I know the summer might feel infinite, but the school year is approaching quickly whether you’re prepared or not. Don’t let it sneak up on you and then struggle at the last minute to get all your stuff together. Buying new stuff for school might seem like a daunting task, but you can actually get a good amount of awesome tech gear for under $1,000.
Today, I’ll go through a few categories you may be interested in and making a recommendation for each. We’ll look at laptops, tablets, e-readers, external hard drives, USB flash drives, headphones, and cameras. At the end, we’ll do a quick wrap-up and see how much all this great stuff will cost you. Ready? Let’s go.
Let’s start off with the main computing machine for any student: the laptop. You’ve got a difficult choice to make here between a Chromebook and a traditional Windows laptop. Sorry Mac-users, no Apple laptop is going to make it into a budget list.
First up, let’s go through why you might want a Chromebook. They’re inexpensive, offer great performance for their price, don’t get viruses or slow down over time, and they’re updated automatically. The models we’re looking at are both small, light 11-inch devices.
The two Chromebooks being considered are Acer’s $200 C7 and Samsung’s $250 Chromebook since Google’s $1299 Pixel is a bit out of the question. We favorably reviewed the Samsung Chromebook a few months ago, and the Acer is very similar. In my limited hands-on experience with the two devices, I found them to be lightning fast compared to comparably priced netbooks like the Acer Aspire One.
The downside? Well, Chromebooks run Chrome OS which is basically just the Chrome browser. Could you live entirely in a browser? You might be surprised. Google Drive is a capable alternative to Microsoft Office for most people, and we all know that students rarely use their computers for anything besides Facebook and Word. However, if you need to run a particular kind of Windows software like iTunes, photoshop, or eBook editing programs like Calibre or Sigil, you’re out of luck here.
For those of you who are not ready to make the leap from Windows to Chrome OS, the ASUS VivoBook is your best inexpensive option. It’s currently around $449 on Amazon. It’s an 11-inch Windows 8 laptop with a touchscreen, 4 GB of RAM, and an Intel Core i3 processor. For only $449, that’s a great deal. We reviewed it favorably, and in my opinion, it’s the best value laptop out there right now.
Recommendation: ASUS VivoBook X202E
Here’s where you’ve got some amazing options. Unlike with laptops, where you have to compromise a bit to keep it under a tight budget, the 7-8 inch tablet category is bursting full of great tablets. These wonderful devices are small enough to fit in a backpack without weighing you down, and can even fit in some larger pockets. They’re perfect for taking notes, reading e-textbooks, or even just a bit of gaming between classes. With so many options, I’m going to try and find the best value for your dollar here.
First up is the new Nexus 7 (2013). At $229, this device packs an incredible amount of power. It has a 1920 x 1200 full HD display, with a higher pixel density than competing 7-inch tablets and even besting the 10-inch iPad with Retina Display. This updated model is even thinner and lighter than the previous generation, while shaving off some of the side bezels. It has dual speakers on the back which produce great audio quality for such a small tablet. Its battery life, while not the absolute best around, is still very good. Performance-wise, it packs a Snapdragon S4 Pro at 1.5 GHz and 2 GB of RAM, making this a blazing fast tablet.
Up next is a device for those living in the Amazon ecosystem or on an exceptionally tight budget: the $199 7-inch Kindle Fire HD. While this tablet is based on Android, it looks nothing like Android. The user interface is a simple scrolling list of the apps, books, games, movies, etc. that are stored on the tablet, and downloads are restricted to the Amazon Appstore, not the Google Play Store. The tablet is quite a bit thicker and heavier than the Nexus 7.
However, if you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber, owning a Kindle Fire HD offers several advantages. Currently, Amazon Instant Video is available on the Fire HD and on iOS, but not other Android devices, and you can also borrow a book for free every month. If you have a lot vested in Amazon and like a clean, simple user interface, the Fire HD might be for you. You might also want to look at the, which, at $269, is the cheapest large-sized tablet out there, even cheaper than the next two tablets in this category.
