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As thousands of Canadian students hit college and university campuses this week, thousands of their parents are left anxiously wondering if their children are sufficiently prepared.

Unless you're one of those fortunate parents whose child scored an incredible summer job (or has very good money-saving skills), you will likely be footing the bill for much of your progeny's technology needs. Smartphones, computers, printers, tablets, e-readers -- there's so many options available, but what you really want to know is: Do they need it? And can I get it for less?

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Chad Saunders, VP of retail of University of Toronto Bookstore, says there are two items most students feel they can't live without: a laptop and a smartphone. The bookstore conducted an online survey last September to find out what technology was important to students, and 90 per cent of the respondents said they had a laptop, while only 22 per cent said they had access to a desktop (yes, that means some students have both).

“Number one for students is a laptop - it's core to their existence,” says Mr. Saunders. “But having a smartphone is really a tie for number one.” If you asked students whether they could live without dinner or a smartphone for one night, they would choose dinner, he says. “It's the one thing every student has in their pocket or bag. Some students bring their laptop to school, but everybody brings their smartphone to school.”

Mr. Saunders has these tips on how to meet student tech needs:

1. Forget the e-reader or iPad. You may think your child will read his or her textbooks on an e-reader, iPad or other tablet, but Mr. Saunders says you could be wasting your money. As of last September's survey, the majority of students had not yet read an e-book at all. But when asked what device they would prefer to read it on, 90 per cent said their laptop and only eight per cent said a dedicated e-reader or an iPad.

“Eleven per cent of students even said they'd read an e-book on their smartphone,” said Mr. Saunders. “It's a low number, but they're choosing that over an e-reader. It's something that is certainly going to be more important in the future but for students today it's quite low on their list.”

2. Opt for a Superphone. Mr. Saunders says that one of the hottest trends for phones right now are powerful superphones, with dual-core processors, computer-like multi-tasking, smoother graphics and dramatically faster speeds for surfing, downloading and streaming. They also feature super-stunning screens that are four inches wide or larger. As an example, he gives us the Samsung Galaxy S2, which is available for $49 when you sign up for a data plan (the U of T bookstore is Bell authorized).

“It's kind of pushing the envelope between a tablet and a smartphone,” he said. “If I can get a superphone for $50, why would I get a tablet?”

3. Go Mac. Or, skip the Mac and pick up some headphones. It may be the priciest choice, but when it comes to laptops, Mr. Saunders says the most popular choice “by far” at the U of T bookstore is Mac.

“Mac is hot and getting hotter, in particular with students,” he said. “In the survey we did last September, 30 per cent had a Mac. I don't know the number for the general population, but I know it's not 30 per cent. We also asked what their next computer is going to be and 44 per cent of them said their next would be a Mac.”

While the most popular Mac at the bookstore is a 15-inch MacBook Pro which goes for a whopping $1,749, you can get more reasonably-priced options, says Mr. Saunders, including a 14-inch model (that's only available in educational stores) for under $1,000. On the other end of the spectrum, there are “decent” Windows-based laptops that you can get for half that price (like an HP laptop for $499 that comes with Microsoft Office included).

Mr. Saunders says price might be a consideration because of the frequency with which students replace their laptops. The student survey showed that 40 per cent of students had bought their computer in the last year. “I think that's a big indication of how often those computers are getting replaced,” he said. “So make sure you don't 'over-spec' yourself.”

Mr. Saunders also noted that some students are buying a cheaper laptop and picking up add-ons with the money they've saved. One popular choice is high-quality headphones, the hot brand of the moment being Beats by Dr. Dre (the Solo model costs $199, the higher-end Studio model is $349).

“We find that we get people buying that $499 HP laptop so they can afford these headphones to use with their smartphone, their iPod or their computer,” he said.

4. Don't forget educational pricing. The best-kept secret in student tech, said Mr. Saunders, is that campus bookstores have educational pricing, which can save you hundreds of dollars (for example, you can save one to two hundred dollars on a MacBook Pro at the U of T bookstore). As well, educational pricing can score you software like AutoCAD, Adobe or Microsoft Office for half the price.

 

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