20 Must-Have Tech Gadgets For Back-To-School

Our top suggestions for students include laptops and Chromebooks, earbuds and noise-cancelling headphones, and tablets and webcams.

Back-To-School Tech

For back-to-school shopping this year, the need for gadgets to enable digital learning is expected to be stronger than ever. Even though remote learning may not be as widespread as it was during the previous school year, spending on electronics is still seeing the biggest increase of any back-to-school category, according to the National Retail Federation. That’s for both college students and K-12 students, with devices such as laptops and tablets as a major focus, the NRF reported. Other back-to-school tech gadgets such as earbuds and headphones, webcams, monitors and printers are also going to be a must-have for many returning students.

To assist in your back-to-school tech shopping this year, CRN has pulled together its annual list of must-have tech gadgets for students for the coming school year—such as the Microsoft Surface Laptop 4, Apple MacBook Air and iPad Pro, noise-canceling headphones, wireless earbuds and Chromebooks from companies such as Acer, HP and Google.

What follows are CRN’s recommendations for must-have tech gadgets for back-to-school in 2021.

Apple AirPods Pro

Apple’s AirPods Pro are one item that has uses both for learning and for downtime. The AirPods Pro offer a high-quality option for listening to educational content, with Active Noise Cancellation to limit distractions. The AirPods Pro also come with microphones, for picking up the student’s voice during an online class. And in addition, the wireless earbuds have a strong reputation for being able to stay in your ears, thanks in part to a design that includes three different silicone ear tips.

Apple’s AirPods Pro are priced at $249.

Samsung Galaxy Buds+

AirPods Pro might not be for everyone, of course—especially for non-iPhone using students. One great alternative for wireless earbuds are Samsung’s Galaxy Buds+. The earbuds offer up to 11 hours of battery life on a charge, and while they don’t feature Active Noise Cancellation, they do boast top-notch sound from AKG along with a two-way speaker system that includes an added tweeter. The Galaxy Buds+ also come with three mics and improved “ambient sound” that allows users to remain aware of the environment while still experiencing great audio.

The Samsung Galaxy Buds+ are currently priced at $99.99.

Anker Soundcore Life Q20

For over-ear headphones, a pair of noise cancelling headphones can be very pricey—often costing upwards of $400 for the latest Bose model, for instance. Thankfully, there’s a far more budget-friendly choice that still offers solid audio quality and noise cancellation. The Life Q20 noise-cancelling headphones from Anker’s Soundcore brand are an optimal choice that fits these criteria. The wireless headphones have received Hi-Res Audio certification, signifying a top-notch audio experience, and include hybrid active noise cancellation technology that reduces ambient noises by as much as 90 percent. The Life Q20 headphones also feature memory foam earcups and promise an impressive amount of battery life, with up to 40 hours on a charge available.

The Soundcore Life Q20 headphones are currently priced at $59.99 on Amazon.

Apple MacBook Air

The MacBook Air has long been popular with students, thanks to its terrific portability and sleek design. With the addition of Apple’s Arm-based M1 processor, the MacBook Air offers a 3.5X CPU improvement and 5X graphics performance gains, compared to the Intel-based MacBook Air. The MacBook Air with M1 also gets an additional six hours of battery life—or up to 18 hours of usage on a charge—and now does not require a fan, either.

Apple’s MacBook Air has a starting price of $899 for students.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 4

Since its start, the Surface Laptop has been touted by Microsoft as the ideal Surface device for students. And with the debut of the Surface Laptop 4 this year, Microsoft is now offering a lower-priced model with AMD processors and up to 19 hours of battery life for the 13.5-inch model. On portability, the notebook has a starting weight of 2.79 pounds and a thickness of 0.57 of an inch. And for collaboration, the Surface Laptop 4 offers a front-facing HD webcam, dual mics and a speaker system that uses Dolby Atmos technology.

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 4 (13.5-inch AMD model) currently has a starting price of $999.99.

