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The Tired Donkey

Cocktails, Apple conundrums, taxes and other assorted stuff

Making the Most of Your Mac at College | Mac Hardware, Mac Software, College | The Tired Donkey

The Tired Donkey

Sitting Donkey
The Tired Donkey blogs about cocktails, ways to get the most out of your Mac at home, work, college . . . wherever. He used to write about the unending abuse suffered by the 51% of Americans who actually pay the federal income tax. But this became too depressing, and, frankly, no one wanted to read it.

Nevertheless, if you came here looking for the Tired Donkey's brilliant analysis of our dim-witted tax system, you can still find his earlier posts. Just check the archives or the
Site Map.

Note: The Tired Donkey is not advertiser supported, and he gets no benefit from any product mentioned on his site.

The Tired Donkey


Making the Most of Your Mac at College

So you are heading off to college, and you want some advice about what kind of computer to get, what software you might need and what extra equipment you ought to convince your parents to buy for you. The Tired Donkey has some experience in these areas and will offer you the advice you seek. But don’t take this advice as comprehensive; you will need to adjust based on your specific circumstances and the way you like to work.

First, should you get a Mac or a PC? The Tired Donkey believes in Macs, and the advice in this post is geared toward Mac users. So if you have a Mac already or have decided to buy one, read on. If you are still undecided and want some Mac v. PC advice, try
here. Or here. As you peruse these links, understand that you will have no problem using either system on any college campus for anything you need to do in college from turning in papers electronically to email to entertainment. Whatever you chose, don’t even think about getting a desktop machine; if you get anything other than a laptop, you’ll regret it.

Graduate Still
So. Your new computer is great for entertainment, but never forget it is primarily a tool to help you succeed in college. Get off to a good start by using the summer before you leave for college to get organized, to think about how you are going to study, how you are going to structure your days and how you are going to succeed. It won’t happen by accident, and you don’t want to blow your first semester by feeling your way into college. Show up prepared and kick ass. Remember: the more organized you are right from the start, the more time you will have for enjoying the non-classroom aspects of college. Take care of business first, and the rest will follow naturally.

This post makes some recommendations for you, but there are plenty of resources available on the web if you just run some searches like “best mac applications for college students,” “succeeding in college,” etc. Use these resources (some of which the Tired Donkey lists at the end of this post), and don’t just waste your summer.

First, some general guidance:

Organize your email. If you are like the Tired Donkey’s many children, you have not relied much on email to this point in your life. You need to change that because adults and businesses rely on email rather than texting. Keep you mailbox clean. Every time you get an email from some company you don’t care about, use the little link at the bottom of the email to unsubscribe. Create an email folder for every one of your classes and move email regarding that class out of your inbox and into the folder so you can find it quickly when you need it.

Mac’s Mail application can keep track of multiple mail accounts, so
set up both your personal account and your school account; they will both get dumped into the same inbox, and that makes it easy to keep track of everything. Your professors will always send email to your school account, so don’t just rely on the web to check that mailbox because you may forget.

Establish a permanent email address now. If you don’t have a Gmail account yet, get it and use it for a permanent email address you will use for the rest of your life. Pick an email address as close to your name as possible and make it professional; don’t pick The Tired Donkey strongly recommends Gmail over Yahoo or Hotmail or any other competitor because of all the other tools you get with it and because both Google and others are constantly developing new apps to let you interface with it even more conveniently.

Get a big external monitor because it helps with research. It is incredibly useful when you are writing a paper to have a monitor big enough to be able to look at a web page and the document you are writing at the same time. The Tired Donkey recommends at least a 23” screen, and he has generally had very good luck with Dell monitors (and he thinks Mac monitors--while of extremely high quality--are overpriced, particularly for college students). Whatever brand you decide to go with, get a resolution of at least 1920 x 1080, and also look for one that has DVI-D, HDMI (for your X-Box or PlayStation) and VGA inputs as well as integrated additional USB slots. Extras that might be valuable to you would include a web cam, speakers and an SD card slot.

NOTE FOR MacBook Pro USERS: Because of a software glitch that
Apple has failed to address for many years, if you are going to use an external display with a MacBook Pro, don’t use the DVI-D input via a mini DisplayPort-to-DVI adapter because it will cause your screen to go blank for a few seconds every few minutes, and it will annoy the hell out of you. The problem doesn’t manifest itself using the VGA or the HDMI monitor inputs, and both look great. If you get an external display, you must get a mini DisplayPort-to-VGA adapter for your computer; they are $29 from Apple.

It is also a good idea to get a vertical stand for your computer to use when you have it plugged into the external monitor; it will take up too much of your limited desk space otherwise. The Tired Donkey uses this one at work, but this one gets good reviews, too.

