AOL / Systemax
AOL Optimized PC
By Columnist
updated 8/20/2004 12:43:15 PM ET 2004-08-20T16:43:15

There are plenty of gadgets and gizmos I can think of that kids of all ages would like to get for the fall — like a 50-inch plasma TV to use as a computer monitor, or an HDTV video card to do research on the Discovery channel, or maybe a set of big tower speakers to plug into an iPod. But I think I’ll stick to some items that might really help students do well in the coming school year.

First and most importantly, a computer.  If you have an old one, think about a new one. By the time you increase your memory and get a bigger hard drive you’re probably more than halfway to the cost of a new computer.  And new computers have more of everything: memory, storage, processor power and even USB 2.0 ports to attach all the good stuff like cameras and toys. You get the idea.

Some good deals out there
The best news is you don’t have to spend a fortune.  For those of you who have never, ever owned a computer, the recently announced AOL Optimized PC is one of the best deals I’ve seen in a long time. You get a good computer (made by Systemax), a good 17-inch monitor, a good Lexmark color printer, plus speakers, mouse and keyboard — all for $299 (plus tax).  You can choose English or Spanish as your main language; it might be a good second computer for language students. 

The only catch is that you have to agree to spend nearly $24 a month on AOL service for one year.  It’s like buying a cell phone — AOL is subsidizing the price of the hardware to make money on the monthly subscription charges.  Unless you have something against AOL or paying a monthly fee, this sounds like a great deal. I’d opt for extra memory, though; 128MB is the absolute bare minimum to run Windows XP. All in all, I'd say the consumer still comes out ahead with this deal.

For a little more money there are plenty of great desktop computers available from Dell, IBM, Gateway, HP, Toshiba and others.  Choose one in your price range and please make sure you get at least 256 MB of memory; 512 MB is even better.

If you’re an Apple fan, I’d say go with a G5 or an eMac. Apple has delayed the new design for the popular iMac so, if you can, I’d wait to see what’s in the new one — and how much they’ll be discounting the old ones, if at all.

Laptops, notebooks and tablets
If you need your computer to be portable, the same goes for laptop, notebook and tablet computers. I’d stick with portables from one of the companies I just named. In addition to my recommendations about memory, I’d suggest making sure 802.11b or 802.11g WiFi wireless networking is built into your new portable.

Image: X40
You might see many laptops listed for less than $1,000. That’s because when it comes to portables you pay more for smaller, thinner computers and high-end features like DVD burners and big screens. Expect those $700 laptops you see advertised to be a lot less portable than others.

If I had to name my dream machine, it would have to be the IBM ThinkPad X40.  It’s small, lightweight, feature-laden and comes standard with a three-hour battery.  You can add an extra battery on the back and on the bottom for another six hours of battery life, giving a student a total of nine hours — more than enough for the whole school day plus homework.  X40s start at $1,499.

Handheld alternatives
Then again, some students may not need a laptop to take to class.  They might be able to get by with a handheld computer. I’m talking about a Palm or Windows Mobile (they used to be called Pocket PCs). In addition to keeping track of appointments and to-do lists, you can surf the Web, get your e-mail and take written and voice notes, like recording a lecture.

HP 33 scientific calculator
You should probably look at devices in the $300 to $500 range from Palm, HP, Toshiba and Dell.  Make sure they have WiFi wireless connectivity — and maybe even Bluetooth for a fold-up keyboard, camera or phone.  Make sure you also purchase an SD memory card large enough to store all your information, pictures, lectures and music.

Speaking of cellular phones, I know I shouldn’t be saying this but I can’t think of any back-to-schoolers who wouldn’t want a new cell phone.  How about one that surfs the Web, synchs with e-mail and an appointment calendar, takes, stores and sends photographs, and has built-in instant messaging software for AOL and Yahoo?  It’s the brand new, $299 T-Mobile Sidekick II.  By the way, it also works really well as a cell phone.

You might be the brainy type — maybe a science, engineering, mathematics or medical student who needs a good scientific calculator.  HP, a leader in the field, has just released its most advanced model.  The HP 33s has 31 KB of user memory and can be switched between RPN (Reverse Polish Notation — if you need it you know what it is) input mode or the traditional algebraic mode. It also conforms to many new exam requirements that call for calculators without text or communications capabilities.  The suggested retail price is $65.

Music appreciation
Finally, there are the very popular devices that help with the study of music.  iPods and the like.  Apple’s iPod is a big hit with everyone, but not everyone needs or can afford one.  In that case, may I recommend a more affordable USB-based device?

Creative's MuVo MP3/FM player
I’ve been playing with a Creative MuVo portable music storage unit. The model FM is really small and light; it holds four to five albums worth of music (four hours or so in its 256 MB of memory), lets you record voices (there’s that lecture again), connects via a USB 2.0 port (fast) and has a built-in FM tuner to boot. It runs on one AAA battery and since there are no moving parts, your music shouldn’t skip — ever.  

It’s currently being offered on the Creative Web site for $149 with a $10 rebate. There are also models with 128 MB or 512 MB of storage, with and without FM capabilities, and a model in a case no larger than a business card. Really neat.

And, finally, if you can get your parents to spring for a large flat-screen HDTV to use as your computer, go with a plasma from Panasonic, Samsung or Sony, or maybe a nice LCD monitor from Sharp.  And don’t forget to ask for the largest screen your parents can afford. They’ll probably even thank you for it!

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