You don't need to spend hundreds of dollars on a back-to-school gift. There are plenty of inexpensive things every student needs that are critically important -- whether they're practical, interesting or just entertaining. Here are a handful of great gifts for the dorm and the classroom that cost less than 50 bucks.
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Time management is crucial. And for less than $40, this elegant alarm clock offers an innovative spin on the basic concept of waking up in the morning. Thirty minutes before the scheduled alarm time, the light gradually starts increasing in brightness until it reaches a customizable max at the scheduled time and starts beeping with increasing intensity to finish the task of waking you up.
Simple but effective: a waterproof Bluetooth speaker that looks good, sounds good and costs less than $30.
For about one-third of the price of a pair of AirPods, these wireless Bluetooth earbuds sound better than you'd expect. They offer solid wireless performance and 5 hours of battery life, and come with a compact charging case that delivers an extra five charges.
Help your student protect their most treasured possession: their phone.
After being mercilessly mocked by colleagues for carrying around my new iPhone XS Max without a case, I buckled to the pressure and tried out a few. The Catalyst was my favorite of the lot. It looks cool, is comfortable to hold, has a nifty rotating mute switch and a passthrough for connecting to a charger -- and, as I can testify after at least a half dozen drops, it does its job.
Give the gift of power. This RAVPower charger is the ultimate wall wart: It's got a regular USB charger for phones and other small gadgets, and the USB-C PD (power delivery) port has enough juice to charge up full-size laptops. We've charged up HP Spectres and new MacBook Airs to capacity in under 2 hours with this puppy. Just be sure to snag a nice 2-meter USB-C cable if you don't already have one.
Rocketbook's line of reusable notebooks make it easy to send notes and other jottings to your email or preferred cloud service (Google Drive, Dropbox, Slack and Evernote). I prefer the Everlast model, which has straightforward dot grid paper, to the Fusion line, which adds a handful of calendar and to-do templates.
On the one hand, using the Everlast notebook is just marginally more convenient than taking a photo of any piece of paper and sending it to yourself. But the notebook has a few nice usability touches -- you can mark an icon at the bottom of the page to route notes to up to seven different destinations -- and the sustainability angle is compelling. Included with the notebook is a nice Pilot FriXion pen (which doubles as an eraser) and a microfiber cloth that effectively wipes pages clean to be used again.
Rocketbook is offering a back to school discount between Aug. 30 and Sept. 3. Enter the code B2S2019 at checkout to get 25% off an order of $25 or more.
For the lucky student who already has a TV, the Roku Streaming Stick will transform it into a full-featured streaming device. This particular model does not support 4K and HDR video -- you'll need the step-up Plus model for that -- but it still has the best search interface around, and the remote will also control the TV's volume and power.
Modern students are aware of the benefits of staying hydrated, and many are discerning about the container they use. Hydro Flask bottles keep liquids cool for up to 24 hours and hot drinks warm up to 12 hours. And they're tough enough to survive the rigors of campus life.
Sometimes you just need to switch off the screen and fight your battles the old-fashioned way -- with plastic miniatures on a tabletop map. OK, "fighting" is an exaggeration here: This game is more about strategic trading and building, but once you get the hang of it, it's fun and engaging for kids, students and full-fledged adults alike.
OK, technically, this costs $51.49 -- but I'm willing to bend the rules for a 60-piece kit that has every tool a student might need, whether they're living on or off campus. You get an 8-volt drill, a hammer, a level, a tape measure and a bunch of wrenches and screwdrivers -- all neatly packed into a handy carrying case.
It's not always easy for students to get to the grocery store or the mall, and an Uber gift card can help ease the burden of transportation. The company offers both digital and physical cards in denominations from $10 to $500, and you can give the gift of a ride or food delivery (through the Uber Eats service).