Back-to-school tech guide 2011

On campus or off, enhance college life with these 12 tech gadgets and accessories.

It's mid-August -- time for our annual roundup of tech gadgets and gear that will ease students back into college life and help them get the most out of today's connected classrooms.

With student budgets in mind, we've gathered an assortment of products with a price tag of $200 or less. (They go as low as $12.) The gadgets we've chosen help with studying, dorm life or just plain getting around campus. We've also got advice on how to save some cash by renting e-textbooks.

These items are all new to our list, but don't overlook our 2010 and 2009 back-to-school roundups. Those selections (or their current updates) should work just as well this year as they did the past two.

Protect your laptop, carry your stuff

Let's start with what is perhaps your most essential piece of equipment after your laptop: a bag to safely transport all your tech gear and other stuff around campus. The Central Park Sport Backpack ($79.99) from Cocoon Innovations holds up to 17 inches of laptop in a protective padded compartment. In addition, it features two document pockets, a secondary compartment with smaller pockets, and a special pouch with a waterproof zipper for MP3 players or mobile phones, all held together with side compression straps.

It also comes with a 10.4-x-7.3-in. Grid-It organizer, which has a set of interwoven elastic straps that provide a flexible way to hold a bunch of small items of varying shapes and sizes, from pens to 'Pods. Topping off the whole package is a water-resistant stowaway hood.

The Sport Backpack comes in black, gray, red and brown. If you're looking ahead to the work world, you might choose the Central Park Professional Backpack instead (also $79.99). It's a bit more streamlined and stylish (it lacks the compression straps, for example) but otherwise has all the features of the Sport version.

Power snake

Every dorm room needs a couple of surge protectors, but most of them have (at least) two drawbacks. First, they usually don't have room for "wall warts" on every plug, so some are left empty -- and what good is a six-outlet power strip if you can only use four? Second, they're not always easy to find a convenient place for, especially in cramped quarters.

The new Pivot Power, crowdfunded through Quirky, solves both those issues. The six outlets are large enough and widely enough separated that each one of them can hold a full-size power adapter. And they rotate, making the entire strip flexible enough to wrap around desk legs or fit in corners as needed.

The Pivot Power's own power cord stretches a full six feet, making it even more certain you'll find a place to put it. Boasting 672 joules worth of surge protection, the Pivot Power is available in white or black ($29.99).

New school, meet old school

Even on today's Wi-Fi-everywhere, tablet-happy campuses, you'll find printers galore: The idea of a "paperless college" is as much a myth as that of the paperless office. The Clip-it USB flash drive from Verbatim is a tool for bridging the gap between digital data and hard copies.

Designed by Berlin-based product designer Arman Emami and winner of a Red Dot design award, the Clip-it combines a 4GB flash drive with a colorful paperclip. (Verbatim also suggests that it might make a nice tie clip.) The USB connector is encapsulated within the plastic clip itself, which makes the device water- and dust-resistant. The Clip-it costs $11.25, or three for $32.25.

The real slim storage

Need an external hard drive that holds a lot of data but won't take up a lot of space? Seagate's GoFlex Slim Performance Drive is just the thing. Just 9mm thick and weighing 5.64 oz., the drive can hold a respectable 320 GB of files. It's no slouch in the speed department, either, spinning at 7200 rpm and supporting a USB 3.0 connection (if your computer has one, of course).

The GoFlex Slim can be used with both Mac and Windows computers without reformatting, although you will have to reformat it to HFS+ if you want to use it for Time Machine backups on a Mac. The drive also works with the GoFlex TV HD Media Player that we recommended last year as a way to get your digital entertainment onto your TV.

At $99.99, the GoFlex Slim won't win any prizes in the gigabytes-per-dollar race, but when space in your backpack or dorm room is at a premium, it fills the (small) bill nicely.

E-book covers

You can't judge an e-book by its cover -- so let's just judge the cover. Tuff-Luv makes cases for iPads, laptops and other portable devices, but it's the company's folder-like covers for Kindle and Nook e-readers that caught our eye.

We particularly like the Eco-nique covers made of hemp, both for their organic appearance and their appealing texture. Take, for example, the tastefully embroidered Eco-nique Natural Hemp Pistachio Green Case Cover For Amazon Kindle 3 ($52.99). Closed, it's a protective cover for your reader; open, it provides a document pocket for papers and a smaller windowed pocket for those scraps of paper students tend to collect with "notes to self," quick directions, or the digits of that fascinating person you met last night. A clasp holds the cover securely closed.

Tuff-Luv also features a flip-style cover for the Kindle that turns into a reading stand ($51.99) and a book-style cover for the Nook ($45.99). Other covers in other materials, including leather and vegetarian faux leather, are available for iPads, Sony Readers, and other portable devices at a range of prices.

Stop squinting

Have you opted for an iPad instead of an e-reader? NewerTech makes a lot of iPad accessories, including plain and fancy screen protectors. Among the most useful is the NuVue Anti-Glare Screen Protector ($24.99 on the NewerTech website, less than $13 at various online retailers). Besides cutting down on glare for those sunny afternoons spent studying outside, this scratch-resistant shield also cuts down on smudges and, according to the company, improves gaming by reducing the screen's surface tension.

