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The Latest Electronic Gadgets For Back To School


As schools start back up, we'll look at the latest high tech gadgets that students young and old will be interested in.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Back-to-school shopping can get downright intimidating once it hits the electronics store. Kids really do need some school-related electronics, but they usually want a whole lot more. In an effort to figure out the difference between what will really help your child this school year and what's just a flashy gadget, I’d like to welcome my guest, Jim Barry. He is the Digital Answer Man for the nonprofit Consumer Electronics Association. Jim, welcome back to These Days.

JIM BARRY (Electronics Expert, Consumer Electronics Association): Nice to be with you again, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. What electronic device does your child say he or she absolutely needs to have for school this year? What are you thinking about getting yourself? Call us with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Let me start, Jim, and ask you sort of for an overview on what back to school looks like at the electronics store this year.

BARRY: Well, back to school has become the second biggest sales time for electronics after the Christmas and holidays, which is really interesting when you think about it because electronics now are purchased all year round. Another big time is graduation or Father’s Day, moms, dads and grads. And I say moms because women buy more than half of all the electronics. And we think of this as boys’ toys and gadgets…

CAVANAUGH: And tech, yeah.

BARRY: …for the guys and stuff but actually consumer electronics have become such an integral part of all of our lives, men and women, and boys and girls, both for fun and for education, that this year something north of $600 is what the average household buys going back to school, and a growing percentage of that is electronics. When you think about—and it really varies by whether you’re in grade school or middle school or high school or college, but certainly for high school and college, you’re going to have a portable computer. And those of us, speaking personally, who’ve just recently moved another child into college, it’s much better these days than it was just a few years ago when to haul a computer into a dorm, you were hauling a big old tower and a big CRT monitor…

CAVANAUGH: I remember that, right.

BARRY: …and stuff. And, you know, that’s the old days.


BARRY: And the old days aren’t so long ago, another indication of how quickly electronics change. Now, the portable computer, notebook or a netbook. Again, those are the small, light, inexpensive computers that don’t have a DVD drive built in. Some of those start at 250 bucks or so. So there’s less to move in and it’s much less expensive. Those big old computers, a few years ago, cost 1500 bucks or more, too. Now you can get a really full-featured portable notebook or computer for under $1000 and, as I said, you can get one of these netbooks, if that works for you. Again, it doesn’t have the DVD drive but if you’re thinking about an educational item, you just look at the amount of memory it has, the kind of keyboard, how it gets you on the internet, how it works for your studies, and, oh, maybe play a game or two…


BARRY: …while you’re at it, all of those things…


BARRY: …go into the decision.

CAVANAUGH: …if a young student, college student, is moving in, setting up their own sort of office in their dorm room…

BARRY: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …or apartment, what would be some indispensable things they’d need?

BARRY: Okay, first of all, you want to find out what this college is providing…


BARRY: …again, and some of them provide the laptop computers. Not all of them. Alas, not the one my daughter’s going to. So you’re going to need a computer without a doubt with wireless connections because a lot of the homework assignments, a lot of the work in class, is done using those, so you’re going to need one of those. You’re going to need a printer to go with that computer, and perhaps one that has wireless connections so that you can again – those are – printers are very inexpensive. The price, as we all know, is on the ink and the cartridges and so forth. But get one of those and perhaps a wireless one of those. You are certainly, depending on the course studies that you’re taking, you might need a calculator, a scientific calculator. The other good news on those is those are much less expensive than they used to be as well. And a smart phone, you know. And we say, a phone? Well, first of all, everybody’s got a phone, right? But you get one of those with some apps built in. There are some, there’s a lot of games there, too, and also all the other – Facebook and the things that the kiddos are going to be doing. But you’ve got, you’ve got apps, some of them free, most of them just a couple of bucks, that will help you with your scheduling and your homework assignments in your classes, so you can do that all out of the palm of your hand. So I would think you’d probably want to have those items at the least.

CAVANAUGH: What about an iPad? A kind of a notebook computer that doesn’t necessarily have all the bells and whistles of the computer that you’d have in your home…

BARRY: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …or your office but something that you can carry around to different classes.

BARRY: Right, well, certainly an iPad, and that is a touchscreen tablet computer, now this is a category of computers that’s been around for about ten years and really hasn’t gone anywhere. Of course Apple’s a company that has taken other markets—think of the MP3 market, think of the phone market—that hadn’t gone – Well, the phone market was pretty established but the MP3 player hadn’t gone anywhere before the iPod. So the iPad is a touchscreen tablet, weighs only a pound and a half, has lots of excellent applications. Again, for folks, depends on whether you’re – you like that touch – that virtual keyboard that you get on it.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

BARRY: Or if you require a real keyboard. You can get some netbooks less expensive than the iPad. The iPad is starting to get more and more of those apps. You can get some of those applications on a smart phone that you may already have so, again, a key there is an app that requires the bigger screen, that the 10” screen either makes work period or it makes much better, and that may be an eyesight thing, it could be a lot of different things going into that. So – and there are some schools that are not requiring but using iPads more and more. So I think you’re going to see those. Those are also $500 to start so you – there’s always a budget involved here. So that’s one other thing to consider. But there are going to be a lot more of these touchscreen tablets in the next—portable touchscreen tablets—in the next several months, so you may have choices there just the way you have choices, you know, a lot of people like Mac. Mac’s very big in education. But there is a price premium for a Mac. And, again, we’re all a little more cognizant of our budget these days, especially those of us with children going off to college, so you might want to look at some of those other alternatives to the higher priced spread in all of these categories because you mentioned earlier, you know, needs and wants. You might need some of these; you want the coolest but the coolest may not necessarily fit into your budget and it, frankly, may not be necessary.

