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College Consumerism: A Round-up

Now that I’ve completed three weeks of classes, and a few more days of actually living in a dorm, I’ve definitely learned a lot. Many, but not all, of these things, relate to that elusive fairy-dust college students always are in short supply of: money. Thankfully, not only do I have gainful employment, but I’ve managed to not waste a bunch of cash. And here’s how.

Targus Groove Backpack: This thing is amazing. I got one on sale for $25, just barely below list ($30), and it’s worth every penny. After a few (ahem) years of buying bookbags for school, I thought $25 was a bit on the pricey side, but since you usually get exactly what you pay for with bags, I was okay with it. Plus, a friend of mine has been using the same Targus backpack since I met him during freshman year of high school.

Lo and behold, when I go to the store to pick it up, I find that this honey is nestled in with the other bags designed to hold laptops, which start around $60 and go up to about $200. And this is just what’s on the one aisle at the local Office Depot. I’m not sure why, but the price modifier for being “rated” to carry a laptop seems to be an extra 100%. But apparently Targus cut the crap and just delivered the savings. I imagine they’ll be hearing from me again.

Belking Model F5D6231-4 Wireless Router: I only list this particular item here, because it technically did save me money, inasmuch as I got it for free. This bunger had been floating around my IT Department (read: house) for years. I’m pretty sure it used to be our old router, but we got a new one for reasons that have become clear to me in recent days. Primarily, it sucks.

In the past, I’d dusted this thing off for networking up a LAN party hosted at my house, and it’d been a minor pain there, but I figured that those troubles were just a combination of murphy’s law and the integral of Murphy’s Law which dictates that the greater the complexity, the greater the failure chance.

So when I was moving out, I figured I’d grab the blamed thing and set it up in my dorm, to have wireless and a nice hardware firewall. Well, long story short, the thing just failed. Whether it was being moved, or it was just waiting to keel over on me, I don’t know, but it just would not work. Just before I junked the thing, I tried to simplify matters as far as possible. I plugged my computer into one of the LAN ports, and the router into the campus network. As far as I could tell, it couldn’t tell anything was connected, despite having blinky lights all over it’s front. At any rate, I chucked it out.

Netgear WGT624 Wireless Router: I just saw this bad boy on Tiger Direct today, and in a fit of impulse buying, drove over to the Tiger Direct store and picked me up one. It’s got b/g wireless, with WPA, all for $20. Plus, the thing just looks darn sleek. Think of all the positives of Apple design without any of the pejoratives, and you’ve got something approximating my enjoyment of this device. And, it’s tiny. Aside from being slightly thicker, it’s about the same size as my copy of I, Robot (which may or may not be my father’s copy…).

Also, when I plugged everything in and started it up, I was expecting to do the normal dance of setting it up, which is no great challenge to me, since I professionally mess up family member’s routers all the time. So setting up my own is simple, right? Thus, I had a knee-jerk reaction of “Oh, great!” when I saw the auto-configuration screen that I figured would just take longer than manually configuring this honey.

But I was wrong. The configuration utility got the latest firmware (automatically, natch), probed all sorts of networks, asked important questions like SSID, as well as strongly recommending adding encryption to the wireless and changing the admin password. But the true masterstroke is that, through some kind of NetGear black magic, makes it so that if, from behind this router, you navigate to http://www.routerlogin.net, the router intercepts the connection, and takes you to the configuration page. Login required, of course. This is simply amazing because it’s so ingenious: the entry-level user would have no clue what an IP address is, or how to find out the IP address of their router to access it directly. But by providing a static URL that they can bookmark or write down, this router will save so many people headaches, it’s stunning.

Energizer DUO USB Charger: This little thing can charge AAs or AAAs from either a powered USB port or a wall socket. Plus, (for gimmick value) if you have it plugged into a Windows computer with their software running, it will show a percent meter of charge, as well as time to full. With two rechargable AAAs included in the pack, it only ran $20.

On a recent trip to drive a friend down to college in Savannah, GA, I tossed this thing in my bag with a pair of AAAs in it, as spares for my MP3 player*. Charged ’em on the road from my laptop and my player never went dead. Sheer genius.

*As long as I’m giving high praise to my favorite gizmos: Creative MuVo v100. It’s an MP3 player that breaks into two parts: a battery holder, which takes a AAA, and a circuit-board piece that’s got all the flash memory and display, that looks suspiciously like a USB thumb drive. And it acts just like a thumb drive too. When I get to my computer at work, I turn it off, plug my headphones into my computer, break the player into it’s halves, set the battery part aside, plug in the USB bit, and fire up a media player to read the files straight off the “USB Mass Storage Device” that Windows thinks it is.

I got the 1GB model for $50ish about a year (or more?) ago, and the thing hasn’t once failed me. My only caveat is that the battery cover stayed snapped in by a small strip of plastic that snapped when I dropped it one day. But a thin strip of duct tape has done just as well. Plus, it’s not a real problem because I change the battery so infrequently anyways.

(A side note about the 1GB size, which I thought would be too small: Using a VBR WMA format, I’ve managed to get 22 hours of music that only fills 85% of the drive. Plus, some of those files aren’t in WMA, so if/when I fill it up, I can compress those for more space.)

In full disclosure, I feel I should mention the one thing that I didn’t buy, that I really should have: a nice power strip. With a 5-6 foot cord and plenty of outlets. However, a good friend of mine on campus had a spare that he’d bought and not ended up using. He gave it to me, I bought him dinner at Wendy’s, and we called it even.

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