The tech we wish we had in college
All this talk of final exams and (virtual) graduation ceremonies has us at Engadget opining about our college days. We sometimes take things for granted as we cover the latest tech news, but oh, how our worlds would have been different back then if we had had even a fraction of the technology we have now. While it’s almost impossible to fathom a world in which 1997 — not 2007 — brought us the iPhone, some of us could easily envision how our college years would have been drastically different if we had some of the gadgets and services we use regularly today. We hope you enjoy our revisionist history as much as we do.
My university made plenty of noise about being tech friendly, but much of it was talk: The IT department ruled everything with an iron fist. If you wanted to do anything but browse the internet, you were screwed, thanks to the techies’ overzealous port blocking. I lost a lot of MSN and ICQ friends after I disappeared from the internet the day I moved to college.
One thing compensated for the University of Kent’s technophobia: Almost every lecture for the program was recorded. A student was paid (the princely sum of £12 per lecture, a fortune in 2004 money) to place a mono MP3 recorder on the lecture hall lectern. When the session was finished, they would upload it to the campus network for you to, uh, refer back to when you needed it.
(To be fair, while there was clearly an opportunity to abuse this privilege and not turn up to lectures, it was rarely used. Mostly because there was way too much work to start slacking or else you’d soon find yourself behind.)
If I’d had Otter.ai back then, things would have been much different. Otter is a digital transcription service that uses artificial intelligence to work out what’s being said on any given audio recording. Simply upload the file and after about an hour, you’ll receive an email link to an interactive document. You can then read, edit and search through the transcript and, if you select a passage, hear the audio playing back alongside.
Like all digital transcription services, Otter isn’t perfect, and there are plenty of “Eat Up Martha” moments on every page. But the great thing about it is that you get just about good-enough data to help you scrub through files quickly. It takes the pressure out of having to scratch down notes while you’re on the phone, even if you still have to transcribe the quote manually for publication.
Otter would have made my life in lecture much easier: I could have actively engaged in the discussions instead of trying to write down what was being said. Instead, I could have uploaded the audio through Otter and picked out what I needed for notes afterward. It’s not about Otter’s accuracy so much as its usefulness to help you find what you need quickly. Plus, it’s free — if limited — which would have been ideal as an impoverished student.
— Daniel Cooper, Senior Editor
iPad and Folio
I started university in 2004, bringing along my white-box PC tower packing an AMD Athlon 500, which, at the time, was fancy. But it became clear that students with laptops had an advantage over everyone else, not to mention that the libraries and computer rooms only had a limited number of desktops for us povvos.
Laptops back then were a little ridiculous, and underpowered, but they enabled the lucky few who had them to take notes in lectures. They could marshal their research digitally, making the rest of us — tied to ring binders full of paper notes –look like chumps. And having one was easier on the spine too, since their owners weren’t carrying 50 pounds of textbooks into class like the rest of us.
I’m getting misty-eyed just thinking about rocking up to class with an iPad in my bag to replace all of my paper. Apple’s base-model iPad is an affordable tablet that, when paired with a keyboard folio, makes a great mobile device. It excels at basic tasks, like writing documents, playing media and web browsing, but its biggest strength is its flexibility. After all, you can use it as a bare-bones word processor and with a flick of the hand, turn it into a drawing slate or camera. It’s so light and portable that it’s become the machine that I carry with me almost everywhere.
Of course, in this bizarro world where the iPad debuts in time for my college years, me.com would have already become iCloud, and WiFi would be everywhere. Nevertheless, I can imagine much of my academic life would have been a lot easier toting around an iPad compared to chugging away on desktops. Of course, I’d still keep my desktop around (it exploded two weeks before my first-year exams — joy) for the things the iPad couldn’t do. After all, you couldn’t watch DVD-Rs of Lost that your friend Ed torrented and sent every week on an iPad, could you? Or play Homeworld and Starcraft when you should have been working — but no device is ever perfect, is it?
Alright kids, gather ’round and let me tell you about the bad old days of 2002 when weed was still, for all intents and purposes, illegal in the state of California — especially so in Orange County, where I was attending school at the time. Technically medical marijuana was legal and had been since 1996, but in those days you had to be legitimately sick to get it. It would be nearly another decade before you could buy a prescription from the “doctor” working out of your local Amoeba Records and 20 full years before it would become legal recreationally.
Thank goodness for the modern era and the slew of cannabis-delivery services that it ushered in. My life would be — at a minimum — 38 percent less whimsical without the likes of Eaze. If you’re not familiar with Eaze, it’s an online cannabis-delivery service. Imagine a cross between Grubhub and Amazon but for stoners. It’s essentially the quesarito of weed delivery: a mishmash of two things that would otherwise be fine on their own but that have been Frankensteined together for easier consumption by very high people late at night.
