It’s that time again. Time to head back to school. There will be many articles, online and in print, that will provide suggestions on what a parent needs to provide their little darlings before dropping them off on campus. The only problem is that many of those articles focus on specific products. Nothing really to explain why you need that particular piece of technology. As an IT professional in higher education and after years of providing support for students, here are a few things that I think students really need to have when they arrive on campus.
This is a given, but before you go out and buy the first, shiny new laptop that you see on display, check with the school to see if there are any specific requirements that are recommended. I’m not just referring to hardware specs. Is the campus environment primarily Windows or OS X? Does the campus provide computer support for students? If so, what models do they have most experience providing support? Depending on your academic major, are there certain software applications that are required for your courses/major? Addressing those questions initially allows you to make a better decision in what type of laptop to purchase and can save you a lot of stress later.
When purchasing a laptop, take the time to inquiry about an extended warranty. Some people scoff at the idea of purchasing extended warranties but when you are sending a kid off to college with a laptop, you might want to strongly consider purchasing one. Depending on where you buy the laptop, ask the salesperson to explain, in clear language that you can understand, what the warranty covers. If it is dropped and the screen cracks, what can be done? If the student spills soda, water or some other type of liquid beverage on it, can it be fixed or replaced? Remember, these are college students we’re talking about so anything can happen to their laptop. Also, just as important, get a lock/security cable for your laptop so that no one can steal it.
In choosing the right laptop, find one that meets YOUR needs. My recommendation is that whatever computer you get, it should be lightweight and portable. It shouldn’t matter if it’s Intel or AMD, Dell or Apple, Windows or OS X, or whether you purchased it online or from a brick & mortar retailer such as Walmart or Best Buy. It’s all about you and what you are comfortable using. Whatever you choose is what you will have to live with for the next four years or so.
External USB hard drive
You want to get an external USB hard drive to use for backing up your computer (make sure that you get an external drive that supports USB 3.0). Both Windows (Backup and Restore) and Apple (Time Machine) provide excellent, built-in applications for backing up the data on your computer. Take the time to learn how to configure a backup process for your laptop. Taking a few minutes to setup the backup program on your computer will save you a lot of pain and hair-pulling if something happens to your laptop that results in losing your files.
There are going to be times when you want to zone out to your favorite music, watch a movie online or drown out whatever noises your roommate is making. Typical earbuds just won’t cut it. Choose a pair of headphones that feel comfortable to you and provide the sound quality you are looking expecting.
Why would you want cloud-based storage? Because USB flash drives are easy to lose. At one time, we had a small box full of USB flash drives that students have either dropped or left plugged into lab computers during two semesters. The advantage of cloud-based storage services are that they can be accessed from any computer or device. Best of all, many are FREE and we like stuff that is free. SkyDrive, Google Drive, Dropbox, SugarSync, Box are just a few of the many online cloud storage options that are available. Take a look at the different services and decide which one best meets your needs.
Tablet or eReader
Ok, this is not really a necessity but there are advantages to having some type of eReader (e.g. Kindle or Nook) or tablet (e.g. iPad, Kindle Fire or Google Nexus 7) handy. One advantage of having a tablet is that it is much lighter and easy to carry around campus than a laptop. Tablets can quickly be pulled out to check email, update your social media status or take notes in class. On the flip side, a tablet might not be something you want as an alternative or replacement for purchasing a laptop. I can’t imagine trying to write a 20+ page research paper on an iPad.
A dedicated eReader can provide an cost effective alternative to buying physical textbooks, but keep in mind, most eReaders have limited functionality when compared to tablets. As an alternative, you can download software apps from both Amazon and Barnes & Noble that allow you to view and purchase books on some tablet devices.
Office Productivity Software
This is a bit tricky because you will get different opinions if you ask different people. If you want to play it safe, you can buy a copy of Microsoft Office for your laptop. Microsoft Office is the safe standard. On the other hand, you can use free alternatives such as OpenOffice or LibraOffice. Cloud-based solutions such as Google Docs or Microsoft Office Web Apps are also decent alternatives. Basically, there are going to be times when you will need to send some type of document to a professor or a friend. You need to make sure whatever office productivity software that you choose can save your documents in compatible formats (e.g. .doc, .xls, .ppt). Something else to keep in mind is that certain majors at some schools have a specific requirement for what office software to use (this is especially true when it comes to those majors that heavily use Excel). Whatever office suite you choose, make sure they can export your documents to any file type that you need.