Retrevo’s Back to School Tech Guide

Right about now you’re starting to wonder what kinds of electronics your college student is going to need. ‘Need’ being the operative word here, as opposed to the many gadgets they merely want but claim to need. Retrevo is here to help you sift through the many options so your students can be as productive as possible, and you can still afford gas to go visit them.

As far as our editors are concerned, the perfect dorm room set up is a decent laptop with plenty of storage, a second larger display monitor that also functions as a television, and both a wireless mouse and keyboard. A good pair of headphones or speakers is also pretty necessary.

Must Have
The specs of what kind of laptop students need varies depending on what they will be doing – literature students who will be writing essays could get by with a netbook, while graphic artists will need something more robust – but according to Retrevo’s Product Life-cycle there are a few must-haves for everyone.
Anything that falls into the ‘Mainstream’ should be considered a necessity. An integrated webcam so they can chat with mom; a solid battery life, at least six hours, so it can get them through a lecture or two and some study time at the coffee shop; the life cycle suggests no more than 250GB if you aren’t planning on storing a lot of media, but since a college students laptop will most likely be their main storage site for music and movies, we’d recommend bumping that up possibly as high as 500GB. Ideally it should weigh less than 5lbs so they’re more inclined to take it with them, and despite what they may say, they really don’t need an i7 processor – a Dual-Core i3 or i5 will do just fine for the necessary amount of multi-tasking.
Webcam Good for keeping in touch over long distances
Battery A solid six hours is preferable
Storage Minimum 250GB
Weight No more than 5lbs
Storage Dual Core i3 or i5
Don’t forget to have a look at Retrevo’s back to school laptop deals.
In dealing with the space (and electric socket) constraints of a college dorm, students want as many of their electronics to do double duty as possible. This is why we recommend purchasing a computer monitor that will also function as a television. For this purpose Retrevo’s Product Life-Cycle suggests getting one with either a DVI or S-Video and HDMI ports - which means they can plug in their laptop for streaming Netflix and working on a paper, or a gaming consol, Blu-ray player and set-top box.
Text books, and the days of having to carry and store a ridiculous amount of them, are hopefully going the way of the abacus. E-Readers allow students to highlight and search, bookmark, take notes in the margin - and if that isn’t quite enough to convince you that one will make their life easier, Amazon’s recent announcement that they’ll be renting textbooks, should push you over the edge.
More and more Universities are requiring their students to submit their work electronically – either on a flash drive, or through a program that will double check for plagiarism. This means printers aren’t as necessary as they once were and most students could get away with only using their campus library printers when they occasionally need it. That being said, if your student still feels they need one, for $100 you can get a decent all-in-one that functions as a printer, scanner and fax machine.
MP3 Player:
Music is a staple of college life and while iPods are by and large the MP3 player of choice, there are some really good, affordable options not made by Apple. Some have built-in voice recording so students can sleep through their 8am lecture, but then listen to it again after several cups of coffee. They’ll also want one with an FM Radio so they can tune into the college radio station and never miss a campus concert or poetry reading. If they do decide to go the iPod route, we recommend the Touch; as well as being a music player it also access the internet via Wi-Fi and runs apps, many of which students would find useful.
Some accessories we’d recommend include a travel bag for the laptop; ear-buds; wireless mouse; wireless keyboard; portable speakers or docking station to plug into both the laptop and MP3 player, maybe one that has an alarm clock, and operates on batteries so it can travel; USB hub that will convert one USB socket into multiple; a flash drive; and an external hard drive since not all schools offer a service for backing up data and critical information.
With their easy portability, apps and 3G access many students find themselves debating the merits of a tablet over a laptop. Apps can give a huge boost to productivity and simplify the process of web research. Both Apple and Android offer programs for taking notes, scheduling and organizing multi-media presentations. The major arguments against a tablet are of course the lack of easy input, generally in the form of a keyboard, and the very limited storage. Not being able to type up papers or notes or presentations is a serious problem, and the main reason more students aren’t replacing their laptop with a tablet. There are applications that could solve this problem in the near future. Android has an app called Speaknotes which digitally transcribes what the speaker says; Apple has the Numbers app which creates organizational spreadsheets of problem sets. These aren’t yet positioned to replace old-fashioned typing, but it may not be long. When in doubt always check with your child’s University – they often have specific technology requirements for each course and can tell you if a tablet would meet these.
  MacBook Air
With Apple’s recent announcement, it’s possible your offspring is angling for a MacBook Air to take to college. It’s a great machine, no argument there, but if you can’t afford the hefty price tag, here are a few options that might appease them.

