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posted: 7/17/2011 6:07 AM

How to pick back-to-school electronics

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  • Gadgets have become a staple in back-to-school shopping, but do your kids really need their own e-reader, laptop and printer?

      Gadgets have become a staple in back-to-school shopping, but do your kids really need their own e-reader, laptop and printer?
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Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Does your college student really need an iPad? Is it better to skimp and go for a netbook? Or should you invest in a top-flight laptop?

Electronics have become necessities for students heading to college, but it's easy to spend too much or buy overly elaborate or redundant gadgets. And some that used to be essential aren't even needed anymore.

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Here's what to shell out for and how to save on electronics for your student.

Computing: Gone are the days when parents had to lug a desktop to their child's dorm room -- or when students could, gasp, rely on their schools' computer labs and bring nothing high-tech at all.

"The laptop is at the top of everybody's list, and they're getting cheaper than ever," says Andrew Eisner, director of content at Retrevo.com, a consumer electronics review and shopping site. "You can get a lot of laptop for about 500 bucks."

Indeed, a fully serviceable PC laptop from any of a variety of makers will run about $500, while a Mac laptop from Apple Inc. with similar capabilities will cost $1,000 or more.

Netbooks, which run $200 to $300 and are streamlined versions of laptops with a bit less functionality (no DVD player, for instance), are definitely the budget option. But they have sharply declined in popularity with the advent of tablets.

So who should buy what? An English major who just plans to type up papers would be fine with a netbook, but an engineering student will need the juice a laptop provides. Film or art students will likely favor a Mac because Apple offers the best editing software.

Your student probably thinks a tablet would be cool, but it's hardly a necessity, particularly if she or he has a fairly new laptop. And it's still a significant expense: Apple Inc.'s iPad2 starts at $499; other popular tablets include Motorola Xoom, which costs $800 (or $600 if the buyer agrees to a two-year data contract with Verizon Wireless) and the $500 Samsung Galaxy.

Still, tablets are a definite trend on campus.

"What we're starting to see is some movement towards kids in a college setting having a second computing device," says Stephen Baker, an analyst with research firm NPD Group.

E-readers: Despite the rising popularity of e-book forms of textbooks on some campuses, e-book readers themselves simply aren't necessary because e-book software is free, and it will work on your PC, smartphone, laptop or tablet.

That said, e-book readers like the Nook from Barnes & Noble Inc., the Kindle from Amazon Inc. and other devices can offer some conveniences, including having a much longer battery life and being lighter and smaller than laptops. Some also are smaller than some tablets. The Kindle starts at $114 with ads and $139 without; other versions that can connect to 3G networks run up to $379. The NookColor is $249, while a black-and-white, Wi-Fi-only version is $139. A variety of other e-book readers cost about the same.

Smartphones: Many students heading off to college probably already have a smartphone. Even more than a lifeline for students addressing their everyday needs, smartphones can be helpful educational tools, says Jim Barry, spokesman for the trade group the Consumer Electronics Association.

"They have alarm clocks, dictionary apps, apps for flash cards," and many other uses, he says. "You could go back to school with a laptop and a smartphone and you would probably be really covered."

And they're getting less expensive to own. Parents footing smartphone bills because they want to keep lines of communication open will want to look into prepaid data plans, which can wind up costing less than a monthly individual contract. Virgin Mobile, Sprint, T-Mobile and others all offer prepaid plans that work out to only $30 or $35 a month for unlimited talk, text and data, about half the monthly fee for a contract, as long as you buy the phone, according to Alex Goldfayn, a consumer electronics marketing consultant known as "The Technology Tailor."

Printers: Many high school teachers and college professors now accept assignments by email; some even require electronic submission to facilitate plagiarism checks. And most campuses have black and white printers that students can use for free or very low cost. So students can likely make do without printers of their own.

But it is still a good idea to bring one -- particularly because many can be had for cheap. A combination printer, scanner and fax runs about $100. And if you share the cost of ink or toner with roommates, that ill bring down the price of keeping your printer stocked.

"That's one you might want to wait on and have the student purchase at the university book store or have them buy something online if they find out they have a real need," says NPD Group's Baker.

Gadgets to consider: At about $1 or $2 per gigabyte, a USB "flash" drive can make it easy to carry files and data back and forth to class or to a printer. And a Bluetooth headset or other earpiece, which cost $20 to $50, will help your student cut down on the radiation generated by a cellphone held to the ear.

If your school doesn't offer a free service for backing up data and critical information, you may want to buy an external hard drive, which costs $50 to $100, or pay a monthly fee for a cloud service to keep important information backed up.

Also, most teens will want to listen to music stored on their computers or iPods, making speakers a consideration. iPod docs and room-size speakers both start around $30 but can run to hundreds of dollars, depending on quality and capabilities.

Gadgets to skip: GPS devices and video recorders are likely unnecessary for most students because smartphones perform those functions as well or better.

And forget about standalone DVD players, stereos and TVs: So 20th century.

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