Back-to-school tech guide 2012

Feel that chill? That's not the end of summer approaching; it's the beginning of another school year. With student budgets in mind, we've gathered 10 items -- gadgets, gear and apps -- that'll improve a college student's life, whether in the classroom, in the dorm or around campus.

iPlanner and Class Buddy Pro apps

iPlanner or Class Buddy Pro

Both these apps -- Nihar Gandhi's iPlanner for iOS ($1.99) and mSurf Lab's Class Buddy Pro for Android ($1.99) -- provide portable ways of keeping track of your class schedule, but they have other features that make them more useful than a simple calendar. They both keep track of assignments and due dates, and also record your teachers' email addresses and office hours.

iPlanner lets you send an email right from within the app and also links to your classes' websites. Class Buddy can export and import events to Google Docs. Either one will help a student answer the all-important questions: "Where am I supposed to be, when am I supposed to be there, and what homework am I supposed to have done?"

Razer Naga Expert MMO Gaming Mouse

Razer Naga Expert MMO Gaming Mouse

"But I don't play MMO games," you say. "You shouldn't be playing games at school," your parents say. It doesn't matter. Whatever you're using your computer for, a good mouse makes your life better -- that's all there is to it.

The Naga ($79.99) has a 5600dpi laser sensor, 100Hz "ultrapolling" with a 1ms response time, and up to 200 inches-per-second tracking, which all just translates to speed and precision no matter the task. The 17 thumb buttons, while great for games, can also be programmed for shortcuts and macros in "regular" applications.

The Windows- and Mac-compatible mouse even comes with three side panels to customize it to your hand size. There's also a wireless version, the Naga Epic, for $50 more.

iShower Bluetooth speaker


The water-resistant iShower Bluetooth speaker ($99.99) from iDevices lets you listen to music in the shower while leaving your smartphone or tablet someplace dry -- and safe. Its 200-foot range means that (depending on wall placement, etc.) you might even be able to leave your expensive device in your room.

The iOS, Android and Windows Phone-compatible speaker hangs over a shower head and has play/pause, forward and back buttons that let you control the music source from inside the shower. (It doesn't, however, show track names or controls for picking a new playlist, so choose wisely before you head off to your shower sanctuary.) It's even got a clock, so you know how quickly you've got to get moving to your next class.

Logitech Solar Keyboard Folio

Logitech Solar Keyboard Folio

Carrying an iPad around campus is easier than lugging a laptop, but you still need something better to type with than the onscreen keyboard. There are a lot of iPad cases with keyboards out there, but we like the Solar Keyboard Folio ($129.99) for second- and third-generation iPads.

Powered by light (it says "solar," but lamplight works too), the keyboard doesn't drain your iPad's battery or require replaceable batteries. (Logitech claims that a fully charged keyboard will work for two years in total darkness.) The case wakes your iPad when opened, and holds it mostly upright for typing or at a shallow angle (with most keys blocked but media controls still accessible) for watching videos.

Brando USB Solar Charging 4-Port Hub with Torch

USB Solar Charging 4-Port Hub with Torch

Just to be clear, that's "with torch" as in the British word for flashlight. Now that we've established that there are no flames involved, we can point out that this hub ($22) from Brando has a built-in battery that can be charged with sunlight or via a USB cable to your computer.

In addition to providing four much-needed USB ports for your peripherals and other devices, it can also use its internal battery to recharge your phone or MP3 player in an emergency -- it comes with seven adapters for common mobile devices. Just throw this in your backpack for when you need extra ports or power (or a flashlight) in a pinch.

Sony SX712D digital voice recorder

Sony SX712D digital voice recorder with Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice-to-print software

At $199.99, this is the most expensive item in our roundup, but it'll be worth it for those days when you just can't pay attention in class. The recorder has a two-way stereo microphone and a built-in battery (rechargeable via USB) that offers 25 hours of recording time. Transfer the recordings to your PC and use the included Dragon voice-recognition software to convert it to text.

Two things to note: One, the software doesn't work on Macs (though you can still transfer the recordings to your computer); and two, some professors require that you get permission before recording their lectures -- it's best to ask first.

JotNot Scanner Pro app

JotNot Scanner Pro

This iPhone app from MobiTech 3000 ($1.99) turns your phone's camera into a scanner. "So what?" you ask. "Why not just snap a picture with my phone?"

Here's the cool part: It lets you do perspective correction on the scanned image. Take a photo of a page, match the four corner markers on screen with the four corners of your document, and JotNot straightens out the image accordingly.

You can also "batch scan" multiple pages and send the results to Dropbox, Evernote or Google Docs with OCR (among others) or email them. For $0.99, you can even fax from within the app.

Epson Workforce 645 All-in-One printer

Epson WorkForce 645 All-in-One printer

Despite PDFs and email, the paperless university is as much of a pipe dream as the paperless office. While not the cheapest multifunction printer available, the Epson WorkForce 645 ($149.99; $99.99 at Amazon) offers an excellent balance of price and performance, and its compact design means it won't take up half your dorm room. It prints at up to 15 ppm (one-sided, black), does automatic two-sided printing and scanning, and comes with a 30-sheet automatic document feeder for batch scanning.

Besides wireless printing from computers, it supports Apple AirPrint and Epson iPrint for printing from mobile devices. And it comes with full-size ink cartridges, not the low-capacity "starter" cartridges other printers start you off with.

V-Dimension Helius solar-powered backpack

V-Dimension Helius solar-powered backpack

You know how annoying it is for your phone to die halfway through the school day because you forgot to charge it the night before, especially if you're heading for a new part of the campus and need to access Google Maps. The clever solar panel in the Helius backpack ($129.95, heavily discounted at online vendors) can give your small devices a boost wherever you are.

The pack comes with iPod/iPhone, Mini-USB, Micro-USB, Samsung, LG and Nokia adapters; the company says it will charge a phone in two to three hours. While it can't charge larger devices, the pack has room to carry up to a 15-in. laptop.

Don't like backpacks? The company also makes a solar-powered Optical Messenger Bag.

Octa TabletTail: Whale Kit

Octa TabletTail: Whale Kit

The Octa TabletTail ($49.99) is a large suction cup that goes on the back of your iPad, e-reader or other tablet device to provide a secure one-handed grip. Add the whimsical (some might say silly-looking) "whale tail," and it becomes an adjustable stand that can prop your tablet up on a desk or a bed.

The tail's flexible construction means you don't have to take it off and reattach it to change your tablet's orientation. You can even attach the TabletTail to some tablet skins and cases, provided they have a smooth, nonporous surface.

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.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.