Wired Kids!

As Americans begin their college years, more are taking with them the latest computing, musical and video equipment

March 05, 2001|By Julio Ojeda-Zapata | Julio Ojeda-Zapata,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Strolling through a college dorm in the late 1970s or the early 1980s, you weren't likely to see anything more high-tech than an LP turntable, a color TV or, perhaps, a computer-science student communicating with a far-off mainframe computer using a primitive video terminal and a pokey modem.

The personal-computer age had dawned, but relatively few students took their own MS-DOS PCs or Apple machines to school along with their electric typewriters and Led Zeppelin posters. Their main on-campus exposure to PCs, if they were lucky, involved communal labs where they wrote their papers and perhaps dabbled in a bit of number crunching or desktop publishing.

Internet access? Forget it.

How times have changed. Chat with students today, and you may get dizzy as they list their digital gadgetry, which they use for education and entertainment.

From laptops and handheld organizers to portable MP3-music players and complex dorm-room video gear, college kids are increasingly on the cutting edge of computer technology and consumer electronics.

Take University of Minnesota student David Lindeman, whose high-tech arsenal includes a Power Macintosh G4 Cube computer, a Sony MP3 Walkman, a Palm IIIx handheld computer, a laptop, a pager, two digital-still cameras and a digital-video camcorder. "I tend to like little gadgets and toys," he says.

So do a growing number of college students, according to a recent SWR Worldwide study commissioned by the Best Buy electronics superstore chain, which compared the technological tastes and habits of 1990 students to those of 2000. Findings were based on a survey of 500 current freshmen and 500 adults who were freshmen a decade ago. Among the findings:

More than half of today's freshmen have brought a laptop or desktop computer to college, compared with only 13 percent in 1990.

About 24 percent of today's students said they plan to bring a laptop to class regularly, compared with just 4 percent in 1990.

Twenty percent use cell phones and 11 percent use pagers.

The use of CD players has risen from 20 to 44 percent. Thirteen percent of the students use portable CD players.

Most colleges either require or highly recommend computers. But new gadgets - including interactive Webcams, wireless PC mice, Palm organizers and even robotic miniature dogs - are new status symbols in lecture halls and cafeterias, if conversations with students are any indication.

"We're all into the MP3 stuff, MiniDisc players, Walkmans, boom boxes," says Tommy Singh, a student at Silicon Valley's Foothill College in California. "Practically everyone I know has at least one of these things," and he says most of his friends have more than a dozen digital devices crammed into their apartments, dorm rooms or frat houses.

Handheld computers or "personal digital assistants" are becoming popular among college students, too.

"I guess the largest portion of my gadget time is spent with my Palm," says Lindeman, who uses the pocket device obsessively for scheduling, appointment-keeping and "keeping track of all the nice-looking girls' phone numbers." The Palm "is especially cool when I come in contact with another person who has a Palm," he adds. "He could be sitting on a bench and not suspect a thing, and I could beam him a message over infrared."

The Internet is now a crucial campus element, too. Its value for e-mail and Web research is well-documented, but college students increasingly use it in novel ways.

Online file storage, for instance, is becoming a way of life with a profusion of services that allow students to put their text documents and MP3-music files on Web servers for safekeeping. San Francisco-based i-drive has been particularly aggressive in lobbying schools such as Stanford University to serve as students' official online-storage service provider.

Web-based e-mail and voice mail is big, too. "The first thing I tell all freshmen at orientation is go to www.onebox.com for a free (Web-mail account, voice mail) and a fax number," says Andrew Fairbanks, public-relations director for the San Francisco-based Art Institutes International. "You can retrieve your messages either by phone or on a computer."

Fairbanks likes Onebox.com so much that seniors who seek his help in career placement are required to use the service.

Gadget mania tends to be a guy thing. Male students are almost twice as likely to bring a pager to class, more than twice as likely to use a DVD player at school, and four times as likely to use a videogame console at school, according to the Best Buy-sponsored survey.

The personal computer figures prominently in dorm-room entertainment, too, says St. Olaf College student Richard Kurhajetz.

"Nearly no one uses actual CD players or tape players anymore," he argues.

"All students do these days is buy a high-powered receiver and a nice surround-sound system, then hook their computers directly into that. (In this) way, you can store your entire music collection on your computer without having to switch CDs."

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