Back-to-school season is upon us once more—but this year is like no other in living memory. Indeed, as we write this, where “school” will be for many students, and what form it will take, remain up in the air. Whether you’re a parent getting your kids ready for preschool or elementary school, a student gearing up for a new grade in middle school or high school, or a college student bracing for another semester, buying new gear is only part of the prep. In this era of social distancing, and possible blended home/in-person teaching, you may be spending part or all of the upcoming school year learning from home, and dealing with all of the new challenges that presents.
Turning a house into a temporary classroom means students and parents need to get creative, and that’s where technology can assist. From shielding your kids’ eyes from blue light to ensuring your Wi-Fi connection is strong enough for multiple video conferences, we bet you have a lot of tech tasks to check off your back-to-school list. This guide can help you get through them.
Another big concern, though? Money. If you’re in the market for new software or physical gear, the fragile state of the economy probably has you thinking—and hard—about whether you can stretch your budget to get what you need. It’s possible, but only if you know what to look for. Luckily, 2020’s tech offers a ton of options for free, cheap, and discounted hardware and software, from Chromebooks to ebook readers to collaboration apps.
Below, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about back-to-school tech shopping in the era of coronavirus, and links to deep dives on each kind of tech.
Laptops: Key Tech at Home, or on Campus
Laptops for your school-age children are now more essential than ever. With many schools planning to hold fall classes either partially or entirely remote, a portable PC will be an essential tool for homework and attending virtual classes. Staring at a screen, alas, will be the new normal for many. And that means, in general, a bigger screen will help a lot.
Plus, your kids will likely want to use the laptop for more than just learning, especially if they are stuck indoors more than ever due to the circumstances. Discord groups, video hangouts, and playing Fortnite are all possible on inexpensive PCs. With social-distancing measures likely to remain in effect for a long time, side activities like these are essential to staving off boredom and keeping the peace.
Asus VivoBook S15
With so much time likely to be spent online this fall, you’ll need to find a laptop that can do everything your kids ask of it without breaking your budget. The best place to start is our guide to the best laptops for kids. There, you’ll find plenty of advice on which operating system makes the most sense (Windows versus Chrome versus macOS), how to assess durability, and what kind of specs are appropriate for a child’s laptop.
Top Picks: Windows Laptops for Students
If you opt for a more powerful processor so your kids can stream videos, you might also want to consider a 2-in-1 convertible or a detachable laptop, which can double as a tablet thanks to a hinge that rotates 360 degrees, or a screen that detaches completely from the keyboard base. Hybrid and convertible laptops can be pricey, but you can still find some high-quality models for around $500.
Then there’s the Apple option. You won’t be able to find a new MacBook Air or MacBook Pro for around $500, however. The least-expensive Mac laptop, the MacBook Air, starts at $999 and is still overkill, from a cost perspective, for an elementary- or middle-school student. If you want your kids to use an Apple laptop, you’re best off giving them a hand-me-down and buying a new MacBook or MacBook Pro for yourself. That said, if you have the funds and a Mac makes sense for their curriculum (they’re not the first choice for games), check out our guide comparing the latest MacBooks.
If your entire family is stuck at home most of the time, space will be at a premium. Your kids might want to do homework or attend virtual classes in an out-of-the-way corner with no power outlet, so if that’s a concern, be sure to check out our picks for laptops with the longest-lasting batteries. (Some tend to be pricey, though.)
Lenovo Chromebook Duet
If you decide to purchase a Chromebook instead of a Windows laptop, you’ll want to check out our top Chromebook choices for kids. Meanwhile, Windows shoppers will want to check out the best budget laptops overall, since one of these is likely to be an excellent fit for your child.
Top Picks: Chromebooks for Students
For older students, including kids who are bound for virtual or physical university campuses this fall, you’ll also want to check out our top laptop picks for college students. Again, though, the concerns there are changing as some schools are transitioning to remote learning, and aspects like a good camera and a big screen may now come to the fore.
Key Tips: Buying a Laptop for School
Check with your school for recommended models, specific requirements, and potential discounts. (Colleges, especially, may have special deals with certain laptop makers, sometimes tied to on-campus service plans.)
Buying for a younger child? Consider a spill-resistant keyboard.
Look for a screen with at least 1080p (full HD) resolution. (Your kid’s eyes will thank you.) If your child is likely to have to endure long sessions spent on video calls with teachers or professors, a larger (14- or 15-inch) screen is better than the 11- or 12-inchers found on some of the cheapest laptops.
Considering a low-cost laptop with 32GB or 64GB of internal storage? Make sure it has a built-in SD card reader for inexpensive expansion if it’s needed.
