Back-to-College Essentials

How can a college student with a tight budget find the right tech gear for the classroom and the dorm? Consider these picks.

Going Back to Campus? Here's the Tech Gear You Need

It's back-to-school time again. Given the sheer multitude of PCs and accessories out there, picking the right gear for college can be a daunting task. How do you get everything needed for school without breaking the bank? Consider the following selections of the best products for the dorm-bound set.

Tip: Look for academic discounts. Many college campuses have computer stores on campus that cater to students, faculty, and staff. Having worked at one for two years, I can tell you that these on-campus stores offer some terrific discounts on computers, software, and other accessories, and are definitely worth a visit.

Mac Notebook: Apple MacBook

Yes, there will always be rumors of something new from Apple. But you need a notebook--an Apple notebook--now? Then the $1299 Apple MacBook is for you: It couples Apple-chic appeal with a reasonable price. The MacBook has everything a college student would need to complete everyday tasks. The built-in iSight Webcam and iChat instant messaging and videoconferencing software makes it easy to stay in touch with home, too. Weighing in at 5 pounds, the MacBook is not the lightest 13-inch notebook around, but it is light enough and small enough to tote across campus.

Tip: Every Mac includes a one-year hardware warranty, but just 90 days of telephone support. Apple offers an extended service and support package called AppleCare, which extends warranty coverage and telephone support to three years from the date of purchase. Apple does not offer accidental damage coverage, however.

Windows Notebook: Lenovo ThinkPad X200

When it comes to compact, lightweight notebooks with strong performance, the ThinkPad X200 ($1947) is the first model that springs to mind. The X200 packs a punch with its 2.4-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and up to 4GB of memory. Despite its power, the X200 weighs a mere 3.7 pounds. In the PC World Test Center's evaluation, the X200 lasted 8 hours, 54 minutes on our battery life tests. Combine the X200's compact size and long battery life with its durable construction, and you have an excellent notebook for taking to class or the library.

Tip: If you already have a computer and all you need is something small to take to class for note-taking, you may want to consider a mininotebook, an emerging subclass of ultraportable notebooks that provide basic computing in a small, affordable package. One to look at is the $400 Acer Aspire One, a 2-pound Linux-based notebook.

Bag: Targus Groove Convertible Messenger/Backpack

The Targus Groove is the best of both worlds: a backpack that can also be used as a messenger bag. At $80, it isn't the least expensive laptop bag out there, but it is attractive, with a notebook compartment big enough to fit a 15.4-inch notebook, and pockets for numerous other gadgets. Also, Targus markets the Groove as an "EcoSmart" product made with more environmentally friendly materials such as recycled plastic and nickel-free metals.

MP3 Player: iPod Touch

We know that seemingly everyone wants an iPhone 3G--but the monthly service fees may be prohibitive for the college-bound. Get most of the iPhone's cool features without the wireless service by buying an Apple iPod Touch, starting at $299. Not only does it serve as an excellent music player with storage capacities of 8GB, 16GB, and 32GB, but the Touch can work as a great digital organizer as well. The iPod Touch comes equipped with Wi-Fi, the Safari Web browser, an e-mail client, calculator, notepad, and Google Maps; plus, the calendar and contacts applications will keep you organized. The best part about the iPod Touch? You get access to Apple's growing repository of iPhone and iPod Touch applications--which means that this is one digital music player that can grow with you.

Tip: If you buy a qualifying Mac (such as the MacBook), you can receive an 8GB iPod Touch for free after mail-in rebate. This offer is good through September 15, 2008.

Smart Phone: BlackBerry Curve 8320

Believe it or not, other smart-phone manufacturers exist beyond Apple. The RIM BlackBerry Curve ($250 with 2-year contract on T-Mobile) is worthy of consideration for any college-bound student. While not as sexy and hyped-up as the multimedia-centric iPhone, the Curve holds its own quite well. The Curve features a full QWERTY keyboard, which is generally easier to use for texting than a touch screen, and it has a 2-megapixel camera with a 3X digital zoom and a flash; it can play audio and video files, too. Best of all, the Curve handles e-mail very well--it is a BlackBerry, after all. So while the iPhone gets the buzz, remember: RIM's offerings are called Crackberries for a reason.

