Product Reviews

Myth Debunked: 5 Gadgets You Don’t Actually Need For School

Guy McDowell 28-08-2013

Need. Want. One is a four letter word and the other is a necessity. Listen up and heed this old man’s words as I get you set to go back to school, do some real learning, and save thousands of dollars by not buying into this computer fad. Look at me! I got an iPhone! Look at me! I can film my lectures! Look at me! I made a spreadsheet that does my arithmetic for me!


Poppycock, I say. When I was your age, not only was I the same age as you, but the most advance technology we had in school was the ball-point pen! I did just fine. Teachers had to write words on a board and you had to copy them down and make notes before she wiped them off. That’s what learning is about. You don’t need no fiddly gadgets.

Don’t believe me? Do some studying of Tina Sieber’s, Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature] Every year, exhibitions around the world present new high tech devices; expensive toys that come with many promises. They aim to make our lives easier, more fun, super connected, and of course they are status... Read More . You’re getting played, son!

Alright, I got the grumpy old man bit out. I’m a better now and I’ll try to make legitimate arguments why you don’t need these five pieces of technology that you might think you need. Yes, a big part of that argument will be showing you that even though you may want it, even though it may ‘make life easier’ you don’t really need it. You’ll survive. You may even do better in your studies immediately and in the long run. I know you’ll go and get these gizmos anyway, but just in case they break down, you’ll know that you didn’t need them in the first place.

Smartphones – $20-$100/month

First off, phones are not smart. They just do a lot of things that phones never used to do. Have you ever seen a One-Man-Band? He can play a lot of instruments at once, not very well, and he probably doesn’t have an advanced degree. Perhaps if he seriously studied one instrument, he might have mastered it, learned music theory and then went on to enjoy an illustrious career in a world-class orchestra. Now let me make sense of that laboured metaphor.

Smartphones, by their very nature, are distracting pieces of equipment. I dare say few people have the self-discipline to use it only when necessary. According to, “88 per cent of students texted in class” while only “40 percent used smartphones to study before a tess”. Students aren’t really using these things to learn with, so what is the need?



By the same research, 75% of students have their smartphone bills paid by their parents, and the other 25% pay their own bills. Either way, that could be as much as $100 a month diverted from actually paying for their education. Money wasted since it doesn’t help them and potentially puts them deeper in debt.

Also note that 25% of students have sexted. In many countries, the majority of freshmen are underage. That means that at least some of them are participating in child porn, if not just behaviours that could come back to haunt them after graduation. Why have that temptation there?

If you need to make a phone call, most dorms have payphones and many also are wired for land-lines. If that’s not an option, there is probably a payphone somewhere on campus. If you need to get ahold of someone on campus, you could actually walk over to their office or room and talk with them.



If you think you need a smartphone to view online materials, again, there are options. There are computer labs that you can use or maybe your roommate or floor-mates have computers as well. In a worst-case scenario, you might even ask your professor or their assistant if you can watch it on their computer. They won’t deny you.

Laptops – $300-$2000

Having the convenience of being able to type your notes in-class, and do online research anywhere seems to be a solid justification for needing the laptop. The laptop, like the rest of these gadgets, is still mostly just a want.

The Globe and Mail features a report that shows some interesting numbers. You might not be surprised to read that students using laptops in class experienced an 11 percent point drop in their marks. You may be very surprised that students sitting around the student with the laptop – innocent bystanders – had a 17 percentage point drop in their marks. I don’t know about you, but that would have meant a fail for me in a fair number of courses. It’s just another distraction from the task at hand.


If you are hellbent on getting a laptop, do study Kannon Yamada’s, Going Back To School? Save Money On A New Computer With 7 Secret Tips Going Back To School? Save Money On A New Computer With 7 Secret Tips Read More . At least save a few bucks!


You might recall reading somewhere about the effect that repetition and review has on retention of newly learned material. The general idea is that simply writing notes down increases the likelihood that you’ll remember something. Reviewing those notes in the same day has an almost exponential effect on the retention of that material. What I propose is that you write your notes down, with pen or pencil, then when you get time to access a computer lab, type your notes out. That will save you the cost of a laptop and certainly enhance your ability to recall material come exam time. I knew a lady in college that did this everyday and her marks were extraordinary. By her own telling, she just wasn’t able to learn much on the fly, so she developed the discipline to do this. It worked.

