These days a tablet or smartphone is as essential for college students as a backpack, a meal plan, and extra long twin sheets. But it’s not the hardware that’s so important—it’s the apps. Load up your mobile device with handy apps for taking notes, sharing files, recording lectures, managing your tasks, and (of course) reading books, and your road to the Dean’s list will be a little less bumpy.
Google Play Books
Did you know you could rent textbooks on Google Play, instead of buying them? You get to keep them for 180 days, and you don’t even need an Android tablet to read them and take notes—Google Play Books is available for iPhone and iPads as well as Android devices.
With their convenient size and long battery life, tablets and phones are perfect for reading your books—and think of how much lighter your backpack will be. If you desperately need to read a textbook on your laptop, you can even download a PDF, although restrictions make this less than ideal. Not having to spend hundreds of dollars on books you might read once—or worse, expensive books that the professor only assigns one chapter of—is the very definition of “ideal.” A definition you can even get inside the Google Play Books app.
The ultimate note-taking app, Evernote is perfect for students. You can digitize and search notes you took on paper. It’s fully cross-platform, with an app for every device and an extension for every browser. And it’s incredibly powerful.
The Evernote apps for the iPhone, Windows Phone, and Android have some unique skills, too. You can use the device’s camera to create a new note by snapping a picture, say, of a classmate’s notes, or the office hours posted on your professor’s door. Any text visible in those images becomes searchable, and Evernote can also keep track of where each picture was taken, too. Tons and tons of other apps let you save things to your Evernote account—a few of our favorites include Drafts for iOS, the cross-platform image-annotation tool Skitch, and the wildly flexible IFTTT.
Dragon NaturallySpeaking for PC and Dragon Dictate for Mac are extremely powerful speech-to-text tools that will let you dictate your notes and research papers instead of typing them word by word. They learn your voice to improve accuracy over time, and handy transcription features can even attempt to turn an audio file of a recorded lecture into text.
The free companion app, Dragon Remote Microphone for iOS and Android turns your phone into a wireless microphone, perfect for pacing circles around your tiny dorm room muttering about 19th century French literature. If you can stammer out a first draft at least, you’ll avoid the dread of staring at a blank page trying not to think of the term “writer’s block.”
The built-in voice recorder can capture your lecture or small-group discussion, while you jot down notes that are automatically synced up to the recording. Later you can just tap a note to jump to that part of the recording. That means you no longer have to worry about scribbling down everything important that’s said, and you can be more present in the discussion instead of focusing on taking detailed notes. You can email the notes and audio files together or separately.
Quickoffice Pro HD
But if you really need to create and edit Microsoft Office files (that’s Word docs, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations) on the go, it’s just the thing you need. Quickoffice integrates with Google Drive, Dropbox, Evernote, Box, SugarSync, and a few more cloud services, so wherever you park your files, you’ll be able to access, edit, and share them with this app. And while the interfaces take a little while to get used to, they’re well designed and generally free of clutter. Now that Google purchased Quickoffice, it’s coming to Chrome too.
ZotPad and Zandy
Our roundup of must-have desktop software for students includes Zotero, a cross-platform tool for managing a library of scholarly articles and creating citations from them to insert into your own research papers. Guess what? There’s a mobile app for that too.
ZotPad, $10 for iOS, lets you access anything in your Zotero library from your iPhone or iPad, syncing via the Zotero server, your own WebDAV server, or even Dropbox. It’s a great way to keep up with your reading while you’re commuting to and from campus.
Do we really have to tell you to get Dropbox? Hopefully not, but if you've managed to get this far without Dropbox…you should still get Dropbox. You’ll get 2GB of cloud storage for free, and it’s probably the most versatile service out there for syncing data between your desktop, mobile, and dozens of compatible apps.
Dropbox makes sharing files easy too—the other people in your study group don’t even need to be Dropbox users to send you files over the service, but if they’re smart enough to get into college, they probably have Dropbox too. Sign up for an account and grab mobile apps for your Android, iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, and Kindle Fire.
Juggling multiple deadlines and learning how to manage your time is one of the biggest practical skills you can learn in college—no matter what your major, think of yourself as a project manager in training, because that’s essentially what you are. So you’ll need a killer to-do list, and Wunderlist is one of our favorites. It looks great, works across all platforms, and strikes a balance between its rich feature set and uncluttered, easily understood interface.
You can get free apps for iOS and Android, plus a handy Chrome extension and of course the Web app, Pokki version, and native clients for Mac and Windows too. You can spring for a Pro account ($5 a month or $50 a year) to add files, assign tasks to other team members, but for most students the free account will suffice. We especially love its ability to create new tasks from email messages.