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.
The JBL Bluetooth speaker that received the biggest improvements for 2021 is among the company’s smallest. The JBL Go 3 has a completely new look — it’s now covered in durable fabric instead of having the naked plastic design of its Go predecessors — and that new design, coupled with surprisingly decent sound for its small size, makes the Go 3 ($40, £35, AU$70) one of the top micro Bluetooth speakers out there.
Available in multiple color options, it has an IPX 67 water-resistance rating (it can be dunked in water and is dustproof). Battery life is rated at up to 5 hours.
Here’s a gift every student who’s susceptible to losing things will appreciate. Apple’s new AirTags accessory works with any Apple device and uses the company’s FindMy network — the same one used to find lost iPhones. Attach it to keys, a backpack or just about anything else. It’s $29 for one, $99 for four — and if you buy through Apple, you can get free customized engraving, too.
Read CNET’s hands-on with Apple AirTags.
The EarFun Free Pro buds have active noise cancellation with a transparency mode, wireless charging and Bluetooth 5.2. Rated for seven hours of battery life without the noise-canceling function on, or about six hours with it, they’re IPX5 water-resistant, which means they can withstand a sustained spray of water.
They sound very good for the money, with relatively clean, balanced sound and bass that has some kick to it — they’re pretty open-sounding. Lightweight and comfortable to wear, they have little fins that help keep them securely in your ears, and they’re fairly discreet-looking.
Don’t expect them to cancel noise as well as the AirPods Pro, but they do provide some decent muffling. It’s worth noting that you can use either the left or right earbud independently, and there’s a low-latency mode for video watching (and presumably gaming). Call quality was decent, too — callers said they heard some background noise, but it wasn’t intrusive and they could hear my voice well. The touch controls were responsive.
Anker’s 10,000-mAh Power Bank is relatively slim for the size of the battery and includes one each USB-C port and USB-A ports with quick-charging features (up to 18W). You can also wirelessly charge the latest smartphones that have wireless-charging capabilities and the battery turns into a wireless charging pad if you plug it into a power adapter, which isn’t included. The battery will charge as your phone does in that setup.
It’s currently $50, but sometimes a clip-and-save coupon can bring the price down.
I was a fan of the original Earfun Free buds, and now there’s an upgraded version called the Earfun Free 2. They’re not a huge upgrade, but like the originals they fit my ears well and deliver decent bang for the buck with strong sound — it has just a touch of treble and bass boost (there’s plenty of bass) — and extra features such as wireless charging.
Battery life is rated at up to seven hours at moderate volume levels, and these buds are fully waterproof with an IPX7 rating. These are equipped with Bluetooth 5.2 and use Qualcomm’s QCC3040 chip that includes support for Qualcomm’s AptX audio codec if you’re using an AptX-enabled device (certain Android smartphones support that protocol).
They’re $50 but often have an instant coupon that lowers the price a bit.
Read our EarFun Free review.
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 less than $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.
Read our Roku Streaming Stick Plus review.
The latest Echo Dot smart speaker lists for $50, but is currently on sale for $45. With this 4th-generation model, Amazon moved to a new ball-shaped design that delivers better sound than previous Echo Dots. The version with a built-in clock is $60.
Read our Amazon Echo Dot (2020) review.
I was a fan of Creative’s original Sound Blaster Jam headphones that came out in 2015 and had a decidedly retro look and feel as well as good sound for the money. Now the headphone is available in a 2.0 version that has some key upgrades, including Bluetooth 5.0, USB-C charging, improved call quality and multipoint Bluetooth pairing that allows you to pair it to two devices simultaneously. Battery life is rated at up to 22 hours.
Biolite’s TraveLight 135 is a multifunction portable — and wearable — LED light that can be used as a flashlight (bright white light), bike light (with a flashing red light) and even a power bank for charging your phone. It fits easily into a pocket and is a good safety item for grads.
Tribit’s StormBox Micro lists for slightly more than $50, but often dips below the $50 mark, so I’m including it on this list. It’s one of the best sounding pocket-size 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 limit 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 other speakers in this category, this Bluetooth model has an integrated strap so you can clip it to your backpack or bike’s handlebars.
Read our Tribit StormBox Micro review.
There’s nothing sexy about a wall wart, but this one is one of the better ones for the money, with dual USB-C PD (power delivery) ports and a total of 65 watts of power. That will allow you to charge most devices, including some larger USB-C laptops. It lists for $40 but is on sale for $26 right now.
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 is on sale for $40 as the new Smart Clock 2 is set to arrive soon.
Edifier has a few different new true-wireless earbuds and most, including the TWS 330NB, are very good values. While the TWS 330NB buds are missing a sensor that automatically pauses your music when you take them out of your ears, they feature very good sound quality for the money, decent active noise canceling with a transparency mode, and solid voice calling (they have three microphones in each bud for noise canceling and noise reduction during calls).
They fit my ears well — they’re essentially AirPods Pro clones — and while the touch controls are a little limited, they are programmable using the Edifier Connect app for iOS and Android (you can also set the level of touch sensitivity). They have an IP54 rating, which means they’re splash- and dust-proof, and battery life is rated at four hours with noise canceling on and five hours with it off (at moderate volume levels). That’s only OK, but you do get an additional two charges in the charging case.
The TWS 330NB lists for $60 but are often discounted to around $50. Right now they’re a little more than $50, but they were close enough to include on this list.