That time of year is, inevitably, here again—that time humans ages seven to 21 dread but their parents love. Every back-to-school season sends would-be students scrambling to figure out what things they need to make another year of education as streamlined as possible, and those solutions can look different for each and every student.
We at Ars may not be on the receiving end of formal education very often anymore, but we constantly come across gadgets and other items that we wish we had when we were in school. There are also plenty of devices that we’ve tested in recent months that would make a great addition to any high-schooler’s or college student’s backpack. So if you’re still looking for an essential back-to-school gadget for yourself, or for the student in your life, check out the list of Ars-approved devices below.
Table of Contents
- Dell XPS 13
- Budget option—Asus Chromebook Flip C434
- Tablet or e-reader
- Apple iPad mini
- Budget option—Amazon Kindle Paperwhite
- iPhone XR
- Budget option—Google Pixel 3a
- Apple Watch
- Budget option—Fitbit Versa Lite
- Wireless charger
- Belkin Boost Up Charging Stand
- Budget option—RavPower RP-PC064
- Portable SSD
- Samsung T5
- Budget option—G-Drive Mobile
- USB-C connector
- VAVA USB-C Hub
- Budget option—Nonda USB-C adapter
- Bluetooth speaker
- Tribit StormBox
- Premium option—Marshall Kilburn II
- Bluetooth headphones
- Sony WH-1000XM3
- Budget option—Mpow H10
- Power bank
- ZMI PowerPack 20000
- Budget option—Aukey PB-Y13
- Wall charger
- Nekteck 4-port 72W USB Wall Charger
- Portable option—Nekteck 60W Type-C Wall Charger
- Media streamer
- Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
- Premium option—Apple TV 4K
Note: Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.
Dell XPS 13
Our current favorite Windows ultrabook is a great option for students who need a compact, attractive machine with a lot of power. The Dell XPS 13 packs a lot into its 13-inch frame, and arguably the best thing is that most of those are customizable. You can configure it with up to a Core i7 processor, up to 16GB of RAM, up to 2TB of storage, and 4K and touchscreen panel options. That means you can get exactly what you want (and nothing you don’t want) in the XPS 13 or spend only what your budget will allow. We also like this ultrabook’s power button that has an embedded fingerprint reader for biometric authenticity. Its nearly 13-hour battery life doesn’t hurt, either.
Dell XPS 13
Budget option—Asus Chromebook Flip C434
Compared to the nearly $1,000 XPS 13, the $569 Asus Chromebook Flip C434 is much more accessible both in terms of price and usability. It’s our current favorite Chromebook for good reason—it’s an updated version of the Chromebook Flip C302CA, and it has a more professional and sleek design, a larger touchscreen, additional connectivity options, better performance, and longer battery life.
It may be on the expensive side of the Chromebook spectrum, but it’s still not the most expensive Chromebook you could get. And all of the upgrades Asus added to this version make it well worth the price. It’s a solid machine for students who need an easy-to-use, all-purpose laptop that’s ideal for online or cloud-based work.
Chromebook Flip C434
Tablet or e-reader
Apple iPad mini
Regardless of the field of study, any student can get use out of an iPad mini. iPads of all sizes are versatile, but the mini is a particularly good option for students because of its size and relatively low price tag of $399. The iPad mini is around the same size as a traditional e-reader or paperback book, making it easy to slip into a bag or backpack to tote around campus. With its various storage capacities, it can hold thousands of e-textbooks, PDFs, and other class materials, and it can even audio-record lectures if you’re using the right note-taking app. The newest model also supports the Apple Pencil, so the iPad mini could be your student’s main note-taking device. Some will always prefer the larger screen of the newest iPad, but we think an iPad mini has the right balance of size, features, and price for students.
Apple iPad mini
Budget option—Amazon Kindle Paperwhite
If an iPad sits outside your budget, a Kindle Paperwhite is a good alternative that only costs $129. It supports a variety of file types, and its E-Ink display is easier on the eyes than most tablets’ LCD panels. That aspect may be key for some students who find themselves poring over reading materials for hours and suffer from eye fatigue.
