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16 great back-to-school gadgets

Push the bleeding edge of academic tech with these (mostly) inexpensive gadgets

By Jake Widman
August 12, 2009 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - It's that time of year again, when the days are hot and the Sunday supplements are full of ads for notebooks, pens and back-to-school outfits. But getting ready for another school year doesn't just mean stocking up on such "old school" supplies. Today's well-equipped college student will also be toting an assortment of digital gadgets, ranging from study aids to mobile gear and tools for protecting your data.

Here we bring you some back-to-school gadgets and gear that will prepare a student for the rigors (and joys) of the academic life. We looked for items with at least a nominally educational connection that would fit into a student budget. Most of them have list prices of $50 or less, and only a few top $150 (mostly for their higher-end models) -- and you can usually find them for less if you shop around. We did, however, include a couple of expensive items to ask your parents for at the end of the story.

Portability was key in our gadget selection. Students are on the move a lot, often on foot or bicycle, so lighter and more compact beat bulky. Style also counted, but since everyone's style is different, we basically leaned toward choice, especially in color.

Looking for a laptop? See Back-to-school laptops: Best Buy exclusives reviewed.

Laptop coolers

Your laptop is your most important academic tool, so it's essential to protect it whether you're in your room or out and about.

There are a few good reasons to raise your laptop up off your lap -- or off your desk. One is to keep it cooler -- getting a little air flowing around your laptop will help dissipate the heat buildup, which will prolong its life. Another is to protect whatever's underneath it (like your legs) from getting scorched. And then there are the health benefits of moving the display closer to eye level and putting the keyboard at a more ergonomic and comfortable angle.

For desktop use with an external keyboard and mouse, consider the Kensington Easy Riser Cooling Notebook Stand ($30). The Easy Riser is a tilted plastic stand that holds the base and keyboard of your laptop. A lip at the bottom and rubber pads on the plastic keep your laptop from sliding off the stand, while the open back promotes cooling.

Kensington Easy Riser Cooling Notebook Stand.
Kensington Easy Riser Cooling Notebook Stand.

Once the laptop is secure, you fold the display back until it's vertical, and then adjust the angle of the base -- and thereby the height of the display --- to get it to a comfortable viewing height. And when you're not using it, you can fold the whole thing flat, making it easy to move or just reclaim some desk space.

If you don't use an external keyboard, you need a stand that supports your laptop's keyboard at a comfortable angle. Try the simple, straightforward and bargain-priced HandStands Cool Lift ($10). It's just a base with four pillars that raises the back of your laptop about an inch and a quarter to increase airflow but leaves the front at almost desktop level. The resulting angle can be easier on your wrists than typing on a flat keyboard.

HandStands Cool Lift laptop cooler.
HandStands Cool Lift laptop cooler.

It does come with a couple of caveats: Some users report that the bottom of the Cool Lift is a little slippery, so you might not want to use it on a tilted surface, and some say it's a little small for 17-in. laptops, which therefore need careful centering. But those quibbles aside, you can't beat the price-performance ratio.

Of course, you don't always use your computer at your desk. When you're using a laptop the way the name suggests, you need something to keep your thighs from frying, such as the Targus HeatDefense for Laptops ($30). It's a quilted plastic place mat filled with heat-absorbing crystals, like a microwavable heating pad. The crystals liquefy as they absorb heat and recrystallize when they cool.

Targus HeatDefense for Laptops.
Targus HeatDefense for Laptops.

Once the crystals liquefy under the part of your laptop base that gets hot, the bottom of the pad in that spot can get pretty warm itself. But you can easily turn the mat from time to time to keep a crystallized part under the hot spot.

The HeatDefense folds up, so you can take it anywhere, spread it out in your lap and get to work. (It does add a pound and a quarter to your laptop's weight, though.)

The HeatDefense is manufactured by ThermaPak Technologies, which offers its own version called the HeatShift (available in three sizes, from $28 to $35). The HeatShift is thicker than the HeatDefense -- you can roll it up, but not fold it -- and comes in black, pink and white.


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