Back-to-School Gadgets: Top Tech for 2010

Hear that groaning? That's the sound of college students all over the country putting away their bathing suits and sunscreen and packing up their books and bags for another year of school.

As we do at this time every year, we've selected 10 highly useful gadgets -- along with some great Web apps and smartphone apps for iPhone and Android devices -- that will help get you through another year. Whether you're a student yourself or a relative looking for a going-away gift, you'll find something here to ease the transition to the vicissitudes of life on campus. Of course, these devices don't have to be used on a college campus -- gadget lovers might find something useful for the office or road as well.

We focused on gadgets with an educational purpose, though we also included a few digital aids for college life in general. Our other criteria are that a device can't cost more than $200, portability's a good thing and appearance counts.

Most of our 2009 recommendations are still valid too. For instance, we have yet to find a better digital recorder than the Livescribe Pulse Smartpen. Rather than repeat ourselves, we would encourage you to check them out again and visit the vendors' Web sites to see if there are new or upgraded models this year.

Related story: Once all this tech gear is at school, students need to protect it. See "Tips for on-campus technology protection."

Logitech Wireless Presenter R400 Presentation Remote

Sooner or later in your college career, you're likely to find yourself in front of a room giving a presentation -- even high school students these days have to demonstrate their mastery of PowerPoint or Keynote. To help it go smoothly, equip yourself with a presentation remote that lets you control your slides without leashing you to your computer. The three we like all have laser pointers, because what's the use of being able to walk around if you have to keep going over to the screen to point at something?

We like the look and feel of the Logitech Wireless Presenter R400 . At $49.99, it has the basic forward and back buttons you need to step through your slides; the fact that the buttons are big and deep-set should make them easy to find in a darkened auditorium.

Kensington SlimBlade Presenter Media Mouse

A little more spend buys you not just forward and back buttons but the ability to control your cursor remotely and run any multimedia elements your presentation might include. The Kensington SlimBlade Presenter Media Mouse ($79.99), for example, is just a regular laser mouse with a scroll ball when resting on a table. Turn it over, though, and on the underside there are play/pause, skip track, and volume control buttons for multimedia. Slide the switch to presenter mode, and those same buttons now start and stop your presentation, advance through the slides and activate the laser pointer.

Targus Multimedia Presentation Remote

You can use the SlimBlade to control your computer's cursor during a presentation, but you have to put it on a surface like any other mouse. The Targus Multimedia Presentation Remote ($69.99), on the other hand, lets you play "air mouse," moving your cursor from where you stand. In addition to the standard presentation control buttons, it also has a volume control. One nice touch: The USB receiver dongle nestles in the unit's battery compartment, making it harder to lose.

Note: If you make presentations using Keynote on a Mac, you can use your iPhone or iPod Touch to control presentations with Apple's Keynote Remote app (99 cents). Keynote Remote does not work with Microsoft's PowerPoint presentation software.

Multidevice Charger

Everybody knows the pain of trying to find room on a power strip for yet another mobile device charger, and when you have to share an outlet with roommates, the struggle gets even worse. What you need is a multi-unit charging device that can handle your phone, MP3 player, portable game system and so on while taking up only one plug.

Callpod Chargepod

A good choice is Callpod's Chargepod , a sort of power strip in its own right. With the proper cable adapters, it can charge up to six devices at once while letting you stash your wall warts in the closet.

The Chargepod is available for $49.95 with the central unit, a travel case and three adapters (mini USB, micro USB, and iPod/iPhone) plus a voucher for one more adapter; $59.95 gets the same package with a voucher for three additional adapters. The company claims that the unit will support more than 3,000 devices (though not a laptop or other "large electronic devices") -- check to make sure yours are on the list.

Powermat

Slicker but more expensive is the Powermat . With the Powermat, you don't even need to plug your devices into the charger: You just lay them on the mat. (The mat has to be plugged into the wall, of course.)

The Home and Office Mat and the Portable Mat (which comes with a travel case) each cost $99.99 and can accommodate up to three devices at once. The truly pricey part, though, are the receiver cases you have to add to your devices to enable them to charge wirelessly. Those are available only for iPhones/iPods, BlackBerries and the Nintendo DS, and they cost $29.99 and up.

If you have a device for which there's no case (or don't want to spring for a case), you can use the Powercube receiver, a universal charger that sits on the Powermat and comes with both the mat models mentioned above. You plug your device into the Powercube using one of the eight included adapter tips, from mini and micro USB to iPods and iPhones (additional tips are available at extra cost -- $6.49 to $8.49 each).

