10 cool tech tools for heading back to school

This lineup of gadgets—from a handy battery backup to a snazzy backpack—will get you ready for class and for dorm life.

  • Braven 105

  • SanDisk Connect Wireless Stick

  • STM Prime Backpack

  • Sennheiser Urbanite On-Ear Headphones

  • Wearsafe emergency alert tag

    Learn more
    on Wearsafe
  • Satechi 60W 6-Port Multi-Port USB Desktop Charging Station

  • WD My Passport Ultra

  • Mountie Side-Mount Clip for Mobile Devices

  • LifeLink Ultra-Portable Cable with Lightning connector

10 cool tech tools for heading back to school 2016

Back-to-school tech 2016

This month, parents and students are making lists and racking their brains to make sure students go back to school with everything they need for a successful year. As we do every August, we’ve scoured the latest offerings from top tech companies to find a lineup suitable for the modern student. We’ve also kept in mind the constraints of a student budget. The most expensive item on this list is $140, and several of them cost $30 or less.

Whether it’s a place to store all your files, a set of sweet headphones or something that’ll keep your phone from running out of juice, these gadgets will make learning easier and living on campus more fun.

Braven 105 Bluetooth speaker
  • Braven 105

Braven 105 portable Bluetooth speaker

You never know where student life might take you—sometimes you're in a study session under the trees on the green, while the same day might find you at an impromptu party in the dorm lounge. That's why it's good to have a portable speaker that you can carry and use almost anywhere. The Braven 105's innovative design takes "almost anywhere" to a new level, with an elastic band that can affix it to a lamp pole, tree, handlebars, etc.; a quarter-inch thread mount for use with tripods; and an Action Mount that lets it clip on to GoPro-compatible accessories. It's also waterproof—able to be immersed in water up to a meter in depth.

The rechargeable battery gives it up to an 8-hour play time. But how does it sound once you get it where you're going? Its clean, crisp sound (see our full review) makes it a good choice for a wide variety of music. It won't thump out the bass like some other Bluetooth speakers, but at less than 4 in. in diameter (and weighing just 7 oz.), it's a lot more portable than most. It also has a built-in microphone so it can function as a speakerphone when someone calls to ask what the next assignment is, and it comes in six colors.

SanDisk Connect Wireless Stick
  • SanDisk Connect Wireless Stick

SanDisk Connect Wireless Stick

What would you do with a USB flash drive that can also be accessed wirelessly by your phone and computer? For one, you could transfer large files to it, such as videos, so you could view them on your phone without using up its storage space. You could also transfer files to it from your phone—photos, for example—saving even more space.

But where the SanDisk Connect Wireless Stick gets most useful is when you share files from it to multiple devices at once, including streaming video to up to three devices simultaneously. That means any photo you take can be shared with your friends without dealing with email or messaging. It also means that when you're working on a group project and everyone need to access the same files, you can just put them all on the Stick and let them wirelessly take what they need.

The Stick is available in a range of storage capacities; prices start at $23 for 32GB and go up to $94 for 200GB (Amazon price).

STM Velocity Prime 13" laptop backpack
  • STM Prime Backpack

STM Prime backpack

What sets the STM Prime backpack apart is the impressive number of places it provides to stash your stuff—starting, of course, with the main pocket for your laptop or tablet. The pocket has extra padding at the corners and a "sling" at the bottom that holds your device up off the bottom of the bag. Part of STM's Velocity line of laptop bags, the Prime accommodates up to a 13-in. laptop; if you have a 15-incher you'll need to step up to the Haven model.

Besides the additional pockets inside for phones, cables, backup batteries and other necessities of student life, there are also outside pockets for quick access to water bottles, glasses and the papers you plan to read on the bus. Available in four colors, the whole package is wrapped in water-resistant fabric and weighs only 1.5 lb., so it will help with your daily burden, not add to it. Note that it's a smallish backpack, so it's better for college students than for high schoolers who still need to carry a lot of textbooks around.

Sennheiser Urbanite on-ear headphones
  • Sennheiser Urbanite On-Ear Headphones

Sennheiser Urbanite headphones

When one roommate is watching Game of Thrones and another one is working on his latest EDM composition, you need a way to create your own sonic bubble. What you need is a good set of headphones, like the Sennheiser Urbanite. Built to emphasize bass, the Urbanite nevertheless delivers the clear sound that Sennheiser is known for. The detachable cable has the controls you’d expect to manage your music listening as well as handle phone calls. (There are different versions for iOS and Android; make sure you order the correct version for your phone.)

The Urbanite is built for heavy use, too, with aluminum sliders and stainless steel hinges on the headband. The hinges let the ear cups fold inward so the ’phones fit into the included storage pouch, ready to throw in your backpack for a day on campus. The Urbanite is available in five different colors for iOS devices and two for Androids; retail prices range from $73 to $200 (Amazon price) depending on the OS version and color. (All versions cost $140 at the Sennheiser site.)

Wearsafe emergency alert tag

Wearsafe emergency alert tag

We all like to think that campuses are safe places—but bad things sometimes happen. When they do, having a quick way to let your family and friends know that you need help can make all the difference.

