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hiawatha bray | tech lab

Back-to-school tips for electronics shopping

If you’re a retailer, it’s the most wonderful time of the year, next to Christmas. America’s kids are heading back to school, and your fellow citizens are expected to splash out $75 billion on notepads and ballpoint pens, backpacks and blue jeans — and computers and smartphones, of course.

If you’re expecting advice on which brands to buy, look elsewhere. All the big-name products are quite good. Buy name-brand gear from reputable retailers, and you’ll do fine. You’re better off thinking about ways to get the most value from whatever you decide to buy.

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Start with wireless phones. Most of your kids probably have one; 78 percent of US children 12 and up own a phone, according to the Pew Research Center. Nearly half of them are smartphones.

That number is bound to rise as these devices keep getting cheaper. But before handing them out to your children, make sure they can use them safely.

It’s a good idea to put a password on every phone, to protect sensitive stored data. The parenting advice website Common Sense Media has a smart suggestion: Load up the address book with the numbers and e-mail addresses of all family members, as well as any others whom the kids might need to reach in an emergency.

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In addition, be careful about phone apps.

The iPhone has a feature that will block app downloads until a parent enters a password. With Android phones, you can download a free program, AppLock, that will do the same thing.

Or, you can set up the phone to allow age-appropriate apps only.

Some gaming apps try to sell you stuff, a practice called “in-app purchases.” Usually, such apps reveal this upfront. If your kids must have such games, you can set up iOS and Android phones to let them play, but prevent the in-app purchases.

And of course, find out your school’s rules on the use of phones and other electronic devices. Many school systems publish “acceptable use policies” on their websites, or just contact the school directly.

One rule is pretty much universal: no calling or texting in class.

That goes for your college-bound children, as well, but they have other things to worry about, including choosing the right personal computer.

Again, it’s hard to make a bad decision. They may not need a new machine, since any Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X computer made in the past three or four years will be adequate for most college work. But if the youngsters are still plugging away on an old Windows XP machine, prepare to upgrade.

First, students should seek hardware and software recommendations from the school.

A liberal arts major might need Microsoft Word, while those going into technical fields may need demanding programs like Wolfram Mathematica or AutoCAD engineering design software.

Science students should get the most powerful computer they can afford, with plenty of RAM (random-access memory), for faster performance. But for most majors, any off-the-shelf PC or Mac will be better than adequate.

You will want an anti-malware program to fend off viruses, but many schools provide this for free.

You could buy a desktop computer, but why? Most people buy mobile machines these days, with good reason.

But I’d stay away from Chromebooks, popular, cheap laptops that run Google’s Chrome operating system. The same goes for tablet computers like the Apple iPad. At around $200, Chromebooks make fine machines for younger kids. But since they don’t run Windows or Mac software, they’re too limited for college use. The same applies to tablets. Cool though they are, you’ll want a proper laptop for serious academic work.

Do you need a printer?

Ask the college; some schools provide access to their own printers, with a certain number of free printouts per semester.

Consider buying hardware and software on campus. Colleges often offer discounts through vendors like Lenovo, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard. But the deals may not be so impressive. For instance, a Northeastern University student can get a 14-inch Lenovo laptop for $533, but that’s just $17 off the regular price.

Apple does much better. Its 11-inch MacBook Air laptop costs $50 less with an education discount, and until Sept. 9 they’ll throw in a $100 Apple gift card.

For electronics retailers, back-to-school is the most fun they’ll have till the snow flies. Spend your money wisely, and you may enjoy it too.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.
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