News Column

Austin American-Statesman Omar L. Gallaga column

August 11, 2014

By Omar L. Gallaga, Austin American-Statesman

Aug. 11--

Cutting the cord might be a little easier if everything weren't wireless.

For parents of students heading off to college or returning to dorm/starter-apartment life, you want to help out with the right tools for higher learning. But technology moves so quickly that bad buys are likely to end up quickly forgotten in a drawer. And unless you've won the lottery, you're probably already sweating all the collegiate expenses stacking up.

In putting together a list of some tech basics, let's lean toward items that aren't overpriced and impractical. (No college freshman, in my opinion, needs a $2,500 4K HDTV unless she is willing to pay for it herself. Also, please get off my lawn.)

I've been doing this back-to-school tech guide for a few years and the same rules tend to apply every August: with laptops, you get what you pay for (and you should spring for that extended warranty); with accessories such as headphones and flash drives, good enough tends to be more than enough; and tablets such as the Apple iPad are great for a lot of reasons, but they haven't replaced computers.

With that in mind, here are a few recommendations and alternates for tech products in the most popular categories.

Laptops

Not to harp on Apple, but except for very inexpensive laptops in the sub-$500 range, discussion must start with the MacBook Air, the sleek sliver of a machine that received a speed upgrade in April. It starts at $899 for the 11-inch model or $999 for the 13-inch with a $100Apple Store gift card thrown in for students. If price is still a concern, keep in mind that Apple bundles in great software at no additional cost, including iMovie, iPhoto and Garage Band, all of which are due for big updates soon as part of a free operating system upgrade in the fall.

Dell has of late stepped up its design game and two of its laptops have caught my eye -- the XPS 13 (starts at $1,199), which has the option of a touch screen, and the more staid Inspiron 11 3000 2-in-1, which folds back from a laptop to a tablet-style touchscreen device. It starts at $399 and, like the XPS 13, runs Windows 8.1. For PC purchases of $699 or more, Dell is offering a free Venue tablet as a back-to-school promotion.

Another system with local ties is HP's Pavilion x360 13z touch laptop, which has an AMD quad-core processor inside and sells for $479. It features a touch screen for Windows 8.1 and also folds back on itself to resemble a tablet, just like Dell's Inspiron model.

Chromebooks, which run Google's Chrome OS software, used to be too underpowered and limited for older students to take seriously. But as a secondary computer or for students who live their academic lives in Web browsers and Google Drive documents, a Chromebook may be just enough to get a lot done. The Asus C300MA, at $250, seems like a good bet at a very low price.

Tablets

Just a year or two ago, it seemed as if tablets were poised to leave the desktop and laptop computer market in the dust. But then a funny thing happened. iPad sales plateaued, a glut of tablet competitors failed to topple Apple's device and traditional computers made a comeback.

Still, don't count tablets out entirely. The Apple iPad Air (starts at $499) and its small cousin the iPad Mini with Retina Display (starts at $399) are tough to ignore. They're light, powerful and run more mobile apps, including iPhone apps, than any competitor.

But for students who aren't Apple devotees, there are other options. For those who swear by their Android smartphones, there's the Google Nexus 10 (starts at $399) and Nexus 7 (starts at $229), which make good tablet companions.

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 is a full-blown laptop in a chunkier tablet's body. It starts at $799 for 64-gigabyte version, but I can't recommend a device that runs Windows 8.1 and leaves practically no room for anything else. The next step up is a $999 model with twice the memory.

Smartphones

Smartphones are perhaps the most personal device a college student will have. It's the thing they reach for first in the morning instead of the alarm clock. Typically, the phone is the alarm clock.

So highly individualized are phones that I can't suggest springing a new device on a student without consulting them on what they need and want to use if they're not fine with the phone they already own.

If you're shopping together, you should know that Samsung's Galaxy phones are wildly popular, but their cheap-feeling plastic and unnecessary features have not been a big hit with me. Instead, on the Android side, I love the HTC One (M8), which sells for $199 or less. The new LG G3 phone (about $199) has also been earning solid reviews, though its large size -- it has a 5.5-inch screen -- may turn off some.

Two phones I can tell you not to buy: the Amazon Fire Phone, which has interesting technology but feels like a very first-generation product (wait to see what its sequel is like, probably next year), or an iPhone. Apple is expected to make an announcement on its next iPhone, likely the iPhone 6, in early September, so at least wait that long to see what's new and for prices on old iPhones to drop.

Dorm odds and ends

We heard recently that a very large university somewhere in town was making students upset by proposing, then deciding not to implement, a fee for campus Wi-Fi service. Even without the fee, going over a university's Wi-Fi Internet service quota can be pricey. One option is to bring one's own Internet; the Verizon Wireless Jetpack MHS291L is a mobile 4G LTE hotspot that can connect up to 10 Wi-Fi devices at the same time. Pricing varies depending on whether you sign up for a service contract or pay month-to-month, but expect to pay under $50 for the device and anywhere from $20 to $50 or more per month for the data.

For students who don't use their phones to wake them up in the morning, I like the look of the Tivoli Audio Albergo Bluetooth music player and clock radio. It's pricey at $250, but a style-obsessed student may be willing to split the price with you. It's available in white, graphite, red, blue and green.

And lastly, if you want to make one completely unnecessary but very fun dorm-furnishing purchase, you can't go wrong with karaoke. The Singing Machine iSM990BT ($130) is a Bluetooth speaker and microphone combo that can play karaoke tunes from a phone or tablet using a subscription-based "Singing Machine" app. You can also use traditional karaoke CDs with it and plug it into a TV.

Will your college student invite you to their all-campus karaoke party? Probably not, but don't take it personally. You did your best to raise them right and equip them well.

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On the web

Find Omar L. Gallaga's technology blog, Digital Savant, at austin360.com/digitalsavant. And check out "Statesman Shots," an Austin culture and entertainment podcast hosted by Omar and Austin Eavesdropper blogger Tolly Moseley, at statesman.com/shots.

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(c)2014 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

Visit Austin American-Statesman, Texas at www.statesman.com

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Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX)


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