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Back-to-school tech guide 2011

By Jake Widman
August 17, 2011 06:00 AM ET

It's a battery and a flash drive

Cell Drive
The Cell Drive emergency device charger and flash drive

Backup batteries for phones and MP3 players are handy; so are flash drives. The Cell Drive from SLD Marketing Group packs both into one small package, along with a connector for charging and (depending on the device) syncing a mobile device.

The Cell Drive starts with a rechargeable 430 mAh battery. It won't fully charge your device, but it provides enough juice for an extra hour of talk time or several days of standby, according to the company.

The same 1.1-x-3.2-x-0.6-in. container houses a flash drive that stores 4GB or 8GB of data. On one end is a standard USB 2.0 plug, at the other is a mini-USB plug, which lets you charge and sync files with devices that have that port. Rounding out the connection options is a 3.5mm jack that works with the included micro-USB and iPhone/iPod adapters for charging those devices.

At $49.95 or $59.95 (depending on whether it's a 4GB or 8GB flash drive), the pocket-size Cell Drive replaces four or five other accessories all by itself.

It's a watch and an iPod

Apple's latest iPod Nano can fill its touchscreen face with an analog clock display. If only there were a way to affix the Nano to your wrist so you could see the clock.

Quad Mountain Ultimate One wrist strap
The Quad Mountain Ultimate One wrist strap for the Nano

Enter the Quad Mountain Ultimate One wrist strap. Developed with crowdfunding support through Kickstarter, the Ultimate One silicone strap has an extra smooth, soft feel and holes for ventilation to keep your wrist from getting too sweaty. The design also keeps the Nano away from your skin.

The clasp that holds the Nano doesn't block its connectors and controls (even the dock port), so you can listen to your music or podcasts of your classes without taking off your watch. It even works with adapters for the Nike+ training system and Bluetooth wireless headsets. It comes in five sporty colors as well as white and black ($29.95 each or two for $49.95 for black plus another color).

LunaTik
The silver LunaTik Nano band

Want a more upscale look? Try the LunaTik, another Kickstarter-funded Nano watchband. Featuring an aluminum housing with black silicone rubber straps, the LunaTik comes in elegant silver ($79.95), bold red ($79.95), stealthy black ($89.95) or a TakTik version ($99.95) that features an individually molded (no two alike) camouflage-pattern band.

How to rent a digital textbook

Textbooks can be expensive: New hardcover versions can easily run you $50 to $150 each, or even more. Multiply that by several classes, and it's no surprise that a sizeable market exists for used and rented textbooks.

With the increasing popularity of e-book readers and tablets, this idea has spread to e-textbooks as well. While there's no market for used e-textbooks (for obvious reasons), several sources offer the chance to rent a digital textbook for a specified period of time at a cost that's even less than buying a used version. Amazon entered the field in July, putting a lot of weight behind the trend.

We took a look at some e-textbook rental services to find out how they worked. We also searched each one for two textbooks: Geography: Realms, Regions and Concepts by H. J. de Blij and Peter O. Muller (hereafter called "Geo"); and Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy by Gerald Corey (called "Psych"). We'll tell you if we found them and how much a typical rental cost. (Some services rent their books for a standard period of time, while others let you specify how long you want the book.)

Amazon Kindle Textbook Rental

Amazon rents some of the Kindle editions of its textbooks. Students can read them not just on the company's own Kindle readers but also on Macs and PCs as well as through apps on most smartphones and tablets. It offers the most flexible rental options that we've seen, letting you choose any period between 30 and 360 days. Students can make notes on the books and access their notes even after the rental period is up.

We found our sample textbooks by browsing Amazon's e-textbook offerings, so they're both available here. But finding them took a while -- a lot of textbooks, even if they have Kindle editions, aren't available for rental -- so don't assume Amazon will have your textbooks just because they have these.

Sample prices: Geo costs $74.00 to buy digitally, $39.04 to rent for 90 days. Psych costs $84.76 to buy, $40.49 for 90-day rental.

Barnes & Noble Nook Study

First, don't let the name fool you: Nook Study isn't for Nook e-readers. It's software for Macs and PCs that lets you organize, take notes on, add material to, print from, and otherwise manage course materials -- including e-textbooks you buy or rent from Barnes & Noble.

While the software seems useful, the lack of integration with the Nook itself seems like a bizarre limitation. Still, it's a free download, and students who want to collect course and research materials into an online library might as well try it out. Nook Study also lets you try out an e-textbook for free for seven days.

Sample prices: It's $95.50 to buy the digital edition of Geo, $66.50 for a 60-day rental. Psych is unavailable for purchase and costs $70.49 to rent for 180 days.

CengageBrain

CengageBrain is a printed textbook vendor that has recently added an e-textbook department. To support its e-textbooks, the company relies on e-textbook vendor CourseSmart's reader app for Android and iOS devices; you can also read the books in a browser on any computer. As with the other services, you can highlight and annotate the books and print individual pages.

Sample prices: Geo is unavailable. Psych costs $70.49 to rent for a year and $91.49( for two years; individual chapters cost $6.49 each to buy.

Chegg

Chegg, an online hard-copy textbook rental service, has also recently added an e-textbook department. The books are in streaming online format and accessed through a browser, so you need to be connected to the Internet to read them and can't save them locally. Also, you can open each book on only one computer at a time. You can highlight the books and take notes, as well as copy and print from them.

Sample prices: Geo is unavailable. Psych costs $56.39 to rent for 180 days.

Kno

Kno doesn't sell e-textbooks, it only rents them, and you can read its e-textbooks in three ways: on an iPad, on the company's website, or through its Facebook app. That's right, you can study and be on Facebook at the same time!

However you access the books, you can highlight and search the contents. On the iPad, you can create bookmarks, clip images into a digital notebook, share material with other Kno users, and add PDFs to your library by printing from Safari.

Sample prices: Geo is unavailable. Psych costs $70.49 to rent for six months.

A few other options

Just for comparison's sake, we also visited BookRenter, a leading renter of hard-copy textbooks. There, it would cost you $46.39 to rent the Geo book for 90 days, and $43.74 to rent the Psych book for the same amount of time. Those rates are competitive with the e-textbook rentals, suggesting that the primary advantage of e-books is the same for renting textbooks as it is for buying novels: It's just that you don't have to deal with the massive physical objects themselves.

There is another option, and this one's free. OverDrive is a central clearinghouse for searching for and downloading e-books in the collections of participating libraries. The OverDrive Media Console, for mobile devices as well as computers, supports EPUB and PDF e-books as well as MP3 and WMA audiobooks. The selection is hit and miss, though: The Psych book is unavailable, and we found a listing for the Geo book in the Mobipocket Reader format, but without a download link.

Related blog: Swoopthat scoops up college textbook bargains

That's it for this year's guide. Looking for more back-to-school help? Don't miss these handy Web apps for your laptop and smartphone apps for iOS and Android devices.

Jake Widman is a freelance technology writer in San Francisco.

Read more about Hardware in Computerworld's Hardware Topic Center.



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