It’s just as easy to go paperless with a Kindle Paperwhite as well, thanks to its 8GB and 32GB storage options. Either of those configurations will hold thousands of textbooks, so students can carry just one 6.4-ounce device with them instead of multiple chunky books. Kindle’s built-in software also lets you take quick notes, highlight passages, and do more to “mark up” digital books so students can study more easily. To complement the Kindle Paperwhite itself, students can also download the Kindle app to their smartphone or computer, making it easy to access all class materials from any device.
Amazon Kindle Paperwhite
There are many reasons the iPhone XR has been the best-selling iPhone since its release. While the iPhone XS and XS Max are high-end, glossy, and everything you’d expect an over-$1,000 smartphone to be, the iPhone XR gives you all the necessary features that you would find in both of those more expensive handsets. It has Apple’s new TrueDepth technology, Face ID, an edge-to-edge display, an A12 Bionic chipset, and solid rear- and front-facing cameras. (The rear camera on the XS and XS Max is slightly better, but the iPhone XR takes fantastic photos nonetheless.) But arguably the best feature of the XR, especially for students, is its superb battery life: in our tests, it lasted 2.5 hours longer than the iPhone XS Max and nearly three hours longer than the iPhone XS.
Budget option—Google Pixel 3a
If you’d rather save some cash for textbooks, Google’s Pixel 3A is an excellent value for $400 outright. Its camera is almost identical to that of the full Pixel 3, which means it’s excellent in all lighting conditions and an obscene value at this price. Similarly, the 5.6-inch OLED display is more vibrant than most panels in this price range. The gently rounded sides are easy to hold, and the 3,000 mAh battery is enough to get through a typical day without trouble. Like all Pixel phones, it has a bloat-free layer of Android with priority access to three years of software updates. There’s even a headphone jack.
It’s not water-resistant, its plastic design doesn’t feel as nice as pricier phones, and its Snapdragon 670 chip, while still speedy for most purposes, isn’t as powerful or future-proof as what you’d get in a true flagship smartphone in 2019. But that’s all relative: for $400, this is a better Android phone than many alternatives that cost twice as much.
Google Pixel 3A
Smartwatches are great tools for keeping your smartphone at bay, and the Apple Watch is the best one to get if you have an iPhone. If the student in your life is constantly looking at their smartphone, an Apple Watch can help alleviate that by delivering all smartphone alerts to their wrist. That way, any student knows when to answer an urgent text from mom or dad and when to ignore the “like” on their latest Instagram post. The Apple Watch can also display pertinent information like calendar events and weather forecasts on its watch faces, removing even more reasons you’d whip out your smartphone. Fitness enthusiasts and athletes will like its powerful workout tracking features as well, but all students can use its daily activity tracking abilities to know when they should take a break from studying and go outside for a walk.
Apple Watch Series 4
Budget option—Fitbit Versa Lite
At less than half the price of an Apple Watch Series 4 lies the Fitbit Versa Lite, a pared-down version of the Fitbit Versa smartwatch. The Versa Lite provides a lot of value in its $129 price tag—it’s a great activity and sleep tracker, it displays smartphones alerts, it has a connected GPS feature for mapping outdoor runs, and it has on-screen music controls. We also like Fitbit’s mobile app because it makes it easy for newbies to see all their fitness data and change settings like watch faces, alerts, and timers on the Versa Lite. Despite its sacrifices (mostly in advanced features like NFC, onboard music, and Wi-Fi), the Versa Lite gets the basic features every smartwatch should have right.
Fitbit Versa Lite
Belkin Boost Up Charging Stand
What makes Belkin’s Boost Up Charging Stand great for students is its angled base that lets you charge your smartphone in a vertical or horizontal position. Maybe that sounds like a small perk, but in practice it’s delightful. Not only does this lift a smartphone so it’s not flat (which makes it difficult to see what’s on its screen), but it also makes it easier to use a smartphone while it’s charging. We use our phones for everything today, so making it easier for students to use their smartphone as a bedside clock, a calculator, or a small e-reader for textbook reference while studying is worth the extra price. It also helps that the Boost Up Charging Stand uses the Qi charging standard to quickly power up most modern smartphones.
