When Vanessa Arreola, 18, starts her freshman year at Stanford University this fall, the top item on her back-to-school wish list is a MacBook Pro.
She said she wouldn’t consider a tablet because she prefers a traditional keyboard. She relies on apps like Google Docs for documents and Google Slides for presentations, which are available through a web browser.
“A tablet is just like your cellphone, but bigger,” she said. “I don’t see a point of getting a tablet.”
But Claire Ashcroft, 19, who studies public health at Brigham Young University in Idaho, said the opposite. Half of her textbooks are digitized, and she uses apps like Microsoft Excel and Word — so her ideal school device would be a Windows machine with a touch screen, like a Microsoft Surface tablet.
The polarizing responses illustrate how back-to-school shopping for technology gadgets has become increasingly complex for parents.
In the past, the dilemma for most students was whether to get a Windows PC or a Mac. Now, because of a proliferation of different computing forms with the rise of mobile devices, the debate has shifted toward whether to buy a computer or a tablet — and which operating system on top of that.
Then there are the different types of software and tools that students use, like flashcard apps or readers for digital textbooks, some of which are for mobile devices and others for computers.
To make back-to-school season easier, parents should have a conversation with their children about what devices and which operating system to buy based on their student’s area of studies and the apps they use.
The list was curated after testing dozens of products and interviewing five college students about the tools that help them do homework and get through cramming sessions. While this list focuses on college students, many of whom will be getting their own computers for the first time, some items would also be a good fit for high schoolers.
Laptop Versus Tablet
The students I polled were split on whether a laptop or tablet would be the best study tool. In general, students in science-oriented fields would probably benefit from a laptop, which can handle multitasking more easily and run more powerful apps than tablets. For designers and liberal arts majors who are using more lightweight apps for writing essays or drawing sketches, a tablet may be a better fit.
For students in science-oriented fields, like Ms. Arreola, the $899 MacBook Air stood out as the most versatile and convenient computer. It can run both the Mac and Windows operating systems, weighs only 2.4 pounds and has at least nine hours of battery life. It also has an excellent keyboard and ports for plugging in accessories like a display, mouse or phone charger.
For those seeking a tablet, devices like the $599 iPad Pro or $499 Microsoft Surface 3 should work well. The ability to remove the keyboard for reading digital books or to use a stylus to make drawings would come in handy on either of these devices.
Chances are that your son or daughter already has a smartphone, given that on average, children are getting their first smartphones at age 10. But if they have a hand-me-down, four-year-old iPhone or Android device, it may be a good time to get a speedier, more capable phone.
The best ones on the market come from Apple and Samsung Electronics: the iPhone 6s and Samsung Galaxy S7. Which one you pick should partly depend on your child’s computing device, since iPhones are more tightly integrated with Apple devices and Android devices generally mesh better with Windows computers.
There are two caveats. First, Apple is expected to release a brand-new iPhone this fall; so if you go the Apple route, it would be wise to wait a few months. Second, these are high-end phones that cost roughly $700, which could easily blow your budget.
If price is a concern, there are plenty of excellent lower-tier smartphones. The iPhone SE, which has most of the same guts as the iPhone 6s but a smaller 4-inch screen, is a solid option at $399. For Android devices, I like Huawei’s Nexus 6P, which also costs $399. It has a nice look and feel and works with Project Fi, Google’s low-cost cellular service.
With the amount of shuffling around that students do on campus, I also recommend a battery pack to give smartphones more juice throughout the day. Anker’s PowerCore Slim 5000, about $20, is affordable and provides about two full charges to a smartphone in a compact battery pack.
High-quality audio gear is a sound investment for students. Roommates can be loud distractions from schoolwork and sleep, plus a bit of music can ease the pain of typing out a tedious essay.
That makes it worthwhile to invest in a pair of noise-canceling headphones. My favorite set is the Bose QuietComfort 35. They are wireless, comfortable and extremely effective at filtering out noise, plus they sound great. At $350, they are pricey but will provide comfort and nice sound for many years.
Another useful audio device is the $180 Amazon Echo, the internet-connected speaker that responds to voice commands. It can stream music from services like Spotify and Pandora and also dictate a student’s calendar events. When set up with an internet-connected power outlet, like TP-Link’s Smart Plug, the Echo could even be used to turn on an electric kettle for boiling water for tea or coffee first thing in the morning, if you say, “Alexa, turn on the kettle.”
Coffee and Food
Speaking of water kettles, a food gadget or two will not go amiss in students’ lives, especially if the devices offer a shortcut to downing some caffeine or gobbling up ramen.
A great electric kettle for quickly boiling water is Bonavita’s $55 BV3825B Gooseneck. The stainless steel kettle can boil up to a liter of water and has a long gooseneck spout that lets you smoothly pour water into a teapot, french press or cup of noodles.
For a fast and inexpensive gadget to make coffee, check out the $30 AeroPress. You place the AeroPress chamber on a mug, add one scoop of ground coffee, add hot water and plunge the coffee through a filter into the mug. It makes cheap coffee taste delicious.
For heating up food, I recommend a toaster oven instead of a microwave. A well-made toaster oven is not only capable of heating up microwave dinners, but it can also toast bagels and leftover slices of pizza or even roast a chicken leg. Breville’s $150 Mini Smart Oven evenly heats up foods and will get students through times of desperation.
In the end, it’s up to students to use their imaginations to get the most out of their back-to-school gear. Ms. Ashcroft, the Brigham Young student, said her favorite study tool during her freshman year was her iPhone 5 — she uses the apps Quizlet and StudyBlue to study with digital flashcards and notes.
But she would like a Microsoft Surface tablet.
“If we’re talking wishful here, I would choose that,” she said. “I have a couple of friends with those, and I think they’re pretty nice.”
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