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Gadgets for today’s digital classroom.

Gone are the days when back-to-school shopping meant pens, pencils, paper, and books. As schoolwork becomes increasingly digital, students need tools that can transform notes and quotes into bits and bytes. The center of this activity is, of course, a computer. But the computer is only the beginning. With a host of handy peripherals, you can leave your PC in your dorm room and still capture all the data you need from classes and library research. Following is our gadget shopping list for the coming school year.

Electronic notebooks

The first thing you will need for school is a solid laptop. Sure, you can get by with using the labs, but you want to work in privacy on your own schedule, not in a crowded lab only when the best computers are available. You could use a desktop computer in your dorm room and save a chunk of money. But you’ll be glad you spent the extra $500 or so for all the flexibility you get from a laptop. If you skimp and buy a desktop, you will find yourself wishing you had a laptop on several occasions. For example, when your roommate wants to entertain or watch TV, you could just tote your laptop to the library; or when you go home to do laundry and you need to get a project done, you can bring your work with you. A laptop is worth the money every time you want to produce schoolwork outside of the dorm.

I tested two laptops for this piece: A solid, cost-effective IBM R31; and a top-of-the-line Toshiba Satellite system. For most school projects, the IBM would work just fine. At just over $1,200, it may not be the cheapest machine, but IBM bundles in lots of system management features, making it the most reliable low-cost laptop on the market. For example, a simple Thinkpad button lets you access all of these system management functions, such as back-up and restore. Also, a partition on the hard drive keeps an image of the system in case of fatal errors. Tip: Get a three-year warranty. Laptops are hard to fix even for hobbyists. You’ll want a warranty for the useful life of the product.

Its 128 MB of RAM is a bit skimpy, it’s on the heavy side, and it’s not loaded with fun features. But it is solid, reliable, durable, and reasonably priced. One hint: Get an external USB mouse. Trackpoints will slow you down more than a lack of RAM or other system issues.

Sure, the IBM is a solid, if stodgy choice. But let’s face it, all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. The Toshiba is specially equipped for those times when you need that gaming adrenaline rush to break writer’s block. With its built-in nVidia graphics card, extra-bright screen, and built-in Harmon Kardon speakers, this system can play games with the best of the PCs on the market. (Note: Get a game controller if you don’t want to get killed repeatedly trying to maneuver with the touch pad.) It costs about $1,000 more than the IBM, but the way it plays DVDs and games, procrastinators with access to daddy’s wallet will whine their way to taking this one to school.

Whichever laptop you purchase, make sure you get a Kensington lock for it. Laptops are hot commodities on college campuses. If yours is stolen, you will not only lose the value of the machine, but all the data on your hard disk as well.

Wi-Fi gear

One of the advantages of IBM Thinkpads is unprecedented networking support. IBM has developed software that finds available networks and helps users connect with them seamlessly. Such is the case with Wi-Fi Internet and wireless LANs. With the right gear, you can connect to the Internet via hot spots at your favorite coffee shop or library. With the Wi-Fi antennas and the right software, you might actually get some work done between discussions of vegetarianism and globalization.

The R31 has built-in antennas and software that simply queries you for the name of the Wi-Fi access point. Once I entered the info in at the coffee shop near my office, I was cruising the Web with my beverage of choice-a quadruple espresso. If your laptop doesn’t have built-in Wi-Fi, PCMCIA cards from Orinoco do the trick. My searches found used cards for $72.

College campuses are hooking up hot spots in dorms, libraries, and even on the quad so that their laptop-toting students and faculty can access the Internet without breathing stale basement air.

Pens that do data

How do you take notes? Do you take pen to paper, gather the notes together and transcribe them into their relevant places in your reports? If you answered yes to these questions, you can reduce the burdens of transcription. I tested two products that digitize the note-taking and book-quoting processes. Neither was perfect, but lazy typists will find they are worth the price tag.

Seiko’s InkLink is a two-piece device that imports notes into your computer. Simply connect the data clip to a standard notebook, plug the unit into a USB port in your laptop (or use IrDA with a Palm or PocketPC device) and take notes with the pen. Your notes will appear on screen just as they look on your notebook. It worked well for me, after some initial tinkering with connections.

My only complaint about the product relates to the limitations of the software; I wish it turned handwritten notes into text. If you want to turn your notes into text (à la Windows XP’s built-in feature for tablet PCs or pen mice) you will need third-party software. Try exporting the notes into PenOffice 2.2 from ParaGraph software. InkLink retails for around $100 and PenOffice goes for around $50 for the English-only version, $70 for multilanguage support.

