15 great gadgets for the back-to-school crowd

Devices that can help you at work or play, in the classroom or the dorm
The Altec Lansing VS3251 offers five 9W satellites with 2.5-in. full-range drivers and a 25W subwoofer for $79.

The Altec Lansing VS3251 offers five 9W satellites with 2.5-in. full-range drivers and a 25W subwoofer for $79.

"Excellence," said John W. Gardner, "is doing ordinary things extraordinarily well." That's worth thinking about with back-to-school time right around the corner. Students these days take their computers everywhere and use them for everything, so with that in mind, here are some ideas for making the back-to-school computer experience an excellent one.

We've selected these devices not only for their quality, but for their small size and portability. And because the popularity of Macs continues to surge on campus, we've looked for products that work with both PCs and Macs. Where a device works only with the PC, we've found comparable Mac products.

So here are 15 devices and services for work and play that will surely help students do extraordinarily well.

On the record

Samson Zoom H2 Handy Recorder

A cheap recorder may do for your day-to-day classes, but if you want to really catch that star lecturer or do some high-class blogging, this is where you start. The Samson Zoom H2 Handy Recorder is about the size of a thick smart phone and weighs just 4 oz., but this is serious audio equipment, make no mistake. Four directional microphones let you record in a variety of two- and four-channel configurations, with full control of gain and levels.

The H2 records in either WAV or MP3 format to SD cards, and is powered by two AA batteries for up to four hours of recording. Capacity is high bordering on the ridiculous: The H2 can accommodate up to a 16GB SDHC card, which at holds 280 hours of MP3 stereo recording.

You can upload files to a PC or Mac via a USB connection, or you can use the H2 as an audio interface to your computer: The H2 includes line and external mike inputs and outputs for USB and headphone/line outputs. The device lists for US$334.95, but it's currently available from online retailers in the US$175 range.

Stick-to-it security

YouGetItBack is a security company with a difference: It assumes that if you give people a chance, they'll do the right thing. It sells brightly colored sticky tags that say "Reward for Return" and include an 800 number and a Web site address. Tags range from US$9.99 to $24.99; different sizes and wording are available. You register your device online, and if it gets lost, all the finder has to do is go to the Web site or call the number, and arrangements will be made for pickup and return.

And what if the person who found it has no intention of giving it back? YouGetItBack offers two products: Mobile Superhero (currently free in beta, eventually about US$20) lets you back up your contact data and remotely lock, unlock and wipe nearly 60 phone models, even if the SIM card is changed. A Global Positioning System feature lets you locate it on a map. Laptop Superhero (which, as of this writing, wasn't yet available) lets you display an "If found, click here to return" screen, trace the IP address of a stolen computer or remotely log it off.

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Back it up

Western Digital My Passport Elite

Western Digital My Passport Studio

It's one of life's great lessons, but one we so often don't learn until it's too late: If you don't want to lose it, back it up. Fortunately, there are many small, easy-to-use USB-powered external hard drives to choose from. The Western Digital My Passport drives have a great pedigree, good features and very affordable prices -- and best of all, there are drives for both PCs and Macs.

The My Passport Elite for PC comes in two capacities (320GB for US$189.99, 240GB for US$149.99) and four colors. It can automatically back up your data with on-disk encryption and is loaded with Western Digital's MioNet Key remote-access software. The Mac-formatted My Passport Studio drives don't come with automatic backup software, but if you've upgraded to OS X Leopard, the drive is compatible with Apple's Time Machine backup utility -- and if you haven't, there are several applications available that do incremental backup. The three models -- 320GB for US$199.99, 240GB for US$159.99 and 160GB for US$129.99 -- all include FireWire ports as well as USB.

A key improvement

Matias USB 2.0 keyboard

If you're a fan of the new minilaptops such as the Asus Eee, you already know that while they are great for toting around, those little keyboards can be a pain to use. The Matias USB 2.0 (US$34.95) is a full-size 104-key keyboard with three extra volume-control keys. Its intelligent layout even moves the Caps Lock key away from the left Shift key so you won't hit it by mistake.

Even better, the Matias keyboard includes two USB 1.1 ports and a USB 2.0 port right on top of the unit so you can conveniently plug in and charge your iPod, or quickly transfer photos from your camera. (There's no smoke and mirrors here: The keyboard connects to two USB ports on your computer.)

The Matias USB 2.0 keyboard is available in a black model, which is compatible with PCs and Macs, and a white Mac-only version.

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Work the angles

LapWorks Futura

If you're going to use an add-on keyboard like the Matias USB 2.0 unit with your laptop, you might also want a desktop stand that helps elevate the laptop's screen to a more comfortable viewing angle. The LapWorks Futura does that and more: The slotted Futura opens into a flat lap desk, which helps cool your laptop (and your lap) and provides a larger, more secure surface for the computer. And you can add accessories like a clip-on mouse platform and a desktop turntable.