Desktop PCs: Value for Homebound Scholars
If you know your kids will be home more this fall, you might be thinking about making a dedicated classroom space in your home and buying a desktop PC to serve as its brains instead of a laptop. While a desktop can’t be carried around like a laptop, it is a good choice if your kids need the screen real estate you can only get from a desktop monitor, and the chance to type on a full-size keyboard instead of the cramped ones that come with many laptops.
Acer Aspire TC-885
Unless you’ve already got a full-fledged home office, your makeshift classroom will likely need to fit somewhere out of the way. That makes a mini desktop PC a good choice if space is an issue but you want to use a monitor or existing TV as the display. Some are not much larger than a Roku or Amazon video-streaming stick, which means they’ll fit pretty much anywhere.
If you’d rather get a traditional-size desktop instead, some of our top budget desktop picks and best overall desktop PC picks are worth checking out.
Top Picks: Basic Desktops for Families With School-Age Children
In most cases, you’ll also need a monitor to go with your desktop. If you decide to buy an all-in-one PC, however, you won’t need a standalone monitor. While AIOs are typically more expensive and less configurable than traditional desktops, they fit the entire computer into the space traditionally reserved just for the monitor, so they’re potentially even better than mini PCs if you are space-crunched.
Key Tips: Buying a Desktop for School
For tight spaces, consider a mini PC, though know that the very cheapest models based on Celeron chips and 2GB or 4GB of RAM will be sluggish. Need a monitor, too? An all-in-one (AIO) might be a better choice.
If space isn’t an issue and you’d like to maximize your budget, a traditional tower PC almost always gets you the most for your money, especially if you already own a monitor.
Refurbished PCs can be hidden gems, especially Dell, HP, and Lenovo ex-business models in the $250 to $500 range. Make sure you double-check the condition and the warranty first, though, and look for an SSD as the boot drive. Outlets like Newegg.com tend to have good selections of these.
Routers and Wi-Fi: Essential for Connecting From Home
Once you’ve decided on the type of computer to buy your kids this year, you’ll also need to make sure it’s got a reliable connection to the internet. The most stable option is always a wired Ethernet connection, but most homes aren’t wired for Ethernet in every place that you might want to compute. And even if yours is, your kid’s new laptop may well not have a built-in Ethernet port. (That said, a USB-to-Ethernet adapter for about $10 is a cheap solution for that, if you have the ports to spare.)
TP-Link Archer C7
Connecting to Wi-Fi is easier, but sometimes less reliable. If you’re struggling with wireless internet at home, you’ll want to check out our guide to troubleshooting your Wi-Fi connection. If all else fails, you may need a new router. Here are our top router picks overall (though really, for most families and small homes, a budget router will do).
Top Picks: Routers for Families With School-Age Children
If you have a larger home with lots of nooks and crannies, or the kind of construction that tends to be impermeable to signals, you might need a mesh system or network extender rather than a single new router. The former uses multiple nodes that strengthen each other and create a “net” of consistent signal across their coverage area, while an extender amplifies a signal from a router to another single location. Check out our favorite mesh routers and wireless range extenders.
Key Tips: Buying a Router for Homes With Students
If you haven’t replaced your router in eight or 10 years, it’s time, if you’re seeing poor performance over wireless. Look at a model with support for 802.11ac (the mainstream choice of the moment) in a lower-cost model or 802.11ax (aka Wi-Fi 6) for a cutting-edge one, if you’re future-looking.
Wi-Fi problems? Use Ethernet if you can, and troubleshoot a list of common problems before buying a new router.
Have a large house? Consider a mesh Wi-Fi system, instead of just adding a range extender to a traditional router. Look for a system that lets you add additional nodes, in the event what comes in the box isn’t enough.
Lots of people on your router at the same time, all day and all night, and streaming or taking video calls? You might opt for a Wi-Fi 6 model for its better negotiation of multiple streams, even if you don’t have Wi-Fi 6-capable laptops. (Wi-Fi 6 is backward-compatible.) In addition, look for a model that supports Quality of Service (QoS) tweakability to give priority to certain signals (say, classroom streams over Fortnite ones).
Printers: Fresh Relevance in Pandemic Times
Even though a desktop or laptop will be a kid’s main tool for the upcoming school year if they’re stuck at home, some teachers will still ask them to print out lessons and homework assignments if they’re learning from home. So you’ll need to make sure your printer is in working order. If it’s not, you may need to buy a new one.