The peel-and-stick sheet stays on by static cling, not adhesive, making it easy to install without getting air bubbles. The Anti-Glare Screen Protector comes with a squeegee to smooth it out, a microfiber cleaning cloth and sticky sheets to remove that last bit of dust from the screen before applying.

If you want to make sure your classmates don't copy your work or read your e-mail, check out the NuVue Screen Protector with Privacy Shield ($39.99). This sheet has all the qualities of the Anti-Glare Protector (although it doesn't come with the accessories) but it also blocks the ability to see the screen from the side when it's held in portrait (vertical) orientation. It still permits viewing from any angle when the iPad is turned horizontally, though, meaning you can still share photos or presentations without difficulty.

Is that a speaker in your pocket?

Looking at the Soundmatters FoxLv2 speaker system in all its 5.6-x-2.2-x-1.4-in. glory, you'd never expect it to sound as good as it does. But this little powerhouse can fill a dorm room or living room with full, detailed sound. The speaker moves so much air, in fact, that it comes with an anti-slip mat to make sure it doesn't vibrate itself right off your desk.

The foxLv2 contains a rechargeable battery that is rated to give up to 8 hours of music, and it can be recharged via a USB port as well as through the included AC wall adapter. (The AC adapter even comes with separate plugs for other countries' wall sockets.) The system has a 3.5mm jack (and comes with a cable) for connecting it to a computer or MP3 player; there's also an output jack for connecting it to a separate powered subwoofer, if you've got one.

That describes the basic $169 version. For $199, you get all that plus Bluetooth capability that connects the speaker to a phone automatically. This version also contains a microphone that turns the whole system into a speakerphone that will automatically switch functions if a call comes in while you're listening to music.

Clamp it down, lock it up

While laptop security cables can be thwarted by a determined thief with the right tools, it's still a good idea to use one to prevent grab-and-go thievery. Most of these cable locks are designed to be looped around something immovable, usually a fixed piece of furniture. But sometimes that's not available -- a desk, for example, might not be fastened to the floor, making it easy to slip a cable out from under the leg.

The Griffin TechSafe Locking Security Clamp ($19.99) gives you something to attach your cable to when there's no immovable object handy. It works through a screw-down clamp and a ball that covers it: You screw the clamp tightly to your anchor point and thread your cable through the ball. Slide the ball up to the clamp and lock the cable to your laptop, and no one can unscrew the clamp until you release the cable.

The clamp works with any security cable, such as the Kensington model we recommended in our 2009 back-to-school guide. Currently out of stock, the TechSafe clamp should be available again by the end of August, according to a Griffin representative.

Griffin also has a new take on the locking cable itself: the TechSafe Cable Lock System ($29.99). Rather than attaching the cable to a small hole on the side of your computer, you slide a hardened steel "LockBlade" through the hinge of the laptop. Affix the cable's 4-digit combination lock to the blade, and your laptop's secure, whether it's open or closed. (Note: The Cable Lock doesn't work with MacBook Airs.)

Another nice thing about the Griffin systems: The company will store your combination online. If you forget or misplace it (maybe it's in the pocket of your Tuff-Luv Kindle cover?), you can just log into the Griffin website to retrieve it.

It's a battery and a flash drive

Backup batteries for phones and MP3 players are handy; so are flash drives. The Cell Drive from SLD Marketing Group packs both into one small package, along with a connector for charging and (depending on the device) syncing a mobile device.

The Cell Drive starts with a rechargeable 430 mAh battery. It won't fully charge your device, but it provides enough juice for an extra hour of talk time or several days of standby, according to the company.

The same 1.1-x-3.2-x-0.6-in. container houses a flash drive that stores 4GB or 8GB of data. On one end is a standard USB 2.0 plug, at the other is a mini-USB plug, which lets you charge and sync files with devices that have that port. Rounding out the connection options is a 3.5mm jack that works with the included micro-USB and iPhone/iPod adapters for charging those devices.

At $49.95 or $59.95 (depending on whether it's a 4GB or 8GB flash drive), the pocket-size Cell Drive replaces four or five other accessories all by itself.

It's a watch and an iPod

Apple's latest iPod Nano can fill its touchscreen face with an analog clock display. If only there were a way to affix the Nano to your wrist so you could see the clock.

Enter the Quad Mountain Ultimate One wrist strap. Developed with crowdfunding support through Kickstarter, the Ultimate One silicone strap has an extra smooth, soft feel and holes for ventilation to keep your wrist from getting too sweaty. The design also keeps the Nano away from your skin.

The clasp that holds the Nano doesn't block its connectors and controls (even the dock port), so you can listen to your music or podcasts of your classes without taking off your watch. It even works with adapters for the Nike+ training system and Bluetooth wireless headsets. It comes in five sporty colors as well as white and black ($29.95 each or two for $49.95 for black plus another color).