CAVANAUGH: And, indeed, if you get some of these apps, you can just use perhaps a device you already have.

BARRY: Right, you can use it on a smart phone.


BARRY: And the smart phones – And, again, smart phones are what we category – We category the smart phones as the wireless phones that include the Blackberries, the iPhones, all of these Android operating systems now like the Droid and the HTC, Evos and Incredibles and so forth. You have more and more of these Androids and then you also have all the Windows mobile devices and you have the Palm Prix. Those have been kind of lagging behind the big three in marketshare there and they haven’t gotten as much traction as the Blackberry, which is still the marketshare leader, the iPhone and the Android operating system.

CAVANAUGH: Is there such a thing called the iTouch?

BARRY: The iTouch is a – it’s not an iPhone, it’s an iPod that has a touchscreen…

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

BARRY: …that also lets you get on the internet, so it has wireless connections. So you may be able to use that. Again, that’s a handheld device with a couple of, you know, 4” screen, I guess. The other thing that’s happening with these smart phones, the screens are getting bigger, so you have some with 5” screens. So, again, I’m thinking of my daughters who have terrific eyesight and they look at stuff on their phones and I say, well, you know, let me get my Dr. Walgreens here to see if I can see that. So you have a little difference there. But, again, that’s another alternative. So you want to – There’s a good website called,, which is from the Consumer Electronics Association. Has a lot of basic information about different product categories and basic questions. You know, what the heck is a pixel anyway, when I see these advertisements for, you know, mega pixels and stuff. So you can go there and kind of get some basic info before you go into the store.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Jim Barry. He is the Digital Answer Man for the nonprofit Consumer Electronics Association. We’re talking largely about back-to-school electronics and taking your calls if you have questions or comments at 1-888-895-5727. So let’s go back to earlier grades now. We know that most kids going to college need some electronics to take with them or to use at home.

BARRY: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: If your – if you have a child who is in high school or middle school, what kind of electronics does a younger child actually need for school?

BARRY: Well, they probably don’t need a laptop. They may – they definitely need a computer to use at home. Just about everyone does now because a lot of homework is done that way, some of the assignments. I know we track – I have a high school and a college student. And we track the homework and keep – you can keep in touch with the teachers and they do a lot of the stuff online now. So a laptop or a notebook, and you’re mirroring an argument, a discussion, we’re having in our house with our younger teenager who wants that laptop right now. She wants it more to be on Facebook, I think, than she does for her homework so that might necessarily be a need. Again, it depends on what kind of courses you take. Middle school and so forth, you definitely want your children to be conversant with a computer and be able to use it. And if you’re a listen who doesn’t have a computer for whatever reason it may be, go to the library and try them out at the library and get the kids – And the good news is it’s like, you know, kids skiing, it’s like kids with everything, they just go and they do it.


BARRY: And those of us of a certain age, you know, whoa, wait a minute, I’m not sure I want to try that. There’s things like typing, you know, they may not be literal touch typists like some of us learn, but when we were in high school or when I was in college long ago, there was the guy or the gal that would type – would make some money typing things for you, you know, typing papers and stuff. Now, everybody knows how to type. The downside of that is they don’t know how to write in cursive anymore.

CAVANAUGH: True. I’ve heard that. Yes, indeed.

BARRY: Yeah, right.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, what’s a good sort of starter computer, one that will really serve your needs as a, let’s say, a middle schooler but at the same time doesn’t necessarily have the kind of power that you would need if you’re going to do everything on the computer.

BARRY: Right, well, I would look at the – Well, certainly, if you’re getting a desktop computer, and desktops actually are a dwindling percentage of all the computers being purchased because more and more people are buying a portable, whether it’s a notebook or a netbook because of the way we use them. We use them to get on the internet as much as anything else so you want to do that. Think of the way cordless phones supplanted the phone that was in one place in your house, the same thing with computing and getting on the internet, being able to do it just about anywhere. So if you want to get a desktop, you can get one for a couple of hundred bucks, and you can get all the power and speed and so forth that you need to do all the homework that just about any – that certainly any middle schooler or high schooler’s going to do. And now with portables, you might want to start looking at those netbooks. Again, they are very – The thing about netbooks, no DVD drive but small, light, inexpensive, starting at just a couple hundred dollars, and they vary in power and so forth but they have, again, just about everything that you would need and the ability to get on the internet so if the kids want to do their Facebook and the rest of that stuff that mom and dad are keeping an eye on, all of that stuff they can do that as well. So you might want to start looking at one of those. And you have just about any of the brand names that you would think of. Go into the store, check them out. Another good website is called, the letter ‘c’, n-e-t-dot-com, and they review products. And they do all kinds of other good stuff and they have news stories and stuff so you can check out, oh, I’m thinking of buying this. Well, let’s see what the reviews said on that.


