Ars back-to-school mobility kit: Stafford Loan edition

Summer has come and gone, forcing college-bound erm, collegiates to get back to the rigorous party/study/party/party schedule. It's time to gear up for the quarter or semester and most students will want new gear. After all, you can’t go back to school rocking the 4-year-old laptop. HangZhou Night Net

The average college student is not at school on a scholarship, doesn't have rich parents, and is paying for an education the old-fashioned way—student loans. After the books are bought and tuition is paid, it's time to find the gear you need to make school more bearable. A laptop is arguably a necessity today for a college student, and several other items will make college life easier as well. We've put together a complete mobile tech kit for anyone on a budget, and stamped it with that precious Ars-approved seal that Caesar keeps in his office, behind the bookcase. At no point will you have to worry about us taking revenge on you for the way we were treated at college, when being a nerd was a lot less cool. Really. We promise.


The first stop in any back to school technology kit is the notebook. If you have extra cash to spend, this may be the place to do it. For the average student the Dell XPS M1330 will work marvelously. The notebook has tons of options from colors to processors and everything in between. The M1330 has a 13.3-inch display packed into an attractive package.

You will be running some flavor of Windows Vista, which pretty much necessitates 2GB of RAM. 4GB is an option, but you won't be able to take full advantage of it on a 32-bit system, and you may not need it anyway, unless you tend to run with a number of applications open simultaneously. The little rig can be had with a discrete NVIDIA 8400M GS graphics card and comes stock with Intel Integrated Graphics Media Accelerator X3100. Several Intel Core 2 Duo processors are available up to the T9500 at 2.6GHz. Stock systems use the Core 2 Duo T5750 at 2.0GHz.

Storage is important and base systems come with a 160GB 5400 RPM SATA drive. 7,200 RPM drives are optional and you can even opt for a 128GB SSD, though this takes the system far beyond budget territory.

I personally use a base spec M1330 and it will do everything the average computer user needs starting at $999. Battery life with the stock 4-cell battery is decent at about three hours and optional batteries are available with up to nine cells. Wireless broadband cards are optional and you don't have to order it in the system. You can go back later (like next semester when you loans come in) and order the broadband card and install it yourself. If money is tight, check out the Dell outlet; I saved several hundred on my M1330 ordering it there.

External storage

External storage is something that is important to most computer users; data backups are not something that should be considered optional. The last thing you need late in the semester is a computer crash that destroys the term paper you worked on for months. The best type of external storage, for many notebook users, are smaller drives that are completely USB-powered. Toshiba has a great line of USB 2.0 portable hard drives, but there are a number of options available if you prefer a different brand.

The drives are physically small, lightweight and offer storage capacities of up to 250GB. The drives need no external power adapter, making them a cinch to use when not in your dorm room or apartment. Trust me; there are few things worse than trying to find a plug in the library to power your hard drive, especially when the chick over in cubicle 4C is making eyes at you. When you drop by to visit, make sure you've got that number right—chances are the 300lb power lifter in 5C isn't going to be as interested. The Toshiba line is priced well with the 250GB drive going for a bit under $140.

Notebook mouse

I think most people who have used a notebook will agree that the majority of track pads are a pain to use; what they lack in accuracy they make up for by being uncomfortable. One of the most common accessories for a notebook computer is an external notebook mouse; we're specifically looking for a cordless model with great battery life. The Logitech VX Nano Cordless Laser Mouse is an excellent option.

The VX Nano's 800dpi sensitivity won't set any gaming records, but should be more than adequate for the majority of desktop users. The coolest features of this mouse are the tiny nano USB receiver and the fantastic free-wheeling scroll wheel. The little nano receiver is designed to be plugged into your USB port and just left there. It only protrudes 7mm out of the USB port when installed allowing you to leave it plugged in without worry it will be snagged and broken off.

The scroll wheel is the real gem of the mouse with Logitech's hyper-fast design that can be changed between two different scroll modes. One mode is the normal click style used on mouse devices for years. The free-wheel mode allows you to flick the wheel and it will keep spinning, allowing you to fly through long webpages or documents without so much work. It's also great for stealth surfing during class; the silent operation won’t draw much attention. The Logitech VX Nano Cordless Laser Mouse retails for $69.99.


With all the books, pens, paper, and gadgets that are a part of college life, you need a place to stuff all that gear for schlepping around campus. Since your schedule each semester will almost always guarantee a trip from one end of campus to the other, the last thing you need is a backpack that's uncomfortable. The BPP Hybrid Messenger/Backpack Laptop Bag is an excellent choice.

This bag is unique in that it can be changed from a hand held messenger style bag into a backpack. What's so cool about the backpack mode of the bag is that it puts the weight of the bag low, right on top of your rear, hence the bum backpack name (BBP, get it?). Putting the weight of your gear lower on your back, near your rear, makes for much less pressure on the back and a happier day walking back and forth through the commons. The bag has five different carry modes and features a padded area for your laptop with velour lining to prevent scratches. The zipper is water resistant just in case you are caught in the rain.

The front flap can hold a paper or umbrella and it has loads of other pockets for all sorts of books, pens, MP3 players and more. There are even a pair of mesh water bottle holders (that can fit adult beverages for that frat party after class). The bag retails for $95 and is available in several colors.

External keyboard

The external keyboard is a point of much debate among laptop aficionados. Many laptop fans will tell you if you need an external keyboard, you should have bought a bigger notebook. On the other hand, fans of more portable, smaller systems will gladly use an external keyboard for more comfortable work. An external keyboard is especially welcome in the dorm or apartment for extended computer use.

One of the most interesting notebook keyboards comes from Logitech. The Logitech Alto Cordless is more than a mere external keyboard—it's also a stand to raise the screen of your notebook to more comfortable levels. The Alto cordless also has three USB ports built-in. The base of the Alto Cordless connects to your notebook with one USB port. An AC power adapter is included that allows the use of USB gear that needs more power than the USB port alone can provide.

The keyboard portion has no wires between it and the base that holds the notebook. The keyboard is full-size and includes a full number pad. I have used the Alto Cordless before and typing feel is decent. When not in use, the Alto Cordless can be folded up and the two halves connect together for a semblance of portability. The Alto Cordless is so bulky, you will most likely not want to try to carry it around with you, but it is great for use at home. The Alto Cordless retails for $99.99.

What's it gonna cost me?

There you have it, the perfect back to school mobile technology kit for the average college student. You can get the entire Ars Technica recommended kit and caboodle for ever-so-slightly more than $1,400 (plus shipping and sales tax). Assuming you go with the base notebook that is. All of this gear is quality stuff, that won’t break the bank. Good luck, and hey, don’t blame us if you flunk out because you spend most of your class time on Facebook.

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