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Best back-to-school gear under $50

Practical gifts for students that won't break the bank.

This year's back-to-school season is going to be a challenge for students and parents, with many schools likely to follow New York's "blended learning" plan that mixes staggered in-school sessions with home-based remote learning. No matter their location or grade level, however, students will need plenty of gear to get them back into the educational frame of mind. That said, you don't need to spend hundreds of dollars on a back-to-school gift: There are plenty of inexpensive tech products every student needs that are critically important -- whether they're practical, interesting or just entertaining. Here's a handful of school-friendly items to use in the dorm, the classroom or just around the house. They all cost less than 50 bucks.

Fiil T1X true wireless earbuds

Good sound for a moderate price

David Carnoy/CNET

The Fiil T1X wireless earbuds deliver great sound for the money -- there's a touch of presence boost in the treble to add clarity, which is both good and bad. Plus, they fit my ears well and I was impressed by how quickly the buds paired with my phone.

These have an IP65 sweat- and water-resistance rating so they can take a sustained spray of water. Battery life is around 5 hours on a single charge at higher volume levels, and there's a quick-charge feature that gives you 2 hours of juice from a 10-minute charge. The simple, fairly compact charging case charges via USB-C. The buds have touch controls and there's a companion app that allows you to tweak the sound with EQ settings (I left it on the default setting).

EarFun Go

Mini Bluetooth speaker

Amazon

The EarFun Go is $40 and delivers good sound for its compact size, with just enough bass and volume to make you think you're listening to a significantly bigger speaker. It's also fully waterproof and has up to 25 hours of battery life at moderate volume levels (it charges via USB-C). Two of these can be wirelessly connected to create a stereo pair.

For $10 more, you can get EarFun's UBoom ($50), which is also a solid value. It sounds slightly better but I prefer the design of the Go.    

Aukey 20,000-mAh Portable Charger USB-C Power Bank

Excellent value high-capacity charging battery

Amazon

Aukey's 20,000-mAh Power Bank is relatively slim for the size of the battery and includes one USB-C port and three USB-A ports along with a micro-USB port. (You can charge the battery with either a USB-C cable or micro-USB cable.) With 3A of total output, you can charge one USB-C device and three USB-A devices simultaneously. The USB-C port will take the full 3A of power on its own if you connect only one device to it. 

It's currently $40, but sometimes a clip-and-save coupon can bring the price down. 

EarFun Free

Solid AirPod-style headphones

Sarah Tew/CNET

Real AirPods will run you between $129 to $159, depending where and when you buy them. But for under $50, your best alternative is the EarFun Free. It offers wireless and USB-C charging, full water resistance and 6 hours of battery life between in-case charges. Oh, and for the price, they sound pretty good, too.

Anker Soundcore Life P2

Stick-style buds for less than $50

David Carnoy/CNET

Half the price of Anker's highly rated Soundcore Liberty Air 2 with similar features, the Soundcore Life P2 earbuds are an excellent value option. The buds charge horizontally in their case rather than vertically, and there's a slightly cheaper feel to both the case and the buds compared with the Liberty Air 2. Their sound doesn't have the presence boost in the treble that the Liberty Air 2 buds have, so they're not as clear-sounding with well-recorded tracks and the bass isn't quite as well defined. But they're warmer and more forgiving, which I appreciated, and they sound more like the original Liberty Air.

Read our Soundcore Life P2 review.

 

RAVPower 65W USB PD Wall Charger

Charge almost anything

Sarah Tew/CNET

There's nothing sexy about a wall wart, but this one is the closest we've found to a universal charger -- and it only costs about $33. Use the USB-C PD (power delivery) port for nearly anything, up to and including the Nintendo Switch and most newer laptops. Meanwhile, the older USB-A slot works for phones, headphones or anything else that uses a legacy USB cable. 

Roku Streaming Stick Plus

Stream it all in 4K

Sarah Tew/CNET

These days, it's nearly impossible to get a TV without a bunch of "smart" streaming apps built-in. But that's not true of older TVs, and even newer ones don't have all the top new services, like Disney Plus. Enter the Roku Streaming Stick Plus: For under $50, this plug-in streamer will deliver most online video services you can think of -- Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus and hundreds more -- at resolutions up to 4K for under $50. (Major holdouts currently include Warner's HBO Max and NBC's Peacock.) Oh, and the remote will control your TV's power and volume, too. If you're looking to give that old TV a new lease on life, this is the gadget to get.

Echo Dot with Clock

Time-enabled smart speaker

James Martin/CNET

The Echo Dot smart speaker with built-in clock lists for $60, but it's frequently discounted to less than $50 and is sometimes as low as $35. That built-in clock means "Alexa, what time is it?" is a question sleepy students will no longer need to ask. The display also shows countdown timers and the temperature outside.

Tribit StormBox Micro

Best budget micro speaker

David Carnoy/CNET

Tribit's StormBox Micro lists slightly more than $50, but often dips below $50, so I'm including it on this list. It's one of the best sounding pocket-sized Bluetooth speakers I've tested, with bigger bass and volume than most other tiny speakers. 

Aside from its great design, Bose's SoundLink Micro stood out because it was able to deliver more bass than every Bluetooth speaker in its size class, and it also managed to have limited distortion at higher volumes. And it's the Tribit's bass and overall volume level for its tiny size that allows it to stand out. 

It's IP67 dustproof and water-resistant (it can be fully submerged in shallow water for a short time) and has up to eight hours of battery life at moderate volume levels with USB-C charging. Like the Bose, this Bluetooth speaker has an integrated strap so you can clip it to your backpack or bike's handlebars. 

Lenovo Smart Clock

Google next to your bed

James Martin/CNET

No, the Lenovo Smart Clock isn't as fully featured as the Google Nest Hub -- but at half the price, it's a pretty sweet bedside companion that includes Google Assistant. There's no camera, which I appreciate in the bedroom, and the USB port on the rear is handy for charging phones or other gadgets on your nightstand. It usually sells for about $60, but I threw it in here as a bonus pick because sometimes goes on sale for as little as $40.