Living in San Francisco, my access to cannabis is unimpeded. I live less than a block from a great dispensary. In fact, there are more weed shops in my neighborhood than sandwich shops (which is a shame, since nothing beats a good hoagie when you’re high). But no one shop carries every product I might be interested in. So while I have no issue making a run to the dispensary for a specific strain or edible — at least, I didn’t before this pandemic hit — Eaze helps round out my purchasing options. All I have to do is log onto the website, select the products I want and pay. Then, 30-45 minutes later some scruffy dude named Tre shows up outside my house in a 2001 Chevy Prizm with my order. I don’t even need to put on pants! Tre would probably appreciate it if I did, but hey, that’s what generous tipping is for.
Oh, to have had this service in the early days of the 21st century. You have no idea how many mystery-stained couches I had to sit on in the shittier parts of Costa Mesa and Tustin while a thirtysomething burnout regaled my friends and me with tales of his summer following Phish on tour. I’ve seen enough blacklight and velvet paintings to last three lifetimes. That Scarface poster still triggers my PTSD. (You know the one: Every stoner you’ve ever known has owned it at one point or another.)
If I had Eaze back then, my life would have been so much easier. Instead of having to drive all over the Southland or trek three hours to the Inland Empire only to have my buddy’s dealer ghost us, I could have used that time to practice and hone my real passion, my true calling in life: being high as a kite on my meticulously clean couch.
— Andrew Tarantola, Senior Editor
Toward the end of my time in journalism school, I became obsessed with graphic design. Many of my final projects had a visual element to them, and I spent many hours holed up in a computer lab “sketching” with a mouse in Adobe Illustrator. It wasn’t until after college that I even looked into getting a Wacom tablet, and the basic one I eventually got made my creative endeavors much easier.
But now, after more than 10 years and a huge gap of time in which my visual art took a back seat to my writing career, my process has completely changed, thanks to the Apple Pencil. I I use a first-generation Apple Pencil with my secondhand, 9.7-inch iPad Pro along with the app Procreate to doodle, sketch and otherwise get my ideas out on digital paper.
Creatives have sung the Apple Pencil’s praises almost since its debut: It’s a wonderfully smooth writing tool that has little to no latency, allowing it to mimic (as much as a stylus can) drawing with pen and paper in a digital format. I mostly use the Pencil for digital art, but I used to use it often for handwriting notes on my iPad. I’ve recently started to use it for more-precise photo editing as well. I still get the urge to experiment with physical media, but I’ve gotten used to the convenience of having all of my sketches and a world of brushes, paints, inks and other “media” all in one place on my iPad.
I’m not sure what’s more mind-boggling to me: how easy it is to create digital art with the Apple Pencil or how my current setup has become the norm for many new and seasoned artists alike. Wacom tablets still hold a special place in my heart, and they hold on to a section of the creative market as well, but if you already have an iPad, the Apple Pencil is the accessory that keeps on giving (and at $130 for the second-gen, it should). There’s also a slew of new programs like Procreate, Affinity Designer and others that offer affordable alternatives to Adobe’s Creative Suite that probably wouldn’t be as mainstream if not for the Apple Pencil. Many of us in the tech world scoffed when the Apple Pencil was first announced, but for creatives, it’s changed the digital art game for the better.
— Valentina Palladino, Commerce Editor
There are plenty of reasons why college kids don’t get work done. Although I was fairly studious, I was not immune from regular distractions — both physical and digital. While I could go to the library to avoid my noisy roommates, my willpower was the only thing stopping me from the world of distractions on the internet. I started college in 2009, and the internet was, without question, super weird and super exciting as platforms and services we take for granted today were only just becoming big then.
As the internet grabbed more of my attention, I could have used Freedom to keep my focus on my studies. It’s a website and app blocker that’s supremely customizable and works on all major platforms: Windows, Mac, Chrome, iOS and Android. The internet has only gotten more distracting since 2009 and my willpower is only marginally better now, so I still lose time to web-based rabbit holes regularly when I should be working. I sprung for the forever version of Freedom about a year ago, and it’s proved useful ever since.
I use Freedom primarily on my MacBook while working to block the websites that suck a lot of time out of my day: Twitter, YouTube and Facebook (when I still used Facebook), to name the biggest culprits. I created a custom block list that includes those sites and a few others, so when I want to start a block session, I can quickly turn off access to only those sites. Freedom’s lock mode can prevent me from ending a session early too, acting as a check on my willpower that’s way more effective than if the choice were up to me in the moment. I’ve also used Freedom’s scheduling feature, which lets you automatically block sites at particular days and times. That comes in handy for me on a weekly basis, letting me schedule specific do-not-distract times to get timely projects finished.
It’s safe to say that I would have spent much more time completing assignments and less time watching Lady Gaga music videos on YouTube if I had had Freedom in college. Trust, I always got my work finished, but I would have spent less time procrastinating and more time actually focusing.
