Time to Go Back to School with Your Mac

September is approaching and we all know that means its back to school time. Laptop usage and computing habits have changed over the past 7 to 10 years along with how ingrained the internet is with our daily lives. Point being is that computers are way more necessary on campus now than they ever were before.

That said, it’s not just as simple as tossing a MacBook in your bookbag and heading up to school. Whether you are an incoming freshman on campus, a seasoned upperclassman or still in high school, these tips are to prepare you for the many different situations that you’ll encounter as you go back to school.

Software you’ll need:

Of course, a Mac is only as useful as the software written for it. Luckily, the iLife suite that ships with your Mac is handy enough to take care of basic photo, film and music tasks. It would have been a huge advantage for me if the iLife suite was around when I was in school. Lucky for you, it is.

But that’s now all the software you’re going to need. Depending on your field of study, you may require specialized software but to get you through the basic required classes, here’s what you’ll need:

Office Suite: A basic office suite with a word processor, spreadsheet program and a presentation program is a requirement now. Which one to choose depends on you. Microsoft Office 2008 is the standard format most people use and professors may require you to hand in assignments in Office format (.DOC/x, .PPT/x, .XLS/x). If you want the easiest way to compatibility, go for Microsoft Office 2008.

If you don’t have the money or don’t want to support Microsoft, I wholly recommend NeoOffice. It will open, create, edit and save any documents in the older Microsoft Office format (which is still extremely relevant). For the newer Office Open XML formats, it will read them but not save them properly.

If you are unsure, it’s worth noting that NeoOffice and OpenOffice have made wonderful improvements and should be tried out. Save the $150 to buy a ridiculously overpriced textbook.

Note Taking: Not a requirement but applications like Evernote are incredibly useful for taking notes with in class. In addition to just notes, you can attach documents, URLs, and photos. What makes Evernote awesome is being able to go back and search through it all. No more flipping through notebook pages and reading your cryptic notes. Also if you’ve got a friend using Evernote, swapping notes is easier than using the photocopier for 20 minutes.

Keeping in Touch: You’ll need to keep in touch with family and friends and with technology, it’s easy and free. Just use Skype for free voice/video calling, OS X’s iChat for AIM users or aMSN to handle people with MSN Messenger. Between cellphones and VOIP, forget about needing a landline on campus.

Cloud Computing: I love iCal / Sunbird and Thunderbird with the Lightning extension but there will be times when you aren’t with your MacBook but need your schedule. You’re also going to need you own email address. Sure, the school will provide you one but you aren’t going to be in school forever and when you go, so does that account. If you don’t have a Google account now, go and get one. Use your Gmail as your main email address, and keep track of your schedule with Google Calendar as your back-end calendaring solution. Need to collaborate with other students for the inevitable group project? Use Google Docs to keep everything together.

Note: Unless you plan on creating another Gmail account for when you graduate and begin looking for a career, be conservative when you pick a username. Email addresses like “hothot69(at)gmail.com” and “legalize420(at)gmail.com” will get your resume shredded before its even read.

Maintenance:

As much as we wish our Macs would never have any problems, things always seem to go wrong when you have no time and an assignment is due. Therefore, bring the following with you to school:

OS X Install DVD: For troubleshooting and if you ever need to reinstall, you’re going to need the OS X Install DVD. Don’t leave it sitting in your room at home, hundreds of miles away.

External Hard Drive: An external hard drive is essential for backing up your data. If something ever went wrong, at least you wouldn’t lose the semesters worth of work with a backup.

Time Machine Backup: While Time Machine is included with OS X, and you’ll need an external drive to use with Time Machine, don’t forget to plug it in and run those backups at least weekly. Time Machine is only as good as often as it’s used. And once again, don’t forget the OS X Install DVD. If you ever need to restore your entire system using Time Machine, you’ll need that Install DVD.

Security:

Security on college campuses is something we never think about. As you get to know your dorm-mates, you’ll begin to think of them as extended family. To the point where you’ll leave your room unlocked all the time, even leaving the door wide open while you’re down the hall. For someone visiting someone else it’s real easy for them to pop in, snag your MacBook and disappear, especially after a few drinks has emboldened them.

