by James A. Martin

12 cool gadgets to soothe those back-to-school blues

Aug 14, 2015
Back to SchoolGadgets

These 12 back-to-school gizmos, including high-end laptops and ultra-portables, as well as techy bags and accessories for audiophiles, will make you, or your student, actually want to head back to classes u2026 maybe.

School bus
Credit: Thinkstock

‘Back to cool’ gadgets and accessories

The phrase “back to school” should be banished and replaced with something that doesn’t feel like a sucker punch to the stomach. Perhaps, “a vacation from summer vacation, but with classes, so you appreciate your next summer vacation?”

Too wordy? OK, let’s just go with “back to cool,” because that’s what we’re focusing on: 12 extra cool gadgets and accessories that can help you, or your kids, stay productive during class — then kick back afterwards — including a smart backpack and an activity tracker that snaps selfies. Gear like this makes the return to a classroom significantly less painful.

Coolest tablet: Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 Pro

02 lenovo yoga tablet

Squeezing in a monster flat-screen TV into a tiny dorm room? File that under “magical thinking.” Here’s a better idea: Get an Android Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 Pro ($450 and up). Lenovo’s tablet features a 13.3-inch QHD screen and a kickstand, which makes it one of the best tablets for streaming Netflix or other video content. It features two JBL front-facing speakers with a subwoofer and Dolby surround sound to enhance the audio experience. The tablet also has an integrated pico projector, so you can show movies on your dorm room wall. (You may need to remove that John Belushi “Animal House” poster, however.) Unfortunately, the model listed for sale on Lenovo’s website hasn’t not yet been upgraded to Android 5.1 Lollipop.

Coolest Windows tablet/laptop: Surface 3

03 microsoft surface

Microsoft’s Surface 3 ($499 and up) is arguably the most stylish Windows portable around. You’ll look cool toting this thing into the classroom, especially if you pimp it out with a colorful Type Cover keyboard ($130) and a matching Surface Pen ($50). (The pen is a particularly good companion to Microsoft’s OneNote note-taking app.) For extra style points, Belkin makes a sweet Surface 3 and Surface Pro 3 sleeve ($15 on Amazon) in blue, red, and black that complements Microsoft’s Surface palette. As one reviewer pointed out, the Surface is worth recommending, though it’s pricey if you also purchase the keyboard and pen accessories. Costco’s bundle can save you money, but you have to live with a (blah) black keyboard and silver pen.    

Coolest Mac laptop: MacBook

04 macbook laptop

If you really want to project coolness, pop open a gold MacBook ($1,299 and up) in class and watch everyone turn green. The thing is super light, at 2 pounds; it has a gorgeous 12-inch Retina display; and the battery lasts nine hours, according to Apple. You may face a period of adjustment, though, when using the “Force Touch” trackpad and the butterfly-mechanism keyboard. And you could grapple with the fact that, aside from a headphone jack, there’s only one port — and it’s a USB-C jack. All that aside, sister publication Computerworld nicely summed up the MacBook’s appeal: “If your digital lifestyle is mostly on-the-go with an emphasis on wireless, this could be the computer for you.” The laptop also comes in “space gray” and silver.

Coolest bag: AMPL Smart Backpack

05 ampl smart backpack

You’ll have to wait until October to rock AMPL’s Smart Backpack, but given its early success on Indiegogo and the awards it won at 2015 CES, it could be well worth the wait. The backpack recharges multiple devices — smartphones, tablets and laptops — on the go, and it has USB recharging ports in every pocket. There’s even a USB port in the dedicated smartphone holster, and a mobile app lets you control charging. AMPL says its “smart” batteries charge devices faster than conventional portable batteries. The Smart Backpack currently sells for between $239 and $459, depending on the options you choose; it looks very cool in gray with neon-green accents; and it lets you pick and choose battery packs. The bag also has its own power cord for simultaneously recharging up to three embedded batteries.

Coolest camera: GoPro Hero4 Session

06 gopro hero4 session

Many of us are content with our smartphone cameras, but more adventurous types stick GoPro cameras on their bikes or ski helmets to capture amazing footage. GoPro recently unleashed its smallest, lightest camera, the Hero4 Session ($400), which is essentially a black cube. The tiny camera captures 1080p video and 8MP photos, has dual microphones, is rugged and totally waterproof, and you can stick it on a large variety of GoPro mounts. What does any of this have to do with academic achievement? Exactly.

