Two words for PC use in dorms: Be prepared

Plugged In

August 24, 2006|By Mike Himowitz | Mike Himowitz,Sun Columnist

Over the next three weeks, millions of college students will be heading to campus - about a quarter of them for the first time. If one of them is yours, consider adding some adult supervision to the digital portion of the packing process.

This isn't a lecture about buying computers - you've probably done that. It's making sure your kid has the stuff he or she will need to keep that computer and all those other gadgets working.

If this is your first such trip with your firstborn, the first thing to do is buy four or five power strips with surge suppressors, and a couple of three-prong extension cords. That may sound like overkill, but our experience with eight years of dorms is that they never have enough outlets, and they're always in the wrong places.

Next, make sure your student has a network cable at least 25 feet long. Almost all dorms are wired these days, but like power outlets, network jacks are almost never located in the vicinity of the desks where students use their computers.

If the college has a supplementary wireless network - and many have them in various parts of the campus - check to see if the laptop has a wireless network adapter built in. If not, you can buy a wireless card for $30 to $40.

If your student is taking a printer, pack a spare set of ink cartridges (or a toner cartridge for a laser printer). One thing you can count on is that the printer will run out of ink the night before a big paper is due, and the local office supply store will be out of the cartridge your printer needs.

Make sure the you have a USB cable to connect the printer to the computer. Lots of printers don't include them. Buy a cable that's at least 10 feet long - it may be more convenient to stash the printer in a corner than on your student's desk.

Finally, if your student is taking a new laptop computer to school and you decided to save money by ignoring the offer of an extended warranty, get on the phone before you leave and sign up for one.

Unlike a desktop computer, even a well-cared-for laptop machine gets its share of bumps and bruises. Over the course of four years, there's a good chance it will break - and these gadgets are expensive to fix.

When you price an extended warranty, it will seem like a lot of money. For example, Dell offers a reasonably well-turned-out version of its Inspiron E1505 notebook for $799. But covering four years of college with an extended factory defect warranty adds $240, and that only covers things that go wrong on their own.

An accidental-damage rider, which covers mishaps such as stepping on the computer or dropping it into a swimming pool, adds $107. That's a grand total for the extended warranty of $347, almost half of the purchase price and enough to make you blink.

That's what I did three years ago when I bought my son a laptop to get him through his last two years of school. Figuring I'd save a few dollars, I bought a two-year extended warranty with an accidental-damage rider. Naturally, two years and three months after we bought the machine, somebody dumped a cup of orange soda on his keyboard.

That repair cost $350, plus whatever it will take to repair the laptop I lent to the lad while his was getting fixed. Seems he dropped it accidentally and the screen went dark. That machine's warranty had expired, too.

Arrrrrrrghhhhhhhh!

Most retailers or manufacturers will be happy to sell you an extended warranty before the original factory warranty expires. If you never need the warranty, consider yourself fortunate. If you do need it, you'll thank me for this advice.

Department of overkill: I've been a touch-typist for 45 years, and I'm a stickler about keyboards. I like one that's solid and doesn't play tricks with key locations (I loathe designers who think they have the right to put the Insert, Delete, Home, End and cursor keys anywhere they like).

Luckily, you don't have to look far to find a decent keyboard today. For $25 or so, Microsoft, Logitech and other companies sell perfectly good ones, with more extra buttons, rocker switches and scroll wheels for Web browsing, e-mail, media players and other activities than anyone can hope to memorize. For a few bucks more, you can get all those bells and whistles plus a wireless connection to your PC.

So why would you spend $70 for Saitek's Eclipse II, which offers virtually none of these goodies?

Because it looks cool and feels good.

The Eclipse II's main claim to fame is a backlight, which surrounds the keys with an eerie glow in blue, purple or bright red. You get to choose the color with a toggle switch and control the brightness with a dimmer.

Laser-etched letters on the keycaps allow the light to shine through - or you can leave the keyboard dark if you don't want to attract attention. But of course, you do.

Unless you use the Eclipse II in a darkened room, the backlight serves no useful purpose - it's pure, unadulterated decoration, and as a utilitarian I was predisposed to dislike the keyboard.

Then I used it. The real value of the Eclipse II is its overall quality - a heavy, weighted base, broad rubber feet and superb, quiet key switches make this one of the best typing platforms I've ever tried.

The Eclipse II feels a little shorter front-to-back than most keyboards, largely thanks to function keys that are slightly shortened but of normal width. This may enable faster gaming - an obvious target market, but not my thing. The spacebar key is a bit shorter, left-to-right, than normal, and a bit thicker front-to-back. Neither affected typing.

Aside from the light switches and dimmer, there are three rocker switches for setting the speaker volume and controlling music player software. That's it for extras.

Bottom line: This is a great keyboard - even if it's much too expensive and looks silly with the lights on. Underneath, it's superb, industrial-strength equipment. For more information, visit www.saitek.com.

mike.himowitz@baltsun.com

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