By Christina Tynan-Wood
To hear my teens tell it, I lugged my first computer around in a covered wagon. They have a point: technology is advancing so quickly that computers only a few years old seem as obsolete as transportation in the Wild West. Take the ASUS VivoTab Smart, for example. This Windows 8 tablet is so tidy and small it slips easily into a slim purse. It does everything a full-sized desktop did a couple of years ago, but it's slicker, faster, and offers the instant-on convenience of a smartphone. With a practiced gesture, you can flip and fold the cover to create a stand, connect the wireless keyboard (optional, +$100), and transform it instantly into a micro-desktop. That’s pretty wild — and an amazing tool for students. Yours will quickly forget that learning once involved pencils, desks, and a dedicated room. She’ll store her files in the cloud, use the touch screen and two cameras to take video notes, video chat with teachers, and research projects — and her own questions — using any available surface and Internet connection. When her work is done, it all folds up with a snap — the cover attaches magnetically to the tablet and the keyboard clings magnetically to the cover — and she’s good to go. I hate to admit it, but in comparison, my big laptop bag does look a bit like a covered wagon.
Your student says she needs a laptop, but you wonder if a tablet will suffice. This two-in-one will. It’s a super-light laptop complete with the plugs most tablets don’t have: two USB ports for connecting tech extras (like cameras) and an HDMI port to plug in a big monitor for games and movies. It has every angle covered — from desk jockey to geek on the-move. And when tablet envy kicks in, just push a button to separate keyboard from screen: presto, you’ve got a tablet! And like the best tablets, this one has a front and back camera, touch screen, headphone jack, and (Windows) apps. But this tablet operates on Windows 8, so all that traditional software — including Photoshop, Outlook, and games — work, too. Nothing left at home for the sake of portability. In fact, as long as there’s a Wi-Fi connection handy, she’s got the whole wide world in her bag. I can’t think of a better salve for the pain of going back to school.
HP Envy x2, $649.99
It was once expensive to outfit the family with Microsoft’s office suite; plus, installation was a time-consuming chore. Not anymore. The latest version of Microsoft Office is the best yet and you can buy the entire suite — Word, Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint, Publisher, Outlook, and Access — for the entire family for $99.99 a year (or $9.99 a month) and install it on five different computers or tablets right from the web. Even better, if your student is going off to college, Microsoft Office 365 University is $79.99 for a four-year subscription, good for two devices. And now the installation is quick and easy enough for a middle schooler to manage. Your kids will have the best tools available for writing, creating spreadsheets and graphs, designing publications, building presentations, and keeping track of their calendars. Be sure to explore OneNote, a digital three-ring notebook that keeps track of ideas in whatever form they take: video, web clippings, audio, photos, emails, drawings, or typed thoughts. It will sync across all your computers or mobile devices so your student can capture an idea anywhere and access it from everywhere. It’s as familiar as a three-ring binder — but far more powerful — and a fantastic way not only to keep track of schoolwork but to keep the whole family connected.
Office 365 Home Premium 2013, $99.99 a year
If you’re looking to save on greenbacks but still want access to the world of iPad coolness, the mini is your answer: so compact it could either fit in the small hands of a child or slip easily into the messenger bag of a college student — and the price is far easier to justify for a student than a full-sized iPad. What’s more, with the 300,000 educational apps available in the iTunes App Store and the vast learning resources at iTunes U, this slim device could be the key that unlocks the joy of learning. A textbook may induce snoring, but what kid would be bored by an immersive visual romp back to the Jurassic period for a peek at the dinosaur population (Dino Walk: Continental Drift; $2.99), a fast-paced spy game where math facts are the key to advancing (Operation Math; $2.99), or apps that explore science, physics, and history? How about a free, online course at UCLA or MIT? All are available and range from free to a few dollars in the iTunes Store. Schools are embracing this device as a learning tool, why shouldn’t you?
