Back-to-School Essentials--and Inessentials

What your college student needs, and doesn't need, for the coming school year

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

If you could swing the tuition, it used to be easy to ship a kid off to college. Once room and board, books, and pocket money were accounted for, your little scholar-to-be was good to go. When it came to technology, a shared phone bill, a typewriter, and a set of rabbit ears for a small TV was about it.

Well, it’s a little different now. PCs, printers, audio recorders for lectures, smartphones, iPods, HDTVs, Xboxes, DVD players, DVRs—you’ll need half the car’s trunk just for stuff that didn’t exist when you went off to school.

With tuition going through the roof and the global recession well into its third year, it sure would be nice to pare down some of these other expenses. The folks at the high-tech shopping site Retrevo.com have given that a lot of thought, and they’ve come up with a Back-to-School Technology Guide for this fall.

We’ll link to the whole guide at Spectrum online, but we have with us today Andrew Eisner, Retrevo’s director of community and content, to walk us through some of the guide’s money-saving tips. He joins us by phone from Sunnyvale, California. Andrew, welcome to the podcast.

Andrew Eisner: Hello.

Steven Cherry: Andrew, some of your tips involve spending money to save money, and we’ll get to those in a moment, but some of them ask whether a college student needs something at all. One tip is don’t get a TV.

Andrew Eisner: Yes. Well, nowadays you can watch a lot of the shows, your favorite shows, on a laptop or a desktop computer. And many of these you can get over the air or you can get online. Or you can hook up a computer to a cable connection too. So basically all you need is a laptop and a good set of speakers and possibly a tuner if you want to get content in addition to getting it online. But there are a lot of programs that allow you to use your laptop as a TiVo and record programs. And so a lot of the TV watching, I think, is moving to that LCD laptop screen instead of a TV screen.

Steven Cherry: And that’ll take up a lot less space in a dorm room too.

Andrew Eisner: Sure. You know, one less thing to plug in and one less thing to lug along to school.

Steven Cherry: Now you say a lot of schools are allowing and often even requiring that papers be submitted electronically, so a printer isn’t needed as much as it used to be.

Andrew Eisner: That’s correct. A lot of schools now run all their papers through plagiarism-detection software—which would be a little difficult to do, I guess they’d have to OCR it first—but now, so they require an electronic document so that they can actually look for plagiarism. But you know, otherwise if you do need a printout, a lot of the libraries and a lot of the places on campus that you can actually go and get a printout or two.

Steven Cherry: Now the top item on your list to not buy is a smartphone, but if there’s one thing parents want their kid to have it’s a phone. Why don’t you tell us what you mean by that?

Andrew Eisner: Yeah, well, you know the fact is that a lot of kids are going to be requesting a smartphone, and probably a lot of those are going to be requesting an iPhone. But when you look at the total cost, it can certainly start adding up when you start adding, you know—now they have tiered data plans instead of unlimited data plans, so you can start adding up the cost from data. Not to mention the fact that if you lose a smartphone you’re going to be replacing a $200 item. And so we think, you know, we love smartphones, and sure if you can swing it, by all means, you can save a lot of other devices. But you can get a lot for your money with an iPod touch, which will run all the apps, and there are a lot of great apps that are going to be useful for college kids and students, and get away with a feature phone, something that’s much simpler, or even an entry-level BlackBerry, and an iPod touch and you won’t have all those recurring monthly data fees.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, and an iPod touch can cost $200 or so, but you’d save that in the data plan fees, and the average student’s going to have an iPod of some sort anyway, right?

Andrew Eisner: That’s right. And these days, too, an iPod touch can actually replace an MP3 player, it can replace a GPS device, and it can replace your camera. So there are a lot of reasons to have some smartphone-like device, but you may want to consider saving that data fee.

Steven Cherry: Now in the category of “spend some to save some,” there are some savings to be had when it comes to textbooks?

Andrew Eisner: Yeah. Actually, you can always get an e-reader, and there are, uh, I’ve heard mixed reports on e-books. Some say students don’t like the fact that they can’t make a lot of notations in them, and they prefer to have an actual book, but you can get e-reader software on a laptop or on a tablet if you can afford one or in a phone, and you can definitely save a little money that way.

Steven Cherry: And as it turns out, something parents may not realize is that renting textbooks has now become a huge enterprise.

Andrew Eisner: That’s right. There’s a very popular website that allows you to rent textbooks, and for sure I don’t have to tell you how expensive textbooks have become.

