Technology

Ultimate back to school guide 2021: Laptops, Chromebooks, headphones and more

Back to school season is here. Students will soon be heading back to school for the fall semester. That means now is the time to sort all of your back to school needs. From finding the best laptop to outfitting your dorm room with all the essentials, Tom’s Guide is here to make the back to school process as seamless as possible.

Below you’ll find guides that will help you compare and pick the best back to school devices for your student. We’ll help you find everything from the best college laptop to the best cheap cell phone plan. Plus, once you’ve picked the best device for your needs, we’ll help you find the best back to school sales for that device so that you stay within your budget.   

Back to School: Laptops and Computing

Windows Laptops

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

Top Pick
Dell XPS 13:
was $949 now $749 @ Dell
The XPS 13 is the best Windows laptop you can buy. This configuration packs a 13.3-inch 1080p InfinityEdge display, Core i5-1135G7 CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. Use coupon “BFiJLT20” to drop its price to $749 at checkout. It’s one of the lowest prices we’ve seen all year.View Deal

Best college laptops: College students require laptops that are portable, provide better-than-average battery life, and don’t cost a fortune. Here are our favorite machines for college-bound students. 

Best laptops under $500: Don’t blow your entire back-to-school budget on a new laptop. Find out our top budget laptop picks for all types of students heading back to school. 

Best laptop: Avoid buying a laptop you’ll need to replace in a year. These top-of-the-line laptops offer the perfect balance of power, style, and versatility.

Best laptop bags: Keep your new laptop scratch and dent free with one of these excellent laptop bags. 

Best gaming laptops: In addition to playing PC games, a good gaming laptop can be helpful for students who render videos and edit photos. These are the machines you should consider buying. 

Best laptop deals: From Apple’s current-gen MacBook Air to Dell’s XPS 13, you never pay full price for your laptop. We’ve rounded up the best deals from Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, and everyone in between.

Chromebooks

Top Pick
Lenovo Chromebook Duet:
from $299 @ Lenovo
The Lenovo Chromebook Duet features a 10.1-inch 1920 x 1200 IPS touchscreen, MediaTek Helio P60T CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. It’ll happily run all your web apps, some games, video calls, and double-up as a very capable tablet. It’s one of the best Chromebooks available now. View Deal

Best Chromebooks: Chromebooks are ideal for students who spend all their time working online. However, finding the right Chromebook can be tricky. So we’ve narrowed it down for you, with Chromebooks of all shapes, sizes and price points.

Chromebook deals: While most Chromebooks are already priced aggressively, many of today’s models pack high-res screens and more powerful CPUs. Here’s how you can find those models on the cheap. 

MacBooks

Top Pick
MacBook Air (M1):
was $999 now $799 @ Best Buy
The new MacBook Air offers fantastic performance thanks to its new Apple Silicon. The M1 CPU also helped it reach over 14 hours on our battery test. For a limited time, Best Buy has it on sale for $899.99. However, students can sign up for Best Buy’s student newsletter to receive a promo code that drops the price further to $799.99. It features a 13.3-inch Retina display, Apple M1 CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD.  View Deal

MacBook deals: Apple’s MacBooks can be found at campuses across the nation. Here’s how to save from $100 to $300 off Cupertino’s award-winning laptops. 

Best Apple deals: Retailers are taking hundreds of dollars off Apple’s latest  tech. Don’t spend a single dollar till you see these deals. 

MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro: The new MacBook Air and MacBook Pro share nearly identical hardware. Find out which model is best suited for your needs.

Computing

Top Pick
Dell 27″ 1080p LCD:
was $249 now $179 @ Amazon
The Dell SE2719H is the best monitor for just about any type of use. It offers wide viewing angles, crisp detail and a sleek design. It’s adjustable stand also lets you angle it to your liking. View Deal

Best monitors: Expand your work space with our list of the best top-performing monitors. We break down specs to look for, color accuracy and overall performance. 

Best webcams: Whether you’re using it to take remote classes or for your personal Twitch streams, these webcams offer a massive upgrade from the run-of-the-mill webcams built into most laptops. 

Best VPN: VPNs can secure sensitive information and keep you anonymous when surfing online. These are our top picks for students and anyone looking to stay secure online. 

iPads and Tablets

Top Pick
10.2″ iPad (32GB/2020):
was $329 now $299 @ Amazon
Apple’s entry-level iPad is perfect for students. It features an A12 Bionic CPU, 10.2-inch (2160 x 1620) LCD, 8MP camera, 12MP front camera and nearly 13 hours of battery life. Currently, Amazon has has the 32GB model on sale for $299, which is the cheapest price we’ve seen for this tablet all year. But hurry, because iPad deals on the base model sell out very fast. (The 128GB model is also on sale for $395). View Deal

Best tablet: Thanks to their more travel friendly size, the right tablet will let you take notes, check e-mail and even stream the occasional Netflix show. We pick the best tablet for every budget and need. 

iPad deals: Never pay full price for your iPad. We’ve found the best deals on every Apple tablet. Already have an iPad? We’ll show you how to save on your favorite iPad accessories. 