If you find yourself transcribing quotes from books and papers in the process of your research, Image Recognition Integrated Systems Group makes a good solution. The IRISPen II Executive is a small hand scanner that easily imports text into any word processing program one line at a time. Simply plug the unit into a USB port on your laptop, and scan the text in. The scanner I tested had some trouble with the first letter of the lines I scanned, but it reduced key strokes by 99 percent compared with rekeying quotes. Depending on how much quoting you do in your schoolwork, the $130 price tag for online purchases may be well worth it.

Calculators as PC peripherals

Most students who are interested in computer science or electrical engineering will need a good calculator to get through the two years of high-level math required by most institutes of technology. And boy, have calculators come a long way since I took calculus as an undergraduate. The new breed of calculator is more powerful than most computers. For example, the Texas Instruments TI-83 Plus I tested can act like a handheld computer in every way except wireless networking, including graphing complex multivariable equations in three dimensions.

I know what you’re thinking. Why would you want a handheld calculator when your laptop can do everything a calculator can do and then some? Well, you don’t want to lug that laptop around all day if you don’t have to. The idea is to have the laptop as the mothership PC with several satellite application-specific computers to lighten your load. And this is where the TI-83 Plus really shines. Not only does the interface make calculating easier than most PC calculus applications, it can link up with your PC via serial link. Go to math class and do almost all of your note taking, charting, plotting, and graphing on the TI-83 Plus. Bring it back to the dorm and upload it into the laptop for further analysis, reporting, or sharing your notes with classmates via the Internet. You can get one of these babies for $126 directly from Calculators Inc. You may even do better at your college bookstore.

Staying connected

If you want to stay connected on campus and leave the laptop back at the dorm, you’ll need a handheld computer that does wireless Internet. I’ve been testing handheld computers since the Newton, and I’ve been very disappointed in this category. My main problem is with the built-in handwriting recognition programs. Graffiti, built into the Palm OS, is the handwriting recognition program that Apple rejected in the first Newton designs. Millions of users have suffered through this long learning curve because of Palm’s other features-long battery life, easy synching, and easy-to-use organizing applications. The handwriting recognition program in the Pocket PC (e.g., HP’s iPaq) is better. But neither gives you an easy way to import text. This is why the RIM Blackberry is so popular. People like the built-in keyboard for the one task they’re most interested in-real-time e-mail. But Blackberry doesn’t do the organizing and other functions that either Palm or Pocket PC devices offer. Because for all the trade-offs you have to make, I have yet to commit to a handheld computing platform.

Well, I’ve finally found a palm PC that lacks trade-offs. It’s the Handspring Treo 180 and not only does it do all the organizing that the Palm OS offers, but it also has a built-in keyboard and a mobile phone that does paging and instant messaging (IM). Those guys with three or four things hanging off their belts can now reduce that to just one. And users (like me) who waited to commit to a handheld computer/phone can wait no longer.

Docking the unit to the mothership is easy-another USB connection. (Note: Get a USB hub for your laptop. You obviously can’t connect all these devices and a printer, external mouse and keyboard, etc. without a hub.) With a little work, you can synch all your PC organizational tools and e-mail with your Treo applications. And Handspring now offers Blackberry-style real-time e-mail as well. You can use your InkLink system with the Treo (clip on the IrDA adapter) and save your paper notes for uploading into your PC later, saving your back and shoulders from the laptop in the process. (Note: You may want to use the Treo’s Smart Media capabilities for this.)

The only drawbacks are limited wireless provider networks and price. My unit hooks into VoiceStream and Cingular, which is just fine for calling but a bit sluggish for Internet use. By the time you read this, the Treo may work with Sprint, which has faster CDMA2000 Internet connections (about 10 times faster than VoiceStream’s GSM Internet). VoiceStream is supposed to be working on a Wideband wireless system, but its high cost and long development time will make rollout and debugging slow. Still, the wireless Web is not all that it’s cracked up to be anyway, as my tests of a LG/Sprint system indicate. (If you can’t wait until you’re back at your desk to find out if Jack Nicklaus’s back will allow him to enter the next Senior Tour event, you need to get a life.) So this drawback is not much of one. You still have all the phone/paging/IM capabilities combined with the organizing/synching/ short notes capabilities in one unit.

As for the price, the cheapest unit I found online was $489. You should be able to get a better price through VoiceStream, but you’ll have to do a lot of whining to get the folks to cough up the dough for one of these puppies. While you’re begging, you might mention that a Palm organizer and a cell phone together cost about as much as a Treo. So it really isn’t that expensive if you consider all that it can do.

With all these gadgets in your bag, you should be ready to get the most out of your time at school. You may want a printer, but I suggest printing in the labs. The best way to save money on gadgets at college is to let the labs pick up the cost of ink and paper. The gadgets above can really reduce your research burdens, leaving more time for what you really want to go to college for-the extracurricular activities!

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