Fun Optional (But Useful) Tech
Ok, so while you might not necessarily need these tech items, they would be wonderful to have for the school year, and would make great gifts for a student you know.
A smart speaker like the Apple HomePod, Amazon Echo (or Dot), or Google Home (or Home Mini), can kill a number of birds with one, er, device. They can work as a music source for a small space, whether it's a bedroom at home or a dorm room on campus, or for audio to accompany your TV or laptop. Log school class schedules, study date appointments, and other events, and add reminders or set alarms to wake you up in the morning. With the HomePod, which began selling in Canada in June, in white or space grey, for $449, you can turn on personal requests, and Siri can send a message, add reminders and notes and check calendar appointments (in Canada later this year), set a timer, play a podcast, check the news, sports, traffic and weather, and control a wide range of HomeKit smart home accessories.
Soundbars can be a good sound compromise when space is at a minimum. But their sound quality is improving, and the latest models also add features that will be interesting to the younger generation. The new Sonos Beam ($499), can play music from streaming services or to accompany what's on TV; or use it with other Sonos speakers. Control it by voice, the app, or third-party apps, like Spotify. It comes in black or white, with Amazon Alexa support, and can fit neatly under a wall-mounted TV, which means it won't take up much room in a small dorm, bedroom, or shared apartment. With AirPlay 2, available via a free software update, you can play music and podcasts from iOS devices directly through Beam (as well as other Sonos speakers.) Summon Siri to play a track, album, or playlist on Apple Music by using an iOS device.
A portable projector can come in handy for conveniently and easily sharing course materials with study groups virtually anywhere (all you need is a blank wall or table), as well as watching movies and TV shows, or even gaming. The GoSho HD mini projector ($499) is shaped like a 3.5" x 3.5" x 3.5" cube, and can project an image up to 200" widescreen in size from a variety of sources. With HDMI, USB, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, it is compatible with smartphones, tablets, laptops, streaming sticks, and gaming consoles. It has AirPlay, DLNA, and Miracast, screen mirroring capability from iOS and Android devices, and even works with voice control via Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. With 1,800 ANSI lumens brightness, it boasts auto keystone correction, and has a 30,000-hour lamp life. The battery can run for up to 4.5 hours in power saving mode, or 2.5 without.
For the student living in shared housing or a dorm, the Roku Express ($40) can make for an affordable way to get entertainment for down-time. It comes with a remote, and access to more than 150,000 movies and TV shows, including free content as well as subscription-based. Or, there's the Roku Streaming Stick ($90) that even has a Hotel & Dorm Connect feature that lets you connect to wireless networks that require browser login. Choose your favourite program using the included point-anywhere remote, or use the Roku app on your smartphone.
Students living off-campus can protect their belongings by installing a security system, but will want one that doesn't have any monthly fees. Safe by HUB6 ($300) uses security hardware that might already be in the home, and redirects any alerts triggered by the system to your phone, friend, or Professional Monitoring if you choose to sign on.
A cute little speaker for the dorm or bedroom, the Ikea Eneby comes, as expected, with an Allen key and cute visual instructions. But don't worry, it's just for attaching the convenient carry handle. Beyond that, it functions like any standard portable Bluetooth speaker, with both Bluetooth and 3.5mm Aux-in. Sync up to eight together, and grab it in one of two sizes: 20 x 20 or 30 x 30, and in black or white. It can be mounted on a stand, wall bracket, or placed in Ikea (or other branded) storage units; or use the handle to hang it wherever you like, powering it wirelessly with the add-on battery pack. The mesh fabric front can be removed from a more minimalist look. $60, $99; battery pack $20, Eneby stand $10.
The Jam Audio Hang Up speaker ($40) is waterproof, and comes with a sticky pad that allows it to stick on a multitude of surfaces, including walls, shower tiles, or lockers. Once finished, rinse it off, and use it again.
Kids love snapping photos, and the HP Sprocket Photo Printer ($160) can be a fun companion for helping them take instantly printable and shareable snapshots. Selfies can be taken with a smartphone, add fun filters, then print them instantly on paper with built-in ink and adhesive backs so you can stick the photo to your notebook, backpack, locker, or more. The new LED String Light Clips let kids decorate a room or dorm with a series of fun photos with their friends and/or family.