Tablet sales: The best deals on today’s most coveted tablets, including iPads and Android tablets from all the major brands.

Best Android tablets: There’s a whole world of tablet options outside of the iPad. From Amazon’s Fire tablets to the Samsung Galaxy Tab A7, here are the best iPad alternatives for your back to school needs. 

Best Kindles: Carry all your hard and softcover books in the palm of your hand. We’ll show you which Kindle is right for your needs and budget. 

Back to School: TVs and Streaming

TVs

Vizio V-Series TVs

(Image credit: Vizio)

Top Pick
Insignia Fire TV:
from $129 @ Amazon
Available in sizes ranging from 32 to 65 inches, the Insignia Fire TV is one of the smartest TVs you can buy. We especially like its voice remote with built-in Alexa, which lets you control your TV via voice commands. View Deal

Best TVs under $500: Purchasing a 4K TV no longer costs a fortune. However, no one wants a cheap set that’ll need to be replaced after a semester. We pick out the best TVs under $500 that are worth buying. 

Best 43-inch TVs: Whether you’re living in a cramped dorm room or moving to off campus housing, these 43-inch TVs are great for smaller spaces (and smaller budgets).  

Best 55-inch TVs: Take your Netflix binges to the next level. These gargantuan 55-inch 4K TVs deliver incredible picture quality and they’re priced so they won’t leave you with maxed out credit cards. 

Best smart TVs for streaming: Not all smart TVs are created equal. From LG’s webOS to Samsung’s Tizen platform, find out our favorite streaming platforms and which smart TV merits a spot in your living room. 

TV deals: Looking for a 4K TV for under $300? Or perhaps you prefer a 50-inch TV for $349. We’re bringing you the best TV sales of the day from Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart, and more. 

Streaming and Cord Cutting

Top Pick
Roku Streaming Stick Plus 4K:
was $49 now $39 @ Amazon
If you want to stream 4K content on your TV, the Roku Streaming Stick Plus is the device to get. You also get a strong wireless receiver that gives you four times the range and a bundled voice remote. It’s rarely this cheap outside of major holidays. View Deal

Sling TV deals: One of our favorite cord cutting services usually has deals for new and existing members. We’re rounding up the best offers you can get today. 

Best cable TV alternatives: Cable TV is overpriced and overrated. Today’s top cable TV alternatives offer live TV, premium channels, and no yearly contracts. Here are the best services for your dollar. 

Best streaming services: There’s more to streaming than Netflix. From HBO Max to Disney Plus, here are the best streaming services no cord cutter should live without. 

Best streaming devices: Turn your ordinary TV into the ultimate smart TV with one of these top-rated streaming devices.

Best Roku devices: Roku offers one of the most elegant and easy to use streaming platforms. Find out which device is best suited for your needs. 

Back to School: Gaming and Accessories

Gaming

SteelSeries Arctis 9 review

(Image credit: SteelSeries)

Top Pick
Dell G5:
from $734 @ Dell
The Dell G5 5090 is a solid entry level machine that’s easy to upgrade. One of the G5’s biggest selling points is its foolproof chassis, which is incredibly easy to open up should you want to swap out components over time. Plus, it’s $734 starting price makes it a one of those rare gaming rigs that won’t leave you broke. View Deal

Top Pick
HyperX Cloud Stinger:
was $49 now $42 @ Amazon
The HyperX Cloud Stinger offers big sound on a small budget. Its feather-light frame and soft, faux-leather earcups make it one of the most comfortable budget gaming headsets we’ve worn. It works with all consoles and offers reliable sound for the price. View Deal

Best Gaming PCs: Picking the right gaming PC for your budget isn’t an easy task. We’ve reviewed dozens of machines and picked the best rigs for every budget and type of gamer. 

Best gaming mouse: From sleek and stylish to large and customizable, there’s a whole range of gaming mice out there for all types of gamers. Here are the mice we think are a must for today’s PC gamer. 

Best gaming mouse pad: Not all mouse pads are made of soft cloth. We’ve tested pads with hard, medium, and smooth surfaces to crown the king of all gaming mouse pads. 

Best gaming headsets: Sure, you can use any cheap headset when playing games, but these headsets do a better job of highlighting important noises and providing a more immersive gaming experience. 

Best PC games: Take a study break with our pick of the best PC games of the year. From the remastered Resident Evil 2 to the retro-futuristic The Outer Worlds, these games will keep you entertained for months on end — when you’re not studying of course. 

