Back to school

11 cool back-to-school tech tools

Equip yourself for a successful year with these campus tech tools, including an innovative note-taking pen, a laptop-friendly backpack and a clever space-saving power strip.

Cool Back-to-School Tools [2015]
Credit: Thinkstock
Back-to-school tech 2015

What, August already? Must be time to start gathering school supplies. These days, of course, that doesn't mean just the notebooks, pencils and other analog tools you'll find at the local superstore -- it means digital technology of all sorts.

For that reason, every August we track down a selection of such tools to help with studying, communicating and other demands of student life. Here you'll find everything from a tiny but powerful Bluetooth speaker to a handy portable charger to a scholarship-finding app that just might turn out to be the smartest 99 cents you've ever invested.

As ever, we keep the demands of the student budget in mind: The following 11 items average around $60, even without online discounts you might find, and the most expensive item is $170.

HGST Touro S 1TB portable hard drive
Credit: HGST
HGST Touro S 1TB portable hard drive

Four years is a long time in computer years, especially for a computer used in a dorm or classroom environment. Sooner or later something bad will happen, like your laptop crashing a week before finals. Having an emergency backup is just one of the reasons any student needs a high-capacity external hard drive, and we like the 1TB HGST Touro S (HGST stands for Hitachi Global Storage Technologies).

Weighing about 5 oz., the Touro S operates at 7200 rpm, the same speed as an internal drive and 23% faster than the typical 5400 rpm portable drive. Between that and its USB 3.0 compatibility, it can keep up with the demands of modern computers. Not only that, it comes with 3 GB of cloud storage, giving remote access to your most-needed files from anywhere via a browser.

The sturdy 3.2-x-4.5-x-0.5-in. aluminum enclosure is available in available in red, gold, silver and black. List price is $100, but you can usually find it at online resellers for prices starting around $70 or $80. (At Amazon, the price varies by the color you pick.)

PowerCubes
Credit: Allocacoc
PowerCube outlet adapter

A compact outlet-multiplier, especially one with built-in USB ports, is a welcome attachment to any student's desk. The fully grounded PowerCube eliminates your need to constantly shuffle chargers for a tablet, e-reader, smartphone and/or handheld game player, all the while finding outlet space for a lamp, a heater or fan and yes, sometimes even a vacuum cleaner.

The PowerCube Original turns one AC outlet into five, while the PowerCube Original USB replaces one of those outlets with two USB ports that supply enough amps to charge an iPad. The PowerCube Extended and PowerCube Extended USB models come with a built-in extension cord (in 5-ft. or 10-ft. lengths) and a mounting bracket for locating the unit on a wall or under a desk. You can even chain two PowerCubes together, giving you a wide range of flexible plug-in options.

Prices range from $13 for the basic PowerCube up to $30 for the PowerCube Extended USB with 10-ft. cord; various combo packs are also available for $25 to $40.

iKlip Grip
Credit: IK Multimedia
iKlip Grip phone tripod/stabilizer

You might be surprised at how often a mini-tripod, monopod or selfie stick will come in handy in your student life. The iKlip Grip ($60) is all those things at once and includes a spring-loaded bracket that can hold your smartphone (screen size 3.5 to 6 in., plus case) at any angle.

You can use the iKlip Grip as a tabletop tripod to hold your smartphone for close-up photography or video projects, or for having hands-free video chats with friends and family. Use the monopod to stabilize your phone while shooting interviews or field reports for class projects. (Judiciously) hold the selfie stick high to get Snapchat shots over the heads of the other people at a concert.

Or mount the monopod on the tabletop tripod to get a full-height angle for group photos -- with you in them. The capper is the included Bluetooth remote control (compatible with both iOS and Android) that lets you operate the camera from more than 30 feet away.

Neo smartpen N2
Credit: NeoLAB Convergence
Neo smartpen N2

The most extravagant (yet highly useful) item on our list is the Neo smartpen N2. It looks like an ordinary pen, but the $169 N2 works with special notebooks and the iOS or Android Notes app to capture digital copies of whatever you write or draw. The app lets you organize your notes into multiple notebooks, and it can even convert your handwriting into plain text, making the notes searchable. Saving your notes to your computer lets you work with them offline and without your mobile device.

You can automatically sync your notes with Evernote or share them via social media, and you can send an email just by drawing a checkmark on the paper symbol in the notebook. The only real downside is the need to buy the special notebooks, which can run $20 for five spiral-bound ones to $20 for a single hardcover notebook.

Sony SRS-X11 Ultra-Portable Bluetooth speaker
Credit: Sony
Sony Ultra-Portable Bluetooth Speaker

The Sony SRS-X11 Bluetooth speaker ($70) is an excellent lightweight speaker for whenever you may need it -- and a student needs a speaker more often than you might expect. At only about 2½ inches on a side and weighing less than 8 oz., the cube-shaped 10-watt speaker is full of handy features. For starters, it's got a rechargeable battery that lasts for 12 hours. As well as offering a 3.5mm jack for direct connection, it can be paired wirelessly via either Bluetooth or NFC. If you have a second SRS-X11, you can pair them for stereo output.

