With Labor Day on the horizon, it won't be long before students head back to classrooms for another year of learning.
Many of those students -- particularly those at the college level -- will be lugging quite a pile of technological gear along with them.
Internet-enabled computers have become so entwined with higher education that some colleges are requiring that students bring laptops with them to campus. Throw in a cell phone, personal digital assistant, digital camera, scanner and printer, and you're looking at quite a pile of hardware.
It's certainly helpful for college students to have ready access to a computer, rather than having to sign up for time on college-owned PCs at the school's computer lab.
Better still, the growing presence of Wi-Fi networks on campus mean students can use that laptop to connect to the Internet while doing research in the library, doing homework in the student union or attending class in the lecture hall.
Although prices on laptop computers have fallen steadily, they still represent a significant investment for most students. Prices generally range from $1,000 at the low end to more than $2,000 for high-end models.
Software installed on those computers adds to their value. And it doesn't take long before the data stored on the computer's hard drive -- research materials, term papers, e-mail and other important files -- are worth more than the device itself.
Unfortunately, this gear and the data it holds is all too vulnerable to theft, loss or destruction.
Many business travelers have learned the hard way how quickly an unattended laptop can disappear from a briefcase or table. Others have found that they simply left their laptop behind at a restaurant, in a cab or on a bus.
Computers that aren't stolen or lost can be damaged by a fall or soaking in a rainstorm. And, of course, there's always the potential for a hard-drive crash.
All of which helps explain why returning students should take steps to protect their digital assets.
The indispensable first step for students is to establish a regular system for backing up their data.
Having a CD-ROM recorder or "burner" installed in the laptop is one good option. Another is an external backup device, such as a Zip drive or tape drive. Yet another option is online back-up services, such as those offered at Connected.com and Ibackup.com.
Colleges can also be hotbeds for computer viruses. All that sharing of documents and floppy disks is a recipe for disaster, so a good anti-virus program, regularly updated, is essential.
Once the data's protected, it's time to think about the hardware and software. If a laptop is lost or stolen, you won't want to be scrambling to come up with a couple of thousand dollars in mid-semester. That's where a good insurance policy comes in handy.
Finally, there's a lot to be said for a lock and key. Lock your car, lock your dorm room, even lock your laptop to your desk, if you can.
Nothing can eliminate the possibility that your data or your equipment will be lost, stolen or broken. But thinking ahead can help you avoid trying to tell the professor that the laptop ate your homework.
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