Load up on these back-to-school tech essentials

Before we know it, school will resume across the country. But given the response to Covid-19, heading to class might look different this year with shorter semesters or even a completely virtual learning experience. Normally, tech is an important part of the classroom — and it’s safe to say that […]

Before we know it, school will resume across the country. But given the response to Covid-19, heading to class might look different this year with shorter semesters or even a completely virtual learning experience.

Normally, tech is an important part of the classroom — and it’s safe to say that having the right tech setup will be more crucial than ever this year. That’s why we’re breaking down the essentials, from laptops or tablets (aka your workhorses) and accessories that make tasks easier, to fun gadgets and gizmos to help pass the free time.

Apple MacBook Air (starting at $949; amazon.com, bhphotovideo.com and expercom.com)

Apple MacBook Air

Our go-to choice for student laptops is the MacBook Air. It was refreshed in early 2020 with a zippy processor upgrade to 10th Gen Intel processors and — arguably more importantly — received the Magic Keyboard. It’s a new take on a laptop keyboard that resembles the classic Mac laptops and is standard across the Air and Pro. The keys feel punchy and invigorating, plus you get a physical escape key.

Every MacBook Air has the improved keyboard and a sharp 13-inch Retina display, and we recommend pairing it with at least 16GBs of RAM. This way you can have enough of a runway for more intense tasks. It’s also a necessary runway if you switch to a major that requires heavy graphic, video or sound design work.

Dell XPS 13 (starting at $979; dell.com)

New XPS 13 Laptop

If you want a Windows machine, you can’t go wrong with the XPS 13. It puts a twist on the standard laptop form with a super slim design that makes this extremely portable. You get your pick of a 10th Gen Intel Core i3, i5 or i7 processor. Windows 10 will be zippy, and this can scale for more data-oriented tasks as well as creative ones. Whatever you’re doing will look great on the edge-to-edge and nearly bezel-less 13.4-inch display. And yes, that means bingeing shows.

Google PixelBook Go ($849; amazon.com)

Google Pixelbook Go i5 Chromebook

Google Pixelbook Go i5 Chromebook

If you’re planning on mostly using web-based applications for fun and schoolwork, you might consider a Chromebook. The PixelBook Go, which launched last fall, is the latest Google-made Chromebook. You can opt for an Intel Core M3, Core i3 or Core i5; this is a Chromebook with oomph. You likely don’t need a Core i5, but scaling to an M3 or i3 can let you run any Android app from the Google Play Store.

If you don’t need a high-performance Chromebook and are mostly using the Google Drive Suite and other web apps, we’d take a look at the $229.99 Chromebook 4 from Samsung. It might not have the sleekest design, but it has a punchy keyboard and a solid display.

Surface Pro 7 (starting at $749.99; microsoft.com)

Surface Pro 7

Microsoft’s latest-generation Surface Pro didn’t change its successful formula too much. It’s still a 2-in-1 in every way — the core device is a tablet with computer hardware. Pairing it with a Type Cover lets you use it in a more traditional laptop fashion, and a Surface Pen allows you to take notes and even write out intense formulas (hello, calculus!). The Pro 7 starts at $749, but remember to factor in the cost of the Type Cover and pen.

Apple 13-inch MacBook Pro (starting at $1,223.88; amazon.com, bhphotovideo.com and expercom.com)

Apple MacBook Pro

If your focus is on more creative tasks or maybe you’re a mathematics-related major, it might make sense to opt for an Apple machine with more horsepower. Not only does the 13-inch Macbook Pro handle photo editing and 8K rendering in Final Cut Pro, but it also speeds up for RStudio and massive spreadsheets in Excel or Numbers. We’d recommend the $1,799 model with the 10th Gen Intel Core i5 processor.

