To see and be seen. To hear and be heard. To be connected wherever and whenever possible. If you're shopping for back-to-school PC gear, keep these mantras in mind.
Every student needs a PC or laptop for schoolwork and playtime. To appease today's multimedia-focused students--or if you want to go high-end--look for PCs with the Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition operating system. The Media Center OS makes it easy to capture, organize, manipulate, and display all kinds of digital content. For instance, you can play DVD movies and music, or record your fave TV shows. See "The Entertainers" for PC World's review of six home theater systems.
ABS and Gateway, for example, offer PC systems that combine the capabilities of TV, stereo, and home theater in one package. Both the ABS and Gateway models we reviewed sport 120GB hard drives, which give users plenty of room to store big files. (When we tested them, the ABS and Gateway units were priced at $1799 and $2114, respectively; Gateway's price tag includes a monitor, a required component.)
On the budget PC front, sound mavens will appreciate the terrific set of Logitech Z-340 speakers that were bundled with the $1139 ABS Bravado 2280 we tested. This configuration of the Bravado 2280 also comes with a DVD+R/RW drive and a 17-inch CRT, which displays sharp images. You also get a useful Microsoft keyboard, complete with hot-keys for launching Internet applications, tweaking volume settings, and moving through CD tracks and DVD scenes.
Check out PC World's latest Top 15 Desktops chart (scroll down to find the Value PCs chart).
If you're thinking of purchasing a laptop, the IBM ThinkPad T40 is a solid choice. The model we tested came with a 14.1-inch screen, a 1.6-GHz processor, and an 80GB hard drive. The T40 is robust enough to handle demanding computing chores--and light enough, at 5.4 pounds, to carry around from class to class. The T40 also supports 802.11b and 802.11a Wi-Fi standards, along with Bluetooth. The T40 we reviewed was priced at $3249. A T40 configured with a 1.5-GHz processor and a 40GB hard drive, for example, costs considerably less--$2099.
For budget-conscious buyers, the Compaq Presario 2100Z, in a configuration costing just over $1000, gets high marks for its performance, combo DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive, documentation, and its inclusion of Microsoft Office XP Small Business Edition.
Check out PC World's latest Top 15 Notebook PCs chart.
A handy accessory for anyone lugging a laptop is a sturdy bag. The $80 Kensington Liberator offers lots of different compartments and gives you more than one way to carry a notebook around.
Not interested in buying a PC? If you happen to have an old machine sitting around--and you'd like to turn it into a useful PC for school-goers--you might want to think about upgrading it. For decision-making advice and upgrade suggestions, check out "The Upgrade Path to a Perfect Student PC." Beyond the PC
Rather than settling for a bland standard keyboard and mouse, which are sometimes the norm with new PCs, how about a wireless keyboard and mouse to jazz things up? Logitech's Cordless Elite Duo makes your mouse clicks and scrolling easier. The optical, rechargeable mouse and keyboard include scroll wheels for easier document and Web page navigation, and the combo package costs less than $100.
Anyone with a passion for music will get a kick out of Creative's $100 Prodikeys piano-like keyboard. Its dual purpose in life? The Prodikeys lets you play music on its piano keys and type as you would on a regular keyboard.
Students who make a habit of working on papers in the small hours might appreciate the EluminX keyboard. The low-lying keyboard glows in the dark, and you can choose from sapphire blue or aquamarine keys (with silver, black, or bone-colored cases). It's very cool looking, and it's priced at $100. But be prepared: The flat keyboard doesn't come with fold-up legs, so you can't adjust the keyboard angle to suit your preference. Plus, some users might feel like they are typing on a laptop keyboard--not everybody's cup of tea.
For detailed buying advice on a range of keyboards, mice, and other devices (such as trackballs and pen tablets), read "How to Buy Input Devices."Sounds and Sights
To really do justice to music played on a PC, you'll need to find a component system to handle surround-sound recordings and bombastic movie soundtracks. Logitech's Z-680 5.1-channel PC sound is tremendous. This $400 speaker system works great for movies, music, and games. The Logitech Z-560
4.1 speaker set is a little more affordable, with a price that's below $200.
For on-the-go listening, music lovers can transfer tunes from their computer to an MP3 player like the $199 IRiver IFP-190T
or the $200 Samsung YP-55. The YP-55 features surround-sound simulation technology. Check out PC World's Top 10 Audio Players chart.
Students who need to capture their teachers' ramblings might like to put the Voice-Trek DS-10 digital voice recorder from Olympus to the test. Using 64MB of internal flash memory, the unit is supposed to be able to store more than 22 hours of recordings. It uses the WMA recording format, has stereo recording and playback capability, and comes with a built-in microphone. (Of course, you'll need to check with the school authorities about their policies on recording lectures.)
Shutterbugs will enjoy the new $350 Nikon Coolpix 3100. The 3.2-megapixel 3100 is light, compact, and easy to use.
Toshiba expects to ship a new digital camera in August that might be a good fit for the younger crowd: The 3.2-megapixel PDR-3340 is small, and it offers 6X total zoom. This unit can also shoot videos, which can be stored on its 16MB of internal memory or on any Secure Digital card. Its $249 price tag is reasonable.
See other top-rated products on our Top 10 Digital Cameras, $500 and Over and Top 10 Sub-$500 Digital Cameras charts.
With all the multimedia files students will likely be handling, here's one handy gift they'll appreciate: a stack of recordable CDs (CD-R format is best). Check the latest prices for CD-R multi-packs.Staying Organized and Connected
For the student with a heavy work-school-social schedule, a handheld organizer might be just what the doctor ordered. Check out the $99 Palm Zire. The Zire is light, and it can handle all your basic scheduling and memo entries. It doesn't have a backlight, however, and it lacks expansion slots. For more features (and more money, of course), the $299 Palm Zire 71 comes with a 65,536-color screen, a built-in camera, and a joystick navigator.
Find more options on PC World's Top 10 PDAs chart.
If you're shopping for a new phone--and/or a new service plan--check with the major carriers to find out if they're offering any discounts or rebates on popular phones. Phones manufactured by Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola, and Samsung are often included in new service agreements.
For students yearning for a do-it-all wireless phone, Motorola's T720i might do the trick. The pricey $349 unit lets you plug in an included digital camera attachment with a lens that rotates 180 degrees. Using the built-in wireless connection, you can send images via e-mail to other phones and PC users; you can also download games and different ring tones via the included micro Web browser.
Your student will never be able to use the old excuse "I was listening to my music and couldn't hear the phone," if they use Skull Candy's combination stereo and cell phone headset for portable music players. The headset comes with two handy plugs: One for the phone and one for the music player. The company provides a variety of headsets that work with cell phone manufacturers' different jacks (Nokia, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson, for example). An ear bud model retails for $30, but opt for the back-phone option for better sound quality and a lightweight, behind-the-neck design at the same price.