Mac 101: 10 essential tips for bringing a Mac to college

With Mac (s aapl) products so popular on college campuses these days, here are some tips to make sure your (or your kids’) college Mac experience goes as smoothly as possible, and won’t be completely derailed if it does run into a few bumps.

1. Know the computer’s serial number

Apple products are hot on college campuses, and can easily get stolen. Once stolen, it’s hard to retrieve your serial number after the fact, and it’s one of the first things a police officer will ask about. To obtain this information, go to the Apple (?) menu in the upper left hand corner, choose “About This Mac” and then click twice on the OS Version and the serial number will appear. Both student and parent should keep a copy of this information.

2. Know the computer’s warranty expiration and make sure Apple’s info is correct

Most Apple products have a one year warranty, extended to three years by AppleCare. Generally if you purchase both the computer and AppleCare at the same time directly from Apple, your AppleCare will be registered. It’s important to know if it was registered properly and the expiration date is correct before a problem develops. Go to and then click “Check Your Service & Support Coverage” in order to find out when the warranty expires. If this information is incorrect, contact Apple to get it corrected. Typically you need to fax them the receipt if there’s a discrepancy.

3. Get AppleCare if you don’t already have it

AppleCare is really a great value, especially for college students. Not only does it cover hardware failures, but it also gives you three years of phone support. That support will come in handy when a paper is due and you can’t figure out how to get iWork to play ball.

If you didn’t purchase AppleCare when you purchased your Mac, you can purchase it at anytime during the initial one-year warranty period. AppleCare is highly discounted in the educational market, either directly from Apple or from campus bookstores.

4. Insure your Mac against loss

Even if your Mac isn’t stolen, an inebriated roommate, an out-of-hand party, or plain carelessness can result in a damaged Mac. The two most common problems I see are liquid spills and laptops being dropped. Neither of these are covered by Apple’s original or extended warranty.

Most homeowners or renter’s insurance companies will allow you to specifically “schedule” a student’s computer while at the dorm. Typically this costs just a few dollars a year and results in a lower deductible and protection against more perils. Before you have problems is the time to talk with your insurance agent about it.

5. Bring a pound of uncooked rice

No this isn’t for an emergency late night dinner; that’s what ramen is for. Liquid spills are common in college environments, and the best known remedy for that is a bag of uncooked rice. Not instant rice, but the inexpensive uncooked plain white rice. Should a spill occur, immediately cut power to the computer and remove the battery. If the battery can’t be removed, shut it down. Put the device in a sealed container (typically a trash bag) with that uncooked bag of rice and wait 48 hours before trying to turn it on. The device may be okay after that. Though I shouldn’t have to say it, it is advisable to throw away the rice when you’re through.

6. Time Machine is required, but is just a first step

College is a significant investment, and a late or missed assignment can be the difference between passing a class and failing. Time Machine is a quick and effective primary backup system that comes with every Mac running Leopard or above, and enabling it will help you prevent delays due to data corruption.

However it really isn’t enough — again, college have a way of attracting “accidents.” If the Time Machine drive is sitting next to the computer, it could get damaged or go missing along with the computer. Students who use portable computers may go days at a time without connecting to their Time Machine drives, too. For the average going rate of $50 a year, I highly recommend that you buy an online and offsite backup solution. Read my recent articles for recommendations.

7. Know where to take your Mac when problems arise

In those years at college, a computer problem is likely to develop that may or may not be covered by Apple’s warranty. Before a problem occurs, it’s good to know who to call for Mac help. The obvious choice might be a local Apple retail store, but that might be far away, and in college, time is of the essence. Many campuses have college bookstores that also provide Apple warranty service, but you need to ask first. Additionally, you can use Apple’s Authorized Service Provider locator to find the closest repair center. If you have a choice between more than one, it’s a good idea to get to know them. Just ask a few questions and find out their procedures and turn around time.

8. Bring all recovery media that came with the Mac (if applicable)

Although Lion has recovery over the Internet, older Macs still need those DVDs or flash drives in order to reinstall or repair the operating system. These are typically in the box that came with the Mac and are often overlooked. When you call for support, the friendly Apple support technician will be expecting these to be close at hand. This can avoid a trip to a service provider if the problem can be diagnosed or repaired with a restore or reinstall.

9. Turn off automatic software updates

Although it’s rare, a software update can introduce new problems to a system. A recent example are numerous problems that came with 10.6.8 — enough that Apple introduced 10.6.8 v1.1. Apple eventually fixes problems with later software updates, but running software update right before a paper is due is a bad idea. Better to plan updates right before a visit home or scheduled downtime. Be sure if you don’t already know your Administrator password, you find it out now. You’ll need that for troubleshooting and updates.

10. Have a spare power adapter

This tip is for laptop users. Inevitably in the hustle and bustle of going about your studies, a power adapter is going to be left in class, at home, or at the coffee shop. A nice $1,000 + laptop can be rendered completely useless by the lack of a simple power adapter. Having a spare one can give you time to get a new one or retrieve your old one. I generally recommend keeping one at your residence, plugged in, and one in your laptop bag. If you lose the laptop bag, you can always retrieve the one from your residence.

Those are ten handy tips to make sure that you and your child never have to tell the prof “the computer ate my homework.” Got any others to add to the list?