The back-to-school season has a different feel now than in the pre-pandemic days. Today, hybrid learning is a given for many students, and having a reliable computer is table stakes for even grade schoolers, not just high school and college students.
Besides a laptop, Chromebook or tablet, students are likely to need gear for virtual meetings, some fun stuff to blow off a little steam and shockingly, some might even need a printer. Try as we might, the need to print out papers or documents hasn’t completely gone away yet.
The expert picks below are a great way to get started on your back-to-school shopping.
Best laptop to get you through four years of college
Apple MacBook Air
Now available in both 13-inch and 15-inch versions, the MacBook Air remains one of the most universally useful computers anyone can buy. They’re especially popular with students, who appreciate the ease of use of MacOS, the slim, sleek design, and the fact that a solidly built MacBook can get you through several years of school.
Note that this is still a hefty investment, at $1,099 for the current 13-inch version and $1,299 for the new 15-inch version.
Best budget hybrid for students
Dell Inspiron 14 2-in-1
Don’t fall for sub-$500 doorbuster laptops, they’ll just leave you disappointed and you’ll be shopping for a new one sooner than you think. If you need a full, non-Chromebook laptop, and don’t want to spend more than $1,000 on a MacBook, get something practical, sturdy and big enough to be your all-day, every day computer. A great example of that is something like the AMD-powered Dell Inspiron 14 2-in-1.
Starting at $799, it’s a 14-inch clamshell laptop that converts to a tablet, thanks to a 360-degree hybrid hinge. That makes it good for research and writing, but also note-taking, streaming video and other tablet tasks.
Best budget phone
iPhone SE or Samsung Galaxy A14
The top-tier new iPhones start at over $1,000, while Samsung’s newest fancy folding phone is a whopping $1,800. Fortunately, there are cheaper decent alternatives out there without resorting to a no-name throwaway burner phone.
The $429 iPhone SE, while trapped in a dated hardware design, is Apple’s least-expensive iPhone, and will do if you need access to iOS apps, Messages and other Apple-centric features. Meanwhile, the Samsung Galaxy A14 is a decent-looking phone for $200, and one of the least-expensive 5G phones you’ll find anywhere.
Best E Ink screen for reading textbooks or taking notes
Amazon Kindle Scribe
The premium-priced 10.2-inch Kindle Scribe is one of the larger E Ink screens you can buy, and it may not feel like a must-have along with basic gear like a laptop or printer. But for some students it’s an invaluable tool, allowing for the easy storage and reading of textbooks, as well as one of the most natural writing and note-taking experiences I’ve had on a tablet.
It’s $339, which is about as much as a basic iPad. But for a pure reading experience, it’s hard to beat, and the price includes a basic stylus. My biggest complaint is that a nicer premium stylus and magnetic screen cover are sold separately, at $60 each.
Best printer that won’t drive you crazy
This Brother model is the only printer I’ve ever owned that I didn’t want to throw out of a window. In fact, I purchased another one for my mother to use, and one for my ski cabin. Even if you don’t choose this exact model (there’s a color version that’s also pretty good), my general advice is always get a laser printer, never inkjet. And always buy third-party toner refills, they’re so much cheaper and generally work fine – check out some Amazon reviews to see which toner brands are getting good feedback.
My one exception to this rule is if you’ll be printing a lot of photos. Laser printers aren’t great for that, instead looks for a specialty photo printer like an Epson Ecotank or a Canon Pixma.
Best webcam if your laptop camera sucks
If there’s one thing the Zoom meeting/remote school era has taught us, it’s that most people have laptops with terrible webcams. That’s true even if you have a fancy MacBook before the latest M2 models. In fact, during the pandemic, half-decent webcams were sold out everywhere, and popular models like the $70 Logitech C920 are only now easy to find again.
One secret tip – if you have a relatively recent Mac and an iPhone with at least MacOS Ventura and iOS 16, you can also set up your phone’s superior camera as a wireless webcam using a built-in feature called Camera Connectivity.
Best PC Gaming on a budget
Valve Steam Deck
PC gaming is enjoying a renaissance, with both indie and big-budget games driven by the wide range of available gaming hardware and the large number of places (Steam, Epic, GoG, HumbleBundle, etc.) where you can buy games. But, gaming PCs remain expensive, with budget models starting at around $1,000.
For about half the price of a very basic gaming laptop (like Dell’s excellent G-Series), try Valve’s handheld Steam Deck. It runs a custom SteamOS Linux overlay on AMD hardware, and amazingly can play just about any game, new or old. The small, low-resolution screen lets it get away with less power, and there are ways to get games from other storefronts besides just Steam on there.
My one hint, skip the entry level $400 model with only 64GB of storage and get the mid-range $530 model with a 256GB SSD. In either case, also be ready to add your own microSD card for extra storage.