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Back-to-school tech guide 2010

By Jake Widman
August 18, 2010 06:00 AM ET

Digital photo frame

Kodak Pulse digital photo frame
Kodak Pulse digital photo frame

There are a lot of digital photo frames out there, so what makes the Kodak Pulse ($129.99) special? The fact that it's Internet- and Wi-Fi-enabled and has its own e-mail address. That means you can transfer photos to it from your computer wirelessly and send new photos to it from your mobile phone as soon as you take them. In addition, the Pulse has a USB port and two card slots for more standard ways of adding images.

Better, the connectivity options mean you can get photos from family and friends without having to do anything. Mom can send you the photos of the latest family gathering, or -- maybe better -- your BFF from high school can send you shots of her latest escapades, just by e-mailing them right to the frame. You can also link the Pulse to your friends' Facebook profiles and receive new photos they upload. A digital photo frame that surprises you with new pictures -- that's pretty special.

E-book reader

Amazon Kindle
Amazon's Kindle

We're quite taken with Amazon's third-generation Kindle -- not least because of its new price point. Last year we recommended the then-new Kindle DX, but at $489 it was firmly in the "ask your parents" section. This year, the new 6-in. Kindle comes in at a relatively modest $139 ($189 with 3G in addition to Wi-Fi), an amount conceivably within a student's budget.

We don't really need to explain the benefits of an e-reader: It gives you the ability to carry thousands of books in an 8.7 oz., 4.8-by-7.5-in. package. The new model is easier to hold and use than the old one, and the display is brighter and crisper.

One alternative to a dedicated e-reader would, of course, be an Apple iPad; the several excellent e-book apps available make it a decent e-reader on top of its wireless Web abilities. At $499 and up -- way up -- the iPad is definitely outside the range of our student budget. But we've noticed that the people who want an iPad want an iPad regardless. Who are we to stop them?

5 indispensable Web apps for students

Web-based applications have three advantages that make them perfect for students: They're cheap or free, they're accessible from any computer, and they enable collaboration in a way that's clumsy or impossible with desktop apps. We've rounded up some of the best free Web apps to support students in their work.

(We didn't bother with general run-your-life apps like Ta-da List, productivity suites like Google Docs or storage/sync tools like Dropbox. They would certainly be of great help to students, but not especially to students.)

  • BibMe: These days, a research paper might quote a Web site, a book, a film and a newspaper. Getting the bibliographic citations in the right format is the last thing you need to be spending time on when you're trying to finish a paper that's due the next day. Let BibMe take care of that. You just pick the type of source (book, magazine, Web site, etc.) and enter the title, author, ISBN number, URL, director or whatever into the search field, and BibMe will likely find your particular reference. (If not, there's a manual-entry mode as well.) Review and correct the information, click Add To My Bibliography and watch the list of properly formatted citations grow.
  • Diigo: Diigo is a browser add-on that supports Web research by letting you bookmark, highlight and annotate Web pages. It's available as a toolbar for Firefox, Flock and Internet Explorer, an extension for Chrome and a bookmarklet for Safari and other browsers. Your notes are saved in your own personal Diigo library, so you can access them from any computer. Diigo also lets you archive entire Web pages, saving them in both HTML and screenshot formats. You can add tags to bookmarks and saved pages to make them easy to find later, and make your library public or share it with a particular group.
  • NoteMesh: What student hasn't asked to borrow a classmate's lecture notes? NoteMesh makes that a simple process by providing a class-oriented wiki to which students can contribute, edit and comment on notes. Each course gets its own wiki page, and registered users can add, remove or change content as they wish, basically creating a custom Wikipedia entry for that class. And like Wikipedia, NoteMesh maintains a history of changes to a class notes page, so any problems can be corrected.
  • SparkNotes: Owned since 2001 by Barnes & Noble, SparkNotes can be described as a sort of online CliffsNotes. The idea is to help students through the rough patches when the usual resources aren't enough. The notes on literature cover everything from Angela's Ashes to Watership Down, in addition to the expected classics. There are also notes for films, chemistry, history, math and most other standard subjects.
    The site's only real drawback is a ridiculously cluttered Flash- and ad-heavy interface. But once you hack your way through the visual underbrush to the actual notes, the information is solid. Just be forewarned: Professors are on to SparkNotes, so make sure you use it for assistance rather than wholesale copy-and-pasting.
  • Writeboard: Writeboard, from 37signals, the people responsible for Ta-da List and the information-sharing site Backpack, provides an online environment for brainstorming or collaborative writing -- a virtual whiteboard, if you will. The site lets you create a basic text box with its own URL and invite others to work on it with you. Writeboard keeps track of who changed what and lets you compare two versions or revert to a previous copy. And that's pretty much it: a simple idea, well executed.

Jake Widman is a freelance technology writer in San Francisco.

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