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  • John Bell

Tech Sense: Back 2 School 2018 Edition

It's that time of year again, and this month we have our annual back-to-school column. This year, let's start by taking a look at the equipment your student may need.

The Computer

Most students heading off for college will need a laptop computer. If your student is in a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) program, you should be looking for a computer with an Intel Core I5 CPU, 8 gigabytes of RAM, a 512-gigabyte or larger hard drive, and a 1920 by 1080 (or higher) resolution screen. The 15.9-inch screens are large and easy to see for gaming and watching streaming video but may be bulky if the student needs to carry the computer to class. Consider a smaller 14-inch or smaller display if the computer will be carried to class. Built-in Radeon or NVidia graphics give a boost for students also using the computer for gaming or for creating media like photos, video, or other art. Most laptops will also include a built-in web camera.

Students with basic needs to do word processing, browse the web, access email, and run other office-oriented software may find that inexpensive Chromebooks or Celeron-based Windows 10 computers are sufficient for their needs.

All modern laptops should have Wi-Fi for wireless networking, an Ethernet connector for wired networking, Bluetooth for connecting to headsets, keyboards, and mice, plus USB 2 and USB 3 ports for connecting other devices. Headphone jacks and video ports (HDMI or VGA) should also be included. Battery life should be at least 4 hours, and a removable battery is a plus.


A printer is often necessary for printing assignments. For most students, a low-cost inkjet printer should be sufficient. Look for a printer that has separate ink tanks for each color: black, yellow, cyan, and magenta. Some printers may have two black ink tanks or have more colors including grey to be able to print better photos. These features are typically not important for most student work. Also look for printers with affordable ink tanks available from third parties. Canon and Brother are both good examples. Duplex printing where the printer can automatically print on both sides of the paper is also useful and saves paper. Consider an all-in-one inkjet that includes a scanner as well.

Inexpensive laser printers are faster and less expensive to operate than inkjet printers, but these laser printers typically do not print in color. Laser printers are not recommended because most students do not print a large number of pages and wouldn't benefit from the savings.

Some printers can be connected wirelessly. A wireless printer can be placed anywhere in the dorm room and does not need to be connected by a cable to print.

Other Computer Accessories

A wireless mouse and keyboard are useful so the student doesn't have to sit right next to the laptop as they are working in the dorm room. USB or wireless Bluetooth speakers will provide better sound from the computer. Bluetooth has the advantage in that it will work with a phone or tablet as well. The student should also have several USB thumb drives or an external hard drive to back up their files. Cloud backup services like Microsoft's OneDrive or Google Drive are both good alternatives for backup and file sharing.

If the computer has an HDMI output and the student has a TV, then an HDMI cable allows the computer to be plugged into the TV for display. Chromecast or a Roku that supports Miracast can also be used to send the screen output to a TV.

A powered USB hub supports plugging peripherals like a printer, an extra hard drive, DVD drive, speakers, wired keyboard, wired mouse, and microphones or headsets to the computer. A major advantage to using the hub for this is that there is only one wire that needs to be disconnected from the laptop to take the computer with you. A powered hub can better support power-hungry accessories like hard drives. Don't forget to pack the USB cables to connect these devices.

A computer cable lock should also be purchased so the computer can be locked to the student's desk. It seems computers disappear quickly from dorm and study rooms if not locked down.


I personally do not care to take notes on my computer. Instead, I use a tablet (my current choice is an 8-inch Asus Zen tablet that sells for less than $130 on Amazon). Tablets are smaller, lighter weight, and easier to carry than laptops, and I can easily share the files with my computer. Tablets are also good tools for storing and reading e-books, including textbooks. Most tablets can be used with a small Bluetooth keyboard if you are not comfortable with using the on-screen keyboard. While I find tablets to be ideal for taking notes, I prefer a computer to create longer documents like papers.


Unless there is a specific class requirement, I do not recommend buying a calculator for a college student. The computer, phone, or tablet should be sufficient. Simply use the installed calculator program or download and use one that meets your needs. There may be some classes that require the use of a calculator with certain capabilities and will not allow a computer or phone to be used for exams. In this case, a calculator will be needed, but the allowed calculators will often be specific to the class. That's it for this month. Have a great first day of school!

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