If you (or your son or daughter) are heading off to college in a few weeks, it’s worth heeding the usual advice you’ll get—like, buy strange colored towels, so no one accidentally “borrows” yours, and, talk to roommates about who is bringing the rug and microwave. But there are other things no one ever tells you. Here’s what I wish I’d known:
You don’t absolutely need a printer. It is possible to get by using public printers; I did. I found it cheaper and easier to use the printers in our computer labs, which were open 24 hours, rather than buying a printer and keeping it supplied with paper and ink—which will go faster than you think. However, if you don’t want to walk to the lab, especially late at night, you might be willing to pay for the convenience of printing in your own room.
Back up your computer. Do you know what it’s like losing the paper you’ve been working on all semester the night before it’s due, then trying to retype it based on notes and/or memory? And replacing all your software apps, music downloads, photos, contacts? It can be a nightmare to lose everything when your computer crashes. Buy an external hard drive—either portable or desktop—and use it regularly to back up your whole computer, especially if you’ve just completed a big project. Also, you can use flash drives for specific files; just don’t lose them.
Buy a wireless router. You have a laptop so you can take it anywhere. Why be bound to a cord in your own room? Get a wireless router and secure the network with a WEP-key at least WPA and a long encryption key so only you and your roomies are privy to the setup. You’ll be free to roam from desk to bed when you want to, without dragging the Ethernet cord all over the room, or tripping over it, bringing your expensive laptop crashing to the floor (d’oh).
[Aug. 14, 2009 UPDATE: As several readers have pointed out, there are several different data encryption standards and options currently available to protect your WiFi router and wireless network connections. Here’s the bottom line: Even though it's better than nothing at all, WEP can be broken by a determined hacker, and it's especially vulnerable in a college environment. That's why we recommend the stronger WPA. —Ed.]
Consider a landline. Even though you might use your cellphone for 99.9% of your calls, it can’t hurt to have a regular phone in your dorm room—especially if your school provides an in-room phone at no extra cost. And there are still some schools that use the landline as your official contact number, so check the voice mail occasionally, just in case the financial aid office is trying to get in touch about a windfall coming your way.
Don’t forget the cables. You brought the TV, but did you remember the coaxial cable to hook it up to the cable connection in the room? I recommend at least 25 feet so you will have flexibility in where you place the TV. You can also use an HDMI or DVI cable to connect your laptop to the TV, and play movies on the computer DVD drive or stream video from sites such as Hulu. Noise-canceling headphones are another good idea; throw in an extra-long cord to use with your TV, so your roomie can rest up for a test while you watch late-night TV.
For more college tips, check Consumer Reports Back to school hub.—Will Dilella