I unboxed, plugged in, set up and tested out more than 300 “back-to-school” gadgets and apps over the last few months. Through it all, I had one main goal; to find something new that solved a common problem better than anything I — or my family — already own.
Back-to-school spending is expected to hit an all-time high this year, even as inflation soars and parents feel the squeeze of skyrocketing prices.
A recent survey from Morning Consult found that only 36% of parents can afford back-to-school shopping this year without any issues. The NRF’s annual poll also shows that a third of families plan to cut back on other spending areas to cover the cost of must-haves for the new school year.
The number one priority for many? Electronics.
But what do we — or our kids — really need? And how much do we have to spend to get something that fills that need without breaking the bank? Here’s a look at several products that scored an A grade for meeting — and even exceeding — my cynical tester-reporter-mom requirements.
Go The Bleep to Sleep
Sleep is a massive issue in just about every family I know — and it’s often worse during the start of the new school year. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a third of kids ages four months to 17 don’t get enough sleep.
A new study in the medical journal Lancet shows that a lack of sleep in kids may hinder neurocognitive development, which impacts memory, intelligence, well-being and can lead to lasting health problems.
One of the biggest takeaways from all the research available today is that kids (and adults) shouldn’t have devices in their bedrooms. Unless they’re specifically geared toward solving sleep issues.
One gadget that checked all the boxes in this category is the VTech V-Hush Sleep Training Soother ($60). It’s made for little ones as young as two, but I know a few families using it for older kids to help them get back into the swing of the new school year sleep routine. It helps create healthier sleep patterns and environments through stories, songs, a glow-on-the-ceiling projector, multi-color night light and a Bluetooth speaker. It’s all backed by science and expertise, and they throw in a free consultation with a WeeSleep consultant.
For older kids, teens, and college-age students, Morphée ($100) and Hatch Restore ($100) are great options, along with apps like Calm app (iOS and Android) and Headspace (iOS, Android).
More:Got the Sunday scaries? These apps and devices can help you relax and fall asleep faster
Encouraging more STEM
Science education is a great way to encourage curiosity and creativity. Still, research shows it often takes a backseat in early childhood education, and many kids never quite catch up with peers in other countries.
For this issue, the GeoSafari Jr. My First Microscope ($25) is a prime pick. It’s a real, working, scientific tool that can open up new worlds for young ones without overwhelming them. This fully functioning microscope comes with 8X magnification, extra-large eyepieces, a kid-sized focusing knob, and a bright LED that lights up details for even more discoveries. This model is great for kids ages 3-6.
For older kids, take a look at the AmScope Kids Beginner Microscope STEM Kit ($34). It includes a 52-piece set for budding scientists to use right out of the box. The beginner-level compound scope has a built-in color wheel and a rotating turret that gives you several magnification options starting at 120X and going all the way to a 1200X close-up.
While you might get sick of hearing, “Hey Mom, this is so disgusting, you have to check it out,” both scopes offer excellent introductions to full-scale STEM research.
My Student Needs a Laptop — HELP!
Kids as young as four are already pretty good at using computers, but few parents know where — or when — to start when it comes to getting them a device of their own.
Many schools across the country loan Chromebooks for coursework, so you might be fine going with what they hand out. Around the age of 12, they often need to do more on digital devices, which is when sharing laptops and PCs among parents and siblings at home can get tricky.
A few do’s
Check for student discounts and look into certified refurbished devices from gadget makers.
· Make sure it’s powerful enough to tackle all their school projects. For power and speed — check the processor — which should be at least Intel i5, Intel i7, or equivalent — like Apple M1 Pro. The newer, the better.
· It should be light enough to fit in a backpack and cart around all day.
· Battery life needs to last all day. Look for 10 hours.
· Key Specs in the “do” list also include:
· Memory/RAM — 4GB is fine for younger kids, but the more memory, the better, especially as they get into higher grades and college.
· Storage — the higher this number, the better — but also more expensive. The bare minimum here is 64 GB, but 128 or higher is even better.
A few don’ts when buying tech
Don’t go for the absolute cheapest unless they check all the other boxes too. There are a few ways to get something of high value and quality for really cheap, but that’s with trade-in deals and promo codes. If you pass a laptop for $100 or less on sale at a big box store, it’s likely not good enough to last until the holidays, let alone the entire school year.
I recommend starting kids with a budget-friendly 2-in-1 device like the Lenovo Chromebook Duet 3 ($380). It’s one of the best and most versatile small Chromebooks around — and it’s an excellent value for the price. The 11-inch tablet comes with a detachable keyboard, built-in stand, and cover for inevitable drops and spills. It’s ultraportable for homework and features solid performance, 10+ hour battery life, and built-in virus protection.
Another similar device in this sweet-spot price range is the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook 2-360 ($430 with trade-in options that can bring the price down to less than $100). It’s another budget-
friendly 2-in-1 with standout features, including a 360-degree convertible touchscreen display, full HD webcam, lightning-fast Wi-Fi, all-day battery life and built-in security.
Lastly, make sure the device has intuitive and easy-to-use parental controls, which both of these do. Lock down sites you don’t want them to visit, such as inappropriate content on YouTube, Reddit, and violent or pornographic sites. Set time limits, and be sure to set in-app spending limits too.
My child says everyone else has a smartphone
I wrote about age-appropriate steps for kids regarding cell phones in last week’s column. Just like teaching kids to ride a swim, ride a bike, or drive a car, teaching them how to use technology safely and responsibly starts with baby steps.
I recommended “training wheel” tech in last week’s story, including WIFI starter “phones,” smartwatches, and kid-safe cell phones that are better options than handing over an expensive handset and hoping for the best.
Start On a Good Note
After all the gadget testing I’ve done, a screen with the sole purpose of making you feel better is my new favorite thing. I like it so much, I bought one for my daughter, who’s going into her senior year of college.
The Presence “Inspiration” Display ($189) wants to put you in a better headspace. With a minimalist design, gorgeous artwork, and stunning photography, it uses the science-based power of daily affirmations to deliver a personalized and carefully curated playlist of inspirational quotes.
If you’ve ever clipped, printed, pinned, shared, or scrolled motivational quotes — this is a great new way to surround yourself with an always-on and visible feel-good bit of tech. The company says it’s designed to help you make meaningful changes in your life by forming better habits, retraining thought patterns, helping you center, and delivering daily doses of affirmations.
You need to connect with the free Presence app, then choose between playlists (called “Rays”). Options include “Reconnect with Nature,” “Movie Lines to Inspire,” “Meaningful Thoughts to Blow Your Mind,” “Inspiring Words for Kids,” and words of wisdom from movie stars and luminaries — from Jennifer Lawrence and Drake — to Oprah and Albert Einstein.
Speaking of Oprah, I’ve picked pretty much every Oprah’s Favorite Things gadget a year or two (or more) before they make her list for the past decade. I predict this will be one of them!
Wait, there’s more!
I have a few more to tell you about but have to wait for my upcoming Today Show appearance to unveil those. You’ll be able to read all about them here on August 23.
In the meantime, check out some of our other top picks from previous years, which still rise to the top today, including portable chargers, the Lumos bike helmet, Apple AirTags, and Tile trackers. And be sure to let us know what affordable gadgets you use.