Must-Have Back-to-School Gadgets

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It's back-to-school time -- a short window of opportunity for retailers -- and a period when parents try to keep costs in check while providing everything their children need to succeed in the coming school year.

School books and office supplies are easier to deal with (and somewhat less expensive) than the electronic goods that kids want and need: computers, printers, cell phones, music players and TVs.

As for computers -- there are hundreds of great choices. In the past, lower-priced desktops and laptops meant functional but not very stylish: large-sized boxes with tried-and-true components (meaning not exactly the newest or fastest) components inside. Smaller, feature-laden machines usually cost more.

But, a year ago, Asus changed all that with its Eee PC line of laptops. Now, kids can have a laptop for around $300 (with the Linux operating system inside) or a little more if Windows (MSFT) XP is a necessity. Actually, the newest, top-of-the-line Eee PC (the 1000H) has a big, 10-inch screen, Windows XP Home, Intel (INT) Atom processor, an 80GB hard drive and an affordable price of $549.

And now, there's also a $349 desktop version of the successful Eee Box laptops. Again, there's no CD/DVD drive inside. Just add a monitor and some speakers and you have a very good, affordable home computer system.

If your child's heart is set on a Mac, the Mac mini is the most affordable in Apple's (AAPL) user-friendly computer line. For $599, the mini has a heavy-duty Intel processor and a CD/DVD optical drive (not found in any Eee model). You need to add your own monitor, keyboard, mouse and speakers, though. Apple laptops start at $1,100.

New computers should be complemented with shiny, new printers as well. Because printers are relatively cheap compared to the ink cartridges you have to keep purchasing, I prefer not spending lots of money on printers.

My first stop for best prices would be one of the warehouse stores (Costco, Sam's Club, and BJ's) or giant discount department store retailers (Wal-Mart [WMT], Target (TGT), and Kmart [SHLD]). You should be able to find good-quality, color ink-jet machines for under $100. Maybe even under $50. A good black-and-white laser printer will set you back more than $150.

I would look for models from H-P (HPQ), Epson (SEKEY), Dell (DELL), Lexmark (LXK), Canon (CAJ) and Samsung (SEO). Over the years, I've had good luck with them all (I've had a lot of printers). If you find a model you like, don't forget to also check prices online.

As for cell phones -- this could be grounds for the biggest battles. Hot, new phone designs and monthly service fees all are considerations for which phone and what provider you choose.

iPhones are really terrific, but they're not for everyone. There may be features or programs and content that you would prefer not be downloaded on to a school kid's cell phone. If you do a little research, you will find some companies have new programs that allow you to control your children's cellular airtime and usage. There's even a new T-Mobile scheme that lets you set a monthly allowance of minutes for each family member. When you exceed the set number, your handset can only make calls to parents or emergency services.

As for the phones themselves, I wouldn't spend lots of money on a handset for back-to-schoolers. Any phone (which is most) can make and receive calls as well as send and receive text messages. Bottom line here is what else do you need?

In personal reconnaissance, here in New York, it seems that the T-Mobile (DT) Sidekick line of phones is amazingly popular. It's really a monster text-messaging machine (large keyboard beneath a clever pop-up screen) as well as a terrific cell phone. Prices start at $150 and climb to $300 for a Limited Edition Tony Hawk model. There are special Sidekick plans that start at $30 a month.

On the other hand, buying an iPhone 3G negates the need to buy a separate portable music device. If your child has a cell phone, he or she (they) like, you could always opt for any of the other iPod models that Apple offers. Better yet, you can save even more by considering a certified, refurbished iPod. They are all tested by Apple and come with a one-year warranty.

If you prefer something other than an iPod, consider one of Microsoft's Zunes (I like the models with hard drives; I think they sound best) or SanDisk's Sansa devices. These are well=priced alternatives to what has become the de facto industry standard.

Finally, TVs. We're just six months away from TV broadcasts moving from analog to digital frequencies. Older TVs will not receive over-the-air broadcasts in mid-February 2009. You will need either a special converter box or a cable/satellite connection to continue watching your local stations.

If you're in the market for a new, small TV, you have a huge choice these days. LG, Samsung, Toshiba (TOSBF), Vizio, Sony (SNE), Magnavox, (Philips), Westinghouse, and others, make terrific, little flat-screen TV sets that list for $300-$500. They range in size from an 8.5-inch under-the-counter model to 20- to-26 inch (measured diagonally) desktop models. They're all flat screens, which mean they take up less space than older TVs and they're much more energy efficient.

As with printers, you'll probably find the best prices for new TVs at large discount and warehouse stores, but also check online stores to make sure you're getting the best deal.

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