For students who live for the ultimate weekend escape off the grid, the tough SPOT X features 2-way satellite text messaging, so you can stay in touch with family and friends whenever you're outside of cellular range, worldwide. With the BlackBerry-like full keyboard, you can also send quick messages that you are OK with an attached map that can be opened on a phone or PC. You can even post direct to Twitter. In case of a life-threatening emergency, a one button press accesses direct communication with Search & Rescue services worldwide. A breadcrumb record in maps is kept of your progress and you can set waypoints for long hikes in the built-in navigation and satellite digital compass The battery lasts more than a week between charges.
Be the "light" of the afterschool party with the three-pack Philips Hue outdoor lights. They work with the Philips Hue smart lighting system for millions of spot colour possibilities in the yard, front lawn or impromptu party in the park (requires outlet). Using the Philips Hue app, you can choose between 16 million colours for each unit with timing, dimming, welcome home, away from home, and voice control functions. Best quality construction with a wide selection of connectors and more than 18m of flexible cabling. Requires the Hue Bridge accessory for first time users.
We can't ignore the elephant in the back-to-school shopping room: Amazon. While many students and parents will be shopping in stores for essential tech gear, there are some items you might wish to grab last minute, or on impulse, online. Amazon has set up Back to School and Off to University online stores dedicated to gear you might need, featuring curated product lists and special deals. Students can also sign up for Prime at half the price via Prime Student, which also includes deals like 10% off textbook orders of $100 or more, through to Sunday, October 7.
You can also leverage Alexa for back-to-school tips by asking things like "Alexa, give me a back-to-school top," or questions about homework, like "Alexa, how do you spell pterodactyl?"
Alexa, and other smart speakers, can also be used to help set routines for the school day, including using it as an alarm so you don't miss class, and to keep track of appointments, class schedules, assignment due dates, and more. Use the Amazon Echo Spot to make hands-free voice calls to parents back home. Or if the student is living at home, mom and dad can use the intercom-like Drop In feature to check in kids and make sure they're doing their homework and not just browsing social media.
Keep in mind that Amazon isn't the only company that offers shopping online, including free or affordable delivery, or the ability to order online and pick up in store. Explore local retailers as well for unique items that you can't find anywhere else, and that will help students stand out among the crowd.
Get Young Kids Prepared for the Year Ahead
Much of this guide is aimed at tech that would be best suited to secondary school, university, and college students. What about grade schoolers? There's more to get them than just notebooks, pens, papers, backpacks, and a cool new pair of sneaks. As the summer winds down, try to get them back into the routine of working by disguising learning with fun.
The Kano Computer Kit Complete, which I reviewed late last year, is a fantastic option for helping kids learn valuable skills, and it comes with a fun reward at the end. The computer comes in parts, with instructions to help the child build it from scratch. They have to connect each component, from the motherboard to the USB port, boot it up, and feel that incredible sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Once set up, they can play games, or move further to learn to do things like coding.
Another interesting option hails from London-based Tech Will Save Us, which offers various kits all aimed at STEM learning, dealing with everything from plants, to bright creatures, machines, and even "Electro Dough."
Staples has curated a selection of tech products it calls its A School Ready gear, which includes five Windows products: the HP Stream lightweight Cloudbook for students on a budget; the Asus Vivobook W202, a rugged and durable notebook best suited to kids in grade school; the HP Pavilion X360 convertible touchscreen, which is says is perfect for creators; the Asus UX 430 Zenbook, a stylish laptop for campus use; and the Microsoft Surface Pro, which offers ultimate performance and portability. Students can complete a five-question personality test online at staples.ca/schoolready to determines what type of student they are - The Achiever, The Athlete, The Creator or The Socialite. Each person above the age of 13 who completes the online questionnaire will be entered into a draw for a chance to win one of 30 A School Ready Ultimate Lockers with prizing including a laptop from the latest Windows collection, gear from Adidas, Ray-Ban, Urban Outfitters and more. There is also a chance to instantly win an A School Ready prize pack with everything you need to be ready for back to school. The contest is open to all Canadian residents and runs until September 14, 2018.
Top photo: The Staples Living Centre in Toronto