PC gaming deals: Being a PC gamer isn’t cheap. So we’re providing the best PC gaming deals of the week in one spot, whether you’re in the market for a new rig or a new headset. 

Back to School: Phones and Data Plans

Phones

OnePlus 9 vs. iPhone 12

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

Top Pick
Google Pixel 4a:
from $299 @ Best Buy
The iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21 are excellent flagships. But if you’re looking for the best affordable phone, you’ll be hard pressed to beat the Pixel 4a. It features a gorgeous 5.81-inch 2340 x 1080 OLED display, Snapdragon 730G CPU, 6GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, 12.2MP (ƒ/1.7) rear camera, and 8MP (ƒ/2.0) front camera. You simply won’t find a better phone at this price point. View Deal

Best phones: Today’s smartphones can do just about anything. From playing Mario Kart to streaming Netflix, these are the best phones for every budget and type of user. 

Best iPhones: The iPhone 12 may get all the attention, but Apple has an iPhone for every budget and type of user. Here are the iPhones that still provide plenty of kick in spite of not being their current flagship.

Best Android phones: The Android ecosystem offers a wide range of choices for your needs and budget. Here are the top models, whether you’re looking for a powerful flagship or the best value. 

Best Samsung phones: The Galaxy S21 may be Samsung’s flagship phone, but the list doesn’t end there. From the student friendly Galaxy A52 5G to the powerful Galaxy S21 Plus, these are the best Samsung mobiles on the market today. 

Best 5G phones: 5G networks now stretch from coast to coast. But not all 5G phones offer the same speed. Here are the best 5G phones you can get now and which ones to look out for in coming months. 

Best cheap phones: Contrary to popular belief, a flagship smartphone doesn’t always cost $999. Here are the best budget smartphones that can stand up to their pricier, mainstream counterparts. 

Best mobile apps for students: From free educational videos to the best voice recording apps for class, these are the mobile apps every student will want to have on their phone when the school semester begins. 

Phone Deals

Top Pick
5G smartphones:
up to $1,000 off w/ trade-in @ Verizon
Verizon is offering one of the best deals of all time. New and existing customers can get up to $1,000 off select 5G phones with trade in. The sale includes popular models like the iPhone 12, Galaxy S21, and more. No matter your budget, there’s a 5G phone for you.View Deal

iPhone 12 deals: Apple’s current-gen smartphone has everything a student could need. Here’s where to find the best sales on every configuration. 

iPhone deals: Finding cheap iPhone deals isn’t as hard as you imagine. Here’s where to find the biggest iPhone discounts of the summer. 

iPhone SE deals: The iPhone SE is Apple’s best budget phone right now. Here’s how you can get it for as low as $0. 

Galaxy S21 deals: The Galaxy S21 is considered the pinnacle of Android phones. We’ll show you how to get the cheapest prices on Samsung’s premium phone.

Phone Plans

Top Pick
Mint Mobile | 4GB | $15/month ($180 for full year):
best overall cheap plan @ Mint Mobile
One of the best prepaid phone plans available in terms of overall value, Mint Mobile’s 4GB plan will only cost you $15 a month. However, like all of Mint Mobile’s other plans, that price could change after three months. At that point, you’ll have to commit to a full 12 months to continue at that $15 monthly rate, paying the full $180 up front. View Deal

Best unlimited data plans: If you’re going to pay a premium for unlimited data, you might as well get all the perks possible. Here are the unlimited plans we recommend based on price and features.

Best prepaid phone plans: These prepaid plans were designed to keep your monthly costs down. Here are the seven plans we recommend. 

Best family cell phone plan: Whether you’re in a family of three or a family of five, these family plans are cheap and include unlimited data for everyone. 

Best cheap cell phone plans: A smartphone is a must for most students, but a high cell phone bill shouldn’t be part of the equation. These plans start as low as $10 per month. 

Back to School: Headphones and Speakers

Headphones

Sony WF-1000XM4 vs. AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Top Pick
AirPods Pro:
was $249 now $189 @Amazon
Apple’s premium earbuds are perfect for everyday use. They offer active noise cancelling that can drown out campus noises, water- and sweat resistance for when you’re working out, and they come with a wireless charging case.View Deal

Top Pick
Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus:
was $149 now $99 @ Amazon
Wireless earbuds shouldn’t cost a fortune and the Galaxy Buds Plus are proof. These buds offer stellar battery life (22 hours total with case), impressive sound, and a great fit for less than the price of Apple’s AirPods.View Deal

Best cheap headphones: Apple and Bose aren’t the only headphone manufacturers. Here are the best cheap headphones that are actually worth buying. 

Best cheap wireless headphones: Whether you’re trying to drown out your noisy roommates or going for a run on the treadmill, these headphones will let you jam out without spending hundreds. 

Best cheap wireless earbuds: High-end earbuds can cost you as much as $300. However, we’ve tried and tested the best cheap earbuds that perform just as good as their pricier counterparts. 