Belkin Boost Up Charging Stand
Budget option—RavPower RP-PC064
Students can never have enough chargers (how many cables has your child gone through over the years?), and RavPower’s RP-PC064 Qi wireless charger is a great value. It charges any smartphone with Qi compatibility quickly, averaging over at least 40% battery power after just one hour of charging. Its round body has a rubber circle on top that prevents smartphones from sliding off, and inside is “HyperAir” technology that disperses heat quickly so the accessory doesn’t get too hot. It’s our current favorite Qi wireless charger for all of those reasons, and it’s made even better by its included AC adapter and its $21 price tag.
The Samsung T5 portable SSD could be the best investment for a college-bound student; it’s something they can use for the next four years and beyond. Available in 500GB, 1TB, and 2TB capacities, this tiny SSD gives new meaning to the word “portable” with its 0.41×2.91×2.26-inch, shock-resistant body. Most adults could wrap their entire fist around it and the SSD would nearly disappear, making it the perfect size for crammed backpacks and schoolbags with little spare room.
It’s also fast—we’ve tested the T5 numerous times, and its transfer speeds up to 540MB/s, among other things, make it our current favorite USB-C portable SSD. It also comes with USB-C to C and USB-C to A cables, so nearly any PC can work with this device out of the box. Samsung included AES 256-bit hardware encryption to keep your data safe, and you can password-protect the T5 for an extra layer of protection. It’s a tiny storage solution that’s worth spending the money on, especially for students who will inevitably have dozens of digital projects, papers, and assignments to store.
Budget option—G-Drive Mobile
For those willing to sacrifice size and speed to get more storage, the G-Drive Mobile portable SSD is a great alternative to Samsung’s T5. While it’s super thin, it’s a larger rectangle than the T5. Aesthetically, its aluminum design is arguably just as attractive.
Like the T5, the G-Drive Mobile comes with a USB-C to C and a USB-C to A cable for ease of use regardless of your computer’s connectivity options. While it’s designed for Macs, it can be reformatted to work with Windows machines quite easily—and based on our testing, the transfer speeds on both operating systems are similar. But that’s the biggest downside to the G-Drive Mobile: it only supports transfer speeds up to 130MB/s. It’s not a slow-as-molasses SSD, but it’s noticeably slower when compared to the Samsung T5.
Admittedly, its larger size is an easier sacrifice to make, but that and its slower transfer speeds at least add up to a more affordable price tag. You can get a 4GB G-Drive Mobile for less than the cost of a 1TB Samsung T5.
VAVA USB-C Hub
If your new laptop doesn’t have nearly the number of ports you need to get things done, you’ll need an adapter like VAVA’s USB-C Hub. This slim, 4-inch block connects to one USB-C port and provides a host of other ports including three USB-A ports, SD and microSD card readers, a full-size HDMI port, and more. It doesn’t have a battery pack inside, but it does support up to 100W of power delivery—that means, with the right connecting cable, you can use this hub to charge your laptop while simultaneously connecting to other accessories and peripherals. We especially like it for students because it’s quite portable, and it had the fastest data transfer speeds of any travel-sized USB-C hub we’ve tested.
VAVA USB-C Hub
Budget option—Nonda USB-C adapter
If your connectivity needs are simpler than that, Nonda’s USB-C to A adapter might be ideal for you. It’s a small square that turns any USB-C port into a USB-A port, which will come in handy when you need to transfer data over from a flash drive or connect your favorite wireless mouse via a USB-A receiver. It may have been designed with MacBooks in mind, but it works well on both macOS and Windows systems. It also has a sturdy design that won’t come loose at the slightest touch, and we like its minuscule indicator light that clearly tells you when the adapter is properly connected and ready to work.
