Best back to school gear under $250

The 2020 back-to-school season is unusually stressful, with parents and students left in limbo as schools continue to determine their plans for the new academic year in the age of coronavirus. But whether students return to campus, continue distance-learning at home or end up with a hybrid of the two, they’ll need plenty of new gear as the fall semester kicks off. That’s why we’ve rounded up some of our top picks in the $100 to $250 price range below — everything from top-notch true wireless headphones to backpacks to smart TVs.

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Samsung’s Buds Plus look essentially the same as the original Galaxy Buds, but their battery life is rated at 11 hours for music playback (up from six hours), and they pack dual drivers for better sound and an additional microphone in each bud to help with external noise reduction while making calls. This great gift option is IPX4-rated, which means they’re splash-proof.

I was impressed with the sound. It’s detailed and smooth, with deep, well-defined bass. The sound is richer and more spacious than that of the original Galaxy Buds. Well-respected Austrian audio company AKG, which Samsung acquired when it bought Harman, is behind the audio. While the original Buds were also “tuned” by AKG, these are a nice upgrade over the originals — and right there with what you get with the Jabra Elite 75t, if not even a touch better. They use Bluetooth 5.0 and support for AAC (there’s now an app for iOS users) and Samsung’s scalable codec, which is similar to aptX but is proprietary to Samsung Galaxy phones.

Read our Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus review.

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If you can’t splurge the $300 to $400 for something like the Samsung Galaxy A50, A51, Moto G7 or iPhone SE, the Moto G7 Power is your best bet for a phone in this price range. It’s available unlocked for $250 or less.

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Here’s a unique way to relieve that new-semester stress: Therabody’s newest and most affordable percussive therapy device (otherwise known as a massage gun). The 1.5-pound Theragun Mini is designed to be portable, easily fitting in a backpack or purse. While it doesn’t have quite the power of one of Theragun’s full-size devices, it’s surprisingly powerful considering how small it is. I’ve tried larger massage guns in this price range, and it’s just as powerful but half the size. The rechargeable battery is rated to last two and a half hours, and a neoprene protective case is included. 

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Sony’s WF-1000XM3 is considered one of the best sets of true wireless noise-canceling earbuds. But to the dismay of some people, it lacked any sort of water resistance, making it unsuitable for sports. It took a while, but now we finally have a new true wireless noise-canceling sports model from Sony: the WF-SP800N.

This isn’t quite the WF-1000XM3 with a water-resistant body. It’s missing Sony’s QN1e processor, but there’s still a lot to like about it, including very good sound, solid noise canceling and good call quality. But this is definitely a decent upgrade over the WF-SP700N, which came out in 2018, and its “arcs” (sports fins) lock the buds in your ears. Just make sure you get a tight seal from one of the included ear tips or else both the sound and noise canceling will be lackluster.

Read our Sony WF-SP800N review.

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Students (and everyone else) are avoiding the gym in the age of coronavirus — and that’s why a gadget like the Activ5 is the perfect 2020 gadget. Billed as “a tiny gym in your pocket,” the Activ5 is about the size of a hockey puck. It’s designed to create an isometric workout as you apply pressure to either side of the device — essentially squeezing it — using various parts of your body.

You connect your iPhone or Android phone to the device and a free companion app (pictured) tracks the amount of pressure you apply to it. With a little gamification, the app guides you through short workouts that you can do anywhere. It gives you more of a workout than you’d think, given its tiny size and simplistic shape.

Watch our Activ5 hands-on video.

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When you hear Razer — best known for its gaming laptops and accessories — is releasing a new noise-canceling headphone, the first thing you probably ask yourself is whether it’s a gaming headphone. Surprisingly, when it comes to the new $200 Opus, the answer is no. It’s an everyday noise-canceling headphone that Razer hopes its gaming-oriented customers will buy instead of more expensive models from BoseSony and others. While the Opus doesn’t have the most distinguishing external design, it does sound pretty darn good and overall performed quite well in my tests.

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Whether students are in an online class or playing Fortnite after hours, solid Wi-Fi is a must — and for that, you can’t beat the the whole-home coverage of a mesh network system. The three-piece Eero system includes a free Echo Dot, too. (Just note that this bundle is sold for as low as $170 to $200, so try to find it on sale first.)

Read our Eero (2019) review.

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Whether it’s in the dorm, the kitchen or the bedroom, the Sonos One is a great combination of smart speaker and sound quality. It works with Alexa or Google Assistant, and it’s compatible with AirPlay 2 streaming.

Read our Sonos One review.

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The AirPods Pro aren’t necessarily the best-sounding true wireless headphones out there, but they integrate seamlessly with Apple devices, their noise canceling is excellent, and the transparency mode is great for listening without shutting out the world around you. And they’re genuinely good for talking on the phone or during Zoom calls, too. (These are often on sale, so look for prices between $215 and $225 before buying.)

Read our Apple AirPods Pro review.

Incase Icon Backpack

Top-notch laptop bag

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The Icon backpack is a favorite for its understated style and huge carry capacity. Incase updated the bag with abrasion and water-resistant material called Woolenex. Four separate sections give you space for up to a 15.6-inch laptop and a tablet, plus one for flat files and another loaded with pockets for all your accessories.

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We expect new Apple Watch models this fall, but for now, the best option under $250 is the Series 3. It lacks the bells and whistles of 2019’s Series 5, but it includes basic fitness and heart-rate tracking, and it will be upgradeable to WatchOS 7 later this year, too. Don’t pay more than $180 for the 38mm model, or $210 for the 42mm version.

Read our Apple Watch Series 3 review.

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Whether you’re still at home or away for school, coffee is an essential ingredient. The Ninja makes regular coffee as well as cold brew and even tea, and it doesn’t take up any more bench space than a normal coffee maker.

Read our Ninja Hot and Cold Brewed System review.

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Whether it’s a desktop or a laptop, computers’ onboard sound usually leaves a lot to be desired. If your student loves music or even wants to hear games and movies more clearly then a dedicated USB sound card will improve sound quality for both headphones and external speakers. The DragonFly Red sounds great and is very compact, meaning it won’t take up any desk space. With an adaptor, they can also upgrade their phone’s sonics too.

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This 50-inch 4K TV doesn’t have the best picture quality we’ve seen. But at this price, who cares? What it does have is the best-in-class Roku smart TV operating system, which means that every worthwhile streaming app from Netflix to Hulu and nearly everything in between is built right in. (Note that HBO Max and NBC’s Peacock are still holdouts, however.) It’s a great starter TV that can migrate to the bedroom or game room to eventually make way for a bigger, better set. If you need to stay under $250, go for the 43-inch model — but spending just $40 more gets your student this 50-incher instead.

Read our Roku S425 TV review.

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