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Setting up a new Mac for a college student

When my daughter shipped off to Virginia Tech in 2007 we bought her a shiny new MacBook, an ethernet cable and a license for Microsoft Office. Back then I was still a Windows guy so I figured she would need MS Office—that's all I had ever used and that was the same for her. Other than a passing interest in the device I let her set it up for herself. Being a newly minted adult and excited about leaving the nest, she wanted to handle it all herself anyway.

Not being a techie, she installed Office and depended on the core Tiger version of OSX to get through school, which worked fine for her. In the 3+ years she's been off at school I think I've gotten maybe one or two "technical support" calls from her. Lots of calls for extra money so we knew the phones worked, just not a lot of technical issues.

When my middle child—a son starting at James Madison University—needed a MacBook for school I was determined to set it up for him before he took off, giving him some additional software that would make his computing life a little easier.

My son is really a non-techie. It's not that he doesn't know how to work a computer, in fact he's a skilled touch typist and uses his computer quite confidently. It's just that a computer for him is a tool, plain and simple. As long as it gets out of his way when he's trying to get work done (by work I mean accessing Facebook) it makes him happy.

As a result, I gave him the bare minimum that I considered important to get by at school:

Snow Leopard Basics
OS X is a very capable operating system when shipped out in a new Mac, though a couple things require you to intervene before they are actually leveraged.

The first thing I did was purchase a small 320GB USB drive for Time Machine use. The last thing I wanted my son to do was lose his work because of poor backup discipline. Most adults don't even think about backups so expecting a teenager that struggles with basic cleaning and laundry principles to do it is ridiculous. I walked through a couple of scenarios with my son, telling him how bad it would be if his data was not backed up and his drive failed or his MacBook was stolen. All he had to do was keep that USB drive plugged in when it was sitting at his desk and he would be fine; Time Machine would take care of the rest.

The next Snow Leopard "feature" I ensured he leveraged was Software Update. My son is much like my wife; when either of them see this screen:
they simply click the "Not Now" button or close out Software Update completely. I tried to impress on him the importance of keeping his software current and that he should avoid delaying software updates for more than a couple of days. I have no idea if he's actually keeping his Mac current but I'm hopeful.

DropBox
While Time Machine did its magic and was ensuring his entire Mac was properly backed up, I wanted to make sure he had another tool at his disposal to ensure his documents and class papers were safe. By far one of my favorite utilities, DropBox integrates seamlessly with Finder, synchronizing the "DropBox" folder with a virtual drive up on the web. The advantage is that not only are your documents safely tucked away on yet another medium, they are also accessible from a remote computer by logging in to your DropBox account.

The advantage of having access to your key files while you are away from your own computer is huge, potentially saving him the time of having to run back to his dorm room if he forgot a file. The fact that versioning is supported by DropBox also means that he has at least some history for the document in case he needs to roll it back and there was a problem with Time Machine.

As I set this up for my son I noticed that his roommate—packing a Dell laptop running Windows 7—didn't even have a backup system set up. I hooked him up with the Windows version of Dropbox. I highly recommend Dropbox to anyone whether they are running OSX, Windows or Linux.

Caffeine
A laptop isn't just for work while sitting in a dorm room, it's often used to entertain as well. I've observed my son watching video clips on YouTube, LiveLeak, etc. and having to constantly tap the touch pad area to keep the Mac from dropping into sleep mode. By clicking on the little coffee cup icon in the menu bar Caffeine will keep the Mac from dropping into sleep or screen saver mode in the middle of a passive activity like watching a video clip.

Another great, free utility and it's now installed on every Mac we have.

Skype
Free tools are great and another one for a Mac (or Windows machine for that matter) is Skype. Though we talk to our son on the phone pretty regularly having the occasional video chat through Skype makes it feel like he's not really that far away. My wife loves seeing our son's face every once in a while too.

Skype was one of the utilities I was glad I set up before we left the house for school. I could confirm he had his account set up correctly, and we were able to add each other to our Skype directory and make a quick test video call.

While Skype has the option of auto-loading when the Mac is restarted, my son wasn't too keen on that feature. "How about we text one another on the phone and set up the Skype call?"

iWork
I've been a big fan of Pages for a while now; it's a great general purpose word processor that fits nicely into the Mac environment, unlike the Microsoft offering. Though the .pages file format is hardly universal Pages itself can save most simple files into a DOC format. For the kinds of papers my son will be producing, which will sometimes include images embedded into the documents, Pages works great.

Keynote is easy to use and produces some really beautiful presentations, though this is not something my son (nor my daughter before him) have had to use extensively.

Numbers is the third leg of the iWork stool and is adequate for very basic work but falls far short of what any power user of Excel is used to. That said, it's serviceable as a basic spreadsheet. Getting all of them in a Family Pack that can be installed on up to 5 Macs in the same household makes it a very cost effective purchase.

As an alternative to iWork you may want to consider some of the great free alternatives out there. NeoOffice is my favorite; it performs reasonably well, can open and write to most of the standard DOC, XLS and PPT formats and comes with a UI that doesn't look completely odd on a Mac.

What's Left
Safari is a fantastic web browser right out of the box so I encouraged my son to use it, even though I personally alternate between Safari and Firefox for development reasons. As far as e-mail, my son's school and personal e-mail accounts are both accessible and very useable from within a web browser. Rather than set up and try to remotely support Mail.app I figured he would be fine using it through the web.

Though my son's MacBook was of course WiFi equipped, some schools don't have WiFi available in the dorms and actively discourage students from setting up a Wifi network themselves—JMU is one of those schools. Always give them an ethernet cable and get a minimum length of 25'; sometimes the ethernet jack is on the other side of the room from where they will want to set up their desk. Bringing along a couple of power strips and extension cords is also a wise move.

The last thing we did before leaving his dorm room was set him up with a very inexpensive ink-jet printer and throw some spare ink-jet cartridges and a couple reams of paper into a drawer. Fortunately the MacBook recognized the printer as soon as it was hooked up. Once a test page popped out my son started to get a little anxious for us to leave. "It's all set Dad, I'm good. I've got stuff to do!"

We began an awkward transition; my son clearly wanted us to leave so he could start the activities JMU had planned for him. My wife and I kept shuffling around the dorm room, trying to make sure we had everything covered, delaying the inevitable goodbyes. When that moment finally arrived we got through it as quickly as we could. He hugged my wife, gave me a huge bear hug, then we quickly headed out the door.

During the long drive home my wife and I tried our best to be upbeat and happy for our son. Our little boy was now an adult, having to handle things on his own without his parents standing around him. He had a well stocked dorm room, his xBox, a mini fridge full of sodas and a shiny new 13" MacBook Pro. He was ready.

My iPhone rang. It was my son. "Uh Dad? I can't get on the internet."

A quick reboot later and everything was working fine and he hasn't had an issue since then. Still, it was nice to know he still needed me.

Is there an application or service you think a Mac wielding college student must have in order to get started? What did I miss? Please drop a note in the comments.