These days, the line between education and entertainment blurs.
By YLAN Q. MUI
THERE IS ONLY A SHORT TIME STANDing between 16-year-old Marcus Kephart and the end of freedom -- aka summer vacation.
He is in no rush to get back to the classroom. He has bought no notebooks. No binders. No pencils, pens nor paper. Instead, he lingered recently in front of a rack of Xbox 360 video games at a Best Buy.
The gaming system tops his back-to-school wish list. The Madden NFL video game is second. His parents are willing to fund his more, um, traditional school supplies. But this one is coming out of his own pocket. He has $100 left to go.
"They're cool with it as long as I pay for it," said Marcus, who lives in West Virginia. "I need to get a job. Anywhere."
Students such as Marcus make retailers selling consumer electronics happy. The tech category is expected to be one of the best performers this back-to-school season, driven by notebook computers and a host of must-have gadgets of dubious educational value.
"Today, most electronic purchases are not discretionary purchases anymore," said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for NPD Group, a consumer research firm. "They're things you have to have to live in the modern society."
NPD Group estimated that 36 percent of shoppers planned to buy electronics this back-to-school season, compared with 25 percent last year. The National Retail Federation predicted total tech spending would reach $3.82 billion in the period, up from $2.06 billion last year.
Hence, the slogan on Wal-Mart's Web site reads: "College Happens. Tech It Out." The first items listed are MP3 players, ranging from $49.62 to $648. The Best Buy school checklist includes a TV/DVD combo, a George Foreman Grill and an external hard drive. Many computer manufacturers, including Hewlett-Packard Co. and Apple Computer Inc., have released new models this summer to lure back-to-school spenders.
So many options can create a tug of war between parents focused on cost and functionality and kids focused on fun.
In the market
Juan Paniagua, of Germantown, Md., was shopping at Best Buy for a new laser printer and blank CDs on a recent morning with his niece, 13-year-old Micaela Larsa. She will be a high school freshman and has already visited Staples and Target to buy basic school supplies and clothes. But she still has her eye on a laptop with a screen that can be flipped over and used as a tablet.
Her mom said no.
"But Dad said for Christmas," Micaela added with hope. "Maybe."
She said her mom bought a new laptop a month ago for her to use. The problem with that one?
"I have to share it with my little sister," she said.
Micaela said the two do not get along. Her mom has to keep the laptop in a case in her bedroom, and it's first come, first served.
Kevin Park, 18, of Germantown, Md., bypassed his parents altogether when he bought his laptop, an HP Pavilion dv8000 that the company touts as providing "superior entertainment."
"I just knew not to ask them," he said.
The computer, which set him back about $1,500, has a 200-gigabyte hard drive and a powerful graphics card for playing his favorite computer games, such as Black & amp; White. He guessed that he would drop another $1,000 of his own money outfitting his future dorm room at Pennsylvania State University with essential appliances, such as a mini fridge.
Two of everything
Colleges recommend that students work with their roommates to figure out who needs to bring what. But often, rooms end up stockpiled with two or more of everything: computer, fridge, stereo, television, DVD player. Julie Weber, executive director of housing and dining programs for American University, said there are no banned -- or required -- consumer electronics.
"We do strongly recommend a computer. It's hard to be a college student without one," she said. "But everything else, it's just what they bring."
For their part, parents say they are willing to buy technology that can help their kids perform better in school. But as consumer electronics serve an increasing number of functions, the line between education and entertainment is blurring.
Take cell phones. Parents buy them for kids to help them coordinate rides from late soccer practices or to encourage them to call home frequently. But kids can also use them to play games, listen to music and text-message their friends.
Now, take iPods. They were designed with entertainment in mind. But now kids can use them to download podcasts from NPR, listen to a book or even learn a new language.
Education or entertainment?
"I would posit that's part of the increasing importance of electronics in the overall society," Baker said. "These are people's entertainment devices. They're their communication devices. They're their school research devices. You can't be without those kinds of things."
Malti Sethi of Vienna, Va., stopped by a Sony Style store last week to look for an electronic book reader. The device, which stores digital books, is for her personal use, but Sethi said she would have no problem letting her 9-year-old daughter, Seema, use it.
Seema got a laptop last year -- albeit a hand-me-down -- and can make PowerPoint presentations that rival her mother's. Her only complaint is that the battery life for her laptop is too short.
"If it's not in the charger, you pull it out and it dies," she said.
Not all parents have embraced technology, however. Margaret Holland, of Germantown, Md., was browsing for movies at Best Buy with her daughter, Melanie, 16. They had picked "V for Vendetta," along with a Nancy Drew video game. Melanie said she hadn't done any back-to-school shopping -- though she did buy a 30-gigabyte video iPod this summer.
"Funny how that iPod seems to always sneak in there," said Dave Smith, a personal shopper at Best Buy.
"How essential is it really?" asked Margaret Holland. "I'm still listening to the radio."
At minimum, students need three essential pieces of electronic equipment, said Corey Angleton, 19, who attends George Mason University. They are a laptop, an MP3 player and a cell phone -- specifically, a camera phone.
For many students, choosing the right electronics might be the easiest part of back-to-school shopping. It's the other stuff that gets confusing. Like bedsheets for his dorm room, said Kevin Park.
"Supposedly, you're supposed to get an extra-large, extra-long bed sheet that I've never heard of," he said.
Now that's a tough one.