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How Times Change
It doesn't seem so long ago that in our family, back-to-school shopping involved endless wandering through stores while gathering folders, erasers and notebooks by the dozens. Now our son and daughter (ages 16 and 13) are all about technology, preferably the portable kind. Chances are the same holds true for your kids—or soon will.
Admittedly, investing in tech can seem to drain a bank account. But on the plus side, well-thought-out buying strategies can actually save money in the long run. For instance, your high school–age son is probably too busy playing Angry Birds to let you know, but he's aware he doesn't need a scientific calculator. Downloading a $5 app can provide the same capabilities. Your young teen daughter might insist a trip to the bookstore is life-or-death, claiming, "I need Wuthering Heights—tonight!" Yet truth be told, it's just a cover for meeting up with friends. She could be engrossed in Brontë in seconds—for free, no less—on her e-book reader. In other words, by learning your way around the gadgets already in your household, or adding well-chosen new ones to your students' ever-growing cache, you can cut costs over time. In our book, that's a smart move.
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Wise Buy: E-Book Reader
When he started eighth grade, our son informed us point-blank that lugging around hardcovers was no longer an option. "It's just not cool," he said. Desperate to turn the tide back in favor of the printed word, we got him an e-book reader. Now, in high school, Cole reads constantly. He can also take notes, highlight passages, the works. Better still, the fun of being able to instantly send him a good book when he's professing extreme boredom can't be beat.
Many literary classics are no longer under copyright protection, meaning they're free in digital format. So if you have a voracious reader or a demanding school, you can probably save enough on books—and simultaneously encourage a love of classics—to easily pay for an e-reader (or a tablet). Search for "free classics" at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or hit Project Gutenberg (gutenberg.org) and Open Library (openlibrary.org).
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Our Top Picks for E-Book Readers
We like Amazon's Kindle Touch ($99) and Barnes & Noble's Nook Simple Touch with Glowlight ($139). Kids love the touchscreens but will find the gaming and video capabilities lacking versus a typical computer or smartphone, making them likelier to stick to the task at hand: reading. The Nook Simple Touch has a nifty built-in light for reading in the dark, but we found a wider variety of free classics at Amazon.
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Wise Buy: Tablet PC
For a few hundred dollars more, give or take, an Android or Apple tablet delivers an almost uncountable number of learning tools in a slick gadget guaranteed to appeal to your student. Does your son typically zone out in algebra? Dial up a free math lesson at the Khan Academy. If science bores your daughter to tears, suggest YouTube EDU, which features channels like SciShow that offer hilarious takes on scientific topics. Or check out the beautiful teacher-created animated lessons at TedEd. Add a math game, student planner, audiobooks and a scientific calculator app, and that tablet might also become the key to unlocking better grades.
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Our Top Picks for Tablet PCs
Priced at less than $200, the 7-inch Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet fit in a backpack. For a greater choice of Android apps, Samsung's Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 ($250) is a good option. Larger, more powerful tablets, like Acer's 10-inch Iconia Tab A700 ($450) or Apple's iPad ($499+), can record lectures in HD video or deliver a rich market of educational tools. Add a wireless keyboard like the rubberized waterproof Scosche freeKey ($60), and that tablet could even replace a laptop.
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Wise Buy: Smartphone
Teens are clever when it comes to using their phones to do things that adults only attempt with a pencil and calculator—so much so that the right data phone could likely replace half the contents of a typical backpack. For example, our son snaps a photo of the blackboard before he leaves class so he has a record of the night's homework, and stores the image online via his Evernote app. He captures lectures with his phone's voice recorder, relies on a student planner app to keep track of assignments, opens a graphing calculator app to finish his algebra, and puts the finishing touches on papers with the mobile version of Microsoft Word. In fact, most teens can probably do most of that while carrying on a half-dozen different text conversations and calling Mom for a ride home.
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Our Top Picks for Smartphones
Though any data phone will do the job reasonably well, we like the Nokia Lumia 900 Windows Phone ($99 with AT&T contract) because of its seamless integration with Microsoft Office and Xbox Live. For first-time smartphone users, the simple LG Lucid Android ($50 from Verizon) is also a good choice. An Apple iPhone 4 can be had for as little as $99. And the slick and thin HTC One S—with Beats Audio and 4G speed—is $200 at T-Mobile.
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Wise Buy: Netbook or Laptop
When our son was in sixth grade we convinced his teacher to let him bring a netbook to class. Our winning arguments: He could take notes and write papers more quickly (and legibly) by typing, and by entering his assignments into Google Calendar he was less likely to forget his homework. By the time our son entered high school he needed something with a larger keyboard, a bigger screen and the power to run software like Microsoft Office or Adobe Creative Suite. So we got him a laptop and passed down the netbook to his sister, who by that time was bound for middle school.
A netbook or laptop is the ultimate tool because it can do virtually anything an e-book reader, phone or tablet can do—and then some. If you download Barnes & Noble's free Nook Study software for Windows or Mac, for example, you can use a laptop instead of a textbook; B&N lets you buy or rent textbooks for significantly less than the paper equivalent. You can use Microsoft OneNote software to replace the three-ring binder, call up a live tutor at Tutor.com any time math starts to look like Greek, or go to Shmoop.com when a paper is due and the blank page is overwhelming.
If your high school senior is heading off to college, a laptop could be required. The school may be very specific about the models it will support; some even provide freshmen with their own laptops, which are included in the cost of tuition, so be sure to check.
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Our Top Picks for Netbooks and Laptops
Younger students can probably get away with a netbook like the Acer Aspire One 756 ($350), which weighs around 3 pounds and has an 11.6-inch screen. High schoolers would probably prefer full-featured 15.6-inch notebooks like the $400+ Toshiba Satellite L850 or $500+ Dell Inspiron 14z, which offer a nice compromise in terms of portability, power and price. Super-thin models like the HP Envy Ultrabook or Samsung Series 5 start at around $449.99.
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Best Educational Apps for Students
Assignment Planner (Android): Keep track of classes, homework assignments and test scores with the one device the student looks at 500 times a day anyway. This will remind him about every assignment so you don't have to. Free
Evernote (iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone): Take a photo, jot notes, record a lecture, copy a web page—Evernote will store it online to access later via computer. Anything captured in Evernote from a PC or tablet automatically syncs to his smartphone. Never say never, but forgetting things should be much less of an issue. Free
Shakespeare (iOS): Get the fully searchable text of all of the Bard's 41 plays and 154 sonnets, as well as character guides, notable quotes and a glossary. Free
Tutor.com To Go (iOS): The mobile version of the popular website lets you connect with a live tutor in virtually any subject and ask questions on the fly. App free; one hour of tutoring each month from $40
MathPac (Android): This graphing calculator will take your student through high school and early college math. $5
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and styles are subject to change.