Back to School: 10 Gadgets and Inventions That Would Have Been Nice 10 Years Ago

You darned kids have it easy.

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Here’s a secret about all the “back to school” tech stories you see around the web this time of year: Most of us writing them haven’t set foot in a classroom in years. Sure, our tech know-how puts us in a good position to recommend products to anyone, but we can only guess what students these days might actually want.

I’ve been out of undergrad since 2005, which is recent enough to remember my college years but distant enough to recognize that everything is different now. In my dorm room days, most of us used desktop PCs, communicated via AOL Instant Messenger and acquired significant chunks of our music libraries from Napster and KaZaa.

So while I’m not in the best position to say what gadgets and tech students need now, I can look back at my college years and tell you what would have been awesome roughly a decade ago:


The Obvious Stuff: Phones, Tablets, Thin-and-Light Laptops

Of course I would have wanted a smartphone to take pictures, get directions, stay in contact with friends and listen to music wherever. (Dumbphones, for that matter, only became commonplace during my last couple of school years.) Of course I would have wanted a laptop for doing work around campus without braving the computer labs. A tablet would have been nice for relaxing in bed or on the couch. I mention these inventions out of obligation, but I’d like to get more specific in the items that follow.

Livescribe Smartpen



While I imagine most students now take notes on their laptops or tablets, the LiveScribe pen keeps it old-school with handwritten notes. But there’s a twist: The pen also records audio, and uses special paper to create notes that you can view on your computer. So if you want to re-listen to part of a lecture, you can tap on that section of your writing to hear what your professor was saying at that exact moment. As a journalist I used LiveScribe often, but it would’ve been valuable in college as well.

Cloud Storage

Transferring files between computers was never a pleasant experience in college. If the file was too large to e-mail, we had to deal with unwieldy FTP programs, waste a CD or spring for an expensive (at the time) USB stick. Online storage services like Dropbox, Google Drive, SkyDrive and SugarSync would have saved a lot of hassle, and provided a handy way of backing up term papers and other important files.

iPhone Breathalyzers

Out in the real world, a personal breathalyzer can be a lifesaving tool, letting you know if you’re okay to drive. It’s not so necessary on a college campus where everyone’s walking from one party to the next. But think of the entertainment value! iPhone-enhanced breathalyzers like Alcohoot, BACtrack and Breathometer don’t simply measure your blood alcohol content, they can also share that data with friends and family. Finally, a way to quantify who got the drunkest.

Digital Textbooks

Physical textbooks don’t have a lot of redeeming qualities. They’re so heavy that you can’t carry them all with you, which means you need to figure out which ones to take when leaving the dorm, or go back to the dorm just to exchange books. And they’re so expensive that you’re forced to sell them back after the semester’s over, which means you can’t make notes or highlights without tarnishing the trade-in value. If I was still a student, I’d be looking for e-textbook sources like CourseSmart and Kno to lighten the load.

Video Chat

I remember the first time homesickness set in, right when I was doing my first load of laundry. Of course, my folks were always a phone call away, but video chat would have been so much more comforting. Group chat services like Google+ Hangouts would’ve also come in handy for team assignments.


AFP via Getty Images

Google Glass

I’m not sure I’m ready to live in a world where everyone’s equipped with an eye-mounted camera, recording everything. But man, I would have loved a pair of Google Glass specs for just a handful of house parties and beer pong tournaments.

Unlimited Legal Online Music for Free

Even if you have no qualms about piracy, you have to admit that Napster and KaZaA were not great experiences. Those bootleg MP3s came from who-knows-where, and half the time they were mislabeled (now prompting a nostalgic parody on Twitter) or loaded with viruses. Fortunately, the music industry smartened up. Not only can you buy MP3s on iTunes and Amazon, you can also listen to gobs of music for free with services like Spotify and Pandora. No guilt, and no viruses.

Free or Cheap Streaming TV Shows

College is a place to learn and grow as a person, but it’s also a place where your loathing of cable companies can blossom. Cable TV is so expensive and college students have so little money that I’m sure we would have considered alternatives like Netflix and Hulu had they been available, especially alongside streaming video boxes like Roku.


Studio Banana Things

The Ostrich Pillow

I mean, just look at that thing. I’m not sure whether it’d be better to use in the quiet corner of the library, or a highly-trafficked area where its utter ridiculousness can be appreciated by fellow students. Either way, the Ostrich Pillow seems crucial for getting a few minutes of sleep after a long night of cramming. What’s the tech angle, you ask? It was funded on Kickstarter.