iPad mini, $329
This highly portable 7” tablet is lovely, slender, and a delight to use. Plus, the price is hard to resist — even if you’re shopping for a young student. This slick tablet will deliver the thousands of educational tools in the Android market, as well as social media, books, entertainment, communications tools, and games right to his fingertips — even when your home computer is occupied. In fact, with Google Now to help him stay organized, he may even become a better student. “Class starts in 15 minutes,” Google Now will warn (if he has a data plan) on his home screen when he’s parked in the downtown Starbucks and psych class is imminent. “It will take 10 minutes to get there.” (How great is that to have the nagging come from his tech device and not from you?) Or, if he’s lost in math, a tap will take him to the Khan Academy, or YouTube Edu can help him find learning (and humor) in bite-sized portions. (Don’t believe me? Check out Crashcourse.)
Nexus 7, $199
Every student needs paper and a number two pencil, right? Well, these school essentials should start worrying, because this slick Android tablet is moving in on their space. Can paper and pencil grab a photo and drop it on the page, ready to be marked up? Can they interpret your scratches and turn them into neat text or the correct formula? Will it take my feeble drawings and turn them into elegant shapes? And when taking notes gets old, will they record audio of the lecture to refer to later? This 8” tablet with built-in S Pen stylus does all this and more. Like the Nexus 7, it reminds you when it’s time for class, runs Skype video, voice, or text chats, features thousands of apps, connects to the Internet (via Wi-Fi), edits your thesis in Polaris Office, and plays movies and games. Plus, this baby sports an awesome display, fast processor, and two cameras. It can even share files or other information wirelessly with nearby machines using Allshare Play. Sweet!
Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0, $399.99
Thinking of upgrading your student’s phone to something smarter? Consider the Nokia Lumia 920. He’ll be thrilled with the great color choices, slick inductive charging (no wires with the right charger accessory!), integrated Xbox Live, social dashboard on the start screen, and a camera so amazing you can resign your role as family photographer. Your student is going to have so much fun with this phone that you may need to remind him it’s also a learning tool. It comes with Microsoft Office already installed, and OneNote will let him snap a pic of the homework on the blackboard, record a lecture, or jot a to-do list. And when he turns on his computer, his notes will be waiting in OneNote on the desktop, making studying a breeze.
Nokia Lumia 920, starting at $49 with a contract
Whatever gadget your student sports — Android tablet, iPad, Windows PC, Mac, smartphone — she needs Evernote. This free software, app, and website will solve the “I forgot my homework” problem once and for all. Left her math assignment under the couch? Snap a picture of it on your smartphone or run it through a scanner, upload it to Evernote, and share it instantly with your disorganized math whiz. She’ll receive a notification at school and can send it to the school printer or right to the teacher’s in-box. You can do the same with permission slips, tests, handwritten notes, forms, and all the other paperwork that so often goes missing. Evernote will also help you keep track of ideas, restaurants, vacations, to-do lists, recipes, and everything else you want to remember.
Evernote, freemium (Free to start, premium service available)
Lugging a laptop — however light, speedy, and awesome — to school only to have its battery die by fourth period is a total fail. Well, that’s not going to happen here. The MacBook Air is light (less than three pounds), superfast (sporting the very latest Intel core processor), and gets hours of battery life — all on a unit that will do everything a student needs. It will still be going strong when your student has fallen asleep at the homework table. Worried it won’t survive the backpack? Don’t be. Older computers had to be babied because the hard drive was delicate. The Air uses flash memory, which is durable because it has no moving parts. If the price doesn't fit your budget, don’t forget that education discounts are available for students and educators. Students heading to college also qualify for a $100 gift card to the APP Store. You'll be adored by the lucky teen who gets this bit of awesomeness — and maybe it'll translate directly to sweetness, dedication to studies, and extra chores accomplished. It might. I’d do more chores if you got me one!
MacBook Air, starting at $999