With fall fast approaching, many students must figure out their game plan for tackling the coming school year with success. Essential to that success is the right tech gear to get a comfortable, capable home-study setup that can withstand years worth of rigorous classwork and downtime.
It’s not easy to set up the perfect home classroom, but here at Reviewed, we’re dedicated to finding the best tech for everyone, from the early education child to the collegiate filmmaker. Many of us have been working remotely since before COVID-19 hit, so we’ve developed a keen eye for the best value in everything from PCs and peripherals to headphones.
Here’s the tech you’ll need to thrive for back-to-school:
1. A reliable, robust internet setup
If you’re still dependent on your internet service provider’s modem and router package, it’s time to give them back and buy your own. Not only do providers normally charge monthly fees for their modems and routers, but much of the time those products won’t give you the performance you could be getting.
If you’re paying for high-speed internet and failing to see the benefits in action, consider upgrading to the Amazon top-rated ARRIS Surfboard SBG10. It’s perfect for families with up 300 mbps connections (i.e. 90% of people), and you’ll save money in the long-run when you drop your ISP’s modem/router rental fees.
Before you race out to buy a modem or router, remember to check that the product is compatible with your ISP. The SBG10 is compatible with Cox, Spectrum, Infinity and certain other providers, for instance.
If you’re interested in exploring separate modems and routers instead of a combination product, we’ve got a roundup of the best routers of 2020.
2. A quality laptop for hard work and play
The best tool to succeed in school these days is a laptop that perfectly fits your needs. We fell in love with the HP Envy x360 when we tested it thanks to its chic looks, killer performance, and reasonable price tag. It is hands down the best laptop for students we’ve tried in 2020, and you can expect to nail your late-night essays thanks to its amazing keyboard and 8-hour battery life.
If you’re looking for something more affordable, the Asus Vivobook 15 is another stellar pick with a 6-hour battery life and a great processor for under $600. It’s not as svelte as the x360, but it’s more than powerful enough to get you through your coursework without a hitch.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you're looking for something super powerful, the Asus ROG Zephyrus G14 bucks a lot of gaming laptops’ issues like poor battery life.
The Zephyrus G14 packs a massively powerful AMD Ryzen 9 processor and an Nvidia RTX2060 GPU into a 14” machine that’s both incredibly beautiful and incredibly practical to use. Not only are its keyboard and trackpad excellent, but its battery lasts over 5 hours and its 1080P screen refreshes 144 times a second. If you need a monster that you can stuff in your bag, this is it.
3. A desktop meant for serious business
For a family with diverse computing needs, adding a desktop PC could make a lot of sense for back-to-school this year. They’re a lot more ergonomic than laptops, especially for longterm use at home, and they generally offer much stronger performance than laptops at a similar price point.
If you want something that takes up little space and comes with no complications, you can get an all-in-one PC. They’re more expensive than traditional tower PCs, but they come with everything you need: built-in monitor, keyboard, and mouse. The Dell Inspiron 24 All-in-One PC is an amazing value with enough features and performance to feel up-to-date for at least the next four to five years.
If you need a workhorse but you can't pony up the all-in-one premium, a desktop tower is still a great option. The HP M01-F0024 desktop tower is a strong machine with plenty of RAM and wireless connectivity for most users. Its Ryzen 5 processor is powerful enough for moderate gaming, and this PC costs hundreds of dollars less than similarly-powerful Intel-based desktops. Just remember that if you get a tower, you have to buy a monitor and peripherals to go with it (keep reading for our top picks).
For many power users, such as students in creative or technical fields, a gaming desktop is often a much more affordable option to get the power needed to run intense video-editing and CAD software. The all-AMD Asus ROG Strix GA15DH runs circles around PCs that cost half a grand more, performing head-to-head with PCs specced out with an Intel Core i7 and Nvidia RTX 2070. There’s not a whole lot of room to add hardware within the GA15DH’s chassis, but it’s certainly operable enough to make upgrades as needed.
4. A good monitor to see what you’re doing without a magnifying lens
After your internet connection and your PC, a student's monitor is arguably the most important part of a schoolwork setup. A good monitor will not only give you a color-accurate, responsive image but it will also help reduce eye strain from staring at tiny text and images.
For basic use, the BenQ GW2480 24-inch 1080P monitor has excellent colors, adaptive brightness, a smart aesthetic, and an appealing price tag. Reddit’s monitor subreddit stands by this pick, as well.
