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Back to School: Technology

Jose Fermoso
Wired blogger
Friday, August 15, 2008 11:00 AM

There's nothing worse than having your laptop crash while you're writing a term paper. To help avoid tech-related dilemmas, Wired's Gadget Lab blogger, Jose Fermoso was online Friday, August 15 at 11 a.m. ET to take your questions about must-have campus technology -- which products to buy, which to avoid and how to stay plugged-in while you're at school. He also addressed file sharing, social networking and other tech-based educational resources.

The transcript follows.

Back-to-school week is here with a series of live discussions to get you ready for the new school year. Check out the back-to-school page for transcripts from the week's discussions.

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Jose Fermoso: Hello everyone, this is Jose Fermoso, from Wired.com's Gadget Lab. I cover everything in the consumer electronics industry, though I'm particularly fond of laptops and A/V products. As everyone knows, technology is changing many aspects of the way we live, including the way we learn. So if you have questions about the latest gadgets that will help you or your children take advantage of this, send them over!

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Arlington, Va.: Apple is offering a free iPod w/ MacBook purchase for back-to-school shopping. I'm thinking of getting one for my daughter, but am also reading that Apple is doing this promotion to clear out for a new MacBook. What new features can we expect -- faster, more memory? Should I hold off on getting her one?

Jose Fermoso: Don't hold off, unless a new MacBook is announced that has haptic technology (with force feedback) and other technologies currently missing from the current MacBooks. Yes, Apple will likely be coming out soon with a new MacBook, and it might be the fabled touch MacBook Tablet.

But will it make any difference to include a faster processor, a touch screen, or a hard drive capacity? I say no, especially because it's more likely that it will be costlier. The current MacBooks are quality laptops, and they are best at Multimedia, and their edu/office applications are also top notch.

Regarding the deal, remember that the iPhone also has all the technology of the iPod, so you might not need to get an extra iPod for your daughter.

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Reston, Va.: MacRumors' buying guide for iPods says "Don't Buy: Updates Soon" for the majority of Apple's PMP products (including the iPod nano and iPod touch).Any truth to these sentiments? I'm thinking of buying my first Apple iPod soon, but I might hold off if it seems likely that new versions will come out.

Also, if/when they update these things, what kind of innovative/new features are we likely to see? I just hope the price-point won't be too out of my range.

Jose Fermoso: Expect a bigger screen for the new iPods. In glass, a fuller-featured Multi-Touch. Like the rumored Macbook tablet, it should also have haptic tech. Also, they should have a brighter screen that is easier to watch in the sunlight. That's a key technology that hasn't been seen before, except in the OLPC XO notebook for kids.

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Maryland: What kind of computer/technology do you recommend for the 4-7 grade range (upper Elementary to Middle School)?

Jose Fermoso: Elementary and Middle School kids should be deeply immersed in the Internet, and the best way for them to do that is with a notebook computer. I'm sure it's not a problem for any kids to get online, but managing their activity so that it stays productive is important. I would recommend these sites for them: Cosmeo, an online homework toolkit from the Discovery Channel that includes tutorials, and videos, and participations; Best Robotics, which encourages interests in a technology of the future; and Education.com, a resource for both parents and children with a social networking model where students and parents can exchange best practices.

But laptops! They're portable, and now they are very fast. Get one or two.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you help a grad student out? What's your favorite non-iPhone smartphone for AT&T?

Jose Fermoso: You don't want that iPhone, eh? I don't blame you. There are plenty of great phones out there that don't send money straight to Cupertino.

My favorite phone out is the Nokia E71, which is unlocked and you can use it on AT&T. And it's an iPhone killer for sure. It's thin, with a 3.2-megapixel camera, and it's easy to use.

It also includes QuickOffice where you can create, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files, and it lets you access PDFs, as well.

One of the coolest things about the phone is that it has dual 'homepage' screens. You can set up all of your school stuff on one page, email, etc. And then in the other one, your movies music and pictures. it's a nice way to kep things organized. It's also got GPS, 3G, WiFi, Bluetooth and the best screen this side of the iPhone. The only thing is, it's got a slightly smaller screen, and the phone will run up to $400 or so unlocked.