If you’re willing to cut out some other items on your budget list, you might be able to drop the $329 for an iPad Mini, otherwise known as the only Apple product to ever make it onto a budget tech list — barely. For a hundred dollars more than a Nexus 7, is it really worth it? If you’re already tied into the Apple ecosystem or have an iPhone, probably. But if you have no attachment to Apple, its likely not worth it. Despite being the most expensive tablet on this list, it features only a meager 1024 x 768 display, a now ancient dual-core A5 processor, and only 512MB of RAM. Read our review of the iPad Mini.
Still, iOS remains a simple operating with a vast app selection, and the iPad Mini has the best battery life of any device on this list. Plus, it’s a thin, light device with hardly any side bezels. The 7.9-inch screen might make it a little awkward to hold in one hand, but it does give you a lot more screen estate than a 7-inch tablet. Depending on your needs and your wallet, the iPad Mini might be worth the hefty price.
Finally, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 8.0. At $299, this tablet is on the expensive end of things, but still manages to be $30 cheaper than the iPad Mini. So why consider this over the other Android tablets we’ve already talked about? Well, if you already have a Galaxy phone, the experience will be very similar. You get the multi-window function, which allows you to run two apps side-by-side at the same time, you get an IR blaster for controlling your TV, and if you have any Samsung devices like a Smart TV or a Blu-ray player, the Galaxy Tab 3 will play nicely with them. Read our review of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3.
On the downside, its screen isn’t as nice as the Nexus 7. It has the same resolution as the Kindle Fire HD — 1280 x 800 pixels — but the Galaxy Tab 3 has a lower pixel density because of its larger screen size. It still has a nicer display than the iPad Mini, but a lot of people prefer the aluminium enclosure of the iPad Mini to the plastic case of the Galaxy Tab 3. It comes in white and “gold brown” which frankly just sounds as awful as it looks. It’s pretty thin and light and has 1.5 GB of RAM. If you’ve got a bunch of Samsung devices and like to run multiple apps at the same time, the Galaxy Tab 3 might be worth the price tag.
However, when it comes to value, the Nexus 7 simply gives you the most for your dollar. A gorgeous display, sleek body, and good battery life makes the Nexus 7 worth the $229.
Recommendation: Nexus 7 (2013)
While all of the above tablets also make for great e-readers, they can’t compare to e-ink devices. E-ink devices use a special type of screen that emulates paper, making them much easier on your eyes than a bright LCD screen. They can be used easily in bright sunlight and, in my opinion, are even more comfortable to read than physical books. They’re incredibly light, putting less strain on your wrist, and their batteries last weeks if not months. Having a dedicated e-reader and a tablet might seem wasteful, but I promise you will love the e-ink screen.
First up, the reigning champion of the ebook world, Amazon’s Kindle. It comes in a $119 Paperwhite version and a
$69 regular Kindle, both of which come with Special Offers. Special Offers is what Amazon calls the ads that pop up on the screen when its not in use. They don't interfere with the reading experience at all, since they disappear completely while reading, and I've never found them annoying. However, you can pay an extra $20 to get rid of them, and in that case, your Kindle will display random pictures of authors when the screen is not in use.
The Kindle Paperwhite is really a remarkable device, as noted in our review. It's entirely touchscreen with only a physical power button. It's thin and light, making it a breeze to hold with one hand. It has a higher resolution display than the regular Kindle, but its main feature is the built-in light. It distributes a soft glow evenly across the surface so that you can read in the dark. It's a very pleasant effect, much easier to look at than a bright LCD screen and perfect for those who like to read in bed before going to sleep.
Amazon also claims that the Paperwhite's battery will last longer than the regular Kindle's, 8 weeks as opposed to 4 weeks, but really, the battery life is so phenomenal on both these devices that I doubt you would notice. The regular Kindle is also an ounce lighter and a hair thinner than the Paperwhite.
Another great option is a Kobo e-reader. They have a slew of devices including the Kobo Aura HD (which we reviewed), Kobo Mini, Kobo Glo, and Kobo Touch. I love that they have such a wide range of devices, and they're really great too. The Kobo Mini is the lightest e-reader of the bund, the Touch has a very comfortable soft touch back, and the Kobo Glo is comparable to the Paperwhite.