Nonda USB-C to USB 3.0 Adapter
Every dorm party is better with music, which is where a Bluetooth speaker comes in handy. The market is absolutely flooded with choices, but if you’re not sure which to get, try the Tribit StormBox. It has had four different names since it launched—it previously went by “X-Boom,” “MaxBoom,” and “360° Sound Speaker”—but it has always excelled at the fundamentals of a good portable speaker.
It sounds great, for one. It’s still a small device, so it can’t provide much in the way of sub-bass or soundstage, but it’s rich, balanced, and clear for what it is. It sends sound in all directions. While the cylindrical hardware looks basic, it’s easily portable (2.68×7.09×2.68 in., 1.2 lbs.) and waterproof (IPX7-rated). Figuring out how to use the giant playback buttons on the front is immediately obvious. Its battery life is solid at 9-10 hours, and it’ll remain connected from about 50 feet away if you ever need to leave the room.
There’s pretty much nothing in the way of extra features apart from a bass boost button that muddies up the sound. We also don’t like how the speaker charges over a dated microUSB port instead of USB-C. But those aren’t major issues, and for all the stuff that matters, the StormBox gives little to complain about. The kicker: it’s cheaper than the vast majority of speakers on its level.
Premium option—Marshall Kilburn II
The StormBox should be loud enough for most campus get togethers, but if you want a speaker that can supply serious volume for more crowded parties, we like the Marshall Kilburn II.
We’ll note the caveats first. The Kilburn II typically retails around $250, which is expensive for a Bluetooth speaker. It only has IPX2-rated water resistance, so it can’t withstand any more than a few drips of water. Its built-in strap makes it easy to carry from room to room, but it’s too large (9.57×6.42×5.51 in.) and heavy (5.5 lbs.) to fit comfortably in a bag. And while we like the guitar amp aesthetic—it’s to be expected given Marshall’s history—it’s not for everyone.
But that hefty frame can provide tons of volume, and the speaker won’t distort when the volume dial is cranked up. In general, its sound provides deeper bass than the StormBox (though still not tons of sub-bass), crisp highs, and clean mids. It’s a somewhat bright sound, so treble comes off well, but what bass is here isn’t muddy. There are a couple of knobs that let you emphasize and de-emphasize bass and treble as you see fit, too. Beyond that, the speaker lasts a good 15+ hours on a charge, and there’s a nifty indicator to show you how much battery life is left. We’d like it if the Kilburn II shaved off another $50, but as a stylish and portable speaker that can bring the noise wherever it goes, it’s worth a look.
Marshall Kilburn II
A good pair of noise-cancelling headphones is ideal for hunkering down, getting in the zone, and finishing assignments. There’s more competition in this market than there has been in years, but for now the Sony WH-1000XM3 is still our top choice. It has a fun, bass-rich sound, a wonderfully comfortable design, 20+ hours of battery life, and truly outstanding active noise-cancelling that’s still the most effective we’ve tested. It charges quickly over USB-C, and its companion app is legitimately useful, allowing you to customize the EQ of the sound and the amount of outside noise you let in.
The only major point of contention is its control scheme, which relies on a large touch panel on the side of the right ear cup. It works surprisingly well for what it is, but the physical buttons on a pair like the Bose QuietComfort 35 II are always more reliable, and many users have reported issues with the XM3’s touch inputs in cold weather. (We haven’t noticed that ourselves, though.)
It’s more or less a pick-em between the XM3 and the QC 35 II in general: the latter costs the same, is lighter, and has a default sound that’ll appeal more to those who prefer a more balanced profile. It charges over microUSB, though, and its sound isn’t as customizable. Bose’s new Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are great as well, particularly in terms of microphone quality, but they don’t do enough to justify being priced $50 higher. For most, the WH-1000XM3 will be a treat.
Budget option—Mpow H10
If you can’t drop the $300-350 needed for a top-of-the-line noise-cancelling headphone, the $65 Mpow H10 is a decent alternative for a fifth of the price. It’s a marked step down in active noise-cancelling quality, it feels much cheaper, and it sounds worse, particularly in its recessed mids. Activating its ANC takes a little depth out of the bass and adds some sibilance to the highs, too, making cymbals and “ess” sounds somewhat harsher sounding.
