I love the iPad, but it's not a laptop replacement. Some schools are building curriculum and textbook distribution specifically around the iPad, and in those cases I support the canonization of the device as a platform for all students.
But for students in schools that have yet to jump on the tablet computing bandwagon, I can't recommend the iPad. When all textbooks are digital, when the iPad multitasks as well as a computer and runs almost all of the third party software a student might need, like video editing, productivity suites and web video, then I will recommend it, but for now it's a supplement or a luxury device, something you could give to your student in addition to a laptop or desktop computer.
One idea for a cheap iPad-like experience to help students take notes on the go is to get a $69 keyboard dock for the iPad and use it with your iPod touch or iPhone. This dock gives you a full sized QWERTY keyboard and it only weighs about a pound. Your notes can go into an email program or notepad and you can transfer them to your main computer without having to lug the laptop around with you as you go.
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I have had parents ask me if noise-canceling headphones from Bose or Creative would help drown out the cacophony of the dorm room and help their student focus. Unfortunately, the answer is no. Noise-canceling headphones cancel constant noises like the hum from an airplane engine, static, or white noise. Staccato noises like talking, music and yelling actually seem amplified when noise-canceling headphones cancel out the background noise in every day life.
A better solution is to have a few cheap pairs of in-ear headphones that fit well and seal noise out. A decent pair costs $20 to $30. They are easily lost so I think a few cheap pairs is better than one pair of really fancy earbuds.
External storage drives have gotten very cheap and simple to use: you plug a unit into the USB port of a computer and it shows up as a new drive. They are fantastic to use as primary storage for media like music and movies, but don't expect your student to manually back up their papers, notes and data.
College kids abuse their laptops, which makes hard drive failure and data loss more probable. Laptops are frequently stolen and it behooves the serious student to have her mid-term paper, video project, or thesis backed up, but remembering to do it is another story. That's where an online back up service like Carbonite.com comes in very handy.
Carbonite automatically backs up your data to a password protected website. Once you set it up, you never think about it again -- it runs in the background and is relatively maintenance free.
Added bonus: Because the data is stored online, a student can access that data from any computer or phone with an Internet connection.
It costs less than $50 a year and they have a special offer: try for 15 days free and if you sign up they'll give you the first two months free. The offer code is ABC.
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Rent textbooks at Chegg.