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December 6, 2012

Technology Corner


Many people get a huge headache when they see technology items on someone’s wish list: The options seem endless and confusing and the wrong choices can be painful in terms of cost and frustration.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

First things first

Shopping online? Shop from a machine that’s protected by a strong anti-virus software program — and don’t fall prey to the phishing scams that are an unfortunate part of every holiday season.

Pitt makes Symantec protection available free to all faculty, staff and students through the software download service: Installing this software — and signing up for the free software update service that keeps your operating system current, so it’s protecting you from the latest viruses — is the first thing you should do.

Next, check out Pitt’s personal purchase discount options, where you can save on cell phones, computers and computer supplies:

A question of capacity

Laptops, desktops, tablets, smartphones, MP3 players: They all come with a range of available memory and disk space. Don’t get too caught up in the “more is better” pitches. Today’s technology provides formats and data compression that mean users are unlikely to run out of space even with the entry-level memory or disk size.

Assuming average sizes for songs, movies and photos, 16 GB of memory on a portable device will hold two feature-length movies, a thousand songs and 18,000 photographs. If the person on your gift list needs to store more than that, or if you know he or she uses a specific application or hardware that has higher memory requirements, you’ll want to consider 32 GB or higher storage capacity; otherwise, the standard or baseline offering probably is going to be fine.

Then there’s screen size. Here, you’ll need to balance battery life, portability, personal preferences and primary intended use.

• The larger the screen, the shorter the battery life.

• The larger the screen, the heavier and less portable the device. Some people want to get comfortable on the couch and watch a movie on their laptop: In that instance, a larger screen/heavier device may be the best choice. Other people, however, want to watch videos on the morning bus commute: For them, a smaller screen and more portable device may be the better choice.

• Finally, consider the device’s primary intended use. A law school student who has to read long documents likely will appreciate a larger screen, while someone who’s primarily using the device to stay in touch with people through short updates may be happy with a smaller-screened device.

Battery life

Most vendors are optimists when it comes to battery life estimates. Battery life depends on how the device is used and what settings the user is willing to live with, so those optimistic vendor estimates are based on usage habits that may not be realistic. For example, setting the screen to go blank every minute extends battery life, but most users are not willing to have their reading interrupted by the screen going blank.

If you’re buying technology for someone who’s going to be using it primarily in the field or on the road, extended battery life will matter. If the gift is for someone who’s primarily going to use it at work or at home, where a power source is readily accessible, average battery life probably is fine.

Refurbished or new?

Check to see if a refurbished  device carries the same-as-new warranty from the manufacturer. If so, refurbished devices are worth considering: You may be able to buy a gift that otherwise would not fit within your budget.

Refurbished items work just the same as brand-new items as long as they’ve been tested. Sometimes devices are returned because the buyer didn’t do the kind of homework you’re doing right now. A device that works perfectly but doesn’t run the software needed or use the wireless service available could be returned in mint condition.

Rule of thumb: Before you buy, ask if the device was reviewed by a technician, with any defective parts identified, replaced and tested. If the answer is no, this is not a good deal.

Wireless considerations

Let’s assume that the person you’re giving this device to will want to connect to a wireless network on a regular basis.

Most technology devices today include support for Pitt’s secure wireless network. Just make sure the device you’re considering supports Wi-Fi, particularly 802.11b or 802.11g. You can find that out by asking or by checking the specifications usually printed on the box or the device itself.

Pitt’s technology web site shows you how to connect mobile devices to our wireless network ( If you’re buying a gift for someone who studies or works at another institution, review that institution’s technology site’s wireless page to find out how to connect to that campus’s wireless system.

Warranties & protection plans

Two guidelines can help you here:

• Think about how the device is going to be used — and be realistic.

If the person you’re buying the technology for is an accident-prone person, a protection plan is worthwhile as long as the plan’s cost is less than 30 percent of the device’s cost.

I generally advise against extended warranties on desktop computers or devices that will spend their “lives” in one place. But if you’re giving a gift to someone who plans to carry it in a gym bag, then a warranty — or, for a less expensive “protection plan,” a rugged case — is worth it.

• Read the fine print.

You’ll have to read the terms of the warranty or protection plan. It’s not fun, but it’s necessary. Some extended service plans allow you to replace the device only one time during its lifetime. So if it’s broken twice, you’re out of luck.

We all know people who can break a device multiple times, despite their best efforts and intentions.


Shopping for someone who has all the technology he or she needs?

• Most people could use an extra charger, maybe one for the car or one that can stay in a suitcase so it can’t be forgotten when packing for a trip.

• Portable, external charging power comes in handy on unexpectedly long days of running around or when storms have knocked out power at home. You can find solar-powered chargers and hand-cranked chargers, as well as pocket-friendly devices that look like a flash drive.

• And don’t forget cases and covers. They’re like ties: You can never have enough.

Jay Graham, who works with the University community to make the most effective and strategic use of Pitt’s IT assets, has a roomful of 1980s-era Macs at home that he plans to refurbish someday.

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