But its battery lasts north of 20 hours per charge, it’s light and padded enough to be comfortable, and its bass is surprisingly fantastic, adding plenty of oomph to tracks without feeling bloated. While its ANC will more readily let in voices and higher-pitched sounds, it still does well to cut out bassier rumbles. Don’t expect a revelation, but the H10 is about as good as you’ll get on a budget.
ZMI PowerPack 20000
A portable battery pack will keep a student’s devices from dying when it’s least convenient. There are several worthy options here, but for a beefier power bank that doesn’t sacrifice too much in the way of portability, we like the ZMI PowerPack 20000. This battery supplies up to 45W of power from its USB-C PD port, which is enough to charge new smartphones, an iPad Pro, or a Nintendo Switch at full speed, as well as a variety of 12- or 13-inch laptops with a USB-C charging port. It has a capacity of about 20,000mAh (or 74Wh), which is enough to charge an iPhone 7 about seven times, an iPhone XS about four times (with a USB-C to Lightning cable), and a 13-inch MacBook Pro once.
Alongside the USB-C port are two 12W USB-A ports, which are as powerful as those get. The pack weighs less than a pound and, while certainly thick (6.31×3.22×0.83 in.), isn’t as huge as most other power banks in its class. The battery itself recharges in about four hours with a 45W USB-C PD power adapter or 5-6 hours with an 18W adapter. (You need to supply the charger yourself either way, though.) It supports passthrough charging, so it can recharge other devices while it refills itself. Conveniently, it also doubles as a USB-C hub, so if you have a laptop with only one or two ports, you can plug the PowerPack in and use its USB-A ports to connect a mouse or external hard drive to your notebook.
Different laptops have different power demands, so we can’t say the PowerPack will be optimal for every notebook. Because the battery supports the Quick Charge 3.0 standard over its USB-C port, it’s technically not compliant with the USB-C spec either, which carries the possibility of compatibility issues down the road. But we’ve had no safety issues with it charging various USB-C devices over several months of testing. The PowerPack 20000’s power and versatility makes it a good value at $70.
ZMI PowerPack 20000
Budget option—Aukey PB-Y13
If you don’t need a power bank big enough to charge a laptop, the Aukey PB-Y13 is a good slim alternative. It supplies 18W of power through its USB-C PD port, but that’s still enough to charge most new smartphones at maximum speeds. (It supplies 12W to a Nintendo Switch, which isn’t the fastest charge possible but allows it to refuel while you play.) Surrounding the USB-C PD port is a pair of USB-A ports, including one that supports Quick Charge 3.0 for fast-charging various Android phones from Samsung, Motorola, and the like. It has a 10,000mAh (or 37Wh) capacity—enough to charge an iPhone XS a little more than twice—but it’s small (5.43×2.83×0.6 in.) and light (0.54 lbs.) enough to fit in a purse or jacket pocket without eating up much more space than a phone.
The catch is that it won’t fast-charge if you use more than one port simultaneously. It doesn’t totally support passthrough charging, either, and it comes with a USB-A to C cable instead of a more useful USB-C to C one. But for $35, it still gets you sturdy performance in a design that’s easy to carry outside the dorm.
Nekteck 4-port 72W USB Wall Charger
There’s less need for a portable battery when you’re already in the dorm, though. A good USB wall charger will suffice there, and for those charging needs we like Nekteck’s 4-port 72W USB Wall Charger. (Yes, its name is that direct.) It has a 60W USB-C PD port that can charge almost all 13- or 14-inch laptops at max speed, let alone all new smartphones and tablets. It can supply at least some power to many 15-inch laptops, too, though more demanding notebooks like Apple’s 15-inch MacBook Pro will require a bit more juice. Beyond that, there are three USB-A ports that supply a combined 12W of power—either individually or spread out across the trio—so you can still recharge a smartphone or Switch if the USB-C port is already in use. (Albeit, that doesn’t happen at max speeds.)