Steven Cherry: And I guess Amazon is going to move into that rental stuff as well?

Andrew Eisner: The rumor is they’re going to be coming out with possibly a tablet that’s less expensive than the iPad sometime this fall. So not only can you get a Kindle or rent textbooks from Amazon to run on your other mobile devices or computers, but they might have a low-cost Android tablet too.

Steven Cherry: Let’s talk about laptops. I guess we should say first that most students don’t need a desktop these days?

Andrew Eisner: That’s right. Even though you can get an awful lot for your money on a desktop—I mean, you can get the equivalent of a workstation of yesterday for $1200, and chances are if your kid is into playing a lot of PC games, you know, they may actually be able to talk you into getting a more powerful desktop. But for most purposes we think a reasonably priced laptop, which you can get for $500 or $600, and you add a monitor for another hundred bucks or so and you add a mouse—either a wireless mouse or connected mouse—and possibly add a keyboard, and basically you’ve got everything that a desktop has with the portability. So we think that the best value is going to be a reasonably priced laptop with an extra monitor and mouse and keyboard.

Steven Cherry: Very good. And you had some tips for laptop security as well.

Andrew Eisner: Yeah. So this is the big thing that I think parents and students need to keep in mind, that it’s so easy these days to have your laptop stolen whether you’re sitting at the coffee shop or you leave it unattended for one minute and it’s gone. And so there are ways, you know, to lock it down, but there are also a lot of third-party software.

Steven Cherry: And there’s some hardware that can lock it down in the first place, right?

Andrew Eisner: Yeah, there are cables and things and antitheft devices and things that you can put on that will actually, you know, make a noise, sort of a little alarm.

Steven Cherry: Now, what about tablets? Can students get away with an iPad instead of a laptop or maybe a parent can give them the old desktop for the dorm room and they can just take a tablet to class?

Andrew Eisner: Yeah [laughs]. Well, we’re pretty sure there are a lot of students that are going to be petitioning for a tablet. I mean, they’re great devices, and they’re a lot of fun to use. Personally, we think that they’re probably not a big necessity for a college student, partly because they’re not that easy to type on. Now you can get third-party keyboards, and that makes it much more practical to use for a writing device. But still for a device that you’re going to be spending a lot of time writing papers on, a laptop is probably the better bet than a tablet.

Steven Cherry: Now you said as far as taking notes at a lecture, though, there may soon be some ways to do that with a tablet.

Andrew Eisner: There are some apps that will make it much easier now. And I think one of them’s called “speak notes,” which transcribes what the speaker says so you don’t actually have to type in notes; you can actually record the notes and have it transcribe them later, so that could be helpful. And you should see all kinds of things. So that’s, that could be a reason why a tablet could be a good tool for a lecture.

Steven Cherry: Now there were a couple of things that we should mention because they’re probably not on everybody’s shopping list, but they were in the guide. One was a flash drive and the other was an external hard drive. Why are these important in college?

Andrew Eisner: Well, the flash drive is important so you can, of course, transfer files and take a file with you to the library or something or someplace else, and so you can trade files with other people. But backup is a very important thing these days; you can’t say that the dog ate the homework, and it’s hard to say that the hard drive crashed these days either. So you can get a very reasonably priced external USB hard drive for just, probably less than a hundred dollars. And that’ll keep the backup, and you put that someplace else—you know, hide it in your dorm room or something. There are also services now that are going to be offered on the cloud too, but we encourage all students to remember to back up all their work.

Steven Cherry: And you know, your guide makes a point that student life is not quite as secure as the parents’ home. And in some ways documents are more secure in the cloud than they would be in the dorm room.

Andrew Eisner: Yeah, that’s very possible. There are some free services too, and for documents, which don’t take up much space. For the most part, I think the cloud is pretty reliable, although occasionally you do read about outages. And it’s not a bad idea to have redundant copies, and flash drives are very cheap, and you can get those for like $10 or so that’ll hold thousands of word documents. So I’d say there’s no reason not to have all kinds of redundancy, and then you’ll never have any problems at all.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, thanks, Andrew. Hopefully we’ve saved our listeners some money and maybe some grief over the next couple of weeks.

Andrew Eisner: All right. Very good.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Andrew Eisner of Retrevo.com, a large shopping and review site that specializes in high-tech goods, about what students need—and don’t need—as they go back to school this fall.

For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 11 August 2011.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
Follow us on Twitter  @spectrumpodcast

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum's audio programming is the audio version.

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