We’d strongly suggest an all-in-one (AIO) model, which will include a scanning bed for making copies and digitizing written assignments for emailing to a teacher or professor. Whether you want an inkjet or laser model depends largely on your need for color printing versus mass monochrome text output.
HP Neverstop Laser MFP 1202w
If you haven’t been printer shopping in a few years, you may have missed the ink subscription revolution. A bit like razor-blade and cosmetics subscriptions, regular ink deliveries are an option with certain models, and they can save you a lot of money if your kids will print frequently. The general idea: You subscribe to a fixed number of pages per month, and the printer maker sends you cartridges as needed in the mail, regardless of the kind of printing you do. A subscription is often a good deal if you print a lot in color, with heavy ink use for photos and the like.
Top Picks: Printers for Families With School-Age Children
Finally, no learning-from-home setup is complete without peripherals. Even if you’re going to skip external keyboards and mice, your kid might still need a docking station for his or her new laptop. And if you’re planning to buy a Chromebook or a budget Windows laptop with limited storage space, you’ll also want to check out our top picks for best external hard drives and USB flash drives.
Key Tips: Buying a Printer for Homes With Students
If you have an older student who will mostly just be printing drafts of long reports and lots of text or monochrome worksheets, consider a laser or bulk-ink inkjet rather than a light-duty inkjet (which tends to mandate high costs per page).
Cost per page is a key consideration if you’ll print much. Pay close attention to those figures in reviews.
Stand-alone (print-only) lasers can be a good bargain, but don’t underestimate the utility of the scanner on an AIO printer. A smartphone camera can serve as an impromptu document scanner in a pinch, though, as many a pressed parent has learned of late.
Smartphones: Not Just a Distraction
Why does a kid need a smartphone if they aren’t leaving the house? It’s not just a way to stay connected to their social life and find some private space with their music—it’s a critical internet backup. If too many people are Zooming on your home internet connection and you start arguing over bandwidth, kicking some people over to make their video calls on their phones with LTE can make all the difference.
Apple iPhone SE
Our concerns about kids and phones are different in a locked-down world with remote schooling than they are usually. In this world, a phone is basically a tiny tablet, more about apps than about calling and tracking. There’s no need for tracker watches or flip phones if kids aren’t going anywhere.
Top Picks: Smartphones for School-Age Children
Talk with your child first to find out what the critical apps are for their school and social life. If all of their friends are on iMessage, for example, only an iPhone will do. Here are our top picks for the best phones overall, as well as the best cheap phones and the best Android phones.
Meanwhile, our targeted roundup of phones for kids focuses more on a world with open schools and lots of after-school activities, so keep an eye on those options for next year.
Key Tips: Buying a Smartphone for a Student
Older phones and used phones are great choices for students. Look at the Samsung Galaxy 8 or later series, or the iPhone 7 or later series, to keep compatibility with the latest apps.
Turn on the Find My Phone option immediately. It will absolutely pay off.
Look into parental controls on both your smartphone plan and your home Wi-Fi router. (For instance, you can turn off your teen’s connectivity at a certain time at night so they can get some sleep.)
Tablets: Getting Creative
Tablets bridge the gap between phones and laptops. For younger kids, an inexpensive tablet is a bit of couch-side entertainment so they don’t end up hogging one of the family’s PCs or TVs. A bigger tablet can absolutely double as a laptop in a pinch, as tablets work with Bluetooth keyboards and trackpads, and the two major tablet operating systems (Android and iOS) both have the collaboration software that most schools use.
Amazon Fire HD 8
The differences among a tablet, a phone, and a laptop really appear when you think about reading and writing. Reading documents, such as packets or picture books, works better on a tablet than on either of the other form factors. And many tablets now have an included or optional stylus so students can take handwritten notes or draw.
Amazon’s low-cost Fire tablets, with their FreeTime Unlimited content library, are great for sedating younger kids in their rooms or during car rides. The base-model Apple iPad and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S6 Lite are both more capable tablets that have keyboard and stylus options so kids can create as well as consume.
Top Picks: Tablets for School-Age Children
For more, you can check out our list of the best tablets overall, as well as the best Android tablets and the best 2-in-1 laptops.
Key Tips: Buying a Tablet for a Student
Align the operating systems in your home. If you have other Apple products, for example, just get an iPad. They work better together.
Amazon’s inexpensive tablets can be hacked to run mainstream Android apps, but they aren’t powerful enough for more than reading, video, and basic games.
Windows (and soon Chrome) 2-in-1 laptops have the same advantages as tablets, although they tend to be less powerful for your money than non-convertible laptops.
