Heading back to school today means starting from a clean slate, with both students and those who shop for them discovering that—in addition to a fresh wardrobe—tools for study, storage, and safety could use a total refresh.
There is a lot to consider when adding to a tech-savvy student’s back to school arsenal, and many essential items can get overlooked. We’ve created the short list below to help you shop smart and pinpoint the right tools for your needs.
Hi-Tech Writing Implements
Yesteryear’s essential supplies of paper notebooks and binders, lead pencils and ink pens are no match for digital tools such as iPads and media tablets, graphics tablets and digital pens, and tablet pens and styluses. Yet, the multiplicity of options and confusion of nomenclature applied to various types of touchscreen devices can blur the lines between product offerings, often making it hard to decide on the best match.
For maximum versatility, media tablets like the Apple iPad, Microsoft Surface, Panasonic Toughbook, and Samsung Galaxy Tab, among other niche brands, combine functions such as reading books, watching movies, playing games, listening to music, and capturing video and stills with the ability to write or draw with a stylus. These devices are extremely popular due to their high level of portability and wide range of functionality—spanning work, study, art, and entertainment.
Weighing the Specs
When choosing a brand that will be best for your needs, one aspect you’ll want to consider is the operating system—iOS, Android, or Windows—for ease of use and/or compatibility with your other devices. Another thing to keep in mind is the range and types of applications available for the platform you choose.
Media tablets available at B&H range in size from 6" to 13.3", generally making them more suited to operating on the go than toiling at a desk or in the studio. While the portable slate form factor offers free range, many larger-size tablets and iPads can be paired with a detachable keyboard that’s compatible with your tablet for a more sedentary experience.
The size of your tablet is also tied to resolution, inasmuch as this helps to determine the legibility of text and images. Resolution matters if you watch Full HD (1080p) media, which requires a minimum of 720 lines (720p) in portrait orientation. Brightness is an important consideration if the tablet will be outdoors frequently. The brighter the screen, the easier to view in situations with lots of glare. And viewing angles are important if the device will be viewed by multiple people at once or shown at odd angles.
Another important consideration is whether a Wi-Fi-enabled tablet will be sufficient, or do you also need a cellular connection? And then there’s Bluetooth—if you’ll be sharing data via local peer-to-peer connections or with peripherals, such as the aforementioned keyboard, you’ll need a Bluetooth-enabled device.
Adding cellular will cost you more, and you’ll need to consider carriers, coverage, contract rates, and whether the device is compatible with 4G or 5G networks. If you choose Wi-Fi only, consider which forms of Wi-Fi the tablet supports. The best option is dual band, which supports both 2.4 and 5 GHz.
Another key factor to determining the price point is the type of processor—dual-core, quad-core, 6-core, or 8-core—as well as processor speed (from 1.1 to 3.1 GHz), and how much RAM you need (from 1 to 16GB). Every app you run on a device consumes a portion of RAM, so if you’re a big multitasker or perform complex functions—heavy gaming or video editing, for example—the more RAM in your tablet, the better. However, if you’re just performing singular tasks, like web browsing, streaming videos, and perusing social media, you can get away with less.
Higher-end tablets feature a larger number of cores, which allows the operating system to better allocate tasks, thereby speeding up performance and improving multitasking. That way, you can listen to music and play a game simultaneously without each task affecting the other. At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that the faster and better a processor is, the more power it consumes, meaning the processor speed can directly influence battery life.
Speaking of batteries, if you’re on the run with your tablet and away from a power supply all day long, strong battery life is an essential detail. Different applications can draw different power loads, making this spec hard to judge, but there are two standard methods of measurement: consistent web browsing, and watching video, which tends to draw more power. An acceptable running time should be at least 8 hours of web browsing or video playback, but if you multitask heavily or play games, expect your battery life to be shorter than advertised. A few things you can do to help reduce the drain include closing the number of apps running in the background, changing your settings for syncing, dimming the screen brightness, and reducing the volume.
Last, but not least, consider how much storage space you’ll need on the tablet. While the storage needs of these devices are likely less than a laptop, if you store high-definition movies or lots of games and you don’t want to shuffle data between devices, you’ll probably want to go with a higher capacity model or one that has flash memory slots for expandable storage space.
Specialized Tablets for Digital Artists
While media tablets are a top pick for general use, and ideal for transitioning between work, art, and entertainment activities, a graphics (aka drawing) tablet is a special-purpose device with a pressure-sensitive surface most often employed for precision drawing and mark making associated with professional digital art.
Touchscreen sensitivity is a major distinguishing factor of graphics tablets. While low-end media tablets often don't have this feature at all, the higher the level of pressure sensitivity in a graphics tablet, the greater the subtlety that can be achieved in drawing and mark making.
These tools are optimized for desk use in a studio or fixed office space, more like an add-on for your main computer setup. As such, they generally need to be connected to a compatible computer for use. Graphics tablets are particularly useful for optimization of specific tasks such as digital painting, 3D modeling, and video editing, when combined with highly dedicated tools and software options. Separately available items such as compatible styluses can often be programmed with useful shortcuts to streamline workflows for specific tasks.
If you are in the market for a graphics tablet, Wacom is a brand you’ll want to consider, as its exhaustive catalog of graphics and drawing tablets has long been a top choice among digital artists, both professional and amateur.
