by Bill Snyder

Back to School: 6 Tips for Not Overspending on Tech

Aug 15, 20115 mins
Computers and PeripheralsEnterprise ApplicationsInternet

You don't have to break the bank to give your kids heading back to school the tech tools they need. From free Office alternatives to PCs at half the price of Macs, here are six tips for parents looking to spend wisely.

School is just about to start, and if you have a kid heading for college you’re probably grimacing at the thought of all those bills. You’re on your own when it comes to soaring tuition and housing costs, but there are ways to spend less on your student’s technology needs while still giving them what they need to succeed.

Be warned: Some of these ideas will meet with serious disapproval from the young person who wants the coolest gadgets you can buy. But, hey, it’s your money, spend it wisely. And here are six tips that will help you do just that.

Feature Phone, not Smartphone

“Smartphones aren’t a necessity,” says Andrew Eisner who works for Retrevo, a shopping site specializing in consumer electronics. “Feature phones do a lot, including texting, and they have the virtue of not requiring an expensive data plan.”

And given that most carriers are dropping unlimited data plans that carry some serious charges, that’s a great point. Eisner adds that some of the functionality of a smartphone can be had by buying an iPod Touch. Yes, they are a bit pricey, but since they work on Wi-Fi only, you won’t have to deal with data charges.

Don’t Buy a TV

No, I’m not saying students shouldn’t watch TV, but these days, there’s no reason not to watch it via the Internet.

Instead of buying a television, get them a large flat-panel computer monitor with either DVI or S-Video and HDMI ports. That will come in handy when they need more screen real estate than comes with their laptop, and it will also save precious space in a crowded dorm room.

Rent E-Text Books

Why should a young person walk around with 20 pounds of books in the backpack? A growing number of sites sell electronic versions of popular textbooks that can be read on an e-reader or laptop at prices well below what you’d pay for a print edition.

Some sites will rent them, meaning they will no longer be accessible after a certain period of time. It’s worth poking around, because some sites have a much broader selection than others. Simply search on “electronic textbooks” and you’ll get lots of suggestions.

Don’t Buy a Macbook Air

A laptop is an absolute necessity. But as Eisner points out, you don’t have to spend the $1000 to $1600 (depending on the configuration) to buy the gorgeous, ultra-light Macbook Air. Yes, the older Air is cheaper, but it comes with an obsolete Intel processor that really hurts performance on some tasks.

First of all, before you buy anything, check with the college admissions or academic office and find out if the school insists on a Mac or Windows PC. If they’re on the Mac bandwagon, the MacBook Pro is a terrific machine for students. (Just ask my daughter.)

If Windows is OK, here are two recommendations for machines that are powerful, yet relatively light, and significantly cheaper than the Air. (The Air weighs in at 2.38 pounds to 2.96 pounds depending on the size screen.)

  • Lenovo X220i: With an Intel i3 Processor, 320GB hard drive, Windows 7 Home Premium. It has great battery life; screen is 12.5 inches, weighs 3.3 pounds and has gotten excellent reviews. (Money where mouth is: I just bought one.) Depending on what you add to it and how much sales tax you need to pay, you’ll probably spend less than $900. It doesn’t have a DVD drive so you’ll need to buy an external one. But don’t buy it from Lenovo. You can get them on online for much less.
  • Asus U: I’m not familiar with this PC, but Eisner, who generally knows what he’s talking about, recommends it. The Asus U comes with the same processor as the Lenovo but a bigger hard drive and a bigger screen, which makes it heavier at 4.2 pounds. At $580 the Asus U is a full $1,000 cheaper than the MacBook Air.

Secure that Laptop

Here’s another way to save money on a laptop: Don’t let it get stolen.

Try not to use a very conspicuous laptop bag. Better to carry it in a backpack than in a fancy nylon carrying case that tells bad guys there’s something inside worth stealing. It probably won’t do any good, but explain to your student that they should never ever leave their PC or Mac unattended in a public place.

Some laptops have a Universal Security Slot on the side of the laptop that can be used to connect a cable or alarm. The Kensington 64068F cable and connector costs under $40. Belkin makes a device that sells for around $20 and sets off an alarm if it’s removed. Mark your laptop with an ID code. Companies like yougetitback and armortag make it easy for someone who finds your laptop to call an 800 number and get a reward.

Go with Free Software

Now that you’ve picked a laptop, you need to think about software. There’s absolutely no reason to spend hundreds of dollars on Microsoft Office. My choice: OpenOffice, which has the best price you’ll every find. It’s free. OpenOffice is similar to Microsoft Office and is generally compatible with standard Office document formats. It doesn’t have every single feature you’ll find in Office, but more than enough for most of us.

Do get an anti-virus program, but you don’t have to spend money for it. I’ve been using the free version of Avira for some time and have had no problems with any sort of malware.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at Follow Bill Snyder on Twitter @BSnyderSF. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline