Tools of the trade: What back-to-school gadgets students need

Sean F. Driscoll

Gone are the days when a protractor, graph paper and a brand-new eraser were the must-have tools for school.

Today it’s the laptop, MP3 player and flash drive many students want when they set foot in class again.

According to the National Retail Federation, a quarter of parents’ back-to-school spending will go toward electronics this year. Although it’s not the biggest part of the average $594.34 bill (that’s the clothing budget), electronics spending is up 17 percent this year over 2007, the biggest increase in four categories measured.

Steve Koening, director of industry analysis for the Consumer Electronics Association, said families often take advantage of sales to get newer devices.

“There may be some opportunities around back-to-school shopping for some parents and college students to upgrade, like changing their phones to a more robust model with a camera or wireless Internet,” he said.

The must-haves

Laptop: Virtually essential for college students, but kids of all ages are doing their computing on the go.

Koening said several laptop models are less than $1,000 and are well-suited to college students, and desktop models can be even cheaper. Students, however, are becoming very accustomed to having their computers on the go.

“They develop this mobility as early as junior high. That’s what translates into that college experience,” he said. Brandon Wirtjes, a member of the Geek Squad at Best Buy in Rockford, said the Apple laptops have been hot sellers this year. The hottest seller of the bunch is the MacBook Pro, which comes pre-loaded with iTunes, an integrated webcam and software to manage photos and video recordings. It retails for $2,000 and up.

USB thumb drive: Can carry files, programs, pictures in a device just a few inches long and can attach to a key ring, be carried on a lanyard or in a pocket. Models start at about $10 for a gigabyte of storage.

“These replace the old floppy disks. One of these can carry a thousand times old floppy drives,” Wirtjes said.

Cell phone: Students at younger and younger ages are carrying them, and their needs from their phones are ever-changing.

“We sell a lot of phones with the full keyboards so they can text easier,” said Mike Mallon, wireless sales consultant at Best Buy. He said phones with full Internet capabilities, similar to the iPhone, are also becoming popular.

Many phones come free with service contracts, or a pay-as-you-go phone can be bought for $100 or less in many cases.

Portable music: Although many parents might consider an iPod or MP3 player a luxury, schools like Rock Valley College are using digital recordings more in their class work.

“Podcasting is becoming an educational tool,” Koening said. “Professors record their lectures and upload them to their blogs.”

The podcasts can usually be played on a computer, not just a portable MP3 player. Still, students and their music are hard to separate. MP3 players come in virtually any size and shape imaginable; the cheapest iPod, the Shuffle, retails for $49.

“I couldn’t live without my iPod,” Mallon said.

The nice-to-haves

Koening said a tight economy may be cutting some of these once-essential toys out of a family’s budget.

“The primary focus seems to be on technological tools and less on technological toys,” he said.

For those who want more bells and whistles with their school experience, here are some ideas from Rockford College.

A game system: The PlayStation 3 remains the gold standard, especially for college students setting up their dorm room homes. It costs about $400.

“It plays Blu-Ray (high definition discs), DVDs and the games,” said Montrae Starks, a home office supervisor at Best Buy. “It does it all.”

Personal digital assistant: Bonnie Johnson, director of information technology at Rockford College, suggested the hand-held computers for nursing students and some pursuing teaching degrees.

Mallon, however, said the new generation of “smartphones” have all the computing power of a PDA, plus the telephone. Prices vary widely, based on service contract, but phones sold without a contract retail for around $400 on the Best Buy Web site.

“If you have half an hour between class, you can work on your papers and make edits while you wait,” he said.

Sean F. Driscoll can be reached at (815) 987-1346

Back-to-school spending

                                 2008         2007     change

Total:                     $594.34   $563.48   5.5%

Electronics:          $151.61   $129.24   17.3%

Clothing:               $234.51   $231.80   1.2%

Shoes:                   $109.75   $108.42   1.2%

School supplies: $98.47      $94.02     4.7%

Source: National Retail Federation