Must-Have Back to School Gadgets: 5 Smart Picks for Every Budget

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It doesn’t matter what grade your child is going into this fall — there’s at least one high-tech tool they’ll both want and need this year. But with the average American spending some $700 per young student and $1,000 on college-age kids for back-to-school supplies, how do you tech out your kids without breaking the bank? Here are five smart picks for every budget.

jj-hp-envy-23-320-300w1. Computer: HP Envy 23
Price: $949.99
Buy: From Amazon

Computers are to school-age kids today what #2 pencils were to us — a must-have, plain and simple. Sure, your child can rely on the school or library computers, but not for long. According to a recent survey, computers become a significant part of homework around age 10.

The best tech foundation for kids of all ages is still a good family desktop PC like the HP Envy 23. It’s important to have a computer that parents and kids can use together as a main hub for teaching responsible and safe tech activity in the home. Set up in the family or living room, the HP Envy 23 is a powerful, space-saving, all-in-one Windows PC. It has all the core programs students need for homework, plus all the bells and whistles like HP Magic Canvas, Beats Audio, and HP LinkUp.

A side note here: I was able to set up this entire desktop, from opening the box to surfing the web, in less than five minutes. Kind of amazing.

jj-hp-envy-sleekbook-300-300w2. Laptop: Various models
Price: $465 to $1,299

For high school students and the co-ed crowd, a lightweight powerhouse notebook also makes good sense. While a MacBook Air is still the cream of the crop, it’s among the most expensive options, so take a look at the HP Envy Sleekbook 6, Toshiba Portege R835-P88, or Dell Inspiron 14Z — all less than $1,000. For less than $500, check out the Sony Vaio E Series.

In general, when it comes to choosing a laptop for a student, you’ll want to look at:

  • Price:There are a great many models out today for less than $1,000.
  • Size:Get something lightweight, that slips easily in and out of a book bag or backpack.
  • Battery life:Look for something that can do a lot of work on a single charge. Six hours is a minimum.
  • Processor:Look for a powerful Intel processor — it can make the difference between watching TV like normal on your laptop and having the screen stutter and stop every few minutes.
  • Future-proof: A laptop should have both style and substance, be rugged enough to withstand the real world, and have enough memory (6GB or 8GB of RAM) to allow photo and video storage.

Don’t forget that students get big discounts on most electronics this time of year, and there are big deals to be had by shopping refurbished models.

ran-300-seagate-backup-plus-family-pr3. Portable Hard Drive: Seagate Backup Plus
Price: $100 and up

Another must-have for back-to-school technology is a safety net — a way to back up your files. One in every four people today lose digital data. You’ve likely been there yourself. You slave away on a term paper or important document, only to have it crash in the final minutes before it’s due. Or even worse, your laptop is lost or stolen, and all of your photos, homework files, and everything else is gone with it.

This year, I’m recommending the brand new Seagate Backup Plus portable drives, because they are packed with new ways protect, share, and save nearly every aspect of your precious digital life. You can back up to the hard drive and to the cloud, getting the best of both worlds with a double layer of protection. It’s also the first external hard drive to provide backup for content on social networks such as Facebook and Flickr.

ran-300-amazon-kindle-pr4. Tablet/e-reader: Amazon Kindle
Price: $79
From Amazon

If you have the budget for an iPad, you’ll find it’s an amazing tool for learning, especially with the newest productivity, note taking, and educational apps. But at several hundred dollars each, it’s an expensive gadget to hand over to a young person who might break it, lose it, or use it to play video games rather than log onto the Kahn Academy for homework help. So I put tablets in the “want,” not the “need” category.

But one gadget that comes in really handy for students of all ages is the simple, affordable Kindle. It comes with access to a library’s worth of loaner books and built-in wifi, and it lets you highlight text. It’s small enough to fit in a back pocket or slip into a backpack. Also great for moms of pre-K to teen students, Amazon editors’ picks can guide you to the right books based on age and skill level.

ran-300-htc-one-v-pr5. Smartphones: Various models
Price: $99 and up

A smart buy for an older student is a prepaid, no-contract smartphone like the Virgin Mobile HTC One V. It’s a powerful, top-quality Android smartphone that doesn’t chain you to a two-year contract. That means you have a lot of control over exactly how much money you spend each month, and you can save money versus a two-year contract plan. The HTC One V has a great digital camera and Beats Audio and comes with a free Dropbox storage subscription. I also like the Samsung Galaxy Note for being able to scribble notes on this hybrid tablet/smartphone, as well as the Motorola Razr Maxx and the AT&T Motorola Atrix 4G.