Of course, if you're planning on using wired adapters, you might want to just get a Chargepod.

Toshiba Dynadock V

Student housing, whether in the dorms or in cheap apartments, isn't known for its spaciousness, and you'll often find yourself working at a small, cluttered desk. Toshiba's Dynadock V docking station (list price $119.99, currently on sale for $79.99) eliminates some of that clutter and makes it easy to disconnect your laptop when you need to take it somewhere and reconnect it when you get back.

Sort of like a USB hub on steroids, the Dynadock connects to just about any laptop through a USB cable and provides four other USB ports, including one that stays on for charging portable devices even if the computer's asleep. But USB ports aren't the only connections the Dynadock provides. It also has a 10/100 Ethernet port, a microphone jack and a speaker/headphone jack. So you can leave all your peripherals, even your router, attached to the Dynadock and reconnect your laptop with a single cable.

On top of that, it comes with a built-in DisplayLink graphics card, which can support an external monitor at up to 1920-by-1080 resolution. That means you could get up to three screens going: the built-in laptop screen, an external monitor attached to the laptop and a third one attached to the Dynadock.

Note: The Dynadock officially supports laptops running Windows 7 (32- or 64-bit), Vista SP1 (32- or 64-bit) and XP SP2/SP3 (32-bit). Mac users can download the DisplayLink driver from the vendor's site, but certain features might not work properly.

Mini-projector

Most of your presentations will be from your laptop, connected to projectors supplied by the school. But sometimes you just want to show a smaller group -- whether a seminar or a group of friends -- a slide show or a video without making them crowd around a computer.

For that, you can connect your digital video camera, iPod or iPhone to a personal portable projector like the Optoma PK100 Pico Pocket Projector (listed at $159.99, but often available for less). Measuring just 2 in. by 4 in. and weighing only 4 oz. (with battery), the DLP-based PK100 can project an image from 10 inches to 8.5 feet away at a size up to 59 inches.

The thing to know, though, is that it doesn't attach to your computer. It has a 2.5mm composite video/stereo jack and comes with a cable that connects to the standard yellow-red-white jacks from devices such as digital video cameras. An optional iPod connector kit ($39.99) lets you attach an iPod or iPhone via the dock and includes a spare battery.

Targus Lap Chill Mat laptop cooler

Keeping your laptop from overheating is an important way to protect your most valuable (and expensive) academic tool, and that's where laptop coolers come in. We like the Targus Lap Chill Mat ($39.99), which is thoughtfully constructed of cushiony neoprene with built-in rubber stops to hold your laptop. The wedge design lets you orient your computer the way you like. (Targus' photos show the laptop angled toward the user, but ergonomics experts would probably recommend angling it away.)

The Lap Chill Mat's two fans blow your laptop's excess heat out the side; another advantage of the open wedge design is that it gives the hot air someplace to go. Just make sure you get the Lap Chill Mat and not the plain-old Chill Mat, which is not as cushy and won't feel as comfortable in your lap.

Stored media player

You no doubt have hard drives filled with media of various sorts -- music, movies, photos -- but you don't always want to access them through your computer. It's nice to be able to watch your videos on a real TV or listen to your music through a decent stereo without running wires or dragging your laptop over to where the entertainment system is.

Seagate GoFlex TV HD media player

That's the purpose of the Seagate GoFlex TV HD media player ($129.99). It attaches to your TV and stereo (it works with an HDMI cable, as well as composite and component video) and lets you play anything on a USB storage device, controlling it with a remote through menus on the TV. Options include media on a hard drive, photos on a digital camera or video on a camcorder.

The TV HD is part of Seagate's newish GoFlex line of storage devices and has a built-in slot for one of the line's ultraportable drives. You can also add a Wi-Fi adapter ($49.99) that enables you to stream media from your computer or the Internet. With the adapter, for example, you can watch YouTube or Netflix videos on your TV.

Sprint's Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot On-the-go hot spot

Just a few years ago, finding a Wi-Fi signal could be a challenge, and there was a strong market for devices that could point you to one. Now, though, Wi-Fi hot spots are everywhere, especially on campus, and Wi-Fi finders are commodity trinkets -- you can get them for under $10 with built-in flashlights (tip: the flashlight won't help you find the Wi-Fi signal), on keychains or in bulk imprinted with your school's mascot or logo of your choice.

