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Everything you need for college: Tech gadgets to make your life easier

From smart notebooks to headphones, we'll help you find the best gadgets for back-to-school you didn't know you needed.
MacBook Air M3 | A powerful laptop for studying
M3 MacBook Air on desk
MacBook Air M3
A powerful laptop for studying
View now View at Amazon
Sony WH-1000XM5 | A pair of noise-canceling headphones
Sony WH-1000XM5 Headphones
Sony WH-1000XM5
A pair of noise-canceling headphones
View now View at Amazon
Rocketbook Pro | A reusable smart notebook
Rocketbook Pro on a desk
Rocketbook Pro
A reusable smart notebook
View now View at Amazon
Apple iPad Air (5th Gen) | A versatile tablet
iPad Air (2022, 6th generation)
Apple iPad Air (5th Gen)
A versatile tablet
View now View at Apple
Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 3 | A Bluetooth speaker
Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 3
Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 3
A Bluetooth speaker
View now View at Walmart

For a long time, back-to-school meant grabbing the most popular graphic folder, a fresh set of crayons or markers, stocking up on various notebooks, and picking out the freshest fit to show off while you walked to the pencil sharpener. But now, with technology an integral part of our lives -- especially for students-- there's a lot more to consider. 

Also: The best laptops for college

You'll need a laptop to complete your assignments to keep up with your classes. When walking around campus, you need a pair of headphones to keep you entertained. For late-night study sessions, you need a portable charger to keep your phone fueled up throughout the night, and for impromptu friend gatherings, you need a speaker to set the mood. 

Also: The best tablets for students going back to school

These are just a few of the many tech devices that are essential to survive college. Based on personal experience and hands-on testing by ZDNET experts, we have compiled a list of everything you need for the back-to-school season.

A laptop

Laptops are a must-have for college students--most if not all assignments will require a laptop. My laptop broke once in college, and I could not go a day without borrowing someone else's to complete assignments. The best laptops (including picks for college) include long battery life, top performance, and effective storage and RAM. 

The Apple MacBook Air M3 brings a portable, sleek form factor to match impressive performance that's pro enough for any student. Available in a 13-inch and 15-inch display, the Air is as thin as it is light, and can be slipped into any backpack or bag without weighing you down. The MacBook Air M3 also is eligible for an Apple educational discount, perfect for students looking to save some cash on a new machine.

Review: M3 MacBook Air review: Apple's AI computer for the masses has arrived 
The M3 Air's 18 hours of battery life also is some of the best out there, removing the need of having you vie for outlets while on campus. Plus, the M3 chip's 16-core neural engine future-proofs it with AI readiness, while the option to load it with up plenty of storage offers plenty of space to stick with you during your studies.

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A pair of headphones

It was my first week of college when I realized the importance of headphones and earbuds as a student. Not only was everyone wearing them during their daily commutes, workouts, and study sessions, but they often helped me focus in noisy buildings. If you want full coverage and better noise-cancellation features, over-the-ear headphones may be for you. But if you want something cheaper or more convenient, earbuds may be better. 

Reviewed as "basically perfect" by ZDNET's expert, Matthew Miller, the Sony WH-1000XM5, are arguably the best noise-canceling headphones on the market. Their active noise cancelation (ANC) technology blocks out all surrounding sounds and allows users to isolate and focus on their work, and audio experience.

Review: Sony's WH-1000XM5 headphones are basically perfect

They have over 30 hours of battery life with ANC and 40 without ANC. In addition, their excellent microphone quality makes them a great tool for phone calls, video conferencing, or Zoom classes.

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A smart notebook

Carrying around multiple notebooks all day can be exhausting, especially when walking everywhere. And I understand taking notes on laptops is not for everyone-- sometimes you just want to write down your thoughts, your to-do list or even just scribble your boredom away. That is why smart notebooks are the best alternative to offer that pen-to-paper alternative.  

Whether you use it to take notes for multiple classes, organize your assignments, or journal about your college experience, the Rocketbook Pro allows you to waste zero paper, digitize, save, and search your notes. The eco-friendly notebook comes with a leather hardcover, one Pilot FriXion pen, and one Microfiber Cloth. 

Also: Why this reusable smart notebook is the perfect tech gadget for students 

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A tablet 

As a student, you may be looking to buy the least amount of products as necessary for school. I get it you are on a budget (I was there once, too). Therefore if you want a versatile device that can serve you as a way to stream your favorite show in between classes while also giving you the ability to take notes during class, these top tablet picks are for you. 

This lightweight tablet can do everything -- including taking notes for college. Compatible with the Apple Pencil (second generation), the iPad Air makes it easy to take notes in class and watch seminars virtually if needed. Apple's products are largely customizable, and this is no different: you can opt for one of five colors and get more or less storage depending on what you need. 

In addition, you can also equip your iPad to use cellular data if Wi-Fi doesn't feel sufficient for classes. For students who might need to use their tablets while on the go often, a cellular data plan ensures you can always get online to access. 

Review: iPad Air (2022): So good I almost regret buying my iPad Pro

ZDNET contributor, Jason Cipriani, went hands-on with the iPad Air and was impressed by its 2-in-1 compatibility thanks to the Apple Keyboard and Apple Pencil additions. "It's as powerful as the iPad Pro, but costs hundreds of dollars less -- even when you max out the storage -- with a display that's on par with the 11-inch iPad Pro," he wrote. 

View at AmazonView at SamsungView at Amazon

A speaker

While a speaker may be at the back of your mind when packing for college, from personal experience let me tell you, it's a must. From impromptu friend gatherings to daily showers, your speaker will come in handy at the most unexpected times. Now you don't need an extremely big or fancy speaker: the best speakers are durable, portable, powerful, and support your on-the-go college lifestyle.

What's not to love about 360-degree audio and 14-hour battery life? The Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 3 is a hit for students who want to upgrade their listening experiences. Both dustproof and waterproof, the Wonderboom 3 has an IP67 rating, which means it can be submerged in 1 meter of water for 30 minutes. The speaker is also drop-proof and features a handy loop that allows you to take it anywhere you go. 

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You might also need...

Look below for some more tech essentials that can help elevate your college experience.

Do I actually need all of these devices to be successful in college?

College success is determined by the personal time and effort you put into your college education, not necessarily the tech devices you may have. However, having quality devices will make a difference in your college life. Most professors expect you to own or have access to a computer, so don't be surprised if most of your assignments are online. 

If you are worried about costs, there are many top-performing budget-friendly devices, such as tablets or laptops that you can buy. 

Should I get a laptop or a desktop computer for college?

Most students go for laptops in college due to the versatility and simplicity of transportation. However, if you prefer to take notes or do work on a tablet, smart notebook, or regular notebook in class, then a desktop in your dorm can work for you. If you are unsure how to decide here is a guide to help you.

How often will I need to bring a laptop to class?

How often you bring a laptop to class will depend on your professors and your preferred note-taking method. Some professors in college do not allow laptops in classes whatsoever, others will give you assignments in class that may require the use of your laptops. My advice is for you to always go prepared during that first week of classes with both a laptop and a notebook, and to ask your professor what do they prefer in their classes.

What apps can I use to support my college studies?

Depending on your needs, different apps may work for you better than others. Personally, I could not live without Google Calendar, Maps, Venmo, or the Gmail app, since they helped me stay organized and made my life so much easier. 

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