10 back-to-school tech survival tips

Screenshot of computer with Nook Study on screen
Barnes & Noble's Nook Study is free software that helps you organize your coursework. It works on Macs and PCs — no Nook required.Barnes & Noble

There are lots of things that you or your kid should know about when gearing up to go back to school. Here are 10 of those things.

1. Apple gives you discounts on Macs, but the discounts are uneven. Dollar for dollar, you save more buying a MacBook Pro ($200 off) than a MacBook Air ($50 off). No matter what you buy, you'll get a $100 gift card for Mac apps, iOS apps, iBooks and iTunes if you make the deal by Sept. 20. (That offer used to get you a free iPod Touch — which has a $229 price tag — so it's technically not as good it once was.)

To qualify for Apple student/teacher discounts, hit the company's education channel or just jump right here to look up your school.

2. Amazon Prime is free to students — but you don't get streaming video. Yes, you get the unlimited free 2-day shipping, and the $3.99 overnight charge. No, you don't get "Demolition Man," "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares," or "Louis CK: Chewed Up," not without paying the normal prices, that is.

(Editorial aside to Amazon: Give students free video, because if you don't, they'll just steal it! If you can't convince them of the benefits of legal digital conduct, who will?)

3. Amazon textbook rentals are few and far between. Lots of hype has been made of the Kindle textbook rental, and why not, it's incredible! If you can find a textbook you actually use, that is. James Stewart's "Calculus," one of the most standard textbooks for high school and college, still costs $162.99 at Amazon. You can buy it used for as low as $62.52, but there's no Kindle version of that, let alone a version available for limited-time rental. By all means, comb through the store for your textbooks, but don't be surprised if digital editions just aren't there.

4. Microsoft has a student discount for Xbox Live. Yes, in and among the obvious student/teacher software discounts, the Microsoft Store gives you 12 months of Xbox Live plus 800 Microsoft points for $54. By my calculations, that's about $16 off. Not huge savings, but now you can buy, what, like 1,300 more points! (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal, but that's not why I think this is a neat deal.)

5. Barnes & Noble may well have the coolest digital study tool around. Seriously, this free eTextbook application for PC and Mac lets you not only get books digitally, but organize coursework, compile syllabi and other documents, take notes, print, export and go online for related research. While the same warning about Amazon's textbook rental program applies here — that your particular study materials might not be available — it's certainly worth the $0.00 price to check it out, and the other features may end up being useful on their own.

6. Don't buy software until you check with your school. College IT departments let you download a ton of big-name software for free, because they have bulk educational licenses. So don't buy any of the major Microsoft or Adobe products until you see what you can get straight from campus IT. Wish I had a link, but every school's website is different. Just start digging, either by checking the IT department or bookstore.

7. And don't forget college hardware deals. Schools often retail computers to students directly, nowadays through the online bookstore, offering discounts that you can't get at stores. From what I have seen, none of the Apple hardware is marked down lower than Apple's official educational discounts, but there might be a service benefit to buying it through your school. (Some schools offer service for as long as you're a student, or enrolled in a particular program.)

8. Look out for specialty retailer deals. Computer vendor Newegg has a deal that lets you turn Microsoft Office Home and Student into a full version, by giving you a free download of Outlook, Publisher and Access when you buy it. This still may not be as good as the free software you can get at school, but if your school doesn't hook you up, check with these guys.

9. Don't buy gadget insurance. It's generally a waste of money. First, check with your homeowner's or renter's policy to see what's covered in terms of theft and damage. Next, invest money in a protective case instead. Most accidents can be avoided by a bit of plastic shielding.

Victorinox makes Swiss Army USB drives that are rugged, and have the capacity to store all your most precious documents.

10. Most overlooked useful school gadget? A USB thumb drive. Pick up a nice rugged one, like the Verbatim Tuff-n-Tiny or the Victorinox Swiss Army Secure drive, and clip it on your keychain. Networking is getting better and better, and the cloud is your friend and all that, but it never hurts to have a back-up of your important work — all of it — right there in your pocket, not to mention a good way to taxi files around when nothing else seems to be working.

Bonus tip: Your college may have an iPhone or Android app. The fact alone makes me jealous of today's college kids, so I won't dwell on it. Just do yourselves (or your kids) a favor and check the usual app stores to see if your uni has a one-stop mobile shop for maps, sports calendars, class schedules and more.

Catch up with Wilson on Twitter at @wjrothman, or on Google+. And don't forget to join in on the conversation on Facebook.