"Excellence," said John W. Gardner, "is doing ordinary things extraordinarily well." That's worth thinking about with back-to-school time right around the corner. Students these days take their computers everywhere and use them for everything, so with that in mind, here are some ideas for making the back-to-school computer experience an excellent one.
We've selected these devices not only for their quality, but for their small size and portability. And because the popularity of Macs continues to surge on campus, we've looked for products that work with both PCs and Macs. Where a device works only with the PC, we've found comparable Mac products.
So here are 15 devices and services for work and play that will surely help students do extraordinarily well.
On the Record
Samson Zoom H2 Handy Recorder
A cheap recorder may do for your day-to-day classes, but if you want to really catch that star lecturer or do some high-class blogging, this is where you start. The Samson Zoom H2 Handy Recorder is about the size of a thick smart phone and weighs just 4 oz., but this is serious audio equipment, make no mistake. Four directional microphones let you record in a variety of two- and four-channel configurations, with full control of gain and levels.
The H2 records in either WAV or MP3 format to SD cards, and is powered by two AA batteries for up to four hours of recording. Capacity is high bordering on the ridiculous: The H2 can accommodate up to a 16GB SDHC card, which at holds 280 hours of MP3 stereo recording.
You can upload files to a PC or Mac via a USB connection, or you can use the H2 as an audio interface to your computer: The H2 includes line and external mike inputs and outputs for USB and headphone/line outputs. The device lists for US$334.95, but it's currently available from online retailers in the $175 range.
YouGetItBack Ltd. is a security company with a difference: It assumes that if you give people a chance, they'll do the right thing. It sells brightly colored sticky tags that say "Reward for Return" and include an 800 number and a Web site address. Tags range from $9.99 to $24.99; different sizes and wording are available. You register your device online, and if it gets lost, all the finder has to do is go to the Web site or call the number, and arrangements will be made for pickup and return.
And what if the person who found it has no intention of giving it back? YouGetItBack offers two products: Mobile Superhero (currently free in beta, eventually about $20) lets you back up your contact data and remotely lock, unlock and wipe nearly 60 phone models, even if the SIM card is changed. A Global Positioning System feature lets you locate it on a map. Laptop Superhero (which, as of this writing, wasn't yet available) lets you display an "If found, click here to return" screen, trace the IP address of a stolen computer or remotely log it off.
Back It Up
Western Digital My Passport Elite
Western Digital My Passport Studio
It's one of life's great lessons, but one we so often don't learn until it's too late: If you don't want to lose it, back it up. Fortunately, there are many small, easy-to-use USB-powered external hard drives to choose from. The Western Digital My Passport drives have a great pedigree, good features and very affordable prices -- and best of all, there are drives for both PCs and Macs.
The My Passport Elite for PC comes in two capacities (320GB for $189.99, 240GB for $149.99) and four colors. It can automatically back up your data with on-disk encryption and is loaded with Western Digital Corp.'s MioNet Key remote-access software. The Mac-formatted My Passport Studio drives don't come with automatic backup software, but if you've upgraded to OS X Leopard, the drive is compatible with Apple Inc. 's Time Machine backup utility -- and if you haven't, there are several applications available that do incremental backup. The three models -- 320GB for $199.99, 240GB for $159.99 and 160GB for $129.99 -- all include FireWire ports as well as USB.
A Key Improvement
Matias USB 2.0 keyboard
If you're a fan of the new minilaptops such as the Asus Eee , you already know that while they are great for toting around, those little keyboards can be a pain to use. The Matias USB 2.0 ($34.95) is a full-size 104-key keyboard with three extra volume-control keys. Its intelligent layout even moves the Caps Lock key away from the left Shift key so you won't hit it by mistake.
Even better, the Matias Corp. keyboard includes two USB 1.1 ports and a USB 2.0 port right on top of the unit so you can conveniently plug in and charge your iPod , or quickly transfer photos from your camera. (There's no smoke and mirrors here: The keyboard connects to two USB ports on your computer.)
The Matias USB 2.0 keyboard is available in a black model, which is compatible with PCs and Macs, and a white Mac-only version.
Work the Angles
If you're going to use an add-on keyboard like the Matias USB 2.0 unit with your laptop, you might also want a desktop stand that helps elevate the laptop's screen to a more comfortable viewing angle. The LapWorks Futura does that and more: The slotted Futura opens into a flat lap desk, which helps cool your laptop (and your lap) and provides a larger, more secure surface for the computer. And you can add accessories like a clip-on mouse platform and a desktop turntable.
The Futura is $29.95 in black, but you may prefer the brightly colored versions (including camo and leopard) that go for $49.95. LapWorks Inc. has other models available for particularly large or small laptops as well.