10 cool tools for heading back to school

Looking for back-to-school tech? From advanced note-taking apps to interactive textbooks to the perfect high-tech desk lamp, these items will help college students hit the ground running.

back to school tech gear

Back-to-school tech guide 2013

Whether you're a college student or the parent of one, getting ready for the school year is a big part of August. We've gathered 10 apps and gadgets that will help students take notes, study, or just live the college life.

We've made our selections with students' (and tuition-paying parents') budgets in mind. Our most expensive item costs $200, but the list also includes free smartphone apps.

If you're still looking for ideas after this slideshow, be sure to review our previous student-friendly tech roundups from 2012, 2011, 2010 and 2009. Some the products may no longer be available, but most of them should be just as useful this year as in years past.

Microsoft Wireless Comfort Desktop 5000 and Arc keyboards

Microsoft Wireless Comfort Desktop 5000 / Arc wireless keyboards

There is a certain luxury that comes with a wireless keyboard: the ability to lean back with your keyboard in your lap, leaving plenty of room on your desk for your laptop, textbooks, (paper) notebook, bowl of ramen and more.

The OS X- and Windows-compatible Comfort Desktop 5000 ($69.95) has gentle curves that guide your arms and wrists into natural alignment, and it sports media buttons for controlling your music. Looking for something smaller? At 12 x 6 in. and less than an inch high, the Arc ($59.95) will fit almost any lap and can be stashed almost anywhere.

Both models let you sit up to 30 feet away from your computer, in case you have it connected to your TV for some reason (*cough* gaming *cough*).

Ginger Labs / screenshot by Jake Widman

Ginger Labs Notability / Harvard SW Notes Recorder apps

Many students enjoy taking notes on their tablets; some even do it on their smartphones. There are quite a few note-taking apps out there, but we like these for their ability to record audio while you're taking notes.

Both of these apps sync your typed notes with the recorded sound, so you can touch a word in your notes and listen to what was being said at that point -- great for recalling lectures. They also provide drawing tools, so your notes can contain sketches.

Notability (for iPhone and iPad, on sale for $2.99) goes further than Notes Recorder (for Android, $2.99) in also letting you incorporate photos taken with your iDevice. Notability can also open PDF, Word and PowerPoint files for annotation.

Mimobot flash drive

Mimoco Mimobot flash drives

Every student needs a USB flash drive, but what happens if you lose it? We know a student who lost a flash drive shaped like a sea turtle. She got it back within an hour, because everyone remembered who had the cool turtle flash drive.

Similarly, everyone will remember your Mimobot. There are hundreds of models, most based on characters from popular media. You can get a Klingon, Boba Fett, the Joker, Eric Cartman -- even the Ice King or Twilight Sparkle. You can even rig your computer to play an appropriate sound (say, intoning "Live long and prosper") when some of them are inserted or removed.

Mimobots range from 8GB to 128GB, depending on the character; some support USB 3.0. Prices start at $24.95.

Satechi Smart LED Desk Lamp

Satechi Smart LED Desk Lamp

Even if you plan to do most of your college work by the glow of your computer display, you're still going to need a desk lamp. With a sleek design and energy-efficient LED lighting in four color profiles, the Satechi ($99.99) isn't your granddad's lamp.

It also makes a great bedside reading lamp, and -- this is key -- it has a USB charging port on the back, which you'll appreciate the first time you're reading in bed, decide to go to sleep, remember you need to charge your phone, and then realize that the outlet is across the room. No problem: Just plug your phone right into the lamp and drift off, secure in the knowledge that you'll wake up to a fully charged device.

EasyBib apps for Android and iOS

EasyBib bibliography app for Android and iOS

Often the most annoying thing about writing a paper is preparing the bibliography. We know a student who turned in the same paper four times, with something different wrong with the bibliography each time.

EasyBib's free apps end all that: You can create a bibliographic entry in MLA, APA or Chicago style just by scanning a book's bar code or searching on the title. Email the citations to yourself and copy them into your paper's bibliography.

At the EasyBib.com site you can create citations for websites, newspapers and more, but only MLA-style citations are free. To get entries in APA or Chicago style, and to use other advanced features, sign up for a MyBib Pro subscription ($4.99/month, $14.99/half-year or $19.99/year).

Tunz Stereo Headset

Tylt Tunz Stereo Headset

Everybody needs his or her own study space -- which, since you're probably sharing a room, means surrounding yourself with your own sounds and blocking out others. These Tunz earbuds ($39.99) do an excellent job of canceling out obnoxious roommates or people giggling in the library so you can actually get some work done.

Available in five colors, they feature a flat "linguine cable" that resists tangling and an on-cable microphone for phone use. They come with a solid little "coin purse" for carrying and six sets of tips -- three standard tips and three "Active Gel" tips that are supposed to stay in place even during sports. (Which they did in our limited tests.)

Oh, and they sound really good.

Moonstone Mobile Power Bank

Lepow Moonstone Mobile Power Bank portable device charger

This cute little device may look like a compact, but it houses twin USB ports for charging your mobile devices on the go.

The Moonstone comes in five colors and in two capacities: 3000mAh ($35.99), with one port delivering 500mA output current for low-demand devices while the other delivers 1200mA for smartphones/tablets; and 6000mAh ($59.49, on sale for $47.59), with 1200mA and 2100mA ports. Even the 1200mA port provided enough juice to bring an iPad 2 from 50% to 90% charged in our tests.

See also: 10 portable battery chargers keep your device powered

Warning: Fake Moonstones are being sold on eBay and even Amazon. (Lepow is pursuing legal action.) Don't fall for a deal that seems too good to be true.

Inkling interactive textbook

Inkling interactive digital textbooks

Going a step beyond standard e-books, Inkling makes textbooks interactive with features such as pop-out slideshows for illustrations, review sections with live links back to the places in the text where the topic was discussed, self-assessment tools and more. It truly does make the material more engaging.

You can access Inkling titles via an iPad or iPhone, or via a Web browser on a Mac or Windows PC. Your work is synced among devices.

We like the pricing model: You can buy either entire books or just individual chapters starting at $5.99 each. (There are usually sample chapters available for free.)

There isn't a wide selection of textbooks available yet, but the company's publishing more all the time -- and it doesn't cost anything to look.

Jongo speaker

Pure Jongo S3 wireless speaker with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

The Jongo is many things in one. It's a great-sounding portable Bluetooth speaker with a rechargeable battery on which you can play any sound from your mobile device, from stored music to Spotify to Netflix. You can even pair multiple devices so you and a friend can take turns supplying the music.

It's also an Internet radio and educational podcast receiver once you connect it to your Wi-Fi network and download the Pure Connect app for iOS or Android. Last, it has a standard Aux In jack for connecting directly to your computer or game system.

At $199.99, it's not cheap, but its solid sound and ability to play multiple roles in cramped student quarters make it well worth the price.

SmartFlex Card cases

Speck SmartFlex Card case for iPhone 5/4S/4 or Galaxy S4

For a lot of students, cash, a credit card and their ID is all they really keep in their wallets. So why carry the whole wallet when you have your phone with you all the time anyway?

That's the idea behind Speck's SmartFlex Card smartphone case. This flexible polymer case ($34.95 for iPhone 5/4S/4 or $39.95 for Samsung Galaxy S4) comes with an extra slot on the back that holds up to three cards or folded bills and has a thumb slot that makes it easy to push out the card you need.

Jake Widman is a freelance writer in San Francisco and a regular contributor to Computerworld. Liam Widman is a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz and a former contributor to Mac|Life.

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