Back to School Tech
As a new school year rapidly approaches, parents everywhere are pondering, “What tech tools do my kids really need to succeed?” Here’s a rundown of the most helpful computer and gadget choices for every age of student.
College Co-Ed: When it comes to outfitting your college-bound kiddo, it’s all about reliable mobility. The most useful tool for any college student is a lightweight laptop. While a smaller screen usually corresponds with a lighter device, you want to be sure that the keyboard and screen are large enough to accommodate the strain of spending long, sleepless nights typing out a thesis paper. Look for a good fit in the 13-15” range, weighing under 5 lbs to accommodate schlepping it back and forth to class and study group.
One of the most common questions I get from parents of college students is whether or not to invest in a tablet like an iPad or Google Nexus. The answer is, “maybe.” If your student takes a lot of notes in class, a tablet armed with Evernote (free), the Penultimate add-on (also free) and a compatible stylus like the Jot Script Evernote Edition ($74.95) will let your co-ed take handwritten notes on the tablet’s screen. Notes are stored in Evernote to be sorted and organized or shared, and the software has handwriting recognition capability so that when it comes time to study for exams you can search for text throughout your handwritten notes. If only this had been around for that comparative lit course I took in college.
Other than cool new age note taking and easy access to research on the fly (provided they have Internet access via school-provided WiFi or a cell phone with tethering capability), a tablet is most likely to turn into a gaming device. Consider instead a hybrid device like the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 2 ($1,100) that offers laptop functionality with a full size keyboard that folds completely back to transform the device into a touchscreen tablet.
If your kid is armed with an arsenal of mobile devices, don’t forget a backup battery source. There are lots of options, from solar powered to ultra-tiny. I like the Anker Astro series of battery packs which pack enough juice to charge your Smartphone several times or give your tablet a boost, and are roughly the size of a candy bar. They’re available through Amazon and prices range from $28 to $37 depending on model, charging capacity, and the types of devices you need to power.need to get the family computer working again before school starts? talk to a nerd now!
High Schoolers: With your child’s growing independence and autonomy comes a need for controlled mobility. A stay-at-home laptop can be a great solution to allow Jr. to work on their homework or research project in peace during normal hours, while you still have the option to remove the device from their room so they don’t stay up all night playing Minecraft.
If you aren’t going to be taking the laptop on the road, larger screen size and durability trump lightweight and small. Look for a device with plenty of ports (particularly a good number of USB ports, and Ethernet jack and at least one HDMI) so that you can connect the device to an external monitor, share files quickly between systems, and sync all the various USB devices that your kid has likely acquired over the years.
A good quality color ink-jet printer will also come in handy for printing out those colorful science project graphs, or their presentation on the Life of Mark Twain. Look for a model that has separate cartridges for each ink color so that you don’t have to replace a pricey multi-color cartridge if your kid goes through his own “blue period.”
Grade Schooler: The key to giving your youngster computer access is a shared understanding that mom and dad always know what they’re doing. For kids under the age of 14, I recommend a shared family desktop computer located in a conspicuous public area. Even if you load your PC up with parental control software, there’s nothing to compare with good old fashioned physical oversight. You’ll know when your little one gets on the computer and be able to see at a glance if they’re straying off the homework path.
Parental control software is important when your children are young. Net Nanny ($39.99) makes a great product that not only blocks unsavory sites, but does real-time scans of webpage content to distinguish good and bad web pages within a site. You can set up separate accounts and permissions for each of your kids – as well as a password protected administrator account for yourself – and even establish pre-set time limits for use. It monitors web access and social media, IM and chat applications, blocks obscenities within websites, and blocks the installation of games outside your approved ESRB-rating range. It offers parents reports of what your little one is doing online, and allows for remote configuration.
A printer will likely come in handy (see earlier recommendations), but you don’t need to shell out for a tablet and I’d recommend strongly against getting a Smartphone for a pre-teen.