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20001: Hope you'll be able to take my question. I'm a grad student and its looking like my current laptop (a Dell) isn't long for this world. I've had it for at least five years, its becoming sluggish and I'd like to have more storage for music and photo. What I don't need is anything too fancy. I use it mostly for research and writing papers. Can you recommend a fairly lightweight laptop that would meet my needs and not break the bank?

Jose Fermoso: Laptops are becoming specialized, and I like that you are thinking about what you actually need versus instinctively getting the most expensive one out there.

You mention lightness and more storage capacity. Let's go over the light categories first. There are the Ultralights, which are slimmed down, muscular laptops. They have everything you need for multimedia, office, and are easy to carry. The Lenovo Thinkpad X300 is one of them. It has an illuminated keyboard that's really great, though it has a disappointing battery life (many of the light notebooks do). It also has every conceivable wireless standard. But here's the rub: it's expensive.

Two ultralights that are not as expensive, but have similar features are the Apple MacBook Air and the Toshiba Portege r500, which run up to $2000 or so. They have great designs, and are powerful.

But if you want to really save some money, I would look into getting one of the sub-$500 mini laptops, from Everex, Asus, HP, and coming soon, from Dell. Just don't expect heavy multimedia features. And you won't be able to play super shooter games on it fast enough.

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Minneapolis: OK, we're off to college with an Apple laptop. What else should we be bringing for trouble-free college use?

Jose Fermoso: I would bring a seriously tough quality audio voice recorder. Olympus makes the best ones out there, and they're not terribly expensive. Transferring files to a PC is easy, and you can place up to 200 files on there, good enough for every lecture for one semester. With WAV, MP3, and WMA file capability, every laptop should be able to play them.

I really don't think students use these records enough. They're easy to handle, and you can access your recordings of any lecture any time you want. Yes, the Prof. might have some on his personal site, but some of them are streaming only, making them less easy to manipulate to get to what you want to hear. Use voice recorders, is my motto. ( I use them every morning on my way to work, as I'm figuring out my schedule for the day.)

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Washington, D.C.: Hi. Do you have any good sources for refurbished MacBooks besides the Apple website? Would authorized dealers sell refurbished as well? Thanks.

Jose Fermoso: Thanks for the question -- refurbished products don't get enough coverage. I highly recommend them, but with a hitch -- get the ones that come with the insurance. If you want a refurbished Macbook, I would get it straight from Apple, just because of that. They're one of the few that gives one-year warranties to them. But Sony's, HP's, and other large manufacturers offer the same.

There have been some problems with refurbs at the big box chains, like Best Buy, but they are generally easy to trust. Plus, you're getting the product you want at about 10-25 percent cheaper price.

Also, do make sure that when product is sold by a dealer, they include optional extended warranties. This is key: if a dealer stands by a product through a warranty, it will likely be a good one. I would also check on consumer reports to check on the quality.

And oh yeah, don't buy anything on Craigslist. It's just 50/50 with quality, and you might get taken for a ride (literally). Don't do it.

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Fairfax, Va.: I am a freshman and will attending UVA in the Fall. My parents bought a nice house off campus for my three friends and I. Dad had a very nice dedicated home theater built. We are still searching for the ultimate projector. Do you all know when the Meridian 801 Reference projector will be available? 4k is newest and the best. We really don't want to settle for just a Sony SXRD professional movie theater projector. It's okay, but from what we hear its video processor just can't upscale 1080 to 4k like the Meridian and it doesn't have 10mp lenses like the Merdidian. Electronics for the room are the top-of-the line from Krell and speakers are Watt's best HT set up.

Jose Fermoso: I haven't tested any of the Meridian projectors, but I've heard the quality is great.

I would go a bit down the line, though, and offer a few alternatives. The Mitsubishi HC-4900 has awesome, accurate color, a sharp picture, full 1080p resolution, and automatic iris adjustment on the pics. The Sony VPL-VW60 has really nice hue adjustments and probably the best user interface. They both present a great picture, if you have the $2-3 grand needed to buy them.

