I don't envy students. The back-to-school season has turned into a retail feeding frenzy, a dizzying sea of personal electronics, laptops, MP3 players and cellphones.
The good news is that there's a whole new range of options for those looking to keep in touch with people back home.
So how do you find out what's fresh and what's just chum in the water?
The first thing you have to decide when you check into your dorm room is what to do with your regular cellphone line. Say you're moving from Toronto to Montreal. What happens when people try to call you? Answer: you're gonna get burned.
When you move across the country, most of the major providers (Virgin, Telus and Fido, for example) allow you to make local calls to whatever city you happen to be in at your regular rate. Things get trickier, however, when your friends want to call you back. In all these plans, calls from both inside and outside that area code will cost you long-distance charges.
So then you have to cross the long-distance hurdle to keep up with essential people, from blood relatives to that special someone you got loaded with at the cottage. While you could try to wrangle some kind of rate plan out of your current mobile provider, more people are switching to VoIP services.
VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) programs, the best known of which is Skype, turn regular conversations into signals sent over the Web. They allow you to turn any computer into a telephone; all you need is a headset and a fast enough connection. Skype's program is available as a free download at www.skype.com . As long as they have the same set-up, you can ring up anyone else in the world for absolutely nothing.
But here's the kicker: they have to have the same set-up. Skype can call regular land lines for additional fees, but that brings its own problems.
Henry Mangkusasono is a true international student, a landed immigrant from Indonesia who came to Canada to study engineering at U of T. When he went on to do a master's degree in Germany, he ended up with a real world wide web of family and friends to keep up with. For him, Skype was the natural choice.
"For PC-to-PC calls it's all right. But that requires both sides to have an Internet connection," says Mangkusasono. "For PC-to-regular-land-line, it's shite, isn't it? Everything is broken and delayed."
Rival company Vonage ( www.vonage.ca ) takes the VoIP concept one step further with a system that actually replaces your regular phone line. Rather than calling through a computer, Vonage users are assigned a working number that works exactly like a regular phone number. It just happens to come through your broadband connection. Twenty bucks gives you 500 minutes a month that are good for anywhere in North America. Twenty more and you can make as many calls as you want a month. And just this month they've bumped up their coverage to include five European countries.
Vonage has also released a device called the V-Phone, a lighter-sized gadget that hooks up to any computer through a USB port. After you plug in your headset, you can make VoIP calls to just about anywhere. The downside, however, as observed on Canadian geek forum www.digitalhome.ca , is that current Vonage customers have to buy an entire additional account to use a V-Phone.
Which brings me to my favourite back-to-school gadget, the Mylo by Sony. I became enthralled by Sony's PlayStation Portable not for it's gaming but for its wireless Internet capabilities after checking my e-mail and other sites on a cross-country road trip.
For the Mylo, Sony's ditches the gaming aspect in favour of a total communicator. With the proliferation of wireless hubs, it makes sense to release a hand-held device like this now. The Mylo comes with a full fold-out keyboard for Internet browsing as well as instant messages or e-mails. But the coolest thing is that it comes preloaded with Skype, giving it worldwide cellphone-like capabilities provided you're in the right spot.
A truly modern all-in-one communications device, perfect, except for one thing: it's not available in Canada. While Sony is launching the Mylo in the United States in September, according to a spokesperson there's no foreseeable release date for us.
Still overwhelmed? Don't forget long-distance calling cards, still just five bucks at your local convenience store.