16 great back-to-school gadgets

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

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Laptop bags and sleeves

Here, too, there are lots of choices, and what works best for you depends mostly on how much you need to carry besides your computer.

If all you need to carry around is a laptop and accessories, the Higher Ground Shuttle 2.0 (ranging from $40 for the 13-in. model to $60 for a 17-in. version) fits snugly around your laptop, with a Velcro strap to hold it tightly. Inside the case are a dozen slots for CDs or DVDs, while the outside features a modest pocket big enough to hold a power brick, some thumb drives and your lock.

The bag has a handle on one end for carrying vertically, plus a detachable shoulder strap, and you can order a backpack attachment for $10.

Higher Ground Shuttle 2.0 notebook bag.
Higher Ground Shuttle 2.0 notebook bag.

But what puts the Shuttle over the top is that the laptop side has a nonslip exterior and four rubber bumpers on the inside, so you can use your laptop without taking it out of the bag and still get cooling airflow around it.

The Shuttle comes in black, blue, olive, red and magenta, though not all colors are available in every size.

If you need to carry a few more things, move up to the Solo Urban Vertical Messenger ($60, fits up to a 15.4-in. laptop).

Solo Urban Vertical Messenger notebook bag.
Solo Urban Vertical Messenger notebook bag.

The Solo's top flap has a small zippered pocket on the outside. You can unbuckle it and open the flap to find more space and several organizer pockets for a phone, ID cards and (at least according to Solo's photos) a flashlight.

On the back is a large pocket for newspapers, magazines and other papers you might accumulate. This one comes only in black and olive drab, for that tough army-surplus vibe.

Built Cargo Laptop Sleeve.
Built Cargo Laptop Sleeves.

Some people prefer to stow their notebooks in a regular backpack, with a minimalist sleeve protecting the computer. If this is your style, try the Built Cargo Laptop Sleeve (from $40 for a 13-in. model to $50 for 17-in. devices). Made of neoprene, it comes in three sizes and can be sized and stretched to fit pretty much any laptop.

Built into the outside of the neoprene and defined by decorative stitching are three pockets: one flash-drive size, one phone size, and one power-brick size (for smaller power bricks, anyway). The Cargo sleeve comes in orange with dark green accents, olive green with bright green accents, or black with light blue accents.

Kensington MicroSaver Keyed Retractable Notebook Lock.
Kensington MicroSaver Keyed Retractable Notebook Lock.

Notebook lock

Now that you're ready to take your laptop out and about, how do you keep it secure when you get where you're going? Laptop locks aren't exactly impregnable, but they'll at least slow down the grab-and-go thief.

Don't overthink it -- just get something that's convenient to carry and use, such as the Kensington MicroSaver Keyed Retractable Notebook Lock ($35). The four-foot cable retracts into the case, giving you a compact package to throw in your bag.

Once you get the lock, register your key code with Kensington so the company can send you a new key if you need one.

Portable storage

Don't try to get through the school year without a backup plan of some sort. The first line of defense is an external hard disk.

Seagate FreeAgent Go external drives.
Seagate FreeAgent Go external drives in an array of colors.

We like the looks of the Seagate FreeAgent Go line (from $90 for 160GB to $200 for 640GB). It comes in 10 colors and claims to be the thinnest portable drive available. (Without having looked at them all, we can say it's the thinnest one we've seen.)

It's easy to toss into your backpack or laptop bag -- it'd probably even fit in one of the pockets on the Cargo Laptop Sleeve. That makes it easy to take that big video project to class, your current work home for the holidays, or your music collection to a friend's house.

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