Coolest smartphone case: AMP for iPhone

07 amp iphone case

A consistent gripe about the iPhone over the years is its so-so speaker. Enter AMP, an “intelligent sound system” built into a white or black iPhone case that literally “amps” the voices and tunes coming out of your smartphone. AMP features three built-in speakers, and its audio signal processing “enhances your audio by tuning to your hearing, tastes and the environment around you,” according to the developer. The case includes a built-in audio jack and promises to give your iPhone 5 or 5s an additional 25 percent battery bump; iPhone 6 models get a roughly 20 percent boost. AMP is also good-looking. Pre-orders cost $99, and the case is expected to ship this fall.

Coolest Apple Watch bands: Casetify

08 casetify apple watch bands

Casetify makes a gajillion Apple Watch bands in a variety of styles, and some are downright “cray-cray,” as the cool kids say (say). Want an Apple Watch band decorated with doughnuts? Galaxy stars? Rock-star leopard print? Casetify has you covered. You can also create your own band designs using Instagram or Facebook photos, or upload images from your computer. Bands cost $70, and they come with adapters to fit either the 38mm or 42mm Watch models.

Coolest Bluetooth speaker: UE’s Megaboom

09 ue megaboom

There’s no shortage of contenders in this category, but the Ultimate Ears (UE) Megaboom speaker ($300) stands out as a stylin’ audio accessory that’s waterproof, comes in four color choices, offers long battery life, and has long-range Bluetooth (some connected devices can be as far away as 100 feet). The Megaboom also uses Bluetooth Smart, so you can turn the speaker on and off with a mobile app. You can pair it with other UE speakers, too, for richer sound. Speaking of sound, Megaboom earned numerous rave reviews for its awesome audio quality. And the Megaboom’s companion Android and iOS apps let you further tweak the speaker’s audio output.

10 misfit flash link

A $20 alternative to Fitbit, the Misfit Flash Link is an activity tracker and smart button. It counts your steps, calories burned and miles traveled. It also tracks walking, running, yoga, sleep and other activities. And you can use the button-like device to take selfies with your connected smartphone, change songs in Spotify, advance slides in presentations and more. Flash Link is water resistant up (or down) to 30 meters, so swimming with it shouldn’t be an issue. The disc has no screen; instead, LED lights indicate progress toward meeting daily activity goals. Unfortunately, the accompanying Flash Link app is iOS-only.

Coolest portable power pack: Jackery Giant+

11 jackery giant

Jackery makes a bunch of different portable power packs that look good and help you recharge gadgets on the go. Jackery Giant+ (currently $30 to $35) is a high-capacity (12,000 mAh) battery that lets you recharge two smartphones or tablets via USB cable simultaneously; it comes in four colors; and it includes an LED flashlight. Jackery Bar ($20 to $25), which recharges one smartphone or tablet, and the smaller Jackery Mini ($13 to $20) are worth a look, as well. And the Jackery iOS app tells you how much energy is stored in the battery and estimates the time remaining before your device runs out of juice.

Coolest iPad Air 2 Bluetooth keyboard/case combo: Logitech Duo-To-Go

12 logitech duo to go

Logitech’s Duo-To-Go ($120) combines an iPad Air 2 “smart” cover with a Bluetooth keyboard that comes in several cool colors. The case is available in black and gray, and red and blue, while the keyboard comes in black or red. If you spill your double non-fat latte all over the keys, there’s no need to cry over spilled milk — just wipe it clean and get back to typing. A less stylish alternative that’s also worth a look: Logitech’s K810 (with Windows-specific keys) and K811 (for Mac) Bluetooth keyboards, which let you connect to up to three devices and feature backlit keys.

Coolest dorm-room espresso machine: Nespresso Inissia

13 nespresso inissia

OK, the only thing techie about this espresso maker that uses coffee pods is the fact that you can reorder pods via Nespresso’s mobile app. However, the little gadget cranks out some delicious, crema-topped espresso shots — which are sure to come in handy during those late night study sessions. The Inissia is available in various colors, including fire-engine red, and it weighs just 5.29 pounds. Pair it with Nespresso’s electric milk-frothing accessory, which creates pillow-y-but-dry foam, and you’ve got your own personal café. If you buy the Inissia and milk frother together they cost $179. The only downside: The pods aren’t cheap (70 cents each) and must be purchased online or from a Nespresso boutique.