Headphones and Headsets: Listen and Learn in Privacy
Sound is as important to learning as vision is, and your student needs a good way to get that sound from their laptop, tablet, or other connected device. Headphones are great for listening to classes online, or listening to music while studying, or hearing friends, parents, or teachers in video calls without disrupting other people.
Apple AirPods Pro
Bluetooth headphones are the easiest choice for schoolwork. Any phone or tablet, and nearly any PC, can connect wirelessly to Bluetooth headphones. In fact, Bluetooth compatibility has become more common for phones and tablets than wired headphones; most flagship phones, including all iPhones of the last few years, lack any headphone jack, and the iPad Pro and some other tablets also lack that wired connectivity. If you’re looking for a bargain, check out our under-$50 favorites.
Top Picks: Headphones and Headsets for School-Age Children
If you really want to block out distractions, consider noise-cancelling headphones. These use microphones and audio processing to cancel out outside sound, reducing noise much better than just thick earcups and properly fitted eartips. Active noise cancelling (ANC) headphones are generally more expensive, but a set can be worth it in a noisy house or dorm.
If your student plans to exercise their body as much as their mind, consider headphones with an IP rating that indicates resistance to water and dirt. Our list of the best headphones for running features models that can handle splashes and sweat, so they can go to the gym as well as the library with them. Most of these headphones and earphones also work very well for everyday listening, so no need to worry about a special, separate pair just for workouts.
Key Tips: Buying Audio Gear for Students
Check whether the devices that the headphones need to work with have headphone jacks (not all smartphones do, for example), and if your PC has Bluetooth.
Consider active noise cancellation (ANC) if distractions are a concern.
Get earphones with a high IP rating if you want to use them when exercising.
VPNs: Maintaining Your Family’s Privacy
With kids likely to be spending lots of classroom time online, it’s reasonable to be concerned about their privacy. A virtual private network (VPN) makes it harder to be tracked online, and it will prevent your ISP from selling your household’s anonymized user data. A VPN can also let you access region-locked content, by tunneling you to a distant VPN server. Most VPNs can be configured to connect automatically, and several—such as Surfshark—place no limit on the number of simultaneous connections, so you can easily secure every device in your home.
VPNs are a great tool for protecting your privacy, but even the fastest ones will cut into your bandwidth, and unstable connections, as well as sites that block access from VPNs, are common. VPNs also tend to not play nice with parental control software, so you’ll probably have to choose one or the other.
Top Picks: VPNs for Families With School-Age Children
This was true back before we all started spending a lot more time online, and attending bandwidth-hogging video conferences, to boot. Some VPNs include a split tunneling feature that routes specific traffic outside the VPN, which is great for high-bandwidth but low-security activities like distance learning. If you choose to use a VPN, don’t be afraid to switch it off if something critical isn’t working.
Key Tips: VPN Shopping for Homes With Students
VPNs help protect your family’s privacy online and secure their data on a network, but you still need to have antivirus software (see below) and a password manager on individual computers, and to enable two-factor authentication wherever possible.
Blocked? Slow? Try switching to a different VPN server.
If something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to switch the VPN off. It’s just as important for a student to get what needs doing done, especially if that means attending online classes or not.
Security Software: Keep Them Safe at School (or Home)
When homework resides in the cloud, the old excuse “the dog ate my homework” won’t fly. But how about “Ransomware destroyed my essay”? That one could be all too real.
You need to ensure the security of your children’s devices against ransomware and other types of malware. Whatever antivirus you use for your own computer will probably be fine for them as well, but there are some specifics to look for.
You want a product with a central online console that lets you check the status of all your installations. If the kids disable antivirus protection in hopes of improving the performance of PC games, you’ll know it. With some such products, you can even re-enable protection remotely, and launch a scan in case some malware snuck aboard while the antivirus was snoozing.
Top Picks: Antivirus Software for Families With School-Age Children
When you list all the devices your children use, you may find there’s a lot to protect. Many popular antivirus tools offer volume discounts for three, five, or even 10 licenses, and the per-device price goes way down at higher levels. You can even get antivirus protection for every device in your household with a single license.
Key Tips: Managing Security for Homes With Students
Your children will wind up juggling passwords for multiple school-related sites. Get a password manager that includes secure family-based sharing, so you can help them out.
Advertisers and trackers go after kids online, just as they do adults. Use a dedicated tracker blocker in your browser, such as Privacy Badger from the EFF.
If your kid just can’t focus on schoolwork with all the distractions a PC offers, consider creating a no-distractions “schoolwork only” user account, and use parental control software to make other accounts unavailable during the homework hour.
Max Eddy, Will Greenwald, Neil Rubenking, and Sascha Segan also contributed to this story.