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Back to school: student IT buyers' guide

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Student software

Depending on the PC or laptop you choose, a copy of either Microsoft Word or Works Suite is likely to be thrown in. If it isn't, you'll need to budget for some word-processing software on top – but it won't necessarily cost as much as an off-the-shelf package from your high-street PC store.

Don't simply install the software already in use on the home PC or laptop. While it's within the constraints of most standard software licences – including Microsoft Office's – to install programs you own on a second PC as a backup, this extends to the licence owner only and must be used in the same location as the PC on which the primary version is installed. Two people can't have simultaneous access to the same copy.

You should be wary of cutting corners and bidding for cut-price software on eBay, too. The auction site is making concerted efforts to crack down on fraud – software infringements among them – but steer well clear unless the software is provided in its original shrinkwrap, with a serial number.

Don't accept a deal where a licence key is offered after you've coughed up. You'll find it either doesn't materialise or doesn't work. Even if it does, it's 99 percent certain to be a duplicate of someone else's licence key, making your copy illegal and you liable.

Besides, there are easier ways to save money. Not only can students get discounts on a lot of hardware, but there are special student editions of some of the best-known software. Parents looking to help kids from junior school to A-level may already have wised up to the existence of Student and Teacher editions of Microsoft Office (around £87 inc VAT) and the combined Microsoft Student with Encarta Reference Library for just £44 at Dabs.com.

Other Microsoft offerings aimed at the education market include Digital Image Suite, Project 2003, MapPoint and FrontPage 2003. Mac users can grab Office for Mac Student and Teacher Edition for £109, while iWork 06 – a suite of photo editing, Final Cut Express HD video-authoring, Keynote presentation and music editing tools – costs just £55 when bought alongside a new Mac.

Need an office?

Assuming a set of general productivity tools is a must, consider either Ability Office or the equivalent word-processing, spreadsheet, presentation, database, photo-editing and personal finance applications available under the Tesco Office banner.

These are based on the MS Office kernel – they have similar layouts and operate in much the same way, but cost about a tenth of the price. They are compatible with Microsoft Office, as well as other well-known office software, so you'll find them suitable for all but real-time collaborative working.

Sun's StarOffice and the open-source OpenOffice are good alternatives for those who need to create and edit office programs, but you'll find these freebies aren't as compatible or fully featured as those Ability Software has created. For a more in-depth look at viable alternatives to Microsoft Office, as well as details of other free and low-cost software to consider, see our Office alternatives feature.

30 office software programs reviewed here

Wring the web dry

A related option is to use online applications. While many interesting developments are being driven through 'media-rich' sites that combine social-networking and photo, video, mapping and opinion-sharing, other online developments are stripping things down so people can work effectively and collaboratively over the web.

Read our Best online tools feature and compare reviews of dozens of online applications.

Google Docs & Spreadsheets is one of many programs of its type that let you create fairly basic word processed and spreadsheet documents that you save, store and access online, with no expensive 'bloatware' choking your PC. Such tools aren't as capable or comprehensive as the established commercial alternatives, but are useful when you're in an internet café with no software.

Such online applications are designed to be streamlined, free versions of familiar everyday programs, they are generally adept at opening and saving to formats in which you may receive documents from others over email: various formats of Word, Excel, PDF and so on.

If you're about to buy a laptop or PC, it will have some photo-editing tools already – Vista offers some basic editing and tagging photo management tools, or you can download Picasa 2.0.

A better bet is a budget program such as Adobe Photoshop Elements. The latest iteration, Elements 5.0, costs £60 but is just £80 as a package with Photoshop and Premiere Elements 3.0. Shop around at online software stores (or use the online price search on PC Advisor's reviews section) to find older versions of popular programs such as Paint Shop Pro knocking around for the price of a DVD.

Quick links

Buying a new PC for a student

Protect yourself when buying student kit, printing solutions and phoning home

Student software, office apps and online tools

Free footage, getting broadband and PC security

Examples of suitable PCs for students


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