Amazon Kindle

The latest Kindle e-reader could be ideal for the student in your life who has some serious reading to do this school year. Amazon’s newest Kindle has added a front light—which lets users adjust the display brightness for more-comfortable reading. That includes during nighttime reads indoors, or doing some reading in the bright sun. The Kindle features a 6-inch 167 ppi display for reading e-books, along with the ability to play Audible audiobooks.

The Amazon Kindle is currently priced at $89.99 (with “special offers” advertising) or $109.99 without ads.

Apple iPad Pro

For the student that might like a 2-in-1 tablet as their computing device of choice, Apple’s latest iPad Pro is an option worth considering. The iPad Pro for 2021 adds the company’s Arm-based M1 chip, enabling up to 50-percent faster CPU performance over the previous model, according to the company. The new iPad Pro is available in 11-inch and 12.9-inch display sizes, with other upgrades including support for 5G and a new “Liquid Retina XDR” display with up to 1,600 nits of brightness on the 12.9-inch model.

The Apple iPad Pro (11-inch) has a starting price of $749 for students (tablet only). The Magic Keyboard (featuring a touch pad) adds $279.

Acer Chromebook Spin 514

Chromebook devices—which run Google’s Chrome OS—are massively popular in education. So much so that finding the affordably priced, cloud-connected notebooks continues to be a challenge. However, as of this writing, the Acer Chromebook Spin 514 showed availability on Best Buy’s website. And the Acer Chromebook Spin 514 is a strong choice with its 14-inch convertible touch screen, AMD Ryzen 3000 C-Series processors and AMD Radeon graphics. The AMD processors enable strong performance, responsiveness and battery life (up to 10 hours), Acer says.

The Acer Chromebook Spin 514 is priced at $499 at Best Buy.

HP Pro c640 Chromebook Enterprise

Another higher-tier Chromebook that is showing availability is HP’s Pro c640 Chromebook Enterprise. While aimed at business users, this Chromebook has plenty for students to like—including a wide-angle webcam with a built-in webcam shutter; Bang & Olufsen speakers; up to 12 hours of battery life with fast-charging capabilities; a durable aluminum exterior; and a 180-degree hinge for laying the device flat.

The HP Pro c640 Chromebook Enterprise currently has a starting price of $573.92 on HP.com.

Google Pixelbook Go

Google has its own lineup of Chrome OS devices, as well. The company’s Pixelbook Go offers a 13.3-inch touch display with FHD or 4K resolution, as well as strong performance for a Chrome OS device with up to a Core i7 processor. The Pixelbook Go is also highly portable with a starting weight of 2.3 pounds and a thickness of half an inch.

Google’s Pixelbook Go has a starting price of $649.

NexiGo N940P Webcam

If remote learning continues to be a need, then having a quality webcam is worthwhile. The NexiGo N940P Webcam provides 2K QHD video, autofocus and a 90-degree field-of-view, while offering up to 3X digital zoom with an included remote control. The webcam also includes a privacy cover as well as dual microphones with noise-cancelling technology.

The NexiGo N940P Webcam is currently priced at $99.99 on Amazon.

Roku Ultra

There’s nothing wrong with a little down-time after class. If your student could use a media streaming device for their return to school, you can’t go wrong with getting them the Roku Ultra—which Roku calls its “fastest and most powerful player ever” (thanks in part to the inclusion of a new quad-core processor). The Roku Ultra enables high-quality Dolby Vision picture and Dolby Atmos sound on compatible TVs and sound systems, along with offering a 50-percent improvement to wireless range over previous players. The device also comes with a remote that can be voice controlled, and features both USB and Ethernet ports for expanded connectivity options.

The Roku Ultra is currently priced at $79.99.

Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen)

In terms of smart speakers, the latest Amazon Echo Dot is a solid option. For the fourth-gen Amazon Echo Dot, the smart speaker now has a spherical design as well as a fabric exterior. The latest Echo Dot features a 1.6-inch, front-firing speaker and adds the ability to snooze the device by tapping on it—while also including the full voice control functionality of the Alexa assistant, of course.

