Shopping for back to school? Me too. But as a geek Mom, smart phone and tablet apps are high on my list of supplies. They are cheap (or free), portable, and my kids don’t lose them. So after shopping for sneakers and dress-code appropriate clothes, I plan to sit down with both of my kids and help them download and get the hang of a few apps that will help them take better notes in school, keep track of their schedule, find a little extra instruction, and discover their intellectual curiosity. I rounded up quite a few of them for the print version of the magazine and you can find some of those here. What I didn't have space for in that story was a roundup of smart phones and tablets you might want to consider if you want apps but don't yet have a tablet or smart phone.

The great thing about being in the market for a smart phone or tablet right now is that there is lots of choice and the prices are compelling. That is, of course, the hard thing about it, too. There is so much choice that many parents ask me to just, “Tell me what to get!” I understand that not everyone enjoys shopping for tech gear as much as I do. But the answer isn't that easy. You have to choose between Apple, Android, Windows, and even Blackberry. You have to stay within your budget. And your school might have some requirements.

But when you walk into a store, it can be daunting to even know where to start. So, in addition to your own needs and wants, here is a short list of gear you should consider to get you started.

The Galaxy S4 Active

$199 (with a contract at

The Galaxy S4 is a great Android smart phone. In fact, it is something of a showecase of state-of-the art technology. It will run all the latest apps, keep GPS tabs on your teen so he won’t get lost driving, has a great camera, and even makes eye contact so the screen won’t shut off when he’s trying to read the latest political diatribe. (You can even pick one up at Target.) But the Galaxy S4 Active will survive a dunk in the pool and a drop from a not-so-careful teen. In fact, you can take it right in the water and shoot video with it. My teens love this idea. And so do I! I’ve had to replace a couple of phones that died after an unexpected swim.

The IPad Mini


This is a great little device. It is a go-anywhere size and an easy-to-cope-with price (Especially when compared to the full-size iPad.) But it will bring hundreds of educational apps and organizational tools to your child’s fingertips. Even if you think this is outside your price range, you should stop by a store that carries it and take it for an in-store spin before you make up your mind. And take a look at my list of apps so you know if there is something you want that will only run on the iPad.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 8

$379 (at

This is like a bigger version (8.3” x 5.3”) of the Galaxy S4 with the addition of a built-in stylus and some software that makes taking notes with that stylus (in the old way: through handwriting) work exceptionally well. I got one in for review and became almost instantly completely dependent on it. Grab the pen to jot a note. Pull up the Kindle App to read a book. Check email, Facebook, Twitter. Run any of the apps in the Android market. All on a nice big (for a highly portable tablet) screen on a device that fits in your hand much like a trade paperback and in your purse like a small notebook.

Nexus phones and tablets

$229 - $399

This collection of Android phones and tablets from Google (creator of Android) is a super easy solution: Not only is this a very sweet hardware – great screen, thin, light, fast -- implementation of Android but it’s easy to buy. Just log on and choose the size and price that suits your student and budget. The Nexus 4 Smart starts at $299 (no contract), the Nexus 7 (7” tablet) at $229, and the Nexus 10 (10” tablet) starts at $399. Aside from size, storage, and data connection (Wi-Fi or cellular), they work the same.

Microsoft Surface


This tablet is very nearly a laptop, especially if you opt for the optional (+$130) keyboard. And at this new low price it's a great choice for students. It runs the tablet version (RT) of  Windows 8 and comes with Microsoft Office installed. The size is perfect for watching a movie. But it is also thin and light enough to bring everywhere. Just fold the keyboard up and it transforms into a cute cover -- with lots of color choices. And the little kickstand that pops out to let the tablet stand on its own on a table is genius. I say it's almost a laptop for purely technical reasons. Your student won't know the difference unless she wants to install software -- Photoshop perhaps -- that won't run on a tablet.

Any of these options will help your student get out from under that pile of paper, get more organized, and stay connected to both school and home. It will also free up your home computer – if you are sharing one. Still looking for justification? Go price scientific calculators. For a little more money, you can have a tablet that will replace the calculator, TV, phone, notebook, and much, much more.

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at

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