I'd also keep an eye on the new Epson projectors. I know, their thing is printers, but their picture quality is top notch, and they are probably the easiest to set up. Check out the Epson Powerlite Home Cinema 1080UB.

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Miami, Fla.: Not sure if this is on point for today's discussion but I'm considering a replacement for my Bberry (Curve). Have tried iPhone but it isn't clunky for work email writing. Is the Bberry 9000 worth waiting for?

Jose Fermoso: If you love your Blackberry, you're probably addicted to it.

I understand your problem. Which is why I'm recommending that you do wait for the next version of the blackberry, or even wait for the new HTC G1 phone, which will have a really nice, swivel-out QWERTY keyboard (like the Sidekick), a 3-megapixel camera, and 3G network connectivity. It's considered the first Google Phone for it's Android operating system, developed by Google.

The fairly new Blackberry bold is a nice compromise for now -- with HSDPA (fast 3G data access), Wi-Fi 802.11 (unrestricted Wi-Fi access), and a great looking screen, it's a nice fully-featured phone. Oh yeah, it comes with a built-in GPS and free maps, you can use it to get you around town.

A new touch-screen-only blackberry is coming out in a few months too. Called the Thunder, it's expected to have a bigger screen than the iPhone, and a much better user interface. However, I would hold off on recommending that until I know that the touch capacitive technology was as good as the iPhone's. I don't like the touch phones that you have to tap super hard so that you almost break the surface. No good.

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Recording lectures...: Lots of professors still forbid recordings of their lectures, especially in a form that is easy to manipulate, without special permission (record for a sick friend or by a student who is blind). If the lectures are put on school servers, the school itself may have a no-record policy.

Jose Fermoso: I've actually heard this before, you're right. At my college, there was a Prof. that forbid the students, but I got around that by asking for his permission and I let him know that I wouldn't distribute the somewhat-changed copies of his lectures. They're only for my use, not to be distributed to any of my other friends. As long as the content is the same, and you're not making a profit out of the lectures, I think they would say it's OK.

It's similar to the issue of digital music, but in this case, you have access, and believe me, some influence over the content provider. Just show him or her that the recordings improve your understanding, and they'll go for it.

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Maryland: What do you recommend as a good, all-around starter laptop that handles all the term paper writing, that offers some fun features for freshmen students, with a decent battery life and isn't going to break the bank?

Jose Fermoso: The cheapest, best laptops are the new mini laptops. That's why everyone loves them.

We recently tabulated the price and key features of some of them, and the best value often depends on what you are looking for: processor speed, screen size, weight, and storage capacity. There are a few of them that all match with similar specs and come under $500, and are plenty capable to handle most tasks. At the top of my list is the Asus Eee PC 900, which comes with an 8.9 inch display, very nice resolution, 1GB of RAM, and options for the operating system, from the Windows XP, to the programmer-friendly Linux.

Another big new one, is the MSI Wind, with a nice 1.6 GHz Intel processor (plenty fast for music and multi-tasking)a 1.3 megapixel webcam, and great aesthetics. I played with this laptop awhile ago, and it was very intuitive and not hard to use, even for my too-large hands.

HP also has the Mini-note, with similar specs, but probably the best keyboard out of all of them, extending out to the edge of the notebook.

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Crownsville, Md.: For students living on campus -- desktop or laptop?

Jose Fermoso: Unless you're a gamer and you need a lot of hard drive space to play your war games (like Crysis), I would get a laptop. Why? There are plenty of distractions in college. And you want to be comfortable enough to work wherever you can find a quiet spot, and you can do that with a portable.

I personally hated to use the computers in the lab at my school, even if they were often better than the ones I owned. It sounds strange, but you do develop a relationship with your electronics, and if you've already gone through the gauntlet of an all-nighter with your trusty laptop, why would you try something else? With laptops, it's as if you can take your friend with you anywhere.

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55455: Is there any technology that others may recommend, but that you would recommend NOT getting for the back-to-school crowd?