Wearsafe is a wearable clip-on device, about the size of a fitness tracker, with a panic button; it also comes with an app for your phone (iOS or Android). Pressing the button anywhere within 200 feet of your phone activates the app to send an alert to a predefined group, plus sets up a chat room for them to coordinate their response. It also sends audio from your phone, so they can hear exactly what’s going on.

You can set up different groups for different situations—one for when you’re away at school and another in your hometown, for example. The Wearsafe buzzes whenever someone reads your alert, so you know your message has been received. The device and app are free, while the service requires a $5/month subscription—a fee many parents would be happy to pay.

Scosche GoBat 4400 portable charger

Scosche GoBat 4400 portable backup battery

A backup battery for your phone is pretty much a must-have these days, especially for students who are out and about for long days of classes followed by stints at the library. But the problem with a lot of backup batteries is that they're clunky, ugly or just plain uncomfortable to keep in your pocket. The Scosche GoBat solves those problems with its sleek, rounded construction.

It's no slouch in the performance department either. Its 4400mAh rechargeable battery should be able to fully recharge an iPhone 6 or 6S twice over. It's got LEDs that show how much charge is left, plus a built-in flashlight. And it comes already fully charged, so it's ready to use right out of the box.

Satechi 60W 6-Port Multi-Port USB Desktop Charging Station
  • Satechi 60W 6-Port Multi-Port USB Desktop Charging...

Satechi 60W 6-Port Multi-Port USB Desktop Charging Station

To a college student, there's no such thing as having too many USB ports for charging portable devices. You've got your phone, your tablet, your wireless headphones, your portable speaker ... more things to charge every night than the USB ports on your poor laptop or your wall outlets can handle. Satechi's 6-port charging station will take care of the problem at a pleasantly low price.

Its four type-A USB ports will handle your legacy devices, and the two USB-C ports will handle any of the latest crop of phones that use USB-C and prepare you for the future when more devices will move to that standard. The auto-detect feature makes sure that each device is getting the proper charge.

The Charging Station is compact, with a footprint no bigger than a smartphone, so it won't use up precious desk space.

WD My Passport Ultra portable hard drive
Western Digital
  • WD My Passport Ultra

WD My Passport Ultra portable hard drive

When you're a student, your entire life—projects, friends, plans—is on your computer. You need a backup in case something goes wrong, as it almost inevitably will. A portable hard drive like the My Passport Ultra is the security blanket you need.

Its technical benefits start with USB 3.0 compatibility for speed. Included software lets you encrypt the disk's contents and require a password for access, while other software lets you schedule backups, including cloud backups to Dropbox. (Mac users will need to download and install the software after reformatting the drive for Mac OS.) The My Passport Ultra is available in a wide range of capacities, from 500GB up to the recently introduced 4TB.

It's also a fashion statement, with multiple colors available: white, black, blue and berry. There's also a pink model sold only at the WD Store; a portion of the proceeds go to The Breast Cancer Charities of America. You can also get supplementary "grip packs" ($13 each) in complementary colors that include a protective bumper that goes around the outside of your drive, plus a matching cable.

Retail prices range from $50 for 500GB to $140 for 4TB (Amazon price), but note that the 4TB model (currently available in black only) is out of stock at many retailers we checked, including Amazon.

Mountie side-mount clip
Ten One Design
  • Mountie Side-Mount Clip for Mobile Devices

Mountie side-mount clip

Students are always juggling multiple screen-based activities—schoolwork, of course, but also social media updates, chats and videos. It's tedious to keep switching windows or picking up a phone to move from one activity to another. The Mountie clip holds your mobile device next to your laptop screen, so you can stay focused on your work while still monitoring the rest of your life.

The Mountie was designed with MacBook laptops and iPhone and iPad mobile devices in mind, but the company says they've tested it with "every other laptop we could get our hands on" and it will hold any phone or tablet with dimensions similar to Apple's. It's available in blue or green (although that accent color is in the back) and comes with a selection of rubber grips that can be swapped in and out to fit the devices you want to use it with.

LifeLink thin charging cable
  • LifeLink Ultra-Portable Cable with Lightning connector

  • LifeLink Ultra-Portable Cable with Micro-USB connector

LifeLink USB charge cable

Say you're running out of batteries and you spot an open USB port—hurray! But do you have a charging cable with you? You do if you have a LifeLink cable. It folds up to about the thickness of two credit cards and the width of one, so it'll slip easily into your wallet. When needed, it opens into a 7-inch-long charging cable.

The Australian-designed connector, available in gray or white, is flexible and coated with Teflon, with a metal spring connecting the two sides for durability. (It carries a 12-month warranty.) The LifeLink comes with Lightning (Apple MFi certified) or micro-USB connectors—with a standard USB A connector on the other end—so there's one for pretty much any mobile device you might have.

student with an ipad itunes u

Looking for more student-friendly gear?

Check out our back-to-school tech roundups from 2015, 2014 and 2013. Some of those products might not be available anymore -- that's the way of the tech world -- but most (or their updated replacements) should.

Liam Widman contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.