Lenovo X220: With an Intel Sandy Bridge i5 Processor, 320GB hard drive, Windows 7 Professional and a multi-touch touchpad. What really sets the Lenovo apart though is its battery life, all the reviews we’ve read have raved about the 8-10hrs (15 with the extended battery) battery life that the 6-cell gives, with moderate to heavy usage. All that, plus a starting price of $890, makes this one of our top picks as an alternative to the MacBook Air

Asus U: The all-important Intel i3 Sandy Bridge processor, 640GB hard drive (though not solid state), a 15 inch screen, Windows 7 Home Premium, and 6 hours of battery life. The downside is that it weighs in at a hefty 4.2lbs. The one area where this definitely beats the competition is price. At $580 the Asus U is a full 1K cheaper than the MacBook Air.

MSI X 460 The X 460 has some impressive hardware – an Intel i7 Sandy Bridge Processor, a 14-inch screen, USB 3.0, and a 750GB hard drive. It comes installed with Windows 7 Home Premium and 7 hours of battery life. Due out this summer the 460 should cost around $600.

This is a bit of a tricky one. We are inclined to argue that with the proper laptop, a smartphone falls into the ‘nice-to-have’ category, but isn’t absolutely necessary. And yes, we can hear the student out-cry from here. But texting can be done from any phone and email/social networking from a laptop. It’s true that there are a lot of great study apps that would be useful to students, but factoring in the high monthly price-tag makes us inclined to say the trade-off is not worth it for the budget-savvy. If the apps really are a must-have, then consider buying an iPod Touch; the 8GB model will run you $229 and no monthly bill.

Feature Phone vs. Smartphone
You can often add a phone to a family plan for a relatively low monthly fee however, a smartphone will need a data plan which could add significantly to the monthly bill. In the end it’s hard to make a definitive recommendation to go with a smartphone, a feature phone or add an iPod Touch. The feature phone with or without an iPod Touch will definitely save you money but a smartphone will keep you from having to listen to a lot of whining from a “deprived” student.

  Laptop Security
Try not to use a very conspicuous laptop bags. Nothing says “I'm a laptop, grab me easily,” more than a slim, nylon, rectangular shoulder bag.

Don’t leave them unattended. Don't leave your laptop visible in your car when you park and don't leave it sitting on the table at a coffee house or library when you want a refill or need to use the restroom.

Most laptops have a Universal Security Slot (USS) on the side of the laptop that can be used to connect a cable or alarm. The Kensington 64068F cable and connector costs under $40. Belkin makes a device that sells for around $20 and sets off an alarm if it's removed. Mark your laptop with an ID code. Companies like yougetitback and armortag make it easy for someone who finds your laptop to call an 800 number and get a reward.

Stop will sell you a registered “security plate,” that incorporates an “indelible tattoo” that can help missing property get returned to their owners

Keep sensitive information on a USB drive or in the cloud.

Encrypt all the data on your disk. There are many drive encryption programs on the market. Some versions of Vista include BitLocker Drive Encryption. You could also use a free open source on-the-fly encryption program like truecypt.

Don’t forget to download the manuals from Retrevo for all your gadgets before you go. From coffee makers, HDTVs and Computers to Microwaves, Vacuums and Cell Phones, save space and download the manuals to all of your college gadgets before you get to your dorm room.

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I'm a senior student, and the only gear I have is my laptop. I don't own any other gadgets but I'd love the have them, especially the Smartphone :) And to be honest, only with my laptop, I can do many things from learning to entertaining when I have free time!

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