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16 great back-to-school gadgets

By Jake Widman
August 12, 2009 06:00 AM ET

Advanced note taker

WizCom likes to call its InfoScan TS Elite portable text scanner ($200 list, but we found it online for prices ranging from $120 to $170) a "highlighter with a brain," and that's about right. It looks like an electronic thermometer, with a 2- by 4-in., six-line screen and a 5/8-in.-wide tip. You drag the tip across some text -- it has a guide wheel on either side of the scanning head to help your aim -- and the pen performs optical character recognition (OCR) on the text, displays it on the screen, and stores it in memory.

When you get back to your computer, you connect the pen with the included USB cable and use the WizCom software (available for Windows only) to transfer the text to your computer. The pen can scan text with characters as small as six points and as large as 22 points and, according to WizCom, it can hold about 500 pages worth of material.

InfoScan TS Elite portable text scanner.
InfoScan TS Elite portable text scanner.

Perhaps what's most impressive is the accuracy of the translation from scan to text. The InfoScan did a better job on the various books and newspapers we tried it on than our flatbed scanner usually does with the desktop OCR software it came with.

Pocket video camera

A series of new handheld, nearly iPod-size video cameras have emerged, and they're great for taping lectures and taking lab notes (not to mention making embarrassing YouTube videos). They're available from Kodak, Pure Digital, Sony and Creative Labs, and the manufacturers are leapfrogging one another in features and quality all the time, so whichever one is "best" may not be best for long. The fact is, they're all pretty good, and you won't notice quality differences unless you do side-by-side comparisons.

Pure Digital Flip Ultra video camera.
Pure Digital Flip Ultra video camera.

That brings us to ease of use, and none of the rivals can top Pure Digital's Flip for straightforward interface. See the big red button? Push the big red button. That's it.

The Flip Ultra models (Ultra with VGA resolution, $150; UltraHD, $200) use standard AA batteries rather than permanent rechargeable battery packs, which makes them more flexible -- you don't have to worry about waiting to recharge before you can continue shooting. But you can also get the rechargeable Flip Video Battery Pack ($25) and have the best of both worlds.

The included video editing software makes it easy to do quick edits -- and, yes, upload to YouTube if that's what you're after.

Fairy godparent gifts

We couldn't resist including a couple gadgets that are outside most college students' budgets. We're not suggesting that you spend your hard-earned dough on these products, but you might want to drop a hint about them to a relative who's looking to give you something extra-special as you head back to school.

Amazon Kindle DX e-reader.
Amazon Kindle DX e-reader.

We know you've heard of Amazon.com's Kindle e-reader. The recently released Kindle DX ($489) features a larger screen (9.7 inches) than the original model, making it better suited for newspapers, magazines -- and textbooks. The screen auto-rotates, so you can turn it sideways to see a full-width table, map or graph. It's also a PDF reader, so you can use it to read any PDF file you put on it with your computer. And it has a built-in dictionary.

At the time of the DX's launch, Amazon announced a trial program for e-textbooks on the Kindle at a couple of universities, and it said that it had formed a partnership with three major textbook publishers. The fruits of those initiatives are still unclear -- few textbooks are yet available, and pricing and distribution questions remain. But the prospect of carrying a single 18 oz. device instead of several pounds of books makes the DX a good bandwagon to get on -- especially if you don't have to buy the ticket.

College life is more than just academics, and one of the major social outlets is music -- listening and sharing. Logitech's Squeezebox digital music servers ($299 to $399) are a great way to do both.

These devices connect to the same wireless network your computer is on and let you stream music from your iTunes or other media library. They can even connect to your Pandora and Last.fm stations, pick up Shoutcast and Live365 Internet radio, and tune in almost any streaming music source you can find. And if you give everyone on your network the free SlimServer server software, you can listen to their music collections as easily as you can your own.

Squeezebox Boom.
Squeezebox Boom.

The Squeezebox Boom, at $299, puts the streaming capabilities in a boom box and is the best choice if you don't already have a stereo. (You can also connect it to your computer to use in place of external speakers.)

The Squeezebox Classic, also $299, connects to your existing stereo and has a display and a basic remote control. But if you really want the snazziest setup, the top-of-the-line Squeezebox Duet ($399) comes with a remote control equipped with a screen that itself is a network device, enabling you to control the Squeezebox receiver from anywhere you can get a wireless signal.

Jake Widman is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. His most recent Computerworld story was "How Facebook mucks up office life."

Read more about Mobile/Wireless in Computerworld's Mobile/Wireless Topic Center.



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