There’s a growing consensus that most kids today are ready for a cell phone somewhere between the ages of 11 and 13. But parents, I beg you, please don’t hand over a smartphone to a child and walk away. That’s like giving your car keys to an 8-year-old and wishing them luck on the freeway. Smartphones can connect you with your children, but they can also connect your children with strangers, inappropriate content, and even predators. If you’ve decided your student needs a smartphone, take the time to set up parental controls (do it before you leave the store), block inappropriate apps, and consider installing a safety feature like K-9 Web Protection.

No parent left behind

Before you load your kids up with the latest technology, be sure to bring yourself up to speed. I know it’s overwhelming, but spend 10 minutes a day brushing up on all things connected kids and digital parenting. Take gadgets such as smartphones, laptops, and gaming devices out of your child’s bedroom, especially at night. Pay attention to their tech habits, and encourage a sense of balance and moderation. Remember, you’re their most important teacher, so model good digital behavior. Technology is an amazing tool. But it still can’t replace an inspiring teacher, the lessons learned from the world around us, or just plain good parenting.

This article was written by Jennifer Jolly and originally appeared on Tecca.

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Commentary Fortytwo
Commentary Fortytwo

Why the Kindle? The Nook technology is much better, especially for the $200 Nook Tablet. Or why not the Nexus 7 Tablet for $200-250 that handles both Nook and Kindle? Really tired of these gadget sites touting the Kindle inferior technology.

Nathaniel M. Campbell
Nathaniel M. Campbell

The following regulation appears in all of the syllabi I am handing out this week to my college students: "All cell phones, smart phones, iPod’s, etc. must be turned OFF and PUT AWAY for the duration of each class period." The constant interruptions to texts, emails, and Facebook ruins any attempt to create an actually learning environment -- and so they are forbidden.

Jardin J
Jardin J

Make sure to install Dropbox on all your new devices. View, edit and sync from everywhere. No more lost flash drives. No more "I left it on my printer at home." 

And it's free :)

Sam Trutna
Sam Trutna

 All you have to do is trust a company with personal information and files. In a world where multinational million/billion dollar companies (sony, bethesda, blizzard, Microsoft, Nissan, Yahoo, Google, Amazon, etc etc) can't protect their own servers, what makes you think a comparatively tiny company like dropbox is safe at all?

No thanks...

Jardin J
Jardin J

I'm not talking about putting my bank information inside of it. This is an article about back to school must-haves. 

Dropbox has been invaluable when it comes to keeping up with assignments, working on them whenever the mood strikes me, and sharing files with groups. (For free)If a hacker copies my statistics homework, I doubt it will be the end of the world. 

Sam Trutna
Sam Trutna

 Advising a parachute would imply consenting that taking a plane is at all smart or necessary for what you're trying to accomplish. I'd say you're suggesting taking a plane where a car ride is cheaper, quicker, and easier. I'm suggesting taking a car.

Jardin J
Jardin J

Then perhaps you should suggest good security software for all the items listed in the article, as I suggested a file-sharing app.

There is a place for all of us: I recommend a plane, you recommend a parachute.

Sam Trutna
Sam Trutna

How is it easy to lose a flash drive? If you're carefree about protecting your personal information and identity, that's your prerogative. However, just because your lack of will or ability to safeguard your information levels the playing field for you, doesn't mean that the they are all inherently equal. I have never lost a flash drive. My email contains exactly squat, and I manage the firewall on my desktop and ensure that hackers don't have a reason to try (why would they when you can get personal information for thousands of people instead of just one person for the same amount of work?). I determine my level of security when it comes to my personal information, and I take it seriously. There's so much to lose when it comes to your identity, what sane person would risk it?

Jardin J
Jardin J

It would be just as easy to lose a flash drive and be in the same predicament. Or to have my desktop/email hacked. 

Dropbox isn't a fortress, but it isn't any less safe than all the other common forms of data storage. 

Sam Trutna
Sam Trutna

Unless he/she then puts it on the internet, labels himself as the author, putting you at risk for academic penalties for plagiarism. Not the end of the world though.

Also, don't sell short the value of personal data. Maybe you refer to your mother's maiden name, your first car, birthday, favorite author, etc etc. If these subjects sound familiar, it's because they're often used as security questions. You may not be putting your bank account information online, but maybe you're just making it absurdly easy to access your amazon or paypal account.


For the Teachers must have must grow plant is the TickleMe Plant. Growing a TickleMe Plant is a great way to excite kids more about gardening and nature.

A TickleMe Plant will suddenly close its leaves and lower its branches when Tickled.

google it... Amazing and easy to grow