The summer’s winding down, the weather’s (slightly) less oppressive, and school is finally back in session.
You know what that means? It’s time to buy tech stuff.
But, per usual, knowing which tech stuff to buy is hard. The fact that lots of crucial tech categories are currently in a state of transition doesn’t help.
Luckily for you, my colleagues and I get paid to test these things. So, to help you get the most out of your tech for the upcoming school year, here’s a quick and easy breakdown of which campus essentials are actually worth buying today.
Inconveniently, it's a bad time to buy a laptop. And it's a really bad time to buy a new Mac: An overhauled MacBook Pro appears very likely to arrive by the end of the year, and reliable Apple reporter Mark Gurman says that a refreshed MacBook Air is in the works as well. If your kid's a Apple diehard, they should tough it out for just a couple more months.
Again, if you can wait, wait. A number of promising Windows laptops were announced just this week, the majority of which use Intel's new 7th generation 'Kaby Lake' processors. Those aren't a huge leap forward, but they're still an improvement. More importantly, as new laptops come out, they will bring down the prices of last year's still-capable machines.
If you absolutely need something today, though, the Dell XPS 13 is still a wonderfully compact Ultrabook with no significant flaws, while the Asus Zenbook UX305 is steady and stylish among midrange machines. The Acer Aspire E5-575G-53VG, meanwhile, isn't as capital-n Nice, but has the essentials down for an affordable $550.
Also, while we can't recommend a '2-in-1' over a traditional laptop on a general basis, Microsoft's Surface Pro 4 can still do the job if you spend a bunch of your PC time laying around watching videos.
Chromebooks are also at a turning point, thanks to Chrome OS's forthcoming support of the Google Play Store. Android apps should make Google's platform better, but to get the most of them, you'll want a touchscreen. There aren't many Chromebooks around now that have that without being overpriced and/or underpowered, but the future looks bright.
But again, if you can't wait, the Toshiba Chromebook 2 runs fast, feels good, and has a beautiful (non-touch) display for $400. The Dell Chromebook 13 is the same way, with a more premium build, but it can get a bit too costly for comfort.
This is another tricky one. Apple's about to murder the headphone jack, which is spawning a big wave of new wireless and Lightning-based headphones. Simply put: Apple's about to make future iPhones more hostile to traditional cans.
For now, though, there are still a ton of options to choose from. For cheapskates: Monoprice's Hi-Fi on-ears are amazingly sharp for $20, while Xiaomi's Mi In-Ear Headphones bring serious bass thunder for $25.
For wireless pairs: V-Moda's Crossfade Wireless are sturdy and fun. The Jabra Move Wireless are a good, bass-y bargain. And if you need to total peace while studying, Bose's QuietComfort 35 are tops in terms of pure noise cancelling.
For general use: The Sony MDR-1A are pleasant across the board, both smooth sounding and immensely comfortable. The Oppo PM-3 are accurate enough to please audiophiles, and the Audio-Technica ATH-M50X are a cult fave for about $140.
A new iPhone is coming this week, but all signs point to it being unremarkable. It will still be safe to buy Samsung's Galaxy S7 or S7 edge, which are powerful, gorgeous, and fitted with one of the best smartphone cameras in existence.
If you can't splurge, the OnePlus 3 gives you nothing less than a flagship phone for just $400. The same goes for the iPhone SE, provided you're cool with a tinier device. And if you just want something functional for as little as possible -- or just some backup in case you drop your normal phone in the toilet -- the Blu R1 HD is a ridiculous value at just $60.
Going back to class means spending an unhealthy amount of time hunched over your laptop. You can make your assignments a little more comfortable, though, by investing in a more ergonomic mouse. For that, we're big fans of the Evoluent Vertical Mouse C, which might look odd, but feels natural once you get going with it.
Backing up your data is a smart idea regardless, but it's definitely worth the effort when you've got notes and essays to preserve. You can always stick to the cloud, but if that's not enough, the Seagate Backup Plus Slim is reliable and portable hard drive that gives plenty of storage space for the money.
Likewise, it's hard to see the downsides of a good external battery. Something like Anker's PowerCore packs will keep your devices alive through a long night of studying, or other 'extracurricular activities.'
They're aren't quite necessary, but instant cameras -- yes, like those old Polaroids that'd print out photos right after you take them -- are back en vogue, and they can lend a bit of fun to your shenanigans around campus. If you're interested, the Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic is much more enjoyable than its name suggests.
A good Bluetooth speaker can liven up the dorm or the quad (or annoy your roommate). The UE Roll 2 is a good choice here: It's affordable ($80), waterproof, especially portable, and lively sounding for its size. If you're willing to splurge a couple hundred more on stronger performance and a higher-end build, the Bang & Olufsen BeoPlay A1 is just plain nice.
The former is cheaper ($35) and dead simple to use -- so long as you don't mind running everything through your phone. (Just know that a 4K-capable version appears to be on the way, if that's needed.)
The latter is $50, but it's just as quick, and uses the same super intuitive, self-contained interface you'd get on a bigger media streamer.
You might be tempted to pair all of this with a new game console, but again, try to wait. Sony will announce new PS4s very soon, Nintendo should unveil its secretive 'NX' console not long after, and Microsoft has a supercharged Xbox (dubbed 'Project Scorpio') coming next year. If nothing else, all of those should lower the prices of what's out now.
If you've got the space for a bigger picture, you might want to be that guy on campus with a projector. You pretty much have to drop big cash to find something great, but the $350 LG PH300 gets a solid (albeit 720p) image out of an easily portable package. Make sure to only use it in the dark, though.
Going back to the Roku well, TCL's brand of Roku TVs are very solid values if you need a new set altogether. They aren't world beaters in terms of picture quality, but have the whole Roku platform built in (so you don't need to buy a media streamer).
If you're willing to pay for higher quality, though, Vizio's M series is a strong performer in the mid-range.
If you know you'll be spending lots of time plopped in front of that TV, investing in a soundbar is the simplest upgrade you can give it. Hook a good one up, and everything sounds better. At $150, Vizio's SB3821-C6 is about as spacious as these things get on a budget.
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