10 Technology Must-Haves for College

With the holidays fast approaching, consider these gifts for your student.

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The holidays are a great time to load up on new technology. What college student wouldn’t love a special gift selected especially for him or her? Here’s what’s hot:

1. Netbook. Every college student ought to have a really good computer. The hottest and best choice is a netbook, a new kind of subcompact notebook that combines a relatively good processor with genuine portability and an attractive entry-level price. We especially like netbooks that weigh no more than 3 pounds, have a 10-inch screen and a battery life of six to 10 hours, and have a 160GB hard drive and a full-size (or at least 92 percent of full-size) keyboard. Top choices include the Toshiba NB205-N312 ($400 at Office Depot), the Samsung N120 ($329 at Amazon), the Asus Eee 1005HA ($359 at B&H), and the HP Mini 110-1030NR ($315 at Buy.com). Students on a tighter budget might consider the previous generation, smaller screen, and shorter battery life Asus Eee PC900 ($230 at Sears), which has a smaller screen and shorter battery life.

5-Star Tip. Consider upgrading your netbook memory to 2GB if it only comes with 1GB. You’ll notice a big difference in performance.

Extra Pointer. Some college students will prefer a Mac, especially if they’re going into such media-centric fields as graphic design, music, journalism, and, in some cases, even engineering, math, physics, and sociology. If you’re not sure what your prospective major department requires, check with an undergraduate adviser, upperclassperson, or professor before buying. We recommend the 13-inch Macbook Pro, which offers sleek aluminum design, seven-hour battery life, and the usual panoply of Apple software (plus the freedom from Windows-directed viruses). In addition to special deals that might be available at your campus bookstore, be sure to check out the Apple Store’s education page (which will include service for your computer at major cities’ Genius Bars) and MacMall, MacConnection, and Amazon.

2. Netbook peripherals. If you opt for a netbook, you’ll want to consider an external DVD drive for loading up software that still comes on discs; an external 19-inch monitor (good for the dim light of dorms and also if you’re nearsighted); and a wireless keyboard and mouse, great for work at home if you’re blessed with larger than life-size fingers. Be sure to try them out for look and feel before buying.

3. Thumb drive. Every college student, no matter what his or her choice of computer, ought to have a thumb drive—a USB plug-in suitable for carrying data from one computer to another. (Say, from your computer to your friend’s, or the library's computer to yours at home.) An especially good deal is the Toshiba or the HP 4GB Flash Drive (about $15 everywhere). But a broad variety of models are available, in different capacities, for under $20.

4. Backup system. You’ll never have to tell your professor that your paper is going to be late because your computer ate the data if you have backup scheme in place (and use it religiously). Most convenient is to backup to an external hard drive; get a traveler model that holds at least 250 GB. We liked Acronis Backup and Recovery 10 and Nova Backup 10. Another solution is to back up to an online source. Some examples: Mozy, MyOtherDrive, and Comodo. These typically cost about $5 a month, but deals are sometimes available.

5. Utilities. A virus-free, spyware-free, and crap-free computer is your best friend. We like comprehensive “suites” such as Norton Internet Security, Webroot Internet Security Essentials, and AVG Internet Security. Everyone should download the free CCleaner (originally called CrapCleaner) and, for new computers, the free Pcdecrapifier (yes, that's the actual name). A bloated computer is an unhappy computer, and with the smaller hard drives of netbooks, it pays to conserve space.

6. Word processing software. Every college student is going to write papers, which is where word processing software comes in. Some students swear by the free OpenOffice, which includes imitations of Microsoft Word, Excel spreadsheet, and PowerPoint presentation software. Not us. We spent more than an hour trying to convert .odt format to .doc (a similar problem exists for Microsoft Works’ .wps format). And as for WordPerfect, fuggetaboutit. Only obstinate professors—older than 50—even have it. Your best bet is finding a back-to-school deal on Microsoft Office Ultimate 2007 ($59.95 for a limited time at Microsoft). The software includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, and Publisher.

Extra Pointer. Writing research papers will be 100 percent easier (or at least 100 percent better organized) with reference management software. If your college library doesn’t provide it free, you’ll enjoy Endnote, Refworks, or Zotero.

7. Image-manipulation software. Your papers and presentations (not to mention your Facebook page) will be greatly enhanced by software that enables you to get your images into publishable shape. Free programs include GIMP and Picasa, but if you want to drop a little dough, Adobe Photoshop Elements is a good value ($70 after rebate for Mac, $65 for PC at Newegg.) Graphic design and art students will want to ask their professors about Adobe Creative Suite CS4.

8. Skype. A wonderful new addition to the college scene is Skype, a free program that allows you to video-conference with anyone, anywhere in the world, who has the service. We regularly talk with a colleague in Australia. Increasingly, professors are using Skype as an alternative to--or in addition to--office hours. And you’ll be able to cram the night before exams with your friends or a study group. Skype requires a webcam, which comes built into many netbooks; if yours doesn’t have one, they are readily available for about $25. Just be sure to turn off the camera when you’re finished so that your dorm world doesn’t turn into an episode on The Real World.

9. Digital video or "flip" camera. You’ll want to share videos of all your escapades with your friends. It used to cost $200 for a decent camera. No more. An excellent buy is the Coby CAM4000 SNAPP SD Digital Camcorder ($60 at J&R).

10. Compact printer. Though colleges tell you printers are plentiful at computer labs, in college dorms, and at the student union, they don’t tell you that there are usually 300 people lined up the night before the paper is due, that the printers are almost always jammed, and that the needed printer drivers have been corrupted on the attached computer. A better idea: Buy yourself an under-$50 small printer (available at all major retailers). While you’re at it, invest in an extra toner cartridge and a few reams of paper.

BONUS IDEA. No one can study 24-7. To get your mind off your work, why not treat yourself to an MP3 player or a smart phone? A huge selection of models, at every conceivable price, is available at BestBuy (see MP3 players here and phones here). Or check out Amazon.com's offerings of MP3 players and phones. Once you’re finished downloading music and yapping to your friends, you’ll discover that many college courses can be downloaded to your MP3 Player and many textbooks can be read on your phone.

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