Jose Fermoso: I've seen a few reputable Web sites recommending high-tech coffee makers for recent grads or future students. Seriously?

I'm not against coffee in the morning, (I had some five minutes ago) but talk about setting up a bad standard for health. You don't need coffee to wake up, or even super specialized alarms. Don't waste your time or your money on them.

I also think that the trend toward super specialized training for kids in tech is not the only way to make them get into technology. Sending them to a robotics camp before school starts is nice, but there are so many tech-integrated areas out there that can be helpful.

Take GPS-enabled gadgets and software. A teacher could create a plan where kids go all over the city, learn about the history of the town, then go back to check out the data, and collect it online.

Kids that are into drawing and design could get into Google's Sketch Up program. It's easy to use as well, and you don't need a programming degree to get it.

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Baltimore: Just a note from a middle school teacher ... remember that middle school-age children need supervision when using the internet. I also recommend that you keep recreational screen time (be it tv, computer, or gaming) limited to maybe an hour/day during the school year. Finally, get your child a typing program like Mavis Beacon. It will be a huge help to them.

Jose Fermoso: I agree with the supervision of children. But there are plenty of resources out there that will help children learn, while at the same time protecting them from online threats. And Bill Gates Himself says children should watch out for too much screen time.

There's a kids-only operating system called Kiddix that is simple, and has built-in parent monitoring tools. So that junior won't accidentally switch over to Firefox and access something bad. It has its own browser that looks at kid-safe Web sites, a personal email app, and even some fun games with a literate and profoundly goofy penguin.

Curriki.com is another site that helps parents and children to find local sources of education training.

And, I always recommend the Smithsonian Institution, which not only has incredible resources for adults, but has its own kid-friendly site, with an online-museum exhibit tours, and always appropriate and necessary historical context.

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Arlington, Va.: You noted digital voice recorders are easy to use with a PC. How about for Mac?

Jose Fermoso: Philips has some nice recorders that are Mac compatible, but the other ones I mentioned before can also be used on the Mac.

There are other high-end recorders that I really like, such as the Sony PCM-D50 and the Korg Mr-1, but they tend to be more expensive than the other ones. The quality though, is outstanding. (M-Audio also has some great ones.) I have a friend who is a musical artist, and he takes those on the road to record tracks. So you know they can handle the treble of the harshest voice.

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Fairfax, Va.: Dude, do you have a clue about projectors in the price range I am talking for this home theater? The wiring costs more than you make in a year, hoss. The Meridian retails for a $180k and the Sony for near a $100k. Epson? Sony? Please. Man, 4k is the new standard with its debut at CEDIA this Sept. HDTV is so first iPhone!

Jose Fermoso: I wish I could test out those $180k projectors, bro. But since they're the price of my apartment, my microwave might get intimidated and blow a fuse.

But if you're into that high-end stuff, Continuum Audio Labs has crazy expensive turntable systems that will even make Paris Hilton blush.

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Fairfax, Va.: I'm looking for an electronic spelling dictionary with a thesaurus for my middle schooler. Any recommendations?

Jose Fermoso: We haven't reviewed any electronic spelling dictionaries, but I recommend that you look seriously into the options that are available in a Kindle Reader or the Sony Reader. These gadgets are electronic versions of books, with easy-to-read E-ink technology. They come with soft displays, lack glare, and have excellent resolution.

The Kindle comes with the New Oxford American Dictionary, and because it can access the Net at a high speed (with its built in wireless capabilities), any student will be able to access any thesaurus site on the planet. And you can buy a bunch of e-books that will allow them to bring a whole library with them in a single device.

For adults, I would look at the applications available at Apple's App store for the iPhone. There are plenty of educational resources there, and while the iPhone is not as easy to read as the Kindle or Sony Reader, plenty of web apps can help you with references and school research.

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Jose Fermoso: Thanks for all of your questions, everyone. Remember if you have more inquiries about any of the technologies I talked about, or if you want to send us a tip about a new technology you've found, send me an email at jose_fermoso@wired.com, or go to Wired.com's Gadget Lab blog. Thanks!

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