I spent much of my college life behind desktops, but looking back, I would have killed for a truly portable rig. I built my first PC the summer before college, in 2001. It was a “blazing fast” 1.3GHz AMD Thunderbird system with an ATI All-in-Wonder video card. I spent the next four years gaming, watching movies and yes, even doing some schoolwork on that system and my massive 20-inch Samsung CRT.
But now after testing great ultraportables like Dell’s XPS 13 and killer gaming laptops like ASUS’ Zephyrus G14, I wish I had been able to work easily outside, in the library and elsewhere back in the day. These systems are light enough to disappear into my book bag but fast enough to compete with many desktops. It’s not like laptops didn’t exist back then: They were just obscenely expensive (like the 2001-era MacBook Pros) or clunky and slow (like the multicolored MacBooks at the time).
It took the rise of fast solid state drives and more-efficient mobile hardware along with significantly improved batteries and screens for the dream of mobile productivity to truly take form. But now that it’s here, I wouldn’t want to work any other way. It might seem strange to say, but I’m far more excited by innovation around laptops in 2020 than I am with smartphones. If I had one of these systems back then, I’m convinced even my more introverted past self would have found a way to be more social.
— Devindra Hardawar, Senior Editor
In my day, finding something to watch on your computer took effort, dammit. I went to college between 2001 and 2005, a time when DivX and Xvid files pioneered digital distribution. Of course, none of it was legal. Like everyone at the time, I dipped my hand in the illicit files you could easily find in network shares. I used Kazaa when it was known as KaZaA. I recorded live TV shows, encoded them into an ugly MPEG file and shared them with friends.
It was all we had — along with ugly Flash videos and Real Player files. Then things started to change with the launch of YouTube in 2005, which pushed Netflix to enter the streaming-video market in 2007. Apple eventually brought movie rentals to iTunes in 2008, and Vudu pioneered “owning” digital downloads in 2009. Yes kids, it really did take that long for us to finally get legal digital video.
Now we can watch an untold amount of shows and movies on Netflix with 4K and all the home theater fixin’s with the touch of a button. Anyone can produce a show, upload it to YouTube and become a star. I would have loved to save the hours I spent digging around for anime and genre movies in college or have an easier way to share video at the time. Oh, well. Perhaps that’s why I don’t have a problem subscribing to Netflix’s streaming service and YouTube Premium, which gives me all the magic of YouTube without the time-wasting ads. After spending a ton of money on DVDs I’ll never watch again, $12 per month doesn’t seem like a big deal.
I got my first laptop in college and my first iPad years after that. But when I think about the apps and tech I use now that would have been a game changer when I was in school, LiquidText is always the first that comes to mind.
LiquidText allows you to import documents — PDFs, Word documents, web pages, et cetera — and keep them all in one “workspace.” But the real utility comes from the fact that you can highlight chunks of text and drag them into a separate area of your workspace, so you can easily keep track of the most important bits. From there, you can link bits of text across documents or add in notes of your own.
There’s no better way to get through a stack of dense reading than via LiquidText, and the app is designed to help you actually remember what you’re reading — all while eliminating the need to keep track of loose papers and keep separate notes. The iPad app combines reading and note-taking into one experience and is, quite simply, a massive time-saver.
The app would have been a lifesaver for me when I was in school, as my homework often consisted of several hundred pages of reading from PDFs and book excerpts that had been photocopied and bundled together. These days, I don’t have as many occasions to open the app, but anytime I need to get through a lengthy court document or research paper, LiquidText is my go-to. I can quickly pull out the bits I need, scribble a few notes and move on.
— Karissa Bell, Senior Editor
Google Docs and the cloud
In the late ’90s and early aughts, I was an English and Journalism double major for four years and then a Communications Studies graduate student for another two years. Needless to say, most of my work involved a word processor on a local machine: I used a Dell desktop along with Microsoft Word for writing my essays. That not only cost some serious cash but also wasn’t entirely reliable. Autosave wasn’t a thing back then, and I remember the utter devastation I felt the one time I failed to save an important essay, only to have Word completely crash halfway through. Did I have to start my work all over again? Oh, yes. Yes, I did.
Nowadays, that seems almost archaic when Google Docs and cloud storage exist. Google Docs is free, and I could easily write those essays on a Chromebook or even an iPad — both of which cost a fraction of what my setup back in those days did. Plus, the program autosaves everything automatically, so it’s OK if my computer crashes in the middle of writing my epic treatise on The Big Lebowski.
Then there’s the matter of printing. Oh, boy, did I do a lot of printing. I mostly relied on a rickety HP printer to print out my work, because I often did my homework in the wee hours of the night, which was usually when the printing lab on campus was closed. Printing might still be a necessity in some cases, but there are quite a number of professors these days who accept work online, be it through email, Google Drive, Dropbox or another service. Think of all the ink, paper and time I would have saved!
— Nicole Lee, Senior Editor
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