Back to Cool: 16 Must-Have Gadgets for Back to School

USB Hub

Face it, you can never have too many USB ports. Between your iPod or iPhone, printer, camera, external hard drive, flash drives, keyboard and mouse, you can wind up spending way too much time swapping cables. You need a hub.

The Belkin USB 2.0 Plus Hub ($30 for a four-port model, $50 for seven ports) has its own power supply, which is important -- sometimes the power provided through a USB port is not enough to get a device to perform properly. It's convenient, with two ports on the top for the devices you need to plug in quickly and occasionally, like thumb drives. And there are little clips on the side to run your various USB cables through, reducing that tangle of wires on your desk.

Finally, these hubs are made so that they can snap together. You can stack a four-port model or another seven-porter on top of the seven-port version to get 11 or even 14 ports. Hmm, maybe you can have too many USB ports.

Portable Power

Every mobile device you have needs power, and every one is likely to run out when it's least convenient. Backup power is the name of the Ecosol Powerstick's game ($50). The device comes with nine connectors that let it charge a vast number of devices, from BlackBerries to iPhones, digital cameras to GPS units to MP3 players. (You can see if your devices are compatible at the Powerstick site.)

The Powerstick is no bigger than a thumb drive, contains a rechargeable lithium polymer battery, and recharges by plugging into a USB port, which means you can use anybody's USB port, anywhere, to recharge it. When bringing your entire assortment of dedicated chargers is impractical -- or when you find yourself unexpectedly away from home for a day or two -- the Powerstick could be invaluable.

Digital Audio Recorders

"Amazing" was the response of everyone we showed the Livescribe Pulse Smartpen (1GB $150, 2GB $200) to, and with good reason. This pen has a digital recorder built into it, but that's not particularly startling.

What makes it amazing is that when you write on the special paper that's included (with more available for purchase), a tiny infrared camera in the nose records your pen strokes as well. Later, if you touch the pen to what you wrote, the pen will replay what was being said at that moment.

Not sure what the professor just said and want to look it up later? Just draw a question mark in the notebook, and touch the pen to the question mark later to listen to it again. Are you sure the teacher said the homework wasn't due till next week? Touch the pen to where you wrote down the date and prove it, in the teacher's own voice.

Your notes don't have to be text, either -- you can draw, doodle, make an x, whatever -- and the pen will remember the place in the recording. Livescribe claims the 1GB pen can hold more than 100 hours of recording, depending on quality setting and other factors. Later, you can transfer the whole shooting match -- drawings and synced sounds both -- to your computer using the USB charging cradle.

If that sounds like overkill, consider getting a Mikey microphone ($80) for your iPod. The Mikey is a high-quality microphone built by Blue Microphones, a 15-year-old professional recording microphone company.

When you attach it to your dock connector, the iPod automatically switches to Voice Memo mode, and you can use it to record meetings, lectures, music or anything else. You can then listen to the recordings on the tiny built-in speaker or upload them to your computer.

A particularly nice touch is that the microphone swivels up and down, so you can place the iPod in whatever configuration works best for the purpose -- flat on the desktop, or angled toward a single-point source of sound.

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