Class is in session
It's time for students to ease into college life. Our roundup of tech gadgets will help students get back into the groove and help get the most out of today's connected classrooms.
With student budgets in mind, we've gathered an assortment of products with a price tag of $200 or less. The gadgets we've chosen help with studying, dorm life or just plain getting around campus.
These items are all new to our list, but don't overlook our 2010 and 2009 back-to-school roundups. Those selections (or their current updates) should work just as well this year as they did the past two. And remember, Apple has a back to school deal where students and educators get a $100 Mac App Store gift card with the purchase of a qualifying Mac.
Protect your laptop, carry your stuff
It's perhaps the most essential piece of equipment after your laptop: a bag to safely transport all your tech gear and other stuff around campus. The Central Park Sport Backpack ($80) from Cocoon Innovations holds up to 17 inches of laptop in a protective padded compartment. In addition, it features two document pockets, a secondary compartment with smaller pockets, and a special pouch with a waterproof zipper for MP3 players or mobile phones, all held together with side compression straps.
It also comes with a 10.4-by-7.3-inch Grid-It organizer, which has a set of interwoven elastic straps that provide a flexible way to hold a bunch of small items of varying shapes and sizes, from pens to 'Pods. Topping off the whole package is a water-resistant stowaway hood.
The Sport Backpack comes in black, gray, red and brown. If you're looking ahead to the work world, you might choose the Central Park Professional Backpack instead (also $80). It's a bit more streamlined and stylish (it lacks the compression straps, for example) but otherwise has all the features of the Sport version.
If the Cocoon offerings aren't your style, check out our reviews of other laptop bags.
Every dorm room needs a couple of surge protectors, but most of them have (at least) two drawbacks. First, surge protectors usually don't have room for "wall warts" on every plug, so some are left empty—and what good is a six-outlet power strip if you can only use four? Second, they're not always easy to find a convenient place for, especially in cramped quarters.
The new Pivot Power, crowdfunded through Quirky, solves both those issues. The six outlets are large enough and widely enough separated that each one of them can hold a full-size power adapter. And they rotate, making the entire strip flexible enough to wrap around desk legs or fit in corners as needed.
The Pivot Power's own power cord stretches a full six feet, making it even more certain you'll find a place to put it. Boasting 672 joules worth of surge protection, the Pivot Power is available in white ($30).
New school meet old school
Even on today's Wi-Fi-everywhere, tablet-happy campuses, you'll find printers galore: The idea of a "paperless college" is as much a myth as that of the paperless office. The Clip-it USB flash drive from Verbatim is a tool for bridging the gap between digital data and hard copies.
Designed by Berlin-based product designer Arman Emami and winner of a Red Dot design award, the Clip-it combines a 4GB flash drive with a colorful paperclip. (Verbatim also suggests that it might make a nice tie clip.) The USB connector is encapsulated within the plastic clip itself, which makes the device water- and dust-resistant. The Clip-it costs $11, or three for $32.
The real slim storage
Need an external hard drive that holds a lot of data but won't take up a lot of space? Seagate's GoFlex Slim Performance Drive is just the thing. Just 9 millimeters thick and weighing 5.64 ounces, the drive can hold a respectable 320GB of files. It's no slouch in the speed department, either, spinning at 7200 rpm.
The GoFlex Slim is available in a Mac version that is formatted using HFS+, so you can use it for Time Machine backups on a Mac.
At $100, the GoFlex Slim won't win any prizes in the gigabytes-per-dollar race, but when space in your backpack or dorm room is at a premium, it fills the (small) bill nicely.
Tuff-Luv makes cases for iPads and laptops, as well as for Kindle and Nook e-readers and other portable devices. We particularly like the Eco-nique covers made of hemp, both for their organic appearance and their appealing texture. Take, for example, the Multi-View Stasis Series: Natural Hemp case cover for Apple iPad 2 ($80). Closed, it's a protective cover; open, it provides a document pocket for papers and a smaller windowed pocket for those scraps of paper students tend to collect with "notes to self," quick directions, or the digits of that fascinating person you met last night. A clasp holds the cover securely closed.
Other covers in other materials, including leather and vegetarian faux leather, are available for iPads, Sony Readers, and other portable devices at a range of prices.
Is that a speaker in your pocket?
Looking at the Soundmatters FoxLv2 speaker system in all its 5.6-by-2.2-by-1.4-inch glory, you'd never expect it to sound as good as it does. But this little powerhouse can fill a dorm room or living room with full, detailed sound. The speaker moves so much air, in fact, that it comes with an anti-slip mat to make sure it doesn't vibrate itself right off your desk.
The foxLv2 contains a rechargeable battery that is rated to give up to 8 hours of music, and it can be recharged via a USB port as well as through the included AC wall adapter. (The AC adapter even comes with separate plugs for other countries' wall sockets.) The system has a 3.5mm jack (and comes with a cable) for connecting it to a computer or MP3 player; there's also an output jack for connecting it to a separate powered subwoofer, if you've got one.
That describes the basic $169 version. For $199, you get all that plus Bluetooth capability that connects the speaker to a phone automatically. This version also contains a microphone that turns the whole system into a speakerphone that will automatically switch functions if a call comes in while you're listening to music.
Battery and a flash drive
Backup batteries for phones and MP3 players are handy; so are flash drives. The Cell Drive from SLD Marketing Group packs both into one small package, along with a connector for charging and (depending on the device) syncing a mobile device.
The Cell Drive starts with a rechargeable 430 mAh battery. It won't fully charge your device, but it provides enough juice for an extra hour of talk time or several days of standby, according to the company.
The same 1.1-by-3.2-by-0.6-inch container houses a flash drive that stores 4GB or 8GB of data. On one end is a standard USB 2.0 plug, at the other is a mini-USB plug, which lets you charge and sync files with devices that have that port. Rounding out the connection options is a 3.5mm jack that works with the included micro-USB and iPhone/iPod adapters for charging those devices.
At $50 or $605 (depending on whether it's a 4GB or 8GB flash drive), the pocket-size Cell Drive replaces four or five other accessories all by itself.
Clamp it down, lock it up
While laptop security cables can be thwarted by a determined thief with the right tools, it's still a good idea to use one to prevent grab-and-go thievery. Most of these cable locks are designed to be looped around something immovable, usually a fixed piece of furniture. But sometimes that's not available—a desk, for example, might not be fastened to the floor, making it easy to slip a cable out from under the leg.
The Griffin TechSafe Locking Security Clamp ($20) gives you something to attach your cable to when there's no immovable object handy. It works through a screw-down clamp and a ball that covers it: You screw the clamp tightly to your anchor point and thread your cable through the ball. Slide the ball up to the clamp and lock the cable to your laptop, and no one can unscrew the clamp until you release the cable.
The clamp works with any security cable, such as the Kensington model we recommended in our 2009 back-to-school guide. Currently out of stock, the TechSafe clamp should be available again by the end of August, according to a Griffin representative.
Griffin also has a new take on the locking cable itself: the TechSafe Cable Lock System ($30). Rather than attaching the cable to a small hole on the side of your computer, you slide a hardened steel "LockBlade" through the hinge of the laptop. Affix the cable's 4-digit combination lock to the blade, and your laptop's secure, whether it's open or closed. (Note: The Cable Lock doesn't work with MacBook Airs.)
Another nice thing about the Griffin systems: The company will store your combination online. If you forget or misplace it (maybe it's in the pocket of your Tuff-Luv Kindle cover?), you can just log into the Griffin website to retrieve it.
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