But when you find yourself out of hot-spot range and need Internet access -- maybe you live off campus or are on a road trip -- what do you do? If you have a mobile phone with a 3G data plan, you can bring a mobile hot spot with you. What's more, you can share it with your friends.

Novatel MiFi 2200 Mobile Hot Spot

Verizon and Virgin Mobile both offer the Novatel MiFi 2200 -- it's $149.99 from Virgin with a pay-as-you-go Broadband2Go plan ($20 to $60 per month), and as low as $19.99 from Verizon with the current online discount and a two-year contract for MiFi ($40 to $60 per month). This palm-size gadget lets you connect up to five Wi-Fi-enabled devices at the same time; they'll access the Internet at 3G speeds within a range of up to 30 feet.

Sprint offers the similar Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot by Sierra Wireless, which, as the name suggests, can work with the carrier's 4G network where available. The Overdrive supports up to five Wi-Fi devices within a range of up to 150 feet. It's pricier, though, starting at $99.99 with the current online discount and two-year contract.

Cradlepoint CTR500 Mobile Broadband Travel Router

On the other hand, if you already have a cellular modem for your laptop (either ExpressCard or USB) plus a data plan, you can share that signal by plugging it into a Cradlepoint PHS300 Personal WiFi Hotspot ($179.99) or CTR500 Mobile Broadband Travel Router ($199.99). The former is battery-operated but works only with USB modems; the latter also accepts ExpressCard modems but requires an external power source. Both can be used with a wall or car adapter and support up to 16 simultaneous users within a range of up to 150 feet.

All of these products include password protection with WEP/WPA/WPA2 encryption and are compatible with 802.11b/g Wi-Fi devices.

Flash Drives with Labels

You wouldn't think there'd be much to differentiate one USB flash drive from another these days -- and for the most part, you'd be right. But a couple of companies have come up with a head-slappingly obvious innovation: labels on the drives that you can write on. Whether you label them "school" and "home" or "English" and "history," it's handy to have a way to identify a drive's contents without having to plug it in.

Flash drives you can write on from HP and PNY

HP's Write Label drives ($14.99 each) hold 4GB and come in blue, red or plum. They're available only at Staples, so if there's a store near you, you're in luck. You can also order them online, but shipping will add another 50% to the price -- that's a lot to pay for a label.

PNY also makes a label-toting flash drive, the Label Attaché . It comes in 2GB and 4GB versions with red, blue, gray or purple labels. These are available at several popular mail-order electronics stores and online discount shopping outlets -- just use your favorite shopping search engine to find the best deal. Prices with tax and shipping vary, but you should be able to pick up a 4GB model for about $15 total.

Kodak Pulse Digital Photo Frame

There are a lot of digital photo frames out there, so what makes the Kodak Pulse ($129.99) special? The fact that it's Internet- and Wi-Fi-enabled and has its own e-mail address. That means you can transfer photos to it from your computer wirelessly and send new photos to it from your mobile phone as soon as you take them. In addition, the Pulse has a USB port and two card slots for more standard ways of adding images.

Better, the connectivity options mean you can get photos from family and friends without having to do anything. Mom can send you the photos of the latest family gathering, or -- maybe better -- your BFF from high school can send you shots of her latest escapades, just by e-mailing them right to the frame. You can also link the Pulse to your friends' Facebook profiles and receive new photos they upload. A digital photo frame that surprises you with new pictures -- that's pretty special.

E-book reader

Amazon's Kindle

We're quite taken with Amazon's third-generation Kindle -- not least because of its new price point. Last year we recommended the then-new Kindle DX, but at $489 it was firmly in the "ask your parents" section. This year, the new 6-in. Kindle comes in at a relatively modest $139 ($189 with 3G in addition to Wi-Fi), an amount conceivably within a student's budget.

We don't really need to explain the benefits of an e-reader: It gives you the ability to carry thousands of books in an 8.7 oz., 4.8-by-7.5-in. package. The new model is easier to hold and use than the old one, and the display is brighter and crisper.

One alternative to a dedicated e-reader would, of course, be an Apple iPad; the several excellent e-book apps available make it a decent e-reader on top of its wireless Web abilities. At $499 and up -- way up -- the iPad is definitely outside the range of our student budget. But we've noticed that the people who want an iPad want an iPad regardless. Who are we to stop them?

Jake Widman is a freelance technology writer in San Francisco.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

Subscribe to the Best of PCWorld Newsletter

Comments