Back to school tech gear that gets high marks

By Monty Phan Special to Newsday

Who says a back-to-school tech guide has to be dedicated to all the coolest new gadgets with the shiniest bells and most advanced whistles?

Sure, you’ll find some of those here in our annual list, but we also came across a retro alternative to those pricey smartphones; a tech-focused board game for kids that has no electronics or screens; and even something that’s — gasp — free!


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Who says a back-to-school tech guide has to be dedicated to all the coolest new gadgets with the shiniest bells and most advanced whistles?

Sure, you’ll find some of those here in our annual list, but we also came across a retro alternative to those pricey smartphones; a tech-focused board game for kids that has no electronics or screens; and even something that’s — gasp — free!

From preschoolers to post-grads, we’ve got you covered.

Ingenio Smart Projector

WHAT IT DOES As tech goes, this smart projector isn’t groundbreaking, but it is effective. After quick assembly, it projects letters or drawings onto a paper for tracing or drawing. Kids can spend time practicing to write the alphabet or numbers, or tracing and coloring a variety of animal drawings.

BUY $23.99;

Rocketbook Everlast Reusable Notebook

WHAT IT DOES What if, instead of a notebook for every class, you could carry only one, for everything? That’s what Rocketbook proposes. Using a special pen, write whatever you want on one of the notebook’s pages. On the bottom of each page are seven symbols. Using the accompanying app, you assign a destination to each of the symbols (a diamond for Google Docs, a shamrock for Dropbox, etc.). Mark the symbol you want that notebook page to be sent to, then take a photo of the page, and it is automatically copied to that destination. The physical notebook page can be wiped clean with a moist towel and reused.

BUY Starting at $16;

Amazon Prime Student

WHAT IT DOES College is expensive, and every little bit of savings helps, which is why Prime Student is worth looking into. All you need is a valid email address ending in .edu (which you need to use just once, to prove eligibility — after that, use any email address you like). You get all the perks of a regular Prime membership (free two-day shipping; unlimited streaming of music and videos), and if you buy textbooks from Amazon, you can return them when you’re done and get up to 80 percent of their value in Amazon credit.

BUY Free for first six months; $59 per year or $6.49 per month thereafter, up to four years;


Fitbit Versa

WHAT IT DOES Maybe you don’t want to pay a premium for an Apple Watch. Maybe you just don’t like Apple. Whatever the reason, Fitbit’s water-resistant smartwatch is a viable alternative, embedding the company’s fitness-tracking tech into a device that can store and play music, alert you to messages and, yes, tell the time.

BUY Starting at $199.95;

Brainscape flashcards app

WHAT IT DOES It seems like everything else that students used to do on paper is now done digitally, so why not flashcards? There are a multitude of similar apps out there, but Brainscape is devoted almost solely to the time-tested study method of repetitive flashcards, with an added feature of asking you how well you know each concept (on a scale of 1-5) and using that as a guide for future sessions.

BUY Free on iOS and Android, with tiered pricing for more features

Sphero Mini robotic ball

WHAT IT DOES About the size of a ping pong ball, the Sphero Mini is actually a small rolling robot, which users can control via a smartphone app, even maneuvering it with head movements. For those who enjoy an extra challenge, there’s an app to program the Sphero using Javascript, such as writing code to guide the ball around a maze on its own.

BUY $49.99;

Nokia 3310 3G cell phone

WHAT IT DOES If your kid says he or she needs a phone “for emergencies,” here’s your compromise. This Nokia has no touch screen, no keyboard and no fancy apps. It does have a number pad to accommodate its primary function: making phone calls. You can send texts, but you have to do so via the number pad, harkening back to the time when it was easier to just call and talk to the other person instead of composing a message.

BUY $59;

Circuit Maze board game

WHAT IT DOES The classic parental double-cross: disguising learning as fun. One such entry in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field is the Circuit Maze game, which takes place on a five-square-by-five-square grid. Players draw a challenge card, which lists the square game tokens needed to complete a battery-powered electrical circuit. If you use the selected tokens to complete the circuit, you win that round.

BUY $29.99;

Albert Clock

WHAT IT DOES If your kids want to figure out what time it is, they’ll have to do the math first. This clock doesn't run on military time, but it gives military time like this: 8 + 10 h, 64 - 9 min (18:55, which is 6:55 p.m.). Too easy? There are four difficulty levels for extra punishment — er, “learning.”

BUY $129.99;

Logitech K380 Bluetooth Keyboard

WHAT IT DOES In lieu of taking notes on a laptop, you could opt for a Bluetooth keyboard and your smartphone, affording you the ability to type while saving precious backpack space and weight. The 11-by-5-inch Logitech K380 can connect to up to three devices at once, so you can switch from a smartphone to tablet to another Bluetooth-enabled device with the press of a button.

BUY $39.99;

Lego Boost

WHAT IT DOES Lego has long offered Mindstorms, which combines the ubiquitous bricks with robotics. Now comes Boost, a simpler version meant for kids ages 7 to 12 that uses picture-only instructions on an app downloaded to a smart device to illustrate how to build a functioning robot, mechanical cat, guitar, rover vehicle and mini factory. All coding for the creations is done via the app.

BUY $159.99;

Robot Turtles board game

WHAT IT DOES Even preschoolers can learn the fundamentals of coding, all while playing a board game with no actual electronic components. Each player gets a colored robot turtle card and matching jewel card, which are placed on a grid-like board. Then "code cards," which give an instruction to the turtle, such as "move forward one space," are drawn one at a time. The goal is to use the code cards to guide the turtle to the jewel.

BUY $24.99;

Lenovo Yoga 710 laptop

WHAT IT IS The aptly named Yoga is very flexible, boasting a 15-inch touchscreen that can fold all the way back, allowing it to be used almost like a tablet. Weighing 4.5 pounds and measuring less than .75 inches deep when closed, the Windows 10 machine is designed to be portable.

BUY $649.99;

Wacom Intuos digital drawing tablet

WHAT IT DOES To nurture those budding artists, you could spend tons on fancy pens and stacks of notebook pads, or you could just look into this drawing tablet. About the size of a large mouse pad, it connects to a computer or laptop via USB or Bluetooth. The pad detects the strokes of a special pen at various pressure sensitivities and transfers them to the screen. No more piles of crumpled paper in the corner of the room!

BUY $79.95;

TYLT Energi Pro Power Backpack

WHAT IT DOES A backpack that only has the ability to carry stuff is soooo last decade. It should at least charge your devices while helping you haul them around. The Energi Pro comes with a battery pack that can charge up to three devices and includes the newest connection, USB-C. It boasts 12 weather-resistant pockets to help organize your stuff, as well as cable routing channels to keep your cords from becoming a tangled mess.

BUY $149.99;