Notably, this charger is USB-IF certified, meaning it has been independently tested and approved by the body that maintains the USB spec. USB-IF certification isn’t a must to prove a USB-C device is reliable, but having it should ease any stress over its safety. It has worked effectively with every USB-C device we’ve thrown at it.
The charger doesn’t plug directly into an AC outlet, instead connecting via a four-foot power cord, so it’s meant to live on a desk. But it includes a three-foot USB-C cable in the box, and it’s not particularly large (3.14×3.74×1.97 in.), so it isn’t hard to pack up and move if needed. At $36, and frequently on sale for less than that, it’s very affordable for the performance provided.
Nekteck 4-port 72W USB Wall Charger
Portable option—Nekteck 60W Type-C Wall Charger
If you’d prefer a charger that plugs directly into an AC outlet, though, try Nekteck’s 60W Type-C Wall Charger. It loses the USB-A ports but has the same powerful 60W USB-C PD port that’ll work for phones and laptops alike. It’s not the smallest wall charger on the market (2.79×2.36×1.14 in.), but it’s far from bulky, its prongs are conveniently foldable, and it comes with a 6-foot USB-C to C cable. (Again, iPhone users will need to bring their own USB-C to Lightning cable to take advantage.) Like the 72W Nekteck charger above, it’s also USB-IF certified for safety. It’s sold for less than $30, which is less than similar wall chargers that don’t include a cable in the box.
Nekteck 60W Type-C Wall Charger
Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
College is a time for learning and experiencing, so ideally most students won’t spend too much time in front of the TV. But when it does come time to stream, Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K gets you a brawny piece of hardware at an affordable price. It is consistently quick to open apps, and its 802.11ac Wi-Fi support makes it more likely to keep things smooth while streaming. Its remote is straightforward, with dedicated volume and mute buttons. If your dorm has a 4K TV to handle it, the Fire TV Stick 4K supports HDR10, Dolby Vision, and HDR10+, all of which make compatible videos look richer and more realistic. (Save $10 and get the non-4K Fire TV Stick if you don’t plan to get a 4K TV soon, though.) Unlike most streamers, the device displays its menus in HDR as well.
To be clear, this isn’t a recommendation for everyone. The Fire TV Stick 4K’s primary competition is Roku’s Streaming Stick+—compared to that device’s tidy app-based interface, Amazon’s Fire TV OS is messy and redundant, sometimes displaying show and app icons multiple times in close proximity, with the occasional banner ad plopped in between. And because it’s primarily geared toward Amazon Prime subscribers, it lends more weight toward Prime Video content. There’s no word on support for the new Disney+ service, either, and it won’t have YouTube TV until later this year. But its Alexa-aided voice controls are far more robust, its list price is $10 cheaper, and those with higher-end TVs won’t get Dolby Vision with Roku. It’s more or less a pick-em between the two, but for now we like the Fire TV Stick 4K by a hair, particularly for those who won’t spend a ton of time scrolling through menus.
Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
Premium option—Apple TV 4K
The Apple TV 4K is absolutely not $129 better than the Fire TV Stick 4K, but if you’re willing to pay the Apple tax, it’ll give you a much cleaner user experience with hardware that’s even more featured. Apple’s 4K streamer has no major holes in its app library, and anything it is missing can usually be rectified through AirPlay. If you’re hanging on to an iTunes library, the Apple TV is the only streamer that can make use of it. The hardware is fast and powerful, with support for HDR10, the slightly more advanced Dolby Vision HDR, and, if you have a good set of speakers to go with your dorm TV, Dolby Atmos surround sound.
The Apple TV’s interface is far less cluttered than Fire OS and more visually appealing than Roku’s UI. It’s not loaded up with ads. Since Apple displays its menus in 4K HDR, it also looks crisp and vibrant. Siri on the Apple TV is genuinely useful as a voice search and app-opening tool. The big downsides are that it can’t stream YouTube in 4K (there’s no VP9 support) and its remote kind of sucks. The Fire TV Stick should suit most students fine, but Apple has the better blend of power and intuitiveness. And again, if you don’t have a 4K TV, get the non-4K model.
Apple TV 4K