Seventh Gen iPad (starting at $279; amazon.com, bhphotovideo.com and expercom.com)

Apple iPad

If you’re looking to keep your laptop in your room or you’re ready to dive into a tablet lifestyle, the 7th Gen iPad deserves a look, especially when you consider iPadOS adds trackpad and mouse support natively. We’d pair the 7th Gen with an Apple Pencil and a Smart Keyboard, or the Logitech Combo Touch. It will feel like a mini-computer that allows you to take handwritten or typed notes.

iPad Pro (starting at $749, originally $799; amazon.com, bhphotovideo.com and expercom.com)

Apple iPad Pro

The 2020 iPad Pro blew us away, and if you want a tablet to replace a laptop, this would be our go-to recommendation. With the A12Z Bionic Chip and paired with iPadOS, this iPad will be as fast as some laptops. It can easily be used for taking notes, emails, web browsing, streaming, gaming and even creative tasks like Photoshop edits and making movies. It’s a triple threat — and even quadruple threat — when paired with a Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil.

AirPods Pro ($229.95, originally $249; amazon.com)

Apple AirPods Pro

With the AirPods’ top-notch noise cancellation, you can safely block out loud roommates, construction outside your window or just about anything else that could be a distraction; they’re the perfect pair for studying or pulling an all-nighter. With remote learning, the microphones will shine as you communicate with classmates or professors. Sound quality is excellent and adjusts on the fly, thanks to Adaptive EQ for your individual ear and whatever you’re hearing. Still not sold? We called these the best true wireless earbuds.

Sony WH-1000XM3 ($248; amazon.com)

Sony Noise Cancelling Headphones

Sony Noise Cancelling Headphones

Sony’s WH-1000XM3 are a terrific pair of headphones. In fact, we crowned them the best over-ear headphones, thanks to a comfortable design, excellent noise cancellation and superior audio quality. Turning noise cancellation on with music will essentially block out the world. These have a portable design with an included carrying case and the ability to fold down into themselves.

Logitech K380 Keyboard ($39.99; logitech.com)



There’s a solid chance you might be tired of your laptop’s built-in keyboard, and the Logitech K380 is a perfect external option. Fortunately, it doesn’t scream ‘90s thick and ugly external keyboard. The modern design is incredibly portable — not to mention it comes in a chic feathered pink color option — and there’s a decent amount of key travel, which leads to a click-clacky experience. Best of all, there’s a version for Windows and one for the Mac.

Logitech Pebble Wireless Mouse M350 ($29.99; logitech.com)


Like the K380, this Pebble mouse from Logitech sports a modern design and a price that doesn’t break the bank. It’s slim with ergonomics in mind, allowing the palm of your hand to easily maneuver the Pebble. It’s available in a matching rose color, along with white, blue and graphite.

Twelve South StayGo ($44.99; amazon.com)

If you opt for a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, you might wonder how you can plug all your peripherals into just a few USB-C ports. And the answer is a hub to expand those ports. This StayGo USB-C Hub by TwelveSouth provides two USB-A ports, an SD card reader, a microSD card reader, a HDMI port, a ethernet port and a USB-C port.

Echo Dot with Clock ($59.99; amazon.com)

Echo Dot

You likely already know about Amazon’s Echo Dot, a relatively small smart speaker that packs a punch with sound. But the Echo Dot with Clock adds an LED dot display to the front that can show you the time, act as a countdown clock for timers and even display weather graphics. Think of it as a smart alarm clock fit for 2020.

Apple Watch Series 3 (starting at $169, originally $199; amazon.com)

Apple Watch Series 3

Sure, this isn’t the flagship Apple Watch, but Series 3 delivers unprecedented value for less than $200. You still get all the core Apple Watch features, like messages, calls, emails and even activity tracking, all from your wrist. It will also have an update to watchOS 7 this fall. You can read our full review of the Series 3 here.

Samsung T7 SSD (starting at $89.99; samsung.com)

Portable SSD T7 USB 3.2 500GB

Portable SSD T7 USB 3.2 500GB

It’s always best practice to back up your data, so why not do it with a super fast and sleek external drive? Samsung’s T7 SSD offers very fast read and write speeds at 1,050Mbps and 1,000Mbps, respectively. The drive is housed in a titanium shell that comes in your choice of red, blue, or gray finishes. It starts at just $90 for 500GB and is also available in 1TB ($199) or 2TB ($369) configurations.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailers’ listed prices at the time of publication.

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