As for the ability to do online research, you simply need access to a computer and we’ve gone over the fact that most schools have computer labs and computers in the libraries. Accessing them used to be difficult, but now because so many people have laptops and such, many of these computers sit dormant.


Tablets – $150-$500

iPads or Androids, it doesn’t matter what it is, you simply don’t need it for education. Why? For the same reasoning as the laptops and smartphones. It is still just a convenience item. If you feel that you need one for taking notes, that argument doesn’t wash. Taking notes on a tablet is far more difficult than a laptop and we’ve covered why laptops in the classroom aren’t a great idea.


Doing research on a tablet is also just an extension of your desire not to go to the library. Go to the library. Learn how to use a book for research. Touch the history and the permanence of knowledge with your hands. One of the most awe-inspiring moments of my education was going into the special collections and reading books from the Middle Ages. To touch real vellum imparts a knowledge you can’t get from simply reading the text on a screen. To see that each word was painstakingly hand-written gives importance to the knowledge recorded therein. That book may have been the only book that someone saw in their entire life! You can’t get that wisdom by downloading a book from the web. Does Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales really deserve a place next to Jetpack Joyride? No, no it doesn’t. But if you do deem it necessary, try to save some money by reading Ryan Dube’s Apple Offers Back-To-School Gift Cards For Product Purchases piece. It could get you a $50 Apple gift card.

Calculators – $50-$200

“Whoa Guy!”, you exclaim, “I need my calculator!”. This is the one gadget for which I agree that there possibly might be an actual need. For most science-based courses, it has become an expectation that you have a calculator. The only reason for this is that over time, the calculator has become ubiquitous.

There was a time where the only tool many people had for advanced math was a slide-rule. Engineers built marvels based on calculations done with these devices. Mind you, the calculations took a little longer than with a calculator. Yet it is that time that allowed for the entrenchment of formulas and principles in the minds of students. They didn’t need to do 100 math problems in 20 minutes. They did maybe 20 in a 100 minutes, and they learned the math forever.


You only need it because everyone else had one since the late 1980’s. But I urge you to get one with only the functions that you really need. If you’re an English major and you have a Statistics class, you don’t need a $200 calculator that can graph the trajectory of a missile – or draw a cat.


Just get the $10 one. If you are a science student, try to do at least a couple problems all on paper. Then you’ll know that you won’t be useless if you are stuck in a situation without a calculator.

Gaming Console – $200-$500

I thought this would be obvious, yet it’s an item I keep seeing on Back To School Gadget lists everywhere! You don’t need a flipping Xbox, Playstation, Nintendo… whatever! That’s what we used to call recreational not educational! The argument being made is that they’re needed to blow off some steam and reduce stress.


Have you tried, maybe, leaving your dorm room? There is a gym! There are many amazing cultural activities on campus, most of them free! Get out of the house now that you don’t live at home. Expose yourself to new activities and cultures. It is often this aspect of higher education that will set you apart from the rest of the degree drones when you hit adulthood. You’ll make friends that you don’t just message on Facebook. These will become the people that form your peer group as you embark on taking on the world.

Just leave the console at home. Someone in your building will bring a few anyway and they’ll need you to kill the next boss. Or maybe have your floor chip in and get one for the common room. Then everyone is responsible for taking care of it. Just a thought.

The Takeaway

Save yourself or your kids thousands of dollars and ensure that they get good grades plus real-world survival skills. Where’s the downside to this? Sure, there are a few programs like Computer Science and Physics where you might need some of this technology sometimes. However for most liberal arts or humanities undergrads, you don’t need these. If you have the money, then fine – get them and use them wisely, but first memorize Matt Smith’s, How To Make Sure You Get The Best Deals On Back To School Tech How To Make Sure You Get The Best Deals On Back To School Tech Going back to school can be stressful, not only because it's school but also because students often find themselves having to spend money they don't really have. After tuition and books, there's often very little... Read More . If not, put the money into tuition, books, food, rent – things that you definitely do need! Graduate with no debt, or less debt, and be able to choose the life you want. Don’t get sucked in by the tech hype. I love tech. I live tech. Yet I know I can survive and even thrive without it. Do you?

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  1. Guy M
    September 3, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    I totally agree, Mac.