Handheld Digital Voice Recorders
For an even more robust method of capturing every word of that lecture, consider the handheld digital recorder, a longtime staple of students, journalists, and anyone else seeking to document a speaker’s exact words at a meeting or conference.
But why not simply use your cell phone, you ask? While that all-purpose tool is certainly a popular and practical option, the internal microphone is unidirectional, designed to record sounds from just a few feet away. You could still get a decent quality recording by placing the phone near the speaker, but the possibility of losing it—or having it stolen—while out of your reach is a valid concern. Yet, the biggest drawback to recording lectures with your cell phone is battery drain. If you forget to charge the phone before a multi-hour lecture, the battery might run out midway through.
In contrast to the versatile nature of a cell phone, digital voice recorders are designed specifically to record people speaking. The latest models usually have high-quality microphones, long battery lives, expandable memory options, USB connectivity, and the ability to switch between different ambient environments, among other useful features.
Check out our offerings from Olympus, Phillips, Sony, Tentacle Sync, Reloop, and KJB Security Products, and for a more detailed look at voice recorders and related accessories such as microphones, dive into our article Using Lavalier Microphones with Recorders.
Portable Media Storage Solutions
Once you’ve taken the notes, recorded the lectures, and toiled over your many assignments, you’ll need a secure place to keep everything organized, as well as an easy delivery method for all your hard work. Arming yourself with a comprehensive—and ideally redundant—stock of storage devices is one of the best investments you can make to protect your data and keep it at your fingertips.
There are many types of storage methods well suited to student use—ranging from the general category of external hard drives to portable hard drives and USB flash drives to the antiquated digital era storage methods of CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs. Updates to digital storage have been fast and furious in recent years, which makes deciding on the best drive for your needs more intricate than just buying the most expensive one you can afford.
The first thing to consider when shopping for storage is capacity, which will dramatically increase or decrease the cost depending on your needs. Other factors include the drive’s physical size—is it designed to be easily carried or to sit on your desk?—how rugged it is, the interface it uses to connect to your computer, plus design considerations such as color and form factor.
USB flash drives are a great way to quickly and conveniently move large amounts of data from one computer to another or print out hard copies on the fly when you need to deliver work on deadline. Also known as thumb drives, these diminutive data banks come in a wide range of storage capacities from 2GB to 2TB, while taking up minimal space in a bag, or even your pocket. Since flash drives have no moving parts, they are considered solid-state devices, distinct from external hard drives that have spinning platters and a roving magnetic head that mechanically reads/writes stored data off the platters.
Stepping up in size from the flash drive, a USB hard drive can be compact and portable or designed to sit on a desktop. USB stands for Universal Serial Bus, an industry standard that established specifications for connection, communication, and power supply protocols between computers and peripherals, as well as cables and connectors that are easy to use and capable of transmitting both data and power at increasingly higher speeds. Revisions to this standard have resulted in smaller connectors over time, leading to the current connection hardware USB-C. Available in a wide range of storage capacities from 120GB to a whopping 20TB, spindle hard drives equipped with spinning platters are more economical than solid-state drives of a comparable capacity.
If speedy access to your data is more important than cost, consider investing in a solid-state drive (SSD), available in capacities from 120GB to 16TB. These devices save data using a collection of flash cells, similar to the cells making up a computer’s RAM. Not only is it faster to read and write data stored in flash cells, it's also safer. If you bump the SSD while you're accessing its data, the lack of a spinning platter or moving head eliminates the risk that your files will become corrupted and unreadable.
And if you’re looking for maximum performance, especially when working on data-intensive projects, you’ll want a Thunderbolt™ drive, an interface that was developed by Intel® in collaboration with Apple. Currently in its third generation, and available in storage capacities from 240GB to 18TB, Thunderbolt™ 3 ports look the same as USB Type-C ports, and the cables are only distinguishable by the logo they sport—either the three-prong logo on USB-C cables or the lightning bolt on Thunderbolt™ 3 cables. However, not only can Thunderbolt™ 3 help you transfer data to and from a compliant external hard drive more quickly—at up to 40Gbps—it can also unlock additional capabilities for connecting external monitors and expansion docks.
To learn more about the various types of portable storage and get specific suggestions on hard drives to suit a range of needs, read Patrick Chiang’s The Best Portable Hard Drives on Explora.
Safety and Security On-Campus and Beyond
Lastly, with students headed off to physical classrooms this fall, safeguarding valuable gear takes on added importance, especially due to the high portability of the latest tech tools. Tablet mounts and stands that incorporate anti-theft capabilities include a wide selection of computer security docks, locks, and clamps from Kensington, as well as anti-theft stands and laptop security locks from CTA Digital. Stand-alone case and luggage locks can also help to secure your gear via lock and key, numeric combination, fingerprint-activated, or Bluetooth-enabled mechanisms.
And, once you’ve got your tools locked down, you can also protect bags, wallets, and other personal belongings that may tempt thieves by adding a Bluetooth tracker to your shopping list. Brands such as Apple, AirBolt, Chipolo, PROTAG, Samsung, and Tile offer small devices that attach to your belongings and maintain contact with your phone via Bluetooth, allowing you to ring up—and hopefully locate—connected items as soon as you realize you’ve misplaced them.
What are some of the essential items in your back to school arsenal? Tell us about them in the Comments section below.