Best fake AirPods: Even the cheapest AirPods can set you back $159. Here are seven earbuds that look and feel like the real thing at a fraction of the cost. 

Best Bluetooth speakers: With enough audio power to fill an entire dorm room, these wireless and portable speakers are great for just about any occasion. 

Headphones deals: Premium headphones can quickly get expensive. We’re rounding up the biggest sales on today’s top wireless headphones. 

Back to School: Furniture and Mattresses

Mattresses

Nectar mattress deals and promo codes

(Image credit: Nectar)

Top Pick:
Nectar Memory Foam Mattress:
was $798 now $499 @ Nectar
The Nectar Memory Foam mattress is our favorite overall mattress. Simply put, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better value mattress. It features five different layers, starting with a super-soft quilted memory foam mattress cover on top. That’s followed by a gel memory foam layer, which distributes your weight and body heat to keep you cool. Plus, you get $299 in accessories for free with your mattress purchase. View Deal

Best mattress: Buying a new mattress for school can be a tricky proposition. We’ve tested and reviewed dozens of brands to help you pick the one that’s best for your budget and sleeping style. 

Best mattress in a box: Shopping in store is no longer a requirement when searching for a new mattress. These companies sell their mattresses online and delivery them rolled up in boxes. Here are the brands to trust. 

Best memory foam mattress: Memory foam mattresses are great for people who like that sensation of being “cradled” while they sleep. They’re also great at providing pressure relief. Here are the memory foam beds we like most. 

Mattress deals: From Avocado to Purple, here are the best mattress deals on today’s most popular brands. 

Bedding sales: Already have a mattress? We’ve rounded up the best sales on sheet sets, pillows, mattress toppers, and all things bedroom related. 

Chairs

Top Pick
Amazon Basics Office Chair:
was $120 now $67 @ Amazon
The Amazon Basics Office Chair is the best budget chair you can find. Although it normally costs $120, it’s now on sale for $67. Its microfiber cover allows moisture to wick away, so you won’t get a sweaty back and it offers full body support, so you can lean back and have your head and neck supported. Its five rotating rollers mean that it works fine on both carpet and wood floors. View Deal

Best office chairs: Whether you’re pulling an all nighter or playing games, a good chair can keep you comfortable while keeping your lower back properly aligned. These are the chairs we recommend for every budget. 

Office chair sales: Don’t over or underpay for your new chair. Here are the best deals and recommended chairs. 

Best desks: Desks come in all shapes and sizes. We’ve picked the best desks based on design, durability, and affordability. 

Best gaming desks: Unlike a traditional desk, these desks ensure you have ample room for work, play, and your gaming accessories. Even if you’re not a gamer, they’re worth your consideration. 

Best desk lamps: There are thousands of desk lamps to choose from and while they all get the job done, these are the best ones based on design, adjustability, and connectivity. 

Back to School: Wearables

Smartwatches

Apple Watch 6

(Image credit: Future)

Top Pick
Apple Watch 3 (GPS/38mm):
was $199 now $169 @ Walmart
The Apple Watch 3 is a great fitness tracker and smartwatch. The waterproof watch offers heart rate notifications, workout detection, Apple Music, and Siri support for a low price. It’s now $30 under the Apple Store’s price, but hurry, as this model goes in and out of stock. View Deal

Best smartwatch: Whether you’re invested in the iOS or Android ecosystem, we’ve rounded up the best smartwatches for every user. 

Best cheap smartwatches: Not everyone can afford to drop $300 on a smartwatch. Here are the best models you can buy from $35 to $199. 

Apple Watch deals: The Apple Watch is our favorite overall smartwatch. Here’s how you can get every model on the cheap. 

How to use the Apple Watch: Apple’s smartwatches are loaded with features. Whether you want to take a call or activate Siri, here’s everything you need to know about the Apple Watch. 

Fitness trackers

Top Pick
Fibit Charge 4:
was $149 now $98 @ Amazon
Fitbit’s best fitness tracker has built-in GPS, a heart rate monitor, sleep tracking, contactless payments, and it’s water resistant to 50 meters. The Editor’s Choice fitness tracker is now at its lowest price ever.View Deal

Best fitness trackers: From analyzing your to tracking your workouts, these are the fitness trackers that stand out from the pack.  

Best running watches: While all fitness trackers can record your runs, these running watches offer specific metrics and features like the ability to race your previous runs or contact someone in case of an emergency. 

Best Fitbit: There are dozens of Fitbit models to choose from. We’ve reviewed them all and break down the best Fitbit for your needs.  

Fitbit deals: From the Fitbit Inspire HR to the Versa 2, here are the best deals on our favorite Fitbit devices. 

Garmin deals: Get in shape on the cheap with today’s best Garmin deals at Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, and more.  

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