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Our favorite back-to-school picks for 2021

Whether they're heading back to the classroom or moving into a dorm, this is the stuff students will need.

Summer is winding down, which means it's time to start gearing up to go back to school. Luckily, there are tons of amazing deals to be had on many of the products that students will need when they head back to their dorms and classrooms this fall.  

From the best laptops to water bottles 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. Have a look. We'll update this list periodically.

Read more: Best student credit card for 2021

Stephen Shankland/CNET

If you're a student, it's hard to go wrong with the newest Apple MacBook Air. This powerful laptop is back to the old $999 starting price, and if you're a student or teacher, you can shave off an additional $100, thanks to Apple's educational discount. The base model features Apple's M1 processor with an eight‑core CPU, seven‑core GPU and 16‑core Neural Engine. Stepping up from the baseline Macbook model will bring you an eight-core GPU and double the storage capacity with a 512GB SSD, but you'll be shelling out an additional $250.

Like its predecessors, the M1 Air has Touch ID, Apple's Magic Keyboard, a Force Touch trackpad and a 13.3-inch Retina display. 

Read our MacBook Air M1 review.

 

Dan Ackerman/CNET

I've been using Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Yoga for several months and have come to love both its versatility and performance chops. The 2019 fourth-gen model -- which remains fine for most high school or college needs -- starts at $1,330, but students and teachers can get an extra 10% off until August 22. 

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.

Read our ThinkPad X1 Yoga review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Read our Lenovo Yoga Chromebook C630 review.

 

Chris Monroe/CNET

For some 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.

Read our Nest Wifi review.

 

Hyperlite

While most students will be back on campus this fall, a face mask will still be an essential accessory at a lot of schools. Hyperlite, a maker of high-tech camping equipment, has come out with these latex-free, machine-washable masks. They look good and they work well.

Check out CNET's roundup of the face masks.

 

David Carnoy/CNET

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 $150 or less. 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.

Read our Jabra Elite 75t review.

 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

If your student will be living in a dorm room, a microwave will come in handy. 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 $75, 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.

Read our AmazonBasics Microwave review.

 

Instant Pot

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 $80 or less, making it a tough deal to turn down.

See more of the best Instant Pots of 2020.

 

Ninja

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.

Read our Ninja Hot and Cold Brewed System review.

 

Hydro Flask

Staying hydrated is a key component of keeping your mind sharp and getting you through the school day. 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.

See more of the best water bottles of 2021.

 

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.

Read CNET's list of best back-to-school backpacks and bags.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 last year.

Chris Monroe/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

For students, the TV is central to many forms of modern entertainment. This particular model comes with a Roku built in, making streaming apps effortlessly accessible. It has a decent picture quality and is ridiculously affordable -- perfect for a student on a budget.

Read the TCL S425 review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.)

Read our Roku Streaming Stick Plus review.

 

Stitch Fix

Many students will need a wardrobe upgrade this fall. 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.

See more of the best clothing subscription boxes for 2021.

 

Hello Fresh

Cut down on visits to the 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

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

For some colleges, a portion of communication will still happen online. If any of your classes will be through Zoom or another online platform, 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: 

If you don't want to buy a new webcam, 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.)