(Family Features) Gone are the days when back-to-school shopping meant only buying new notebooks and backpacks. For most high school and college students, some form of technology is on the "must-have" list.
"With so many options available, it's important for parents to shop smart and choose the tools that will really meet their student's needs," said Jamie Breneman, of TheSavvyShopperBlog.com. "Many of these devices can be used throughout high school and college, so you want to make sure you're getting the best value for your investment."
Do Your Homework. Sometimes the biggest sale doesn't add up to the biggest value. No matter what electronic device you're looking into, take the time to make sure it will do what you need it to do. When shopping for a laptop or notebook computer, for example:
•Check the processor speed. A good laptop should have a speed of at least 1 gigahertz (GHz).
•Look for RAM. RAM, short for random access memory, is what laptops use to store temporary data. The more RAM, the less time it takes to get information, and you can do more tasks without slowing down the laptop.
•Compare hard drives. The storage capacity of a hard drive is measured in gigabytes (GB), and you'll find laptops that range from 40 GB to 500 GB. Storing text documents won't take up much of the hard drive, but storing photos and videos or running games will.
You'll also want to read reviews of the products you're considering - both independent reviews and reviews from people who use those devices. www.CNet.com is one site that offers independent reviews, while sites such as www.ConsumerSearch.com offer a mix of independent and user reviews.
Do a Reality Check. Sure, students may want the newest gadget out there, but will it really meet their needs? Sit down with your student and think through the answers to a few questions.
•eReaders and iPads are popular ways to get regular books - but will you be able to get the required textbooks on these devices? Not all textbook publishers have made their catalogs available in electronic form yet, so do a little digging to find out if your student can get what they need.
•Get a realistic wireless data plan. Teens spend more time using their cell phones than just about any other age group. Make sure your data plan will cover their needs so that you don't have to pay overage charges.
•With every electronics purchase you plan, ask yourself what else you need to budget for. Does the laptop come with all the software your student will need? Is your college student's dorm or apartment set up for wireless internet? If not, what else do you need to get to make that happen? What peripherals will they need? Little add-ons can add up, so be realistic about what needs to go on your shopping list.
Protect Your Investment. "Electronics can get pricey," said Breneman. "And portable devices are more likely to get damaged. So more and more parents are taking advantage of service and replacement plans that come with coverage for accidental damage from handling to make sure they're covered for unexpected repair costs."
According to 2010 product costs and service rates provided by N.E.W. Customer Service Companies, the costs to repair a $650 laptop can really add up. Repairing the hard drive can average $206, an LCD screen $346, and a motherboard $446. "Some of the most common repairs cost much more than most service plans, which cost between 10 and 20 percent of the product's retail price," said Breneman. "So you can see significant savings should something go wrong."
Breneman adds that not all manufacturer's warranties cover the most likely problems. "Manufacturer's warranties are limited," she said. "Most only cover defects in workmanship and materials. An extended service plan goes above and beyond that - offering not only additional coverage, but extending the length of time a product is covered."
Most service plans offer support outside of normal business hours, including tech support and troubleshooting, which can be a boon to busy parents and overbooked students.
For more back-to-school shopping tips, visit thesavvyshopperblog.com; and to learn more about service plans, visit www.youtube.com/thesavvyshopperblog.
Top Tech Gadgets
Here are some of The Savvy Shopper Blog's top high-tech gadgets you may want to consider for your student.
Smart Pens - These devices record everything your student writes while he or she is taking notes. Those notes can then be uploaded to their personal computer. They can also voice record as well, allowing students to record a lecture while taking written notes.
Graphing Calculators - For any student in an advanced math or science course, the investment in a graphing calculator is well worth it. They plot graphs, handle simultaneous equations and can let the user design custom programs.
Smart Phones - From texting and Web browsing, to listening to music, taking photos or videos and even calling home once in a while, smart phones are a smart bet for students.
Tablet Device - Whether it has in "i" in the name or not, a tablet device has a lot to offer students. Taking notes, making presentations, doing research or having some fun can all happen with a tablet computer.
Audio Accessories - Quality headphones, MP3 docking stations, good external speakers - they can all enhance the listening experience for music lovers.