Wow. Thanks for all your opinions and information. As I see things:
External Backup Device and Backup/Sync Service. After further thought, ideally I would want to use both together for different reasons. Full backups of OS, Apps, and all other files on both. That would be best to be covered for all eventualities.
Backup/Sync Service. If I just use a backup/sync service like DropBox, SugarSync, iCloud, etc solely for personal files but not for the OS or the apps, then if house or dorm burned down or were robbed, I could recover my personal files. But what about all my registration info for apps that I had purchased for the computer? Yes I could reload the operating system and the apps by downloading them online. But where are all my registrations/authorizations? Where are all my personal settings for all of my apps that took so long to set to my requirements? So I'd have to include all email files and application-personal-settings files as part of the personal files too. Could I find all those necessary specific files when setting this up to sync specific folders or files in the first place? (Maybe, if I'm expert in that OS.) Recovering registrations from email and re-setting all app preferences manually would be extremely time consuming. Finally, I won't have to worry about which files are necessary for recovery if I use a backup/sync service for all
files including the OS, apps, and personal files, then I could recover them all
but I'd have to pay US$50 or more annually to the service (depending on needed storage plan size). But putting all those files back together so all OS and apps work properly on a new replacement computer will not be a fast or trivial task.
Syncing to other Devices. In addition to backup purposes, syncing services can also be useful for syncing files to/from mobile devices or other computers.
External Storage Device for Backups. And yes, any storage device might go down at any time, including the supposedly more-reliable and fault-tolerant Flash drive or Solid-state drive (SSD) which have few or no moving parts compared to a hard disk drive, and yet might melt anyway due to internal hardware or electronic problems in or near them. So a local external backup device is a quick, cheap, safe, and convenient way to have a complete backup available when necessary. Except when that backup device is also robbed or burned down with house/dorm, hence the usefulness of the Backup/Sync Service. Cost of 500GB portable USB external drive, less than $100.
Solid-State Drive or Flash drive. Similar flash technology improvements (presumably) in speed for operations involving internal storage, as compared to hard disk drive. When I tried a Mac with SSD last year, I appreciated the quicker OS and application startup times and decided, for the price difference, to live with a serial ATA internal disk drive until I buy my next computer. Note it's also difficult to distinguish reasons for speed between various factors such as speed of data in/out on internal drive, speed of bus, speed of processor, etc unless comparing bench tests from changing 1 speed variable at a time.
Protection Plan necessary? Personal preference either way, but probably useful for a student new to Mac, for the included 3 years worth of Apple tech support.
Computer Model & OS. She's definite regarding Mac vs PC and laptop vs desktop and seems to be leaning towards MacBook Air. Possible options at purchase for 13" MacBook Air, base price US$1199: To increase from 4GB to 8GB RAM, add $100. To increase from 128GB to 256GB flash drive internal storage, add $300. To get 3 year AppleCare Protection Plan, add $249.
In comparison, on my MacBook Pro, I have 8GB RAM but I usually don't exceed using 4GB of RAM. I have 750GB internal storage but 128GB internal storage would have been sufficient for my needs, and internal Flash Drive or SSD instead of serial ATA hard disk drive would have been nice, but I felt I didn't need the expensive smaller-storage-capacity SSD option at the time though I regret that decision now. Ah well, maybe I'll get a new computer soon too. Heh
Edit: Printer/Scanner/Copier. She also wants a combined printer/scanner/copier and some extra ink cartridges. And let's not forget a couple reams of paper.
I have an old, big Epson Workforce 600 I'm happy with. There are probably cheaper, smaller models these days. Anyone have any particularly strong recommendations for brand & model?
Tablet Decisions. So far it seems like she wants an iPad rather than other brands. At iPad prices, I'd suggest WiFi only, not WiFi + Cellular. I'd suggest 16GB storage may be a little tight, or 32GB storage more comfortable if she keeps most of her content on her computer and only loads tablet with music favorites, books currently studying, current work, current other entertainment, and so on. Currently I've got about 11GB of space used on my iPad. But I have a feeling she'll be using her iPad more often and for more varied apps than I use mine. Do any of you other iPad users have recommendations on iPad model options?