External Storage: SimpleTech Signature Mini and Western Digital My Passport Essential

Thinking about backups? Good: The last thing you need is to feel the panic and dread of losing your term paper to a PC meltdown. The easiest way to perform data backups is to use an external hard drive. And given that the capacity of portable drives has soared to 500GB, you no longer need to clutter your desk with a big, honking drive. Pick a petite portable hard drive instead, such as SimpleTech's Signature Mini or Western Digital's My Passport Essential drive. These compact units aren't much bigger than a package of index cards, and they're powered by USB, which means you don't need a separate adapter. Both drives come in a variety of colors--so one should add the right accent to a dorm room.

Tip: Many external hard drives--such as the Signature Mini--come with backup software. Others don't. If you get one that doesn't have any software, consider one of the packages in our roundup of the best backup apps.

Display: HP w2207h

Notebooks are great for taking to class, but sometimes more screen space can come in handy. That's when an external monitor such as the $349 HP w2207h comes into play. At 22 inches and with 1680-by-1050-pixel resolution, this screen gives you plenty of room for Web browsing, homework, and so forth at a reasonable price. Not only does the w2207h offer impressive image quality, it looks great on a desk to boot.

Tip: The MacBook uses a mini-DVI display connector instead of a standard DVI or VGA port. Apple's mini-DVI-to-VGA adapter costs $19.

Point-and-Shoot Camera: Canon PowerShot SD1100 IS

They say that college is the best four years (or five…or six…) of your life. Whether that is true or not, you'll want to capture it somehow to post those embarrassing (er, memorable) moments on Facebook. Sleek, slim design and high image quality make the Canon PowerShot SD 1100 IS an ideal point-and-shoot camera to document your days and nights. Eminently pocketable, the PowerShot SD 1100 IS measures a mere 0.9 inches thick. Less expensive cameras can be had--the 1100 IS averages around $250--but the PowerShot's overall photo quality and design make it one of our top picks.

Mouse: Targus Laptop Wireless Rechargeable Optical Mouse

The Targus Laptop Wireless Rechargeable Mouse (about $30) has a solid feature set; it also strikes a balance between size and portability. While it's not as small as some notebook mice, I've found this Targus unit to be one of the more comfortable portable mice I've used. It runs on rechargeable AAA batteries instead of the standard alkaline batteries many wireless mice employ. And instead of using a cradle, this mouse charges via a USB cable, which lets you continue using it in the meantime; the mouse can be wired at the dorm, and wireless when you're out and about.

Lock It Down: Kensington MicroSaver Retractable Notebook Lock

A notebook lock is the single easiest, most cost-effective item you can purchase to avoid becoming a laptop theft victim. Kensington makes a wide array of notebook security devices, but for a college student going from dorm room to classroom to library, the best bet is the Kensington MicroSaver Retractable Notebook Lock. The lock utilizes the security port included on almost all notebooks (the MacBook Air being a notable exception), and at $45, this product is an affordable way to prevent crimes of opportunity. Simply wrap the cable around a table leg or other piece of heavy furniture, attach the lock to the notebook, and you're set. Because the cable is retractable, the device is easy to toss in your bag and take along to the library or elsewhere.

Tip: Also consider services like LoJack for Laptops or StuffBak. StuffBak makes it easier to recover lost devices, while LoJack helps police and law enforcement track down lost or stolen laptops.

Multifunction Printer: HP Photosmart C4480

Even though most colleges have computer labs where students can print papers, having a printer in the dorm is always more convenient. And with copy and scan capabilities, a multifunction printer is infinitely useful, and not just for homework. At around $100, the HP Photosmart C4480 is an inexpensive, yet very good, multifunction printer. The C4480 offers a good balance of print quality and speed, at a great price. And thanks to its built-in media card reader, the C4480 can print photos without being hooked up to a PC. Look for our full review of the C4480 and our updated multifunction printer rankings soon.

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