Don't send computer off to college till it's equipped

August 15, 2002|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

If you have a student headed to college for the first time, you've probably bought a computer by now. It was a big expense, and undoubtedly the object of more than a little anguish. But before you load it into the car, it's a good idea to stock up on the extras that will keep your student's computer and other electronic gadgets running properly.

Now you're saying, "Hey, I've done my part. The kid can get the other stuff when he gets to school." Wrong. The average 18-year-old has the foresight of a Labrador retriever and is about as likely to spend time thinking about ways to maintain the equipment you've just paid for as he is to ponder retirement strategies.

So, do some last-minute shopping to protect your investment and keep everything working.

First and foremost, make sure the computer has an active virus checker. Most new PCs come with an antivirus program installed, but it's often a 30- or 90-day package with a $20 to $30 additional charge for regular, automatic updates.

Log onto the manufacturer's Web site and buy the update subscription right now. I neglected to do this when my younger son headed off to college last year, forgetting that campus networks are to viruses what swamps are to mosquitos.

When he got home in the spring and plugged his computer into our network, his machine was swarming with nasty visitors. We only caught them because our machines had up-to-date antivirus software - when the lad shared his hard drive, our watchdogs sniffed out the bad guys and warned us. Don't leave it to chance.

The next-most important computer accessory is a good surge suppressor. Built into power strips, surge suppressors protect PCs against electrical spikes and surges that can occur in large campus buildings even under the best of circumstances.

They'll also help protect the PC against spikes that result from storm-induced power outages. These electrical disturbances can trash a computer - usually when a paper is due the next day.

Most power strips have some sort of surge protection built in, but to make sure you're getting the real thing, look for one that meets Underwriters Laboratories 1449 certification as a "Transient Voltage Surge Suppressor."

The power strip should have its own on-off switch and a glowing indicator that tells you whether the surge protection is still active.

Every time a power strip blocks a surge, its capacity to block future surges is reduced, and an indicator light is the only way you can tell whether the outlets are still protected. Not that your kid will bother to look, but at least you'll feel better. Good power strips that meet these standards are available for $20 to $40, and they're worth the money. If your student is an upperclassman, check any existing power strips before you pack them to make sure they're still activated.

Speaking of power, college dormitory planners adhere religiously to two rules: (1) Make sure there are never enough outlets and (2) Put those outlets in the most inconvenient locations, such as behind beds and ancient, 700-pound dressers. Trust me on this - I've been through it in five dormitories. Buy a couple of extra power strips with the longest cords you can find, along with a couple of heavy-duty extension cords.

Also, look for power strips with outlets spaced far enough apart to accommodate those square power blocks that portable gadget makers put on the ends of the cords to annoy their customers.

Most dorms are wired into the campus network these days, so you'll also need a cable (known as a Category 5 ethernet cable) that connects your student's computer to the room's network access point.

Like power outlets, network jacks will always be as far away from your student's desk as it's humanly possible to install them. This is particularly true in older dorms, where network cabling was installed long after the original wiring. One year, my older son had to run a cable into the next room to make the connection. So buy a 25- or even a 50-foot network cable before you leave home - it's always better to have a cable that's 5 feet too long than one that's a foot short.

Now for supplies: If your student has a printer, buy a couple of reams of decent-quality paper (You might as well bring it with you, because the stuff is heavy and the campus store is likely to be a long hike away.) Likewise, pack a spare set of ink cartridges, or even two - they always run out at the most inopportune time, and local stores may not have the cartridge the printer requires.

Although students aren't likely to back up their important files no matter what you do, it doesn't hurt to get a pack of blank CDs (assuming the PC has a CD-writer) and a small box of floppies. If they don't use the CDs for backups they'll probably enjoy recording music on them.

Finally, the telephone. Chances are good that either your student or her roommate will have a cordless phone. Kids love them. Unfortunately, they tend to lose the handsets in piles of dirty laundry or forget to put them back in the charger, so half the time the batteries are dead.

Even if your kid can find the handset and it's charged, so many student phones are crowded into the same 2.4 GHz spectrum in the average dorm that it's often hard to find a clear channel.

So, if you have an extra, old-fashioned, corded phone around the house or you're willing to part with an extra few bucks to buy a cheapie, stick it in your student's laundry bag. In a pinch, she'll always be able to call home if she really needs to.


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