  2. Mac
    September 1, 2013 at 7:51 pm

    Whew, I used to feel old but now I feel younger. Lol. I agree that folks confuse need and want without ever knowing the difference. It IS the blight of this generation but not their fault. Their parents HAD more than ours so they GAVE more than we got. At 48 I see that our technology has far exceeded our wisdom these days. My message, use what you got and don't fail to recognize what is necessary and what is simply a distraction.
    Oh, online classes are going to be the way we combat the ridiculously expensive
    And bloated college systems in this country.

  3. Wilhelm V
    August 29, 2013 at 6:15 pm

    Sounds like one older gentleman talking to a bunch of younger people. This happens to every generation, it'll happen to mine, and it happened to yours. I bet your parents thought that you didn't need half the stuff that you had when you went to school: "Text books? When I was in college we had teachers that gave lectures and actually taught you something."

    The point is that while these items may seem like "wants" to you--and I'm not saying they aren't--the way you learned, the way you did things, gives you an impartial and bias view of how things work today. How, you might ask, because there are plenty of things that weren't used in the 15th century for education, but does that make everything that came afterward "unneeded."

    Convenience is a silly word that older generations throw around, again it will happen to my generation as well, because they had to do the work the harder way. Sure, there is probably some enjoyment out of getting something done the harder way, but if both ways are "right" and one is easier than you'd have to be a fool not to use that method. If anything is a necessity it is convenience.

    Convenience allows us to make more room for other activities that might benefit us more in the long run. If I am typing I can pay a lot more attention to the teacher than if I am writing. Why? Because typing is now 100% muscle memory. My fingers already know where the keys are, I can look away from the keyboard without missing a key stroke and pay closer attention to the lecture. I can give examples like this for everything except game systems, but I'll come back to that one, and they can show you how convenience is actually helping us learn better.

    The people who are not learning are people who wouldn't have learned in the first place. If people didn't have smartphones they would just talk to the people next to them. If people didn't have tablets and laptops, they would just doodle on paper. If people didn't have calculators... well, they'd just fail the class or drop out.

    The Flynn effect states that each generation is smarter than the last, and I don't believe that to be because of our education, but because we developed tools that make it easier for us to learn. Your generation had tools that the previous one did not, and mine has tools that yours doesn't. Are these "needed" to you? No, but they are to us, because this is how we learn now.

    Game Systems... the only thing I can say here is that I do agree that they shouldn't be on back-to-school lists, but I won't badmouth them. You cannot expect a college student to dedicate 100% of his time to learning. Even professors don't dedicate 100% of their time to teaching. A new study (C1) suggest that violet games actually make us less violent. I know there were plenty of times when a video game calmed me down.

    You suggest going to the gym, which I do and agree that more people need to do, but it's not really a stress reliever. Exercise promotes testosterone, and testosterone promotes aggressiveness (C2). Basically the opposite affect of playing a violent video game.

    I hope I didn't bore you with my wall-of-text.


    • Guy M
      September 3, 2013 at 2:46 pm

      In reality, I generally agree with you, Wilhelm. The point of the article is more to show people that they can do a lot more than they think without relying on technology. If they learn how to do more without technology, then their days won't come to a grinding halt if the hard drive fails.

      There are two things that I don't agree with, however.
      1. Typing is a better way of taking notes. I don't think so, because of that fact that it can become an issue of straight muscle memory, as you say. Doing something without conscious effort takes away one more chance for repetition and review of the material. you simply become a transcriber. I would suspect that people that do transcribing for a living don't have an outstanding memory of that which they transcribe.

      2. Every generation is smarter than the last. I would tend to say that every generation has access to more information than the last - however that doesn't necessarily make them smarter. Indeed there are those that will push our knowledge further, however I think that that every generation as a whole is less intelligent than the previous one. A dilution of the IQ level, if you will.

      I don't consider it an intellectual success that the younger generation is more computer savvy but has to wear Velcro running shoes to primary grades and can't write or read cursive. Being able to drive a car doesn't necessarily make you smarter than the engineers that built it.

      Minor quandries, yet overall I agree with you that the goal should be to work smarter, not necessarily just work harder.

  4. Guy M
    August 29, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    Does everyone get that this is a tongue-in-cheek devil's-advocate sort of article?

    • Wilhelm V
      August 30, 2013 at 2:57 am

      :( Sadly, I didn't realize before I left my comment.

