Back-to-school tech guide 2011

On campus or off, enhance college life with these 12 tech gadgets and accessories.

It's mid-August -- time for our annual roundup of tech gadgets and gear that will ease students back into college life and help them 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. (They go as low as $12.) The gadgets we've chosen help with studying, dorm life or just plain getting around campus. We've also got advice on how to save some cash by renting e-textbooks.

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.

Protect your laptop, carry your stuff

Let's start with what is perhaps your 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 ($79.99) 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.

Central Park Sport Backpack and Grid-It organizer
The Central Park Sport Backpack and Grid-It organizer

It also comes with a 10.4-x-7.3-in. 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 $79.99). 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.

Power snake

Every dorm room needs a couple of surge protectors, but most of them have (at least) two drawbacks. First, they 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.

Pivot Power
The Pivot Power surge protector

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 or black ($29.99).

New school, meet old school

Clip-it USB flash drives
Clip-it USB flash drives

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 $11.25, or three for $32.25.

The real slim storage

Seagate GoFlex Slim external drive
The Seagate GoFlex Slim external drive

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 9mm thick and weighing 5.64 oz., the drive can hold a respectable 320 GB of files. It's no slouch in the speed department, either, spinning at 7200 rpm and supporting a USB 3.0 connection (if your computer has one, of course).

The GoFlex Slim can be used with both Mac and Windows computers without reformatting, although you will have to reformat it to HFS+ if you want to use it for Time Machine backups on a Mac. The drive also works with the GoFlex TV HD Media Player that we recommended last year as a way to get your digital entertainment onto your TV.

At $99.99, 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.

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