Want a more upscale look? Try the LunaTik, another Kickstarter-funded Nano watchband. Featuring an aluminum housing with black silicone rubber straps, the LunaTik comes in elegant silver ($79.95), bold red ($79.95), stealthy black ($89.95) or a TakTik version ($99.95) that features an individually molded (no two alike) camouflage-pattern band.

How to rent a digital textbook

Textbooks can be expensive: New hardcover versions can easily run you $50 to $150 each, or even more. Multiply that by several classes, and it's no surprise that a sizeable market exists for used and rented textbooks.

With the increasing popularity of e-book readers and tablets, this idea has spread to e-textbooks as well. While there's no market for used e-textbooks (for obvious reasons), several sources offer the chance to rent a digital textbook for a specified period of time at a cost that's even less than buying a used version. Amazon entered the field in July, putting a lot of weight behind the trend.

We took a look at some e-textbook rental services to find out how they worked. We also searched each one for two textbooks: Geography: Realms, Regions and Concepts by H. J. de Blij and Peter O. Muller (hereafter called "Geo"); and Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy by Gerald Corey (called "Psych"). We'll tell you if we found them and how much a typical rental cost. (Some services rent their books for a standard period of time, while others let you specify how long you want the book.)

Amazon Kindle Textbook Rental

Amazon rents some of the Kindle editions of its textbooks. Students can read them not just on the company's own Kindle readers but also on Macs and PCs as well as through apps on most smartphones and tablets. It offers the most flexible rental options that we've seen, letting you choose any period between 30 and 360 days. Students can make notes on the books and access their notes even after the rental period is up.

We found our sample textbooks by browsing Amazon's e-textbook offerings, so they're both available here. But finding them took a while -- a lot of textbooks, even if they have Kindle editions, aren't available for rental -- so don't assume Amazon will have your textbooks just because they have these.

Sample prices: Geo costs $74.00 to buy digitally, $39.04 to rent for 90 days. Psych costs $84.76 to buy, $40.49 for 90-day rental.

Barnes & Noble Nook Study

First, don't let the name fool you: Nook Study isn't for Nook e-readers. It's software for Macs and PCs that lets you organize, take notes on, add material to, print from, and otherwise manage course materials -- including e-textbooks you buy or rent from Barnes & Noble.

While the software seems useful, the lack of integration with the Nook itself seems like a bizarre limitation. Still, it's a free download, and students who want to collect course and research materials into an online library might as well try it out. Nook Study also lets you try out an e-textbook for free for seven days.

Sample prices: It's $95.50 to buy the digital edition of Geo, $66.50 for a 60-day rental. Psych is unavailable for purchase and costs $70.49 to rent for 180 days.

CengageBrain

CengageBrain is a printed textbook vendor that has recently added an e-textbook department. To support its e-textbooks, the company relies on e-textbook vendor CourseSmart's reader app for Android and iOS devices; you can also read the books in a browser on any computer. As with the other services, you can highlight and annotate the books and print individual pages.

Sample prices: Geo is unavailable. Psych costs $70.49 to rent for a year and $91.49( for two years; individual chapters cost $6.49 each to buy.

Chegg

Chegg, an online hard-copy textbook rental service, has also recently added an e-textbook department. The books are in streaming online format and accessed through a browser, so you need to be connected to the Internet to read them and can't save them locally. Also, you can open each book on only one computer at a time. You can highlight the books and take notes, as well as copy and print from them.

Sample prices: Geo is unavailable. Psych costs $56.39 to rent for 180 days.

Kno

Kno doesn't sell e-textbooks, it only rents them, and you can read its e-textbooks in three ways: on an iPad, on the company's website, or through its Facebook app. That's right, you can study and be on Facebook at the same time!

However you access the books, you can highlight and search the contents. On the iPad, you can create bookmarks, clip images into a digital notebook, share material with other Kno users, and add PDFs to your library by printing from Safari.

Sample prices: Geo is unavailable. Psych costs $70.49 to rent for six months.

A few other options

Just for comparison's sake, we also visited BookRenter, a leading renter of hard-copy textbooks. There, it would cost you $46.39 to rent the Geo book for 90 days, and $43.74 to rent the Psych book for the same amount of time. Those rates are competitive with the e-textbook rentals, suggesting that the primary advantage of e-books is the same for renting textbooks as it is for buying novels: It's just that you don't have to deal with the massive physical objects themselves.

There is another option, and this one's free. OverDrive is a central clearinghouse for searching for and downloading e-books in the collections of participating libraries. The OverDrive Media Console, for mobile devices as well as computers, supports EPUB and PDF e-books as well as MP3 and WMA audiobooks. The selection is hit and miss, though: The Psych book is unavailable, and we found a listing for the Geo book in the Mobipocket Reader format, but without a download link.

Related blog: Swoopthat scoops up college textbook bargains

That's it for this year's guide. Looking for more back-to-school help? Don't miss these handy Web apps for your laptop and smartphone apps for iOS and Android devices.

Jake Widman is a freelance technology writer in San Francisco.

This story, "Back-to-school tech guide 2011" was originally published by Computerworld.

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