Finally, if you are using an external monitor, you will also want to get a
full size keyboard and external mouse. The only choice you have to make here is Bluetooth or USB connections for these peripherals. The Tired Donkey recommends Bluetooth, but he has a lot of money to spend on toys like this; you can get a serviceable USB mouse and keyboard for about $20 total.

Amazon VOD
Don’t buy media content from iTunes if you can help it. Amazon’s music is generally cheaper and downloads at higher bit-rates. Further, Amazon’s Video on Demand service is dramatically superior to iTunes for one reason: Amazon stores your content on the web for you which means you can access from anywhere in the world anytime you want. For plane flights or whatever, you can download it to you Mac, but then delete it when you are done watching and free up that hard disk space (Amazon is still storing it on the web for you and you can watch it there or download it again anytime you want). When you buy from iTunes, you have to store it forever on you own hard drive, and that just eats drive space for no good reason.

Be prepared to set up a wireless network in your room. Most dorms are hard-wired, but you don’t want to have to be tied to an Ethernet port to work. Get an Airport Express from Apple, plug the Ethernet in your room into that, and then go wireless. Make sure you secure your network with a password.

Backup your work every day. The worst thing college students do (note: what follows is not actually the worst thing college students do, just the worst thing related to their data) is keep all their valuable information on their hard drive and never back it up. That drive is going to fail someday, and when it does all the work you have done is lost unless it is backed up. The Tired Donkey makes some recommendations about back-up software and techniques below.

Apps to Get Your Work Done

Microsoft Office. The Tired Donkey is not a big fan of Microsoft, but Office is the standard, and you need to know how to use it. Depending on your major, you may or may not ever need Excel (the Tired Donkey was an English major during a time when a “portable computer” was as large as a suitcase, and he uses Excel only when forced to, even today), but you will certainly need Word and Powerpoint so it makes sense to buy the package. But get the Student Edition; you don’t need the additional tools that come in the Professional Edition because they are designed for working in a Microsoft Exchange environment at a large business. Make sure you get the 2008 or later version of the suite because the file format changed to .docx in that version, and it is what you want; the 2008 version can read and save to the older file format if you need it to.

Other Application Suite Options. Many companies, non-profits and even countries are moving to OpenOffice which is free and contains apps that perform the same functions as the apps in the Microsoft suite, but in an open source framework. It is not as polished at the Microsoft product, but also not as bloated. It can save to Microsoft format and open Microsoft files. It’s a really good alternative if you don’t want to spend the Microsoft money.

There is also the Mac bundle called iWork. Pages and Numbers are the word processing and spreadsheet programs; they are very intuitive, very easy to use and create beautiful documents. They can also open and save documents in Microsoft format. The Tired Donkey likes them a lot, but from a usability perspective, they don’t have a lot in common with the Microsoft products. So the Tired Donkey is forced to say that he doesn’t recommend them for college students. Unfortunately, you are going to be doing most of your work in Microsoft documents for the foreseeable future, and you don’t want to get accustomed to programs that work so differently. OpenOffice feels a lot like the Microsoft products, so you won’t be learning many bad habits if you decide to go with this free Microsoft alternative.

Mail. It’s already on your computer, and it’s the best email program for the Mac.

Grapher. This is a graphing calculator on your computer, but a lot easier to see. It does 2D and 3D graphs from any equation you come up with. It’s already on your Mac in the Applications/Utilities folder. Using it is not as intuitive as it ought to be, but there are decent tutorials available here and here.

iFlash and iFlash Touch. You need a flash card program, and this is the best. You create flash cards on your computer and then study them on the computer or download them to your iPod Touch to study on the way to class, between classes, etc. You can get it here. And here.

iCal. It’s the calendar program already available on your computer. Use it. Enter your class schedule, due dates for papers, reminder about when you need to start work on those papers, your exam schedule, etc. You can sync it automatically with the Google Calendar associated with your Gmail account, and then it will automatically sync over WiFi with the calendar on your iPod Touch so you will always have your schedule with you. If you need help getting this set up, you can find it here.

Here’s how it works.
Set up iCal to sync automatically with your Google Calendar. When you put new information into iCal it syncs that info with your Google Calendar on the web. The next time you fire up the Calendar on your iPod Touch when it is connected to a WiFi network, it automatically syncs the calendar information you entered on your computer. Please note: don’t set up your iPod to sync the calendar when you plug it into your computer; let it all happen over the air.

To Do Lists. Unfortunately, the to-do lists you can enter into iCal won’t sync with your iPod or Google Calendar. If this is a function you need (and it can be very powerful), you need to go the third party route. The best program for this is Appego’s Todo. You enter all your todos in a web interface and it syncs wirelessly with a very slick app on your iPod (and vice-versa). Unfortunately, the iPod app is $10, but the web service itself is free.

