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Must-have college tech

iPods and cell phones top the gadget list for penny-pinching students, and few hit campus without a PC. Photos: Gadgets on campus

NEW YORK--Here at New York University, undergraduates are known for being an avant-garde, creative bunch. But like many college students, their appetite for the hottest gadgets is reined in by tight student budgets and a hectic lifestyle.

"I think I have the cheapest Motorola (cell phone) that came with the (carrier) plan," said NYU sophomore Catherine Hall.

College students are back on campus and their favorite gadgets, from iPods to camera phones, are back with them. Not surprisingly, late summer and early fall inevitably see a barrage of advertisements for nifty gadgets that retailers tout as must-haves for a new generation of students who have grown up with PCs, cell phones and the Internet. But according to NPD Group analyst Steve Baker, the actual bestsellers are reliably basic.

College tech

"Back-to-school tends to be a pretty regimented season," Baker said. "Every year, you're going to sell a lot of notebook computers, high-end calculators, now a lot of iPods and other music devices, phones, things that are mobile. Those tend to be the things that do very well for college students."

Of course, there are a few new gadgets on campus this year. At the University of California at Berkeley, students are toting around flash drives: Not only can they keep their papers, problem sets and typed notes close at hand and work on them from dorm, classroom or library computers, but they can also safeguard their academic work from the hard-drive crashes that spawn many a college horror story.

At the University of Arizona, a gadget that hit the market about a year ago is becoming increasingly popular. It's called the "classroom clicker," and it allows students to give instant feedback to professors in large lecture halls. And at NYU, undergraduates are eager to talk about the gadgets that supplement their social lives, such as cell phones, music players and video-game consoles.

But for many on college campuses, it seems, the reality of being a cash-starved student means craving the fanciest gadgets but buying the most affordable.

Cell phones, iPods
Students admire the stylish LG Chocolate and Motorola Q, but some say they are more likely to go for a handset that's practical and budget-friendly. While T-Mobile USA holds up its Sidekick III personal organizer as the ultimate student gadget, it's hard to find students using it at NYU. In fact, the majority of handsets seen around school are inconspicuous clamshells, perhaps because many students are still on family phone plans and don't have a whole lot of freedom to pick and choose.

Still, some students do prefer to add some style to their cell-phone choice. "I've seen a lot of Razrs," observed Hall's roommate Allix Geneslaw, a Spanish major from New Jersey who uses the slim Motorola phone. Indeed, a few students walking around Washington Square Park--a central point of NYU's urban campus--are chatting on Razr phones, mostly the standard black model, although the flashier pink version can be seen here and there.

The other prominent handheld gadget at NYU is, predictably, Apple Computer's iPod. "I would die without my iPod," said American studies major Alice Davis, a sophomore from Oakland, Calif. She and her suitemates are all owners of iPod music players--and so is, they say, pretty much everyone else at NYU.

iPod accessories are consequently also big. Various third-party speaker sets, as well as Apple's own iPod Hi-Fi system, have begun to replace the bulky multidisk CD players that were once staples of dorm common rooms. Some students also go for more cosmetic add-ons, like Geneslaw, who showed off her "embarrassing" (yet still beloved) .

Indeed, despite doomsday predictions about sustaining enthusiasm for iPods, they still fly off the shelves of retail stores near college campuses. "There's really nothing that's come up against the iPod," said John Vittrauer, a sales associate at a Best Buy store close to NYU.

In fact, iPods are so prevalent among NYU's 19,500 undergraduates that a student who doesn't have one is making a statement. Case in point: Drew McIntyre, a drama major from Detroit who takes his music to go on a Sony Vaio player because he's proudly anti-Apple. "I'm kind of against iPods," he said, wrinkling his nose. "I like Sony, in general."

PCs and portability factor
Many collegiate budgets are already stretched thin by the priciest, and arguably the most necessary, of student gadgets: the personal computer. Laptop computers, according to students as well as retailers, are overwhelmingly preferable to desktops because of mobility issues. Falling prices, too, have made the traditionally costlier portable computers available to more students.

Among laptops, there's a good amount of diversity. Some students prefer the lightest laptops possible, others prefer the most functional. American studies major Davis observed that many students choose Apple's MacBooks, noting that the company's "creative" image is a big draw among NYU undergraduates, particularly those in the university's top-ranked Tisch School of the Arts.

The students who take desktop computers to college likewise do so for very specific reasons. Many, like Drew McIntyre, are gamers. McIntyre chose a Gateway all-in-one desktop--one without a separate tower--over a laptop because the improved performance is essential to online role-playing games. His roommates are equally into games, he said, but since their laptops aren't powerful enough to handle "Second Life" or "World of Warcraft," they've invested in other forms of recreational electronics. Their five-man suite is equipped with a Nintendo GameCube, and they're "very excited" about the upcoming Wii console.

College students headed back to school are a perennial target of computer and gadget manufacturers. But ultimately, it's a much more restricted market than Apple or Sony would have you think, according to Baker, the NPD Group analyst.

"(College students are) space-constrained. They have very specific needs," he said. And there's the budget issue to boot. "There's not a lot of creativity about what people buy when they get back to school," Baker added.