Plan for worst in relation to dorm-room electronics

August 11, 2005|By Mike Himowitz

IF YOU'RE sending a student off to college for the first time this month, you've probably settled on a computer and other dorm-room electronics.

If you're sending a student off for the second or third, or sixth time, you probably don't even want to think about it. You can't wait to get him out of the house - and the feeling is undoubtedly mutual.

Still, after eight years of providing sporadic parental tech support, I've learned that when it comes to college students (and freshmen in particular), Murphy's Law applies: whatever can go wrong, will, and at the worst possible time.

Actually, I believe Murphy was an optimist. So here are some tips for avoiding him.

First, plan for emergencies.

If you've bought a laptop computer for your student, buy an additional battery - a good one - before he or she leaves. Laptop batteries don't last forever, and when they do wear out, it's always at the most inopportune time. The longer you wait after you buy the machine, the harder to find and more expensive the battery will be.

Also, one of the reasons the price of your laptop may have been so reasonable in the first place is that the battery is a cheap one. Even when it's working properly, it might not give your student more than two hours on a charge. That's a corner manufacturers often cut these days to offer inexpensive machines. When you buy a backup replacement battery, ask the manufacturer whether there's a heavier duty model with additional cells. Chances are you'll be able to find a better quality battery for a bit more money.

Likewise, if your student is a junior or senior and still using the laptop he got as a freshman, this is a good time to buy a spare battery. You don't have to give it to him when he leaves for school - he's likely to lose it under a pile of laundry anyway. You don't even have to tell him you bought it. Just keep it at home, and when his battery dies and he calls in a panic, you can overnight the new one and look like a genius - a rare opportunity with college students.

If you bought your student a computer without a printer, consider adding an inexpensive model to the clutter. Many dorms have networked laser printers, but I can guarantee the closest one will break down, or run out of paper or toner or just be too plain busy the night before your kid's paper is due.

A basic ink jet will handle most chores - particularly if there's a networked laser printer available most of the time. Stay away from the cheapest models ($80 or less)- they tend to be slow, expensive to operate and unlikely to last more than a year. But for $100 to $130, you can find a good printer from any manufacturer that will do a fine job with text, graphics and photos. Just remember Mr. Murphy and pack up a spare set of ink cartridges, too.

That done, it's always a good idea to scope out your student's dorm room or apartment for digital support infrastructure. If you can't do that, make sure she's prepared for the worst.

For example, most dorms are networked today, but you can virtually guarantee that the network jack will be on the opposite side of the room from the desk. Even if you move the desk, the network jack will move to the other side while you're not looking. It just works that way. So pack a 25-foot network cable, at least. That should be long enough to work its way around the edge of the room.

Speaking of networks, many colleges now offer wireless networking in their classroom buildings, library and common areas. If a wired network jack is available, it will always be faster and more reliable. But wireless networking is far more flexible and convenient.

All laptops have built-in wired network jacks, but if your student has one without a built-in wireless network adapter, too, consider adding one. There are two types - PC cards that fit into a slot in the side of the laptop and external adapters that plug into a USB port. Card adapters are less obtrusive. Either way, look for one that's labeled 802.11b/g, which will work in both common types of wireless networks. Expect to pay $40 to $60.

Although there's nothing particular high tech about them, pay attention to electrical outlets in the dorm room. There will not be enough for all the computers, printers, stereos, TVs, lamps, cell-phone chargers, speakers, alarm clocks, hair dryers, mini-fridges, microwaves and other gadgets your kids will pack. Nor will the ones that exist be in the right place. So send your student off with two or three decent power strips (protected by surge suppressors) and a couple of heavy-duty extension cords.

One of the major changes since my eldest headed off to college eight years ago is the phenomenal increase in cell-phone usage. Some schools have stopped offering basic phone service in their dorms because so many of the students have wireless phones.

If your student plans to keep her cell phone at school, make sure it works there. You'll be amazed at how many dead spots there are, particularly on campuses outside of urban areas.

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