All Kobo devices support ePub, which is the universal standard for ebooks, meaning that you can easily download any book from any store or library and it'll work on your Kobo. As for Amazon, they use their proprietary AZW, MOBI, and KF8 formats which won't work on other e-readers, and you can only get your ebooks from Amazon's store. However, Amazon does have a vast selection of ebooks and often has the lowest prices. For instance, Legend by Marie Lu is $9.99 on the Kobo eBookstore, but the Kindle version is $8.89 on Amazon. Not a huge difference, but I've seen bigger price drops than that from Amazon, and it can really add up if you read a lot.
There is also the Barnes and Noble Nook and Sony eReader, but they don't offer any significant advantages over the Kindle or Kobo. The Nook has been plagued by bad reviews since it came out, and the Sony devices are clunky and unattractive in my opinion. While it really comes down to preference here, I prefer the Kindle Paperwhite for its unbeatable selection of books and great hardware.
Recommendation: Amazon Kindle Paperwhite
Portable External Hard Drive
Unless you have a ton of large videos files or a computer with very little disk space (like a Chromebook), you probably won't need an external hard drive. But if you are constantly downloading videos or recording you own, having an extra 500 GB or more could be a lifesaver.
We've compared the LaCie Rugged Mini and the ADATA DashDrive Durable, and the LaCie Rugged Mini easily came out on top. It comes in $80 500 GB and $110 1TB models, and while it isn't waterproof, it can withstand a good amount of rain, drops, spills, and bangs. If you plan on keeping your external hard drive in your backpack and lugging it around campus a lot, this would be a good investment for you.
On the other hand, if you just want a slim, light hard drive that you'll be extremely cautious with, the Seagate GoFlex Slim is a good choice. While it only comes in a 500 GB version, it's also only $60 from Amazon, making it a great budget hard drive. Unfortunately, this hard drive won't be able to take the same beating as the LaCie.
Recommendation: LaCie Rugged Mini
This one is going to be quick because, let's be honest, students on a budget can't afford $300+ high-tech in-ear monitors. The only real competitor here is Panasonic with their ErgoFit earbuds. They're only $6 on Amazon and come in a wide variety of colors. They've garnered great reviews on Amazon, especially for their ridiculously cheap price.
Recommendation: Panasonic ErgoFit
USB Flash Drive
There are some awesome, fast, rugged USB drives out there, but considering you'll probably leave it plugged into one of your school's library computers on accident, you're better off getting something cheap and just replacing it when you lose it. You can get an 8 GB Kingston stick for under $7 on Amazon. Unless you plan on booting Linux from your USB drive or doing something incredibly taxing with it, even the cheap drives should be able to handle the occasional Word document transfer without fail.
Recommendation: Kingston Hi-speed Datatraveler
If you want better pictures than your phone or tablet can snap, but don't have the thousands of dollars to shell out for a DSLR, you might want to try out an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera. Read our article on 8 tips you should know before buying your next digital camera.
The more expensive option is the Canon PowerShot ELPH 300 HS at $175 on Amazon. It has a 12 megapixel sensor, can record 1080p video, has an f2.7 aperture and 24 mm lens. The cheaper option is the Canon PowerShot A2400 IS at $95 on Amazon. It can capture 16 megapixels images, can record 720p video, has an f2.8 aperture and 28 mm lens.
They're both about the same size and weight, and can take decent photos, but the ELPH claims slightly longer battery life. We're looking at budget devices here, though, and the A2400 is plenty capable.
Recommendation: Canon PowerShot A2400 IS
So how much will all of this awesome gear set you back if you took my recommendation from every category? Let's add it up.
Asus VivoBook X202E: $449
Nexus 7: $229
Kindle Paperwhite: $129
LaCie Rugged Mini Portable Hard Drive: $80
Panasonic ErgoFit Earbuds: $6
Kingston USB Drive: $7
Canon PowerShot A2400 IS: $95
*prices accurate at the time of writing.
That's quite a lot of awesome back to school gear for under $1,000 if you ask me. You can definitely swap some stuff out depending on your needs. If your smartphone has a decent camera, you could ditch the PowerShot and switch out the Nexus 7 with an iPad Mini. If you don't need the external hard drive, you could get rid of that and get yourself a faster USB drive. Or to really save some money, trade in the VivoBook for a Chromebook. It's all up to you.
What do you think? What will you be buying before hitting the books this fall? Let us know in the comments.
Image credit: Chris Corwin/flickr