I like to pack light. Maybe it’s some combination of old hiking habits, suppressed middle school memories of having my roller backpack kicked around, or watching Up in the Air too many times.
Anyways, every once in a while I get questions about what you should pack before heading off to college. I won’t try to cover everything you should bring (if you’re looking for a more exhaustive list, these blog posts might be of interest).
Instead, I’ll just cover the essentials, aka the things I carry with me every day. I’d title this something grandiose like The Definitive 21st-Century MIT Student’s Everyday Carry, but (1) I’m constantly working to optimize what I carry, so this is a work-in-progress and (2) that title wouldn’t fit on the image below.
Paper and pencil
Antiquated, I know. But still the best way by far to take notes in most MIT classes. Equations, diagrams, and graphs are no fun to try to reproduce on a laptop or tablet. I also find that I retain information more easily when I write it down, as opposed to just typing it out.
Using pencil & paper doesn’t mean you have to lose the advantages of new technology, though. Most dorms and libraries have scanners available; I like to scan my notes to PDFs and store them in Evernote. This has two benefits: (1) Evernote has fairly accurate Optical Character Recognition, meaning you can search through handwritten notes, and (2) you can stop being paranoid about losing your entire semester’s worth of notes in your checked luggage when heading home.
Protip: at the beginning of a semester, ask upperclassmen for course “bibles”, which contain psets, exams, and (sometimes) lecture notes from previous years; this can save you a lot of time when studying. Especially if you have lazy professors who provide almost zero exam prep material. Not that I’m naming names.
Home base for nearly everything I do. This is my SolidWorks-ing, paper-writing, photo-editing, MATLAB-ing, coding, social-networking, machine.
So choose your laptop carefully. Among my Desired Laptop Attributes: lightness, power, battery life, futureproofness, value.
I’ve found my retina MacBook Pro 15″ (2012 model) to be nearly the perfect computer for my purposes: it’s 4.5 pounds, is incredibly speedy (2.3 GHz i7, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD), has a gorgeous screen large enough to display two textbook PDF pages side-by-side, and has a battery life of ~6 hours (the 2013 model has significantly improved battery life). Be warned, though: it is quite pricey (starting at ~$1700 with a student discount), though similarly powerful and portable PC laptops really aren’t that much cheaper.
Is paying the Apple premium worth it? It depends on your needs, and I’m not looking to start a flamewar here. I will note that a huge advantage of having an Apple computer is customer service. Last year, my MacBook had some minor display ghosting issues. Instead of having to ship my laptop off to some Dell warehouse in Texas, I just had to go to the nearby Apple Store, swap my MacBook for a loaner MacBook Air unit, and wait a week before they replaced my screen (for free).
In any case, on the PC side I’ve heard good things about Lenovo laptops. This one looks interesting.
Some useful software/apps:
Caffeine – free, gives you a little icon in the OSX menu bar that prevents your Mac from going to sleep for however long you’d like.
gfxcardstatus – free, lets you conserve battery life by controlling when your Mac switches to the discrete GPU.
iStatPro – free, a widget that lets you monitor every aspect of your computer, from disk usage to fan speeds.
Evernote – free, and a favorite of productivity geeks everywhere. Just Google it for more information than you’d ever want.
Kindle – free, lets you read purchased Kindle books on your computer.
Let’s get this out of the way first: no one needs a tablet. And no tablet, Surface or iPad or Nexus or otherwise, is going to replace my laptop anytime soon.
That being said, in some contexts a tablet can be a useful supplement to a laptop. I like my retina iPad Mini for curling up in the lounge to read the New York Times or whatever articles I’ve Instapapered. On days when I know I won’t be writing anything longer than an email, it’s all I bring to lecture. (I tried a Nexus 7 for a while – it’s also a solid tablet, but I greatly prefer the iPad’s 4:3 aspect ratio for web browsing and reading).
I’m also experimenting with using my iPad as a productivity tool, making annotations on PDFs using Notability. I know some classmates who swear by Notability for handwritten notes; I’m still skeptical about writing on a tablet, but we’ll see.
And that’s it! That’s all I have in my backpack. Feedback? Suggestions? Hate mail? Leave it below.