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Everything you need for college: Tech gadgets you will love and use

From laptops to smart notebooks, ZDNET has you covered with the top tech you need this back-to-school season.
Written by Gabriela Pérez Jordán, Associate Editor
Reviewed by Allison Murray
MacBook Air M2-15 inch | A powerful laptop
Apple MacBook Air M2
MacBook Air M2-15 inch
A powerful laptop
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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
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Apple iPad (10th generation) | A versatile tablet
Apple iPad (10th generation)
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

Nowadays it is nearly impossible to go about life without some form of technology. Believe me, I tried. When I first started college I vividly remember attempting to take all my notes on pen and paper. I figured it was the cheapest alternative for note-taking and all I needed to be successful. And while you may also enjoy the old-school method of taking notes on pen and paper specific tech gadgets are undeniably essential to succeed in college. 

Also: These platforms offer sweet student discounts

To keep up with your classes, you need a laptop to complete your assignments. 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. 

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 twice in college, and I could not go a day without borrowing someone else's to complete assignments. The best laptops include long battery life, top performance, and effective storage and RAM. 

If you are looking for the best everyday laptop, the MacBook Air M2-15 inch is the one for you. An M2 chip powers the sleek and modern laptop, which offers 18-hour battery life, and configurable RAM and storage. This laptop is best for "students, hybrid workers, and coffee shop dwellers" says June Wan, ZDNET's Reviews Editor, due to its lightweight and accessibility to carry around campus. 

Also: MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro

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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

Remember when I said I tried taking all my notes on pen and paper and it didn't work? Well 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. 

The iPad (10th generation) comes in four different lively colors and is an affordable iPad for students. The modernized design carries a USB-C Charging Port and a superior front-facing camera than its predecessors. If you are a typical Apple user, the versatility and compatibility of the device will stand out. To increase productivity in classes and at school, you can also purchase an Apple pencil and a keyboard additionally. 

Review: iPad (10th Gen, 2022)

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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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