance of features and price is in the Pandigital 8-inch frame with Pantouch Clear. It's a stylish frame with a sharp screen that appears to float in a frame of glass, and it's reasonably priced at less than $100 online. Add an optional USB key ($25) to turn it into a wireless receiver, making it easy to send the latest photos of the kid brother at home.
[Read about Web sites for sharing photos and videos.]