THERE is nothing like experience to lend that voice of authority when you are dispensing advice.
And here's where I have to make amends: Last year, as a freshman preparing for my maiden voyage to Britain to study Economics at the University of Warwick, I did a story for Digital Life on gadgets packing list (Boarding Call, Sept11). It was culled from tips from seniors who were studying in universities from Britain to Australia to the United States.
But the list was incomplete as I found out (sometimes at great expense) after a year of studying abroad.
As author Sam Levenson put it: "You must learn from the mistakes of others, since you can't possibly live long enough to make them all yourself."
So, one year on - and more experienced - here's the updated gizmo packing list. More importantly, it's given from the insider's point of view, so horror stories like those of Pirakash Charles won't be yours too.
Pirakash, 18, an exchange student at the Negocia business school in Paris, had a dreaded tech nightmare - his laptop crashed early this year.
A holler to Dell's call centre was no help - the staff did not speak English. With no backup system, he lost a full week's work.
Laptop: Get one with a global warranty, so that you don't have to lug it all the way back to Singapore to get it fixed. Also, find out the manufacturer's support centres - are they near your location or do you have to travel all the way to the next town? That's a big deal to consider when buying a laptop.
Mobile phone: The mobile phones available here are unlocked unlike those in most other countries such as the US and Britain, which do not accept SIM cards from any telco other than the one it is bound to. In Britain, for example, the iPhone is locked exclusively to O2, while in the US it is AT&T. To sidestep this hassle, take along your own phone. This also gives you the option of taking up a pay-as-you-go contract which does not come with any mobile phone.
Laptop lock: A sturdy laptop lock is a must. Laptop thefts are a staple in every university, especially during the exam period when everyone and their laptops are crammed in the library. Break-ins in student accommodations are also not uncommon, so lock up your laptop even at home and keep them away from the window, especially if you are staying on the ground floor.
Printer: Leave this and any other bulky gadgets at home; buy it at your country of study instead. Save the valuable space in your luggage for stuff like survival food (instant noodles, packed pork floss, premixed chicken rice and the likes). Prices of such machinery abroad are similar to those in Singapore, so no worries there.
Anti-theft software: Increase the chances of recovering your gizmos should they get stolen by installing anti-theft software before you fly off. Local startup BAK2U offers such software for a range of devices from laptops to mobile phones to iPods. The Macbook version, the Verey I, is particularly ingenious - upon connecting to a wireless or wired Internet network, the stolen computer will request an authentication password from the user.
If he or she fails to enter the correct password within a pre-defined time, the software takes a video recording using the built-in iSight camera of the Macbook and sends the recording - together with important information such as the IP address and the details of nearby wireless networks - to the owner's e-mail address. The machine then locks itself, preventing further use and the screen displays details on how to contact the owner. (The thief may not, of course, do the decent thing but at least he's prevented from doing the indecent - use the stolen good.)
Ethernet cable: Do not expect anything like Wireless@SG in other countries. Wireless connections are notoriously dodgy, especially in countries like the US where the infrastructure is outdated and crumbling. An Ethernet cable gives you a wired alternative to getting online and most universities have access points installed across campus.
Travel adaptor: Even if you are going to countries which use the same three-pin plug system as Singapore, take along a travel adaptor. You'll enjoy the flexibility of using the laptop anywhere in Europe on your holiday jaunts.
Also, the adaptors are much cheaper in Singapore. Get one that has surge protection as well, so that you'll have a sense of security when plugging into that dodgy socket somewhere in Budapest.
Hard drive: There's an old joke about how Jesus won Satan in a typing competition after both of their computers crashed halfway through the contest. It was because Jesus saves and you should too. Back up your essays as well as photos and videos of your three-year adventure regularly. Storage devices are now ridiculously cheap - you can get a 500GB hard drive for less than $200 - so there is no excuse for not getting one.
USB drives: They are a student's best friend, so attach one to your key-ring and take it wherever you go. You become a digital Viking, amassing songs, programs, essays and other files as you roam around campus. They come in especially useful during the exam period, when you are sharing notes with your study group or preparing for group presentations.
Blank CDs: A little low-tech but some universities continue to require students to hand in both hard and soft copies of their assignments. So you will need to burn a new CD for every essay that you hand in. Blank CDs are dirt-cheap during PC shows and IT exhibitions, so buy them in bulk.
DVDs (optional): Unlike Singapore, a country in perpetual summer, Britain seems to be in perpetual winter. So, you'll be spending plenty of time indoors. Most university students become movie buffs by the end of their first year from watching countless DVDs. Or, sign up for an iTunes subscription.
Recovery disc: Your computer should come with a recovery disc, so make sure you take it along with you. It's a life-saver in case of a monumental system crash.
Stuff you must download
Download Skype (www.skype.com): With more than 300 million users around the world, Skype is the Internet telephone service to use when going overseas.
Every single Internet cafe that I came across during my travels in Europe offer Skype and call quality to Singapore was consistently clear. Skype-to-Skype calls are free but I strongly suggest buying Skype credit so that you can call the phone number back home: it is troublesome to coordinate a Skype session, especially when you are travelling. Calls to phones in Singapore are less than five cents per minute, regardless of where you are calling from.
How to: Download the free Skype program, set up your account and launch the program. Go to the Accounts menu and click, Buy Skype Credit. You will be directed to a new window where you will fill in your credit card details and choose how much credit to buy.
Download: OpenOffice (openoffice.org): Don't have the dough to splash on Microsoft Office? There are free office suites available online, the most well-known being OpenOffice. For a Web-based alternative, go for Google Docs (docs.google.com) - but do take note that it cannot be accessed offline. There are some things to note to ensure compatibility when using OpenOffice (see below).
How to: By default, when saving any document, OpenOffice will save it in the open source format, such as .odt for word documents. To ensure compatibility with other machines using Microsoft Office, make sure you save them in the Microsoft format by going to File, Save as and select the appropriate format to save it in (such as .doc).
Download: iTunes (www.apple.com/itunes): The iTunes Store is not available in Singapore but you will be able to access it outside Asia. The online store offers more than just US$0.99 ($1.35) songs. It also sells movies, TV shows, podcasts and even educational audio and video tracks for university students.
VLC Media Player (www.videolan.org): The free, lightweight VLC media player is compatible with almost every multimedia format available - from MP3s to MPGs to AVIs. So, it comes in very handy when playing DVDs of different formats.
This article was first published in The Straits Times, Digital Life on 15 July 2008.