Apps to Keep Your Computer Healthy

OnyX (free download here). This utility keeps OS X running smoothly, and you should run it about once a month. It fixes permissions that get messed up, cleans out various caches in hidden places where you will never find them and does other chores that don’t always happen the way they should. If your computer ever starts to feel a little sluggish, running OnyX will almost always fix it.

GrandPerspective (free download here). This is one of the Tired Donkey’s all-time favorite OS X utilities. It scans your drive and creates a picture that includes every file on the computer with the size of each file in the picture represented by a properly scaled color block. You can immediately see where all your hard disk space has gone and quickly find and delete files you no longer need. One caveat about using it: some big files have strange names and don’t seem necessary, but they might actually be critical to the running of the computer; always do a web search for the file name before deleting it to make sure it is okay to delete. Simply type “can I delete [filename] from OS X” into Google, and you will almost always find the answer on some esoteric message board.

Backing Up Your Work, Music and Video

You must get an external drive to back up your main hard drive. The Tired Donkey uses the one linked here and like it a lot: it comes with a dock that jacks directly into the FireWire 800 port on your Mac, it comes with a carrying case, it’s fast and reliable and it looks cool. There are, of course, many other choices so use what’s best for you.

After you get the drive, you have to figure out how to back up your information conveniently. The easiest solution is to use
Time Machine which is already on your Mac. All you have to do it turn it on.

The better solution is a program called
SuperDuper. It’s $27, but it is much more useful than Time Machine. The first time it runs, it clones your entire hard drive. Each time it runs after that, it only changes what has been changed on your drive, so it’s much
faster. The big advantage with SuperDuper is that it creates a bootable clone of your drive. If your main drive goes bad, you can boot your computer directly from the SuperDuper clone, and keep right on working until you can get the internal drive replaced. When you’ve gotten that done, you simply use SuperDuper to copy the backup onto you new internal drive, and you are done.

With Time Machine, all your data is protected, but you can’t boot from it. So if your internal drive goes bad, you are stuck until you get it replaced and reinstall OS X. From that point you can tell your computer to restore all your files from Time Machine, but you are out of luck during the time it takes to get the drive replaced.

If you decide to go with Time Machine, it does backups every hour while it is connected to your computer. If you go with SuperDuper, you can schedule the backups for the middle of the night, so you get a copy once a day; you just have to make sure you have the back-up drive plugged in when you go to bed and
use the Schedule button under the Energy Saver tab in System Preferences to tell you computer to wake up every night one minute before you have SuperDuper set to do backup. They both work off the same system clock, so this method works every time.

Shopping List

Here is all the stuff in this post that costs money. Things in bold are the things the Tired Donkey believes to be necessities. The others may or may not be depending on how you choose to work.
  • 23” or larger display ($150-$400 depending on what you decide to buy).
  • Vertical stand for MacBook ($25-$50)
  • Full-size keyboard ($10-$60)
  • Mouse ($10-$60)
  • External back-up drive ($150)
  • SuperDuper ($27)
  • Microsoft Office Mac 2008 Student Edition ($130)
  • AirPort Express ($99)
  • Not mentioned above, but you will need a printer ($100-$200). Order at least one set of replacement ink cartridges when you get the printer, and plug it directly into the AirPort Express via the USB port on it. That way you can print wirelessly from anywhere in your room. The Tired Donkey has had the best luck with Canon Ink Jet printers.
  • 31ZVa4j6QVL._SL500_SS75_
    Not mentioned above, but you will need a surge protector. The one linked here does the best job of concealing and organizing all your wires. The Tired Donkey has five or six of them in the house right now.
  • Mini Displayport-to-VGA Adapter ($29)
Some Additional Reading

You may find the pages linked below provide you with some additional useful information:
That’s it. Good luck starting college in the fall. The Tired Donkey attended the United States Naval Academy, so he can’t say his first year of college was much fun. But yours ought to be if you prepare properly and hit the ground running.

The Tired Donkey

Sitting Donkey
The Tired Donkey blogs about cocktails, ways to get the most out of your Mac at home, work, college . . . wherever. He used to write about the unending abuse suffered by the 51% of Americans who actually pay the federal income tax. But this became too depressing, and, frankly, no one wanted to read it.

Nevertheless, if you came here looking for the Tired Donkey's brilliant analysis of our dim-witted tax system, you can still find his earlier posts. Just check the archives or the
Site Map.

Note: The Tired Donkey is not advertiser supported, and he gets no benefit from any product mentioned on his site.

The Tired Donkey