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Back to school: student IT buyers' guide

Win 2007's university challenge

Free footage

Students needing to embed simple video footage into presentations will find that free tools such as Microsoft Movie Maker can help with very basic edits. Beyond this you'll want an editing suite such as Roxio or Nero. For more complex editing, time spent in the college media lab will pay more dividends than any outlay you're likely to invest, unless videography is your chosen subject.

Mac fans have many creative essentials provided as part of the iLife suite that's bundled with new Macs. GarageBand, in particular, has had loads of coverage for its part in helping bedroom musicians produce tracks that sound decent enough to interest record labels and music producers.

Coming back to reality, however, tools to organise the workload will come in handy. RememberTheMilk is one of the most aptly named programs for those who are prone to daydreaming and, like its counterpart 30 Boxes, is both web-based and free. You may have already discovered the latter on Facebook, as it's also available as an integrated applet via the social-networking site.

Don't discount free tools that help you get ahead. SurfSaver.com is a research tool that can be used to 'clip' items from the web and store them for reference, while mind-mapping tools can help with essay planning.

Blinkx.com is a web crawler that tracks down items by customisable keyword, phrase or search result type and stores them in a desktop folder for you to draw on whenever you wish. It continues to seek suitable results each time you're online and uses a number of search engines to track down items of interest.

RSS feeds for sites you rate are another real timesaver, while non-Vista users will find hunting down relevant items on their desktop far more efficient with the use of Google Desktop or another PC-bound tool. Vista has a fast and effective built-in search.

Broadband connection

The web is one of the most valuable tools around – and we don't just mean for cribbing for essays. Many students live in a hall of residence, flatshare with free broadband or are able to piggyback someone else's connection. Don't depend on this, however.

Above all, the web connection needs to be reliable. Depending on how students manage their finances, signing up to a broadband contract with a minimum duration of a year or more may not be wise. The last thing they need is to be cut off partway through researching their dissertation because someone forgot to budget for the bill.

Broadband is now so inexpensive, however, that there are plenty of £10-per-month subscriptions around. It may not be the fastest, but you've always got access to expertise and opinion online.

Consider buying third-party broadband hardware – routers start at just £50 or so and, since the connection can then be shared throughout the household, the connection costs can be cut. A subscription to PC Advisor gets you a free Wi-Fi router and Maplin offers student discounts, while shopping online can provide decent savings. Consider signing up for a broadband deal that only ties you in a month at a time.

For the latest broadband internet news, reviews, price comparisons and downloads, go to Broadband Advisor

Security and other concerns

You may think that having a PC or laptop with a TV tuner is a shortcut to a free television. While it's certainly a space and cost-saving plan, the down side is that it falls foul of TV licensing regulations.

Web-borne nasties are a bit of a worry, too. But the threat of actually losing a laptop or PC – along with all the work, recorded TV shows and precious MP3 collection stored on it – is much more of a concern.

Get the latest security news, reviews and updates at Security Advisor

When considering the design of your chosen laptop or PC, you need something robust – but you probably want something you can lock down too. Password-protect access to the PC if you don't want Jones from down the corridor copying coursework; also consider a Kensington lock to physically prevent theft (uk.kensington.com). Far too many student lodgings are in draughty, insecure buildings. Make even a half-hearted attempt to secure the PC or laptop and they'll probably move on.

Insuring possessions is another very good idea, but ensure you've followed the insurer's advice about locks on doors and windows. If you've bought a laptop, check that your policy covers use outdoors and at lectures. Many class a laptop as something static that lives in a study or bedroom, while others won't cover them at all.

Endsleigh has a special Out And About insurance deal (phone 01242 866 400 for details).

Another dull but worthwhile exercise is the old backup routine. Believe us, it won't seem quite so boring in the event of a hard disk failure. If nothing else, copy college work on to a USB memory key you take with you so you've always got a copy. Backing up online or to an external drive is better yet.

Finally, there are ways to save on life's little luxuries. Students are often inundated with attractive offers from banks, insurers and others during freshers' week, so free CDs, discount train travel and endless iPod cases will probably clutter their room. You can even get a 'free' PlayStation 3 games console with a fairly hefty mobile contract at The Link.

Not all such deals are the bargains they seem, but we should point out that there's a free MP3 player (or a Wi-Fi router, as mentioned above) if you subscribe to PC Advisor, or your pick of MP3 players if you buy music via Napster To Go.

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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