The Amazon Echo Dot, 4th Gen, is priced at $44.99.

Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 2

There are some great choices out there for portable Bluetooth speakers, too. One of which is the Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 2. The speaker is highly portable at a weight of less than a pound and a height of just 4 inches—yet it still offers massive 360-degree sound (up to 87 dBC with Outdoor Boost) as well as a wireless range of 100 feet. The Wonderboom 2 also offers impressive battery life, at up to 13 hours on a charge, and is ready for the elements with IP67 waterproofing and dustproofing.

The Wonderboom 2 is currently priced at $94.99 on Amazon.

HP Omen 15

For the PC gamer heading back to school, the HP Omen 15 is a gaming laptop that’s worth checking out. The new Omen 15 features a redesigned, smaller form factor; a 15.6-inch display with a new 180-degree flat hinge; the first IR thermopile sensor in a gaming laptop, which enables optimal thermal efficiency and improved fan control; massive performance with a choice of Intel or AMD Ryzen processors; and powerful graphics with up to an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 Super with MAX-Q Design4.

The HP Omen 15 (AMD model) currently has a starting price of $1,199.99 on HP.com.

Dell 32 Curved Gaming Monitor

For a large-screen monitor optimized for gaming, the Dell 32 Curved Gaming Monitor is worth considering. The 31.5-inch HDR monitor provides gamers with improved field of vision and immersion with an 1800R curvature, QHD resolution and color enhancements such as an expanded contrast ratio. Gamers will also appreciate the monitor’s refresh rates of up to 165hz. Meanwhile, low-latency high-dynamic range gaming is enabled on the Dell 32 Curved Gaming Monitor by the inclusion of AMD Radeon FreeSync 2 HDR technology.

The Dell 32 Curved Gaming Monitor (S3222DGM) is currently priced at $349.99 on Dell.com

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

For a student looking for a large-screen smartphone for their return to school, Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra has some features worth checking out. The device expands to a quad-camera system and works with Samsung’s S Pen stylus. Other key features include improved resolution on the 6.8-inch display with up to 1,500 nits of brightness; up to 100X zoom on the camera along with a new “zoom lock” feature; and support for both types of 5G connectivity.

Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra has a starting price of $1,199.99.

Lenovo Smart Clock

If your student needs some help with getting up for class, the Lenovo Smart Clock might be of some help. The voice-controlled alarm clock (which uses the Google Assistant) offers hundreds of “soothing” alarm sounds, and the 4-inch screen automatically dims at night and brightens in the morning. Users can also set up “Good Morning” and “Good Night” routines and use the Smart Clock to listen to music, podcasts and audiobooks.

The Lenovo Smart Clock is currently priced at $39.99 at Best Buy.

HP ENVY Pro 6455

While much schoolwork has gone digital, some students may still benefit from having a printer around. For instance, the ability to read over a paper copy of a project before submission is something plenty of students could appreciate. HP’s ENVY Pro 6455 offers all-in-one capabilities—printing, copying, scanning and faxing—at an affordable price point. Key features include both color and black-and-white printing, print speeds of up to 10 pages per minute, wireless connectivity and a 35-page auto document feeder.

The HP ENVY Pro 6455 is priced at $69.99 on Amazon.

Apple AirTag

If your student happens to be one of the many people who is prone to misplacing things, the Apple AirTag is one gift that’ll be OK for them to lose. The small accessory can be attached to keys, a backpack or virtually anything that your student would want to be able to track down. Users can locate their missing item with an attached AirTag by using the Find My app on their iPhone. The item’s location can be viewed on a map, and can also have the AirTag play a sound if it’s within Bluetooth range. Additionally, users can get guidance leading them directly to their lost item.

The Apple AirTag is priced at $29 for a one-pack and $99 for a four-pack.