BARRY: That’s another good place to go.

CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line. Iad is calling from SDSU. I’m sorry, Iad. Good morning, and welcome to These Days.

IAD (Caller, San Diego State University): Hi. Good morning.

BARRY: Hi, Iad.



IAD: Hi. Okay. My question or comment is – was to Jim and to the – I just had – I was thinking about what you guys were talking about, those – the information received from high schools and how important is the laptop for high school students and I just wanted to know if you eventually think that in our next, you know, obviously in future generations, are we eventually going to see everything digital? Are we ever going to have books again? Or everything going to go to e-readers? Or how is technology going to eventually advance? I mean, is it really necessary or – I just want to hear your opinion about that.

BARRY: Well, that’s a really good question and it’s something that a lot of people are pondering. And I think the short answer is, yes, but… Yes, we are gradually making this transition to electronic delivery and receipt of information, whether it’s books or magazines or newspapers. We look at the Kindle, the other e-book readers, we look at stuff being downloaded to handheld devices. Now does that mean books are going away? No. It doesn’t mean newspapers are going away, although they’ve been really challenged in this transition just as feature films haven’t and won’t go away. Now they’re already digital. There’s different ways to receive those. The feature film business in the theaters is still a $10 billion business. So you have those things happening. More and more of this stuff will be, and you look at a Kindle or any of the other e-book readers, where you can put 1500 books in a 10-ounce package. Now I like the thought of that as compared to carrying the big bags of books that those of us in school used to carry, and some still do. There’s a lot of commercial aspects to this, you know, the textbook companies, how do they make the transition just the way the movie and the record companies, what are known as content providers, have made this transition to the digital age. So the short answer to a very good question is it’s happening. It’s not going to happen in our lifetimes. I don’t know how old Iad is, probably a student. It’s not going to happen in his lifetime. And think of the way some other things have changed. Record players spinning disks, turntables, haven’t gone away. Now they’re no longer the primary way that we receive pre-recorded music but we now have CDs or we have downloaded music. We have a lot of those things that continue to hang around. Black and white photography, it’s no longer the predominant means of photography, just as film, color film, is not but it’s not going to go away but it’s not going to be the predominant way all the time.

CAVANAUGH: So it can add to what we have rather than take – just take over something.

BARRY: Yeah. The good news with technology in the 30 years that I’ve been following this and writing about it is that now we have a lot of choices to do things that once we had only way to do (sic). We can now watch – we can stay in touch with our families. We can use Skype. My daughter was in France this summer on a – studying, and we chat with her looking at her on Skype, which is a personal videoconferencing service that’s just spectacular. So years ago, if you went to – if we went to Europe, which we didn’t do when we were in high school, in college, you’d make a phone call once a week or something like that from a pay phone and that was it. So you have a lot of choices. That’s the good news. The bad news is, you’ve got a lot of…


BARRY: How do you pick the one you want? That’s where places like cnet, like, like, which is the assocation’s website, are good places to start.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask a – I know that this is a big question but it’s got to be my final question. And that is, what’s a good age to start a kid with a cell phone, with a smart phone? I know so many youngsters want phones and I know this conversation goes on in so many households.

BARRY: Boy, you’ve been in my household. Well, you know, what I’ve seen is the age has gotten lower. I have a 21-year-old and a 16-year-old. And the 21-year-old did not get a phone – she got one in 8th grade only because she was making a trip to Washington and we wanted her to have a phone to be able to get in touch with her. But she and her friends, she was the first of her friends. Most of them didn’t get them until early in high school. My 16-year-old got one when she was in 5th grade, I think. So middle school, you’re seeing more and more of that. But in, I think, middle school might be the beginning of it, you know, so 10, what is that, 12 years old?


BARRY: I’m not sure. The – I always have to have my wife straightens me out on the ages and so forth. But they don’t really need them, you know, and you want to – And schools, I know in the grade school where my wife works, they have, you know, no phones and, you know, if you have a phone, you’ll leave it in the office. If mom or dad needs to get in touch with you, you know, there’s ways we’ve done that for a long time. So I would say, you know, around middle school or something. Again, it’s a personal thing, it’s a family deal, there’ s peer pressure, there’s all of those things but if you do get it, you want to make sure you monitor the use pretty carefully.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you’ve probably settled some arguments there and I appreciate it. We’re out of time.


CAVANAUGH: Jim, thank you so much.

BARRY: My pleasure. Nice to see you again, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Jim Barry is the Digital Answer Man for the nonprofit Consumer Electronics Association. If you’d like to comment, please go online, Stay with us for hour two of These Days, coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.


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