  5. dragonmouth
    August 29, 2013 at 11:40 am

    I agree with the author. However, he discounts or omits one factor and that is self-discipline. Students without it will always find something to do instead of study. Students with self-discipline will not let distractions like game boxes, laptops or smart phones prevent them from studying.

    • Guy M
      August 29, 2013 at 11:51 am

      I agree. I think, at best, I alluded to self-discipline. However, that is not a skill that I am seeing in many students today.

  6. Aibek Esengulov
    August 29, 2013 at 10:36 am

    I think laptop is pretty much a must these days!)

    It's a vital educational tool rather than something recreational at this point. I am pretty sure I acquired more knowledge from the web during my time in college than from actual lessons.

    • Guy M
      August 29, 2013 at 11:53 am

      If your professor was over 40, he or she didn't have a laptop, or even possibly a personal computer, when they did their degree. Yet there they are, teaching you.

  7. Pooky J
    August 29, 2013 at 8:42 am

    What if you study computer science and you don't have a laptop (or tablet) to store those lengthy codes?

    • Bruce E
      August 29, 2013 at 9:11 am

      Did you miss the comments about computer labs on campus?

  8. Victor O
    August 29, 2013 at 5:53 am

    I agree somewhat with this article. For me, I would consider a "dumb" phone with basic services so it doesn't become a distraction, but a phone is somewhat necessary when communicating IMO.

    As for laptops, I think it is something not necessary, but not exactly harmful to an education. The convenience of working somewhere else, say, a cooler/brighter environment, can really help one study. Of course, I don't think laptops should be used in class.

    Calculators are a different story. Calculators are quite needed for some fields of study. For basic operations (simultaneous equations, graphing basic lines) they shouldn't be used, but many math and scientific disciplines require the function of some sort of scientific calculator or graphing calculator. So while I feel like it is not absolutely necessary for EVERYTHING we do, it is something that is required by some.

    • Guy M
      August 29, 2013 at 11:56 am

      A phone may be necessary. However, a cellphone isn't necessary.

      Laptops are definitely handy. Yet up until this century very few people even owned one and there are so many people out there with post-secondary education. That is proof that they aren't necessary.

      The same argument applies to calculators. All of the math that one performs can be done with paper and pencil. In fact, by doing so, one can better understand the underlying functions that much better. It is only the sheer volume of work that is given that makes calculators necessary.

  9. Nash J
    August 29, 2013 at 1:50 am

    I do online classes with my laptop so it is kinda necessary. Many of the other things I agree on. A prepaid phone might be better than the postpaid. And things like skype goes a long way.

    • Guy M
      August 29, 2013 at 11:58 am

      The logical progression is to ask if online classes are really necessary. They aren't. Although I love and champion online learning, it really is a convenience.

      Distance education has been done for decades without the use of the web. It worked and many people have degrees to prove that. So, no, the laptop is still not necessary. Awesome to have? Yes, but not necessary.

  10. zachery
    August 29, 2013 at 1:40 am

    Well. As a college student, this looks like a really crappy article.
    Also, cats.

    • Guy M
      August 29, 2013 at 12:00 pm

      Of course it does. Give it 20 or 30 years until your kids go to college. Then you'll be saying, "Holographic Imagizer? I didn't need one of those to get the education that puts the clothes on your back!"

  11. ReadandShare
    August 28, 2013 at 10:16 pm

    The only real needs are: air,water, food, and maybe some clothing.

    Seriously though, this article lost me by saying a college student has no 'need' for a laptop or even a calculator.

    • dragonmouth
      August 28, 2013 at 11:07 pm

      Sorry, but a laptop is a major distraction and a calculator is just a convenience, not an absolute necessity.

      All schools have well equipped computer labs that, in a lot of cases, are open 24/7. Many schools have multiple computer labs, some even have small labs in the dorm buildings. I agree with the author that laptops are a big distraction in the classroom.

  12. Seppe
    August 28, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    a Pen? You don't need a pen, your own finger and its blood is good enough. We only use pens because everyone had one since the late 1880's.

    • Guy M
      August 29, 2013 at 12:01 pm

      Exactly! Although many of the scholars prior to then completed their studies using pencils or even etchings on wax tablets.

  13. Indronil
    August 28, 2013 at 7:59 pm

    We need nothing ,,
    drink water from river
    fruits from trees and what else ???