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At ASU, sunshine, iPods and Razrs

Sun Devils use gadgets to keep up with studies and friends--and sometimes, to stay awake in class.

TEMPE, Ariz.--A bronzed Arizona State University student with sun-bleached hair and worn brown sandals stood in the sun outside the crowded student union here last week. "I'm going to the river Monday! Who wants to go?" he yelled. "Meet me right here!"

The sweaty, overheated, iPod-toting populace, however, took no notice; they were too busy making their way from shady spot to shady spot.

"I couldn't walk further than 10 steps on campus without listening to music."
--Ashley Hollinger, ASU sophomore

And such was life at the start of a new school year on the sweltering, sun-drenched ASU campus, where classes kicked off Aug. 21. It was also the beginning of my quest to discover what gadgets are making students tick in the heart of the digital desert, where I am a third-year graduate student in journalism.

Earphones attached to iPods of every size were standard uniform as students walked to class with heads down, tapping text messages on their Razr phones and answering e-mails on their BlackBerrys.

Some students said they use iPods to download lectures or recordings of campus events and presentations. Political-science freshman Jessica Aguilar stays on top of university-wide issues like the horrendous parking situation by downloading ASU President Michael Crow's podcasts onto her black iPod Nano.

"I'm not extremely gadgety, but I do use gadgets to keep me going," she said.

Other students, like one young hip-hop artist, downloaded his original songs into his iPod Nano and used the MP3 player to advertise his music. Standing outside a bagel shop on this campus of 50,000 students, he asked passersby, "Do you like hip-hop?" Then he used his iPod to let people sample his work. Often, sweat had to be wiped off the large noise-canceling headphones as they were passed from person to person.

Ashley Hollinger, a sophomore studying psychology, noticed none of this hip-hop swapping as she sent text messages, did homework on her Mac iBook and listened to her 30GB video iPod at a table nearby.

"I couldn't walk further than 10 steps on campus without listening to music," she said.

Fellow iBook owner Bradley Graupner, a senior in religious studies who swears by his Mac, was writing a paper and soaking up the meager shade afforded him by an oversized umbrella on the student union patio.

He uses his Mac for photo editing, making Web sites, playing videos and downloading music. While in class, taking notes, he swears by his Mac's automatic indexing.

Waving the anti-Apple flag
Many iPod wearers mentioned an easy-to-use interface and lack of viruses, adware and spyware on Macs as the main reasons for their love of everything Apple Computer. But dissenters like aerospace- engineering freshman Bryant Buschman waved their anti-Apple flags with an array of MP3 players and MP3 phones.

When I caught up with him, Buschman had just left his dorm and was enjoying Elton John's "Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting," on his 8GB Creative Zen with a green plastic case. "I got it because it's not an iPod," he said.

Since professors don't allow iPods in class, some less studious Sun Devils pass the time in lectures by instant messaging and checking their e-mail. Spencer Keen, a freshman studying business, even confessed to playing video games in class from time to time. Game PCs, not surprisingly, are a hit among ASU gamers, who are fond of "Halo 2" and massively multiplayer games like "World of Warcraft" and "EverQuest," which psychology freshman Jennifer Johnson said was "addictive, but it'll steal your soul."

"Second Life," a 3D virtual world built and owned by residents, however, has yet to establish much of a fan base at the school. Many I spoke with frowned upon it as being too "weird" and said it cost too much to purchase virtual land and other digital goods.

Spotting the freshmen
And how quickly fads come and go in the game world. You could hear a pin drop when I asked if anyone still liked "Dance Dance Revolution," a music video game that was introduced to Japanese video arcades in 1998 and experienced a resurgence in recent years as Xbox, GameCube and PlayStation 2 created their own versions.

"Now that I look back on that I think, 'Did I really do that?'" said Joe Gamez, a junior studying business management. "I wish I would've videotaped it."

Game systems like Xbox and Nintendo are big, especially with computer science sophomore Matthew Bader, who said he owns "every Nintendo system ever made." And a good deal of the games too.

He was fiddling with a Universal Power Bank he had hooked to his LifeBook when I caught up to him in the air-conditioned basement eatery of the student union. Bader was doing some maintenance on his computer and wasn't on the Net because the campus-wide wireless service that made Tempe famous, (sort of) was spotty in some lower and upper levels.

Multifunctional gadgets found homes in a number of pockets on ASU's campus. Students from budding corporate tycoons to landlocked surfer dudes are crazy for their Sidekicks, Slvrs, BlackBerrys and Motorola Qs.

Computer science sophomore Ben Hainline uses his RIM BlackBerry 8700G to "organize his life." He tutors high school math students and is constantly checking his e-mail to stay in touch with them.

In fact, gadgets on the ASU campus are so widespread, one surefire way to sniff out a freshman in this gadget oasis is to scope out the accessories. While students of all ages love their toys, it seems the freshmen are more apt to wear them as fashion statements.

Lots of freshmen males, for example, cover their iPods in everything from bright green and blue plastic cases to black leather with skull and crossbones. And any young ASU woman worth her tan, it appears, is going to doll up her gadgets in flowers and tie-dye and gab on her choice of a pale- or hot-pink Razr phone.

But what does all this mean for interpersonal communication?

Well, that's apparently where Facebook comes in. When bored during class, students said they often check their Facebook accounts to see what their friends have planned for the weekend.

And amid the iPods, BlackBerrys Sidekicks and MP3 phones, social networking seems to be keeping the lines of communication open.

Psychology senior Sarah Ralstom put it best when she said, "If you don't have a Facebook account, you're not human."

Nicole Girard spent her summer as a CNET News.com intern.