Not that long ago, the top of everyone's "must buy" back-to-school list included items such as rulers, calculators, notepads and erasers. However, the technology boom that's erupted since the beginning of the 21st century has pushed pens and pencils out of the way in favor of savvier, smarter technology. The question both parents and students now face, though, is whether certain technology is worth the money or is simply overhyped. Each category of product included here has received a grade based on its price, convenience and classroom necessity.
"Laptops are quickly replacing desktops as most students' preferred stay-at-home computer," says Luke Heath, IT guru and owner of Austin-based digital agency Outshine Interactive. While they're easier to transport than desktop computers, smartphones and tablets have them beat in terms of practicality. Still, laptops provide a familiar and production-focused environment ideal for writing papers or researching.
Related: Luke Heath, Outshine Interactive
Desktop computers might be the iconic symbol of the technology age, but they've become dinosaurs. Sadly, we have to give the desktop computer an F thanks to to its bulkiness, cost and poor portability. Students are always on the move, and lugging around a desktop is basically impossible. "Desktops do have their benefits," says Heath, "but unless your curriculum requires the latest and greatest hardware components every six months, a desktop is only going to be one more thing your friends help you move."
Though originally marketed to businesses, cloud computing servives such as Google Documents and Dropbox are becoming increasingly popular in the realm of education. "The main advantage of cloud services is that users can access data and files from anywhere as long as they have an Internet connection," says Jon Smith, technology blogger and e-marketing specialist at the IT company Insight. "They also provide students with a backup of their work." Cloud computing programs receive an A because they're environmentally friendly and convenient.
Related: Jon Smith, Insight UK
Chances are, if you own a laptop, desktop, smartphone or tablet, your technology already comes equipped with a webcam. This makes external webcams unnecessary, for the most part, which is why they earn a grade of C. Still, webcams allow students to have face-to-face communication with long-distance friends and family, so if your technology is without, consider investing in one.
The primary advantage of tablets is their portability. "They give students flexibility, making it possible to work on the move, whether that is taking lecture notes or replying to tutor emails," notes Smith. In addition to accessing the Internet, you can store textbooks on your tablet. This means less grunt work as you go from one class to the other.
A wireless keyboard connects to your hardware without a cord -- ideal for newfangled tablets. "While tablets are great for typing quick emails or notes, the touchscreen keyboard can feel clumsy when writing papers or longer emails. A wireless keyboard compatible with your tablet will dramatically increase your typing accuracy and speed," explains Heath.
Smartphones get an A because they allow the user to do almost everything that a computer or tablet could do. Not only that, but they're cheaper, lighter and run longer than computers. "For a busy student constantly on the move, it's an absolute necessity," says Heath. "From recording a lecture to Googling the closest noodle joint, your smartphone is what you'll be reaching for most often."
Students who live on a sprawling campus will enjoy having an electric bike on hand. "They're becoming extremely popular on and around campus due to their inexpensive cost, accessibility options and positive environmental impact," notes Health. Electric bikes receive a B because they save money on gas and are inexpensive, but not every student needs one.
Wireless printers that support Wi-Fi and AirPrint earn a B because they can be expensive but they nix messy-looking wires and also allow everyone in your house, apartment or dorm room to print. Because you connect wirelessly, you can also print from other devices, including your smartphone or tablet.
Traditional printers are often less expensive than their wireless brothers, but in terms of practicality and appearance, they are subpar compared to wireless printers. So they earn a C grade.