A Student’s Survival Guide: Equipment and Accessories

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by Shaun Mahal

In the final "A Student’s Survival Guide to Tablet Computing" article, Shaun Mahal will be discussing the right equipment and accessories needed for daily use, as well as some buying tips. He discusses the best bag for your tablet, what you need for proper back up and sharing capabilities and more. So check out the best ways to stay organized and on-the-go with your Tablet PC.

Equipment and Accessories

For my daily use, I have a Briggs & Riley backpack that has a removable computer sleeve in the main compartment, and plenty of useful compartments. It manages to keep everything neat and tidy and can hold a lot while not appearing huge. The bag is stylish, and has an interesting feature for students/young professionals: a second zipper on the bottom that allows you to put the bag on the handles of a standard rolling suitcase. This way I don’t have to carry my bag when traveling.

The major disadvantage of using a tablet over pen and paper is that with a tablet, you could run out of battery. Susceptibility to lack of power. Additionally, as colleges increasingly emphasize the importance of teamwork and team oriented projects, some collaborative issues arise that can be easily solved. To address the power and other issues I often come across while using my tablet at school, I keep a few quick fixes in my bag: 

  • A second, smaller power supply (I keep my main one plugged in at home).
  • A power splitter so that up to four people can share one plug. Many laptops have a grounded plug, so even if your tablet doesn’t, it may be useful to keep a grounded splitter.
  • An Ethernet cable. Even if your university claims to be completely wireless, it’s best to be prepared.
  • A 4GB USB dongle to transfer files quickly when mail server limitations/speeds hamper connectivity.
  • USB wireless mouse.
  • An extra stylus: I admit I don’t actually carry one, but in a pinch I could use my fingers on my screen. If your tablet doesn’t support multi-touch, carrying an extra stylus might not be a bad idea.

Backup and Sharing

When discussing my tablet with my uncle, he asked me about the risk of losing all of my notes if something should happen to my computer. In return, I asked him what would happen if he lost his notebooks. This scenario shows how easily disaster can be avoided by backing up one’s files. At home, I have an external hard drive, printer, and Blackberry cable plugged into a USB hub which I bought for $10 from Craigslist.com. This allows me to connect all of my devices with one cord rather than creating a small jungle of cords each time. I have configured OneNote to make a copy of my entire notebook nightly onto my external hard drive, so that I always have a recent copy. Having an external hard drive also allows me to keep my tablet’s hard drive relatively lean and therefore performing well.

With the advent of Mac-like native PDF creation in OneNote, and then the entire Office 2007 suite, it’s now incredibly easy to make a copy of your entire set of notes for friends who might have missed class. I’ve also found OneNote’s handy screen-shot capabilities useful for creating graphics for presentations.

Buying Advice

Tablets can often be more expensive than their non-tablet counterparts, and often manufacturer will offer a tablet and non tablet version of a model. When buying a tablet try to manage costs by customizing your unit intelligently. If you have a large external hard drive you use often, you could save money by downsizing the onboard hard drive size, for example. Alternatively, consider buying a higher-performing lower-capacity drive, or even a solid-state drive.

A regular complaint among many users who consider purchasing a tablet is the lack of high-performing graphics cards. If you are a serious gamer this could be a deal-killer, but for most applications, I have not noticed any noticeable lack of performance. There are a slew of features that seem desirable when you’re looking at the customization page on a manufacturer’s website, but the lack of these attributes won’t be noticeable in the majority of daily applications. Focus your upgrades and money on things that are going to affect the way your computer performs its average activities – RAM, battery life, processing power.

Be sure to check out sites that offer student discounts, such as pcconnection.com. Also check with your organization to see if it has any special licensing deals. Student licenses of Microsoft applications can save buyers over 75% of the cost!

Extras: Tips for Successful Computing

Although your tablet offers many great features, stick to the time tested abbreviation KISS: keep it simple, stupid. In some cases, you may find that it’s more convenient to use your tablet as a traditional laptop. For example, I can type much faster than I can write, so in lectures that lend themselves to heavy note taking, I’ll usually type notes rather than write them; just because you have the technology doesn’t always mean it’s best to use it.

Your main goal as a student is to get the most out of your classes, and in some cases, this is done more easily and effectively by using a Microsoft Office suite, rather than an open-source alternative. Although an open-source option, such as Open Office is free, there may be some compatibility/usability issues you’re unaware of. By virtue of Murphy’s law, these small differences and headaches will always make themselves apparent when you least need them. Office suites can become quite affordable with student pricing. In my opinion, they are worth it because they generally guarantee compatibility with other users’ files, which isn’t always true of other alternatives. Of course, if you’re set on an alternative, learn how to use it and research work-arounds for known issues.

It’s a good idea to always have a backup plan. Not all institutions are as quick to embrace new technologies as users; my school’s motto is “Fusing the art, science, and technology of business” yet in practice, many classes don’t allow laptops, and some more traditional faculty members are stuck using overhead machines rather than PowerPoints. Some staff and faculty who recognize the benefits of a personalized note-taking system allow in-class PC’s upon request. Beware however, because not all professors will be as understanding and some may even be offended by the questioning of their policies. In this case, have a contingent plan!

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