The Futura is US$29.95 in black, but you may prefer the brightly colored versions (including camo and leopard) that go for US$49.95. LapWorks has other models available for particularly large or small laptops as well.

Phone home

Philips VOIP151 Travel Phone for Skype

Ipevo Free.2

Skype is a popular voice-over-IP (VoIP) service that goes everywhere, keeps you in touch, and doesn't cost an arm and a leg. But while there are all kinds of handsets, speaker phones and headsets on the market for those who want something better than your basic computer mic, most of them are expensive and simply not very good.

The new Philips Travel Phone (US$25.99) for Skype is different. It plugs into your computer via USB, so you can use it with networks that require you to log in via a Web browser. It's compact and includes a place to wind up the cable, so it's easy to throw in a backpack and carry with you. And it displays your Skype contact list on its own readout, so you don't have to sit in front of your laptop to make calls.

Unfortunately, the Travel Phone is PC-only, so if you're a Machead, your best bet is the Ipevo Free.2. It's bigger and has a snazzier design -- and is also more expensive: It lists for $79.99, but is available for around $40. But it's available in Mac white as well as black, has a four-line display, and a call-recording feature in its driver software.

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Easy readers

Amazon Kindle

Sony Reader

Bookeen Cybook Gen3

The Amazon Kindle (US$359) has kick-started the market for electronic book readers, also known as e-readers. The Kindle has been hailed as the next iPod, and at last it's in stock on a regular basis. The device's built-in wireless connection for downloading books, magazines and newspapers may be the killer app that puts an e-reader in every hand.

But the Kindle is not the only fish in this particular sea -- Sony's Reader (US$299.99) and the Bookeen Cybook Gen3 (US$350) don't have Kindle's wireless flash, but they do have some features that make them worth consideration. The Sony device has a dedicated music player and a JPEG viewer. It's more computer-centric -- you have to download texts to it from a PC, and Macs need not apply -- but it handles common file formats like RTF and PDF without the e-mail conversion process the Kindle requires.

The Cybook handles even more document formats natively, and it can download and use TrueType fonts and display right-to-left languages. Your chemistry textbook may not come in e-reader format yet -- but it will. Get ahead of the curve.

TV tuners on a stick

Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950Q

Elgato EyeTV Hybrid

If you're going to build your life around your laptop, then of course you're going to watch TV on it, right? And the most portable way to do that is with a USB stick TV tuner.

Hauppauge Computer Works, one of the oldest integrators of TVs and PCs, has recently come out with its updated 950Q USB tuner for US$99. The "Q" in this case means support for Clear QAM, the digital TV format that can be used for many unencrypted cable TV channels in addition to legacy NTSC analog broadcast TV signals and ATSC, the new digital over-the-air TV format. The Windows-only 950Q includes WinTV v6, Hauppauge's own TV display/recorder application that provides a Web-based program guide and records programs to your hard drive.

If you're a Mac user, Elgato's EyeTV Hybrid USB tuner stick (US$149.95) also handles NTSC, ASTC and QAM, and it includes a TV viewing app and program guide service. In addition, it uses a software encoder for recording.

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The fine print

Lexmark X4650

For a long time, multifunction printer/scanner/copier units were too big for dorm rooms. But that's changing. The Lexmark X4650 is a compact 7 by 18 by 13 in. with its trays folded up, and its US$129.95 price is comparably compact as well. It's fast enough for long papers -- up to 25 pages of text per minute.

The device also has good features for printing color photographs. It prints directly from USB flash drives, most of the standard memory-card formats and PictBridge-compatible digital cameras. The X4650 makes borderless prints in the standard photo sizes from both digital files and scanned images, is compatible with PCs and Macs, and best of all, it's wireless -- it works on 802.11b/g networks (in addition to a USB connection, of course), so if you've got a wireless LAN running, you can share it with your roommates.

Sound speaker decision

Altec Lansing VS3251

Headphones are a necessity when you live in close quarters -- your roommate may not share your taste in Wagnerian opera -- but when your roommate is away, you want to pump up the volume. That's when you need the Altec Lansing FX5051 six-channel USB sound system. It includes one center and four satellite speakers, dual 6.5-in. woofers, six-channel surround mode for games (even if you don't have a six-channel sound card), and 2/4 Channel Mode for wraparound sound from MP3 players and CD players. At US$249.95 list, it's a good place to invest that back-to-school check from your favorite aunt.

If you need to economize, there's the Altec Lansing VS3251 for little more than pizza money -- US$79 including five 9W satellite speakers with 2.5-in. full-range drivers and a 25W subwoofer with 5-in. driver. Both systems come with a wireless remote control.

Note: While both of these units from Altec Lansing Technologies will work fine with Macs for music, they aren't officially approved for surround-sound gaming or movie soundtracks. Unofficially, the FX5051 can be configured for 5.1 channel sound on a Mac; see's review for tips.

Freelance writer David DeJean began writing about computers after Cobol but before C++. He has worked for newspapers, magazines, trade publications and Web sites.