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.
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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.
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
Starting at $350, the Lenovo Flex 3i Chromebook is the ideal college laptop for students on a budget. This lightweight, portable, and flexible laptop offers a touch screen and the ability to flip the keyboard backward to enjoy tent or tablet mode. It has a 1920 x 1080 resolution display, a privacy webcam shutter, and offers HDMI, USB-C, microSD, and a headphone port. Not to mention, its 10-hour battery life makes it ideal for students to get through their day without worrying about needing to charge their laptops.
Also: The best Chromebook laptops for back to school
Equipped with the M2 chip, the 2023 Macbook Pro is one of the top-performing laptops on the market. While it is on the expensive side and somewhat heavy to carry around, it is a sturdy laptop with solid power and quality features that will last you throughout your college career. It offers 22-hour battery life, an excellent sounding speaker, and works great for creative applications such as Adobe.
Review: Apple 16-inch MacBook Pro: A content creator's dream machine
Students who work with several programming software and business applications require high-performing laptops that are thin and easy to carry around campus. The Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon Gen 11 offers just that: strong processing power with its 13th Generation Intel Core i5-1335U Processor, eight connectivity ports, and over 12 hours of battery life.
Also: Lenovo's updated ThinkPad X1 laptop
In college, having both a laptop and a tablet is a plus. But why buy and carry two computing devices when you can just have one? As a tablet-first device, students can use their Microsoft Surface Go 3 as a hybrid notebook, and then turn it into a computer for an improved web-browsing experience. It offers front (5MP) and rear-facing (8MP) cameras, decent audio subsystems, and a Core i3 processor.
Starting at $400, Microsoft's 10.5-inch Surface Go 3 is an excellent option for students on a budget. Just keep in mind that the keyboard and stylus are not included.
Also: The best 2-in-1 laptops
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. 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.
Review: Sony's WH-1000XM5 headphones are basically perfect
Since their arrival, the Apple AirPods Max have become the best headphones in the Apple ecosystem. Their sturdy build, impressive sound quality, and long-lasting battery surpasses any other feature in AirPod earbuds. They also offer 20 hours of battery life, and the ability to switch between transparency mode and Spatial Audio.
As a college student, if you plan on never leaving your house without your headphones, you need a pair of headphones that are lightweight and comfortable for all-day listening. These Bose QuietComfort 45 headphones have up to 24 hours of battery life, Bluetooth 5.1 connectivity, and USB-C fast charging abilities. Not to mention, Bose has a music app where you can adjust the EQ settings of the headphones, to fit your preferences and needs.
Review: These are my go-to headphones for all-day listening, and they're not AirPods
If your looking for a quick, easy, and on-the-go audio experience earbuds are your best bet. The Bose QuietComfort Noise-Canceling Earbuds II offer active noise cancellation and aware mode so you can easily switch between listening to your environment or completely tune out all the noise around you. The earbuds come with a charging case and replaceable and customizable tips, allowing them to fit comfortably within your ear.
In addition, they offer simple touch features and are sweat and water-resistant, making them an excellent option for working out or walking in moderate rain.
Review: Step aside, AirPods. There's a new ANC champion in town
The AirPods Pro 2 are perfect for those who want ANC technology without the over-the-ear experience. The Apple AirPods offer clear responsive sound quality, have four audio sizes, and have a 33% longer battery life than its successful predecessors. It offers 6 hours of listening with ANC on and up to 30 total hours with the battery in the case. As a college student, these wireless headphones will become a staple in your day-to-day life.
Review: Apple AirPods Pro (2nd Gen): Two major upgrades, tamed by one familiar flaw
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
As a smart notebook that also doubles as a tablet, the Kindle Scribe has similar functionalities as a regular Kindle, but also allows you to write and sketch on it with a pen. It has a 10.2-inch 300-ppi display that adjusts to its surroundings day and night. In addition, you can create notebooks, journals, and lists that you can later import using the Kindle app.
Review: Amazon Kindle Scribe: 7 months later, it's so close to perfect
The Moleskin Pen + Smart Writing Set is designed to capture each pen stroke, uploading your notes digitally as you write them. The set consists of three parts: the digital pen, the notebook filled with specially marked paper, and the Moleskin app. The digital pen also allows you to enrich your notes with audio recordings that save directly to the app.
As a student, you will feel like are using regular pen and paper but with significant digital advances.
Review: Moleskine Pen+ Ellipse: Smart note-taking cuts out digital distractions
The Rocketbook Fusion is the more casual (and cheaper) option to the Rocketbook Pro. The notebook is 8.5 x 11 inches and comes with reusable calendars, lists, guides, and notebook pages powered by the Rocketbook App. It also includes a Pilot Pen and a microfiber cleaning cloth, making it an excellent option for students that want to dip their toes into the smart notebook world without spending too much.
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)
Tired of iPads? Amazon tablets are great for students and start at much lower prices than other brand competitors. While originally the tablet cost $229, for just $190, students can get the Amazon Fire Max 11 ahead of back to school. Its new modernized design comes with solid battery life and an 11-inch display, with 4GB of memory and 64GB of storage. In addition, the tablet supports 1TB of microSD card storage and can be bought in a bundle to include a keyboard with a touchpad, a case, and a stylus.
Review: Amazon Fire Max 11: Easily the best Fire tablet yet
One of the best Android Tablets available, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra, is great for creative students who want stunning tablet hardware. The tablet has a 14.6-inch Super AMOLED display, an S Pen stylus, 8GB of memory, and 128GB of storage. If you want to turn it into a 2-in-1, the additional $350 Book Cover Keyboard must be purchased.
Also: The best Samsung tablets
If you already have a laptop and are looking for something small and portable to carry in between classes or to add as an extension to your college tech set-up, then the Apple iPad Mini is for you. In terms of affordability, great battery life, and fast processors, the Apple iPad Mini is the overall top performer. It comes with A15 Bionic chip, making it an extremely powerful tablet for such a small size.
Also: The best small tablets
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.
Small but mighty, the Tribit Stormbox Micro 2 is for students who want quality on a budget budget. Known for its size-defying sound, the StormBox Micro 2 delivers explosive outdoor audio thanks to its 48mm NdFeB driver and passive radiators with proprietary XBASS technology. This pocket-sized Bluetooth has 12 hours of playtime and an IP67 rating.
In addition, it even doubles as a portable charger, thanks to Tribit's exclusive SmartID technology and its USB-C charging port.
Review: Tribit StormBox Micro 2
The JBL Clip 4 is for students who plan to use their speakers as much as their phones. The clip-and-go speaker allows users to experience rich audio from a compact device. It comes in three different colors, has up to 10 hours of battery on a single charge, and is IP67 waterproof and dustproof.
Also: The best wireless speakers
You might also need
Look below for some more tech essentials that can help elevate your college experience.
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.
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 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.
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.