On top of all that, it can also function as a speakerphone, so your class-project group can easily communicate with that one member who just happens to be "sick" the day of your meeting. The SRS-X11 comes in white, black, red, blue or pink and has a handy carrying strap. (Sony has announced that its online store will be shutting down soon, but the SRS-X11 is available through many online retailers.)

Ventev Powercell 3015c portable charger
Credit: Ventev
Ventev Powercell 3015c portable charger

There is literally nothing worse than having your phone go dead halfway through your day and not having any way to charge it, leaving you with nothing to do but pay attention to the lecture. The Ventev 3015c battery charger with Apple Lightning cable ($50) puts a backup battery in your backpack that will give you a boost of up to 12 hours when your phone starts to fade. The lightweight 3015c comes with its own handy built-in cable, so the only thing you have to remember is the charger itself.

According to Ventev, a version of the 3015c with a micro USB cable for Android devices is coming soon.

Native Union Key Cable
Credit: Native Union
Native Union Key Cable

Phone out of juice and you forgot your battery backup? Here's something you won't forget: the Native Union Key Cable ($30), a charging cable that's also a keychain. As long as you have your keys with you, you'll have a USB charging cable with either an Apple Lightning or a Micro USB connector.

Just find any computer on campus when you have an hour to kill, plug your phone into the Key Cable and the Key Cable into the computer's USB port, and charge your phone for the rest of the day. Given the Key Cable's thermoplastic and braided nylon construction (in red, blue or "zebra"), it should last the rest of your academic career.

eBags eTech 2.0 Downloader Laptop Backpack
Credit: eBags
eBags eTech 2.0 Downloader Laptop Backpack

Every student needs a backpack -- that's one of the basics. "But why would anyone buy anything other than a $25 Jansport?" you ask. Here's why: Because having more than two pockets in a backpack is like carrying along an umbrella on a cloudy day. You might not need it, but you'll be glad you have it.

The eTech 2.0 Downloader Laptop Backpack gives you more than four times as many compartments for all the stuff you carry, and the pockets are lined in orange to make that stuff easier to find. eBags also provides a special padded laptop pocket with a Velcro clasp at the top to keep your computer from shifting in transit, plus a removable foam pad for added protection. At $50 for the olive model at the time of writing ($60 for the plum one), eBags provides a durable, organizable laptop bag for your everyday student travels.

Transcend JetFlash 710 SuperSpeed USB 3.0 flash drive
Credit: Transcend
Transcend JetFlash 710 SuperSpeed USB 3.0 flash drive

The JetFlash 710 is a tiny (0.88-x-0.48-x-0.24-in.), low-cost, large-capacity flash drive. The metal case (available in silver or gold) keeps it resistant to dust and water while making it look cool, and a slot in the case lets you attach it to your key ring. That gives you a flash drive with you at all times, if you want to carry it; but it's also so tiny that you can leave it plugged into your laptop or USB-equipped car stereo without having it stick out and get in the way. You do have to be careful, though, because it can get hot.

It comes in capacities from 8 to 64GB (64GB in something less than an inch long!). At the time of writing, on Amazon they're priced from $10 for 16GB up to $25 for 64GB; CDW has the 8GB model for $8.

Kensington KP400 Switchable Keyboard
Credit: Kensington
Kensington KP400 Switchable Keyboard

Sometimes you need to type on your computer; sometimes you need to type on your tablet. With the KP400 Switchable Keyboard ($60), you can do both (not at the same time, of course). A simple key press on this clever keyboard lets you switch between its wired connection to a desktop or laptop computer and a Bluetooth connection to an Android or iOS device (or a second computer for programmers and others who go back and forth between two computers).

The full-size keyboard is rated to work with Windows 7, 8, and 8.1, but it also works fine with a Mac -- it's just that some of the special keys, like PrtScn, won't do anything, and to set it up initially you'll have to use System Preferences to swap the Alt and Windows keys to match the Mac's Command-Option setup.

The keyboard is powered through its detachable USB cable or by batteries, and you can switch the Bluetooth off to save battery power when you're not using it.

Scholly: Scholarship Search app
Credit: Scholly
Scholly: Scholarship Search app

Higher education is expensive, and the smart student is always looking for ways to defray the cost. Scholly, a 99-cent app for both iOS and Android, as well as free on the Web, could end up paying for itself thousands of times over.

With Scholly, you enter the filters that correspond to your situation, such as intended major, gender, ethnicity and what state you live in, and it'll return a list of scholarships that you might qualify for, along with details such as application deadlines. According to co-founder and CEO Christopher Gray, who convinced the investors on TV's Shark Tank to back Scholly to the tune of $40,000, the app has helped students raise more than $15 million in scholarships in less than two years.

This is planning for the future -- the scholarship application grind mostly comes after the fall school application frenzy. But it's never too early to start thinking about how you're going to pay for it all.

Looking for more student-friendly apps and gear? Check out our back-to-school tech roundups from 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.

Jake Widman is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to Computerworld. Liam Widman is a recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz.