What does "back to school" even mean in the fall of 2020? With each student, parent and school making choices about how to respond to the challenges of the, it's going to be a mixed bag. Though some institutions have already announced plans to welcome students back to campus, embrace remote learning or some combination of the two, most of the details are still way up in the air.
Whether the schooling happens in person or virtually, however, students will need many of the same supplies as always -- as well as some new ones specific to this unique school year. Fromto to everything in between, we've rounded up our top back-to-school picks for the gadgets, gear and services that will help students stay productive and engaged in the classroom, on a Zoom call and anywhere else their education takes them this year.
Yes, Apple has announced that it's revamping its Mac line over the next two years with fancy updated chips that will allow you to run iPad and iPhone apps alongside existing desktop software. But for anyone who needs a Mac now, it's never been easier to recommend the MacBook Air: This year's model has everything a student needs -- a killer display, solid components and the updated Magic Keyboard. With Apple's education discount, the brand-new 2020 model starts at $899 and comes with a complimentary pair of AirPods. (Pro tip: Spend $100 more to upgrade to the Core i5 processor, no matter where you choose to buy.)
I've been using Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Yoga for several months and have come to love both its versatility and performance chops. Starting at $1,000 for the 2019 fourth-gen model -- which remains fine for most high school or college needs -- this convertible's 14-inch display is crisp and bright and works equally well in laptop and tablet mode. Even the entry-level configuration features components that are heavy-duty enough for just about any student.
Then again, there are still plenty of good reasons to go with a Chromebook. They're almost always less expensive and simpler to use than a laptop running Windows or MacOS. Lenovo's excellent C630 -- and its newer sibling, the C640 -- both feature a 15-inch 4K display, terrific battery life and surprisingly powerful components for the price.
For many students, a bedroom, study or kitchen table will be the place they resume their education in the fall. As such, a robust Wi-Fi signal that extends to every corner of the home will be their lifeline to the classroom. The Google Nest Wifi features speedy performance, pleasing aesthetics and doubles as a Google Assistant smart speaker. It's easy to set up, easy to use and easy to rely on -- and we think it's the best solution overall for bolstering a home network.
Whether your student is learning remotely or goes back to campus in 2020, a face mask will be an essential accessory. This spring, Hyperlite, based in Maine, pivoted from manufacturing high-tech camping equipment to churning out these latex-free, machine-washable masks. They look good and they work well.
There are a lot of great true wireless earbuds out there these days, but the Jabra Elite 75t arguably delivers the best bang for the buck at $180. These earbuds work equally well for iPhone and Android owners, and -- while they don't offer active noise cancellation like the AirPods Pro or Sony WF-1000XM3, a tight seal will deliver a near equally blissful sonic experience.
Students heading to a campus may face a battery of new restrictions on common spaces. All of which is to say, there's never been a better time to have your own microwave.
There aren't many things you can't cook in a microwave, and -- unlike hot plates, camping stoves and other niche cookery devices -- most dorms allow them. For $60, this AmazonBasics Microwave includes Alexa voice support and a (somewhat random) popcorn reordering feature. Bottom line: It's a competitively priced cooking device with some useful features you won't find in other microwaves in the same price range.
If the dorm allows it, an Instant Pot is a no brainer for college students. It can do almost anything: make morning yogurt, boil perfect eggs, cook big batches of protein to stretch into meals all week long and even pull off easy desserts. The smaller 3-quart mini Instant Pot might be better for dormbound students, but the larger 6-quart model (Duo Nova 7-in-1) pictured above is occasionally on sale for $50, making it a tough deal to turn down.
Whether you're at home or away at school, coffee is an essential ingredient for academic success. This jack-of-all-trades Ninja makes regular coffee as well as cold brew and even tea, with separate settings and baskets for beans and leaves (loose or bagged). It has a foldaway frothing arm for latte-style drinks -- so not only will it save money on Starbucks runs, it'll make the dorm the most popular spot to study. It includes size settings too, so you can brew a full carafe or a single cup.
Staying hydrated is a key component of cultivating a strong immune system. Hydro Flask bottles keep liquids cool for up to 24 hours and hot drinks warm up to 12 hours, plus they're tough enough to survive the rigors of campus life.
I've been using Burton's Spruce 26L backpack for the past few years, and I think it's the best, most versatile bag I've ever owned. It's comfortable to wear, looks cool and is made with durable materials, including weather-resistant zippers. From the quick-release magnetic buckles to the fleece-lined laptop pocket, this bag is extremely well-designed from top to bottom. And it comes with Burton's lifetime warranty.
If you're looking for something a little higher-end, I also love the weatherproof Rhake backpack from Mission Workshop. At $370, it's expensive, but the 22-liter roll-top compartment is cavernous, the laptop compartment that opens from the side is so handy -- and the bag just looks slick.
Rocketbook's reusable notebooks and planners make it easy to send notes, calendar items and other jottings to your email or preferred cloud service (Google Drive, Dropbox, Slack or Evernote). On the one hand, using the Fusion 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 also introduced its own version of the popular Panda planner earlier this summer.
The Lenovo Smart Clock is a minimalist, customizable smart clock that can recommend alarms based on your calendar. It comes with the full power of Google Assistant voice control, so it's basically a Google Home Mini with a clock face. My favorite feature is also the most visceral -- you can snooze your alarms just by whacking the thing.
In 2020, the TV remains central to many forms of modern entertainment. This particular model comes with a Roku built in, making streaming apps effortlessly accessible. The 32-incher costs less than $120 at Walmart and Amazon has the dorm-friendly 43-inch model for just $230.
For the lucky student who already has a TV, the Roku Plus will transform it into a full-featured streaming device. This model supports 4K and HDR video, has the best search interface and can control the TV's volume and power. (If your smart TV is missing any key apps, this will plug all those pesky content holes.)
Some students will need a wardrobe upgrade this fall -- even if it's just a bunch of new tops for Zoom calls. Stitch Fix makes it easy with a monthly delivery of curated clothes, shoes and accessories delivered right to your student's door. They can try them on, keep what they like and send back the rest in a prepaid United States Postal Service envelope. Stitch Fix gift cards, which can be printed, emailed or snail mailed, are available in denominations from $20 to $1,000.
Cut down on visits to the grocery store or dining hall with a meal kit delivery service. HelloFresh provides perfectly portioned ingredients and detailed recipe instructions, helping even novice cooks pull off impressive meals. There are plenty of other meal kit delivery companies to choose from, and many offer plans for special diets including vegan and gluten-free selections.
Read more: Best meal kit subscription services
A solid video-chatting setup
For the foreseeable future, a good portion of communication will happen online. Whether your student is Zooming with classmates or FaceTiming with friends, an upgraded video-chatting setup will go a long way. Here are some of our favorite tools, all of which -- with the exception of the excellent though expensive and only-intermittently-available StreamCam -- are usually in stock:
- Logitech StreamCam: $260
- Joby HandyPod tripod: $30
- Joby Beamo Mini LED Light: $70
- Blue Snowball iCE USB microphone: $50
And though good webcams are in short supply, it's entirely possible to cobble together a primetime setup with a smartphone camera. (Here's CNET's detailed run down of how to put it all together.)