Prevent losing your laptop: If your laptop is in your room, keep your room door closed and locked if you’re not in there. If it’s with you at the library or a cafe, never leave it unattended. Have a car? Don’t leave your laptop in plain sight. Having guests over? Put your laptop somewhere safe. Don’t just leave it hanging around on a classroom or library desk while you go out to lunch.

Encrypt private data: Encrypting your data will keep prying eyes and identity thieves away in case something ever does happen to your Mac. Make it easy on yourself, switch on FileVault and let OS X handle the encryption details. Just remember, Time Machine will not run FileVault backups unless you are logged out and the external drive is plugged in.

Password protection: Protect your Mac and it’s data with a strong, hard to guess password. Something that someone who casually knows you won’t be able to guess. Even better, something someone who knows you well won’t be able to guess. Next, turn off Automatic Login and set it to require a password when waking up from sleep / screen saver. You set these functions in the Security pane within System Preferences.

Keep track of your charger: The AC adapter for your MacBook is expensive. That’s why people who break or lose theirs may take a shortcut and steal someone else’s. Keep it with your laptop, which you should anyway in case your battery runs too low.

Using the campus network:

Your campus network is usually a robust network capable of handling a decent amount of traffic. Some campuses also participate in the Internet2. Most likely you’ll have a nice redundant 10GB fiber backbone between buildings / centers. While this is fun for First Person Shooter tournaments, p2p downloading and Video Sharing, you need to remember that this is not your private internet, like at home. You are in a most likely monitored, possibly filtered pool with everyone else on campus. Take precautions to protect yourself.

Open wired / wireless: With an open (unencrypted) wireless network, anyone can see the data coming to and from your computer (and everyone else’s). Emails, chat sessions, web surfing, unless encrypted are fair game for eavesdroppers. Protect yourself by encrypting as much as you can. Make sure GMail and iChat are set for encryption.

802.1x Wireless: Many campus encrypted networks use 802.1x credentials to log you in. This is much more secure, provided they are using WPA2. However, now that you are logged in, anything you do can be tracked to you. Keep this in mind when downloading pirated material, violating any sort of Acceptable Use policy or snooping around and causing mischief.

Avoid Limewire / Frostwire / Gnutella: Want to be sued by the RIAA or MPAA? Then use the Gnutella p2p network. It’s really easy for them to find you and track you down. Don’t do it. If you must, find other ways to get what you need.

Monitoring: With a campus network, it’s easy for their network security team to monitor you and track you down if you trigger any of their pre-defined alerts. You may think they are clueless, but they’re not. Therefore, just remember 2 things while at school –

1. This is not your home network – you can be monitored at all times.
2. Behave yourself.

Securing your laptop:

Because you are on a shared network with the entire school, you’re going to want to protect your laptop a bit from giving too much information out.

Set OS X’s Firewall: OS X’s firewall as of 10.5 is very robust. At least set it to allow essential services. If you set your firewall for specific apps and services, you may have troubles with some applications working properly. Troubleshoot by turning the firewall off and seeing if things magically work again.

Set OS X’s Firewall for Stealth Mode: In the Firewall Preferences, (System Preferences, Security Pane), click on “Advanced” and check the checkbox next to “Enable Stealth Mode”.

LittleSnitch: While OS X’s firewall deals with incoming traffic, Little Snitch is a great way to deal with outgoing traffic.

Use a Router: In your dorm room, if allowed, you may consider using a wired (not wireless) router to protect your computer while in your room.

Other items:

Last but not least are some extra Mac essential items you probably will want to get before going back to school.

USB Flash Drive: USB Drives are great for storing, backing up and transferring documents. Do NOT waste a CD or DVD for a 10MB file that you’ll never look at again! Make sure you get at least 1GB but 2GB and 4GB drives are also reasonably priced.

Laptop friendly bag or sleeve: Protect your laptop from damage as you carry it around campus with a nice bag or sleeve.

Headphones: Sometimes you want to listen to music, watch videos or do audio related work without disturbing everyone, or having them disturb you. A good set of headphones, possibly noise-cancelling, is what you need.

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