If you want something bigger and sharper, the LG 27UL500-W is a fantastic 27-inch 4K monitor with phenomenal color accuracy and an adjustable stand. I’ve been using it for a year now, and it’s been wonderful for photo editing, writing, and the occasional gaming session. It’s not cheap, but it’s been a great investment.
5. A keyboard that’s sturdy and comfortable
Keyboards are by far the most underrated PC peripheral. A lot of people settle for whatever’s in the PC's box, even though they use their keyboards for hours at a time. Especially for students engaged in remote learning, it's important to choose a keyboard with outstanding durability and features for a pleasant experience.
That doesn’t mean you need to invest a lot of money to find the perfect keyboard. The Logitech MK270 wired keyboard and mouse kit is super durable and is our best value keyboard and mouse pick. Our editors loved it, and over 20,000 Amazon customers do, too.
For students looking to dive into the wonderful world of mechanical keyboards, it can be easy to get lost in the mire. If you’re after a great typing experience that isn’t too loud, the Cherry MX Brown-style switches are a great entry for initiates.
Ducky keyboards aren’t cheap, but they’re beloved among keyboard enthusiasts for a reason. Their boards are consistently high-quality, with durable keycaps and solidly built cases that can take abuse. I personally love the cult-favorite Ducky MIYA Pro line because of its fun color choices and exceptionally silky, stable keycaps.
Oh, and if you’re experiencing any discomfort, grab a wrist rest set like the VicTsing Keyboard and Mouse Wrist Rest. Posture experts recommend keeping your forearms and wrists parallel to your keyboard in order to prevent muscle strain.
6. A mouse that won’t cramp you up or bring you down
Whether you’re a desktop or a laptop user, there’s a good chance you’ve thought about using a separate mouse before. Shoddily built mice are (literally) a pain to use, and even the best trackpads are fatiguing after a while.
We think most students will appreciate the Logitech M325, a cozy little wireless mouse that comes in six different colors and is built like a tank. One customer from Best Buy, Rexman71, accidentally tossed their 3-year-old mouse in the washing machine, but it “still work[ed] great.” We obviously do not recommend that, but it's an encouraging anecdote!
If your heart desires a gamer-approved mouse, then the Razer Basilisk X Hyperspeed might be for you. It has a similar form factor to the legendary Logitech G502 Proteus Spectrum, but it’s much lighter, it’s wireless, and it’s about $60 cheaper than the wireless G502. If that’s not enough to sell you, then you should know I ditched my own G502 for the Basilisk.
7. A printer that can handle your teacher’s endless worksheets
You may be tempted to spring for the $30 printer on sale at the superstore, but you’ll end up spending a lot more money on ink cartridges in the long run (unless you buy the same printer every time you run out of ink). In addition, if you've been out of the printer game for awhile, you'll be amazed at how simple and convenient the newer wireless printers are.
Instead, we’re recommending slightly pricier (but still reasonable) picks that will be cheaper over time. If you need a color printer or you don’t print very often, the HP Envy 6055 is a great all-in-one inkjet printer that can print, scan, and copy. One of our editors is very happy with this printer as his home office driver.
If you mostly print black-and-white documents and don’t need a scanner or copier, laser printers offer a great return on investment. The HP Laserjet Pro M15w is a small, wireless laser printer that will zoom through your print jobs and rarely need a toner replacement.
8. Speakers for those online lectures (and study jam sessions)
If you buy a desktop PC, you may not have any speakers out of the box. Additionally, integrated speakers on desktops, laptops, and monitors are often pretty weak and cheap, so investing in some separate speakers is usually worth your money if you want to listen to lectures without a hitch.
For those looking to get something with no extra bells or whistles, the Edifier R12U are a solid pair of sub-$30 speakers that outperform their rivals. They're beloved for their solid sound and good looks, and they’re from a respected audio company. They’re small enough to fit on a desk, and reviews have praised them for their ability to get good and loud for their size.
If your budget has a bit more room, the Logitech Z337 2.1 speaker system is a great setup for desktop PCs. It’s small and elegant, but the sound packs a punch and the control module makes it dead-easy to control your music, listen through headphones, or even pair the speakers with Bluetooth. That’s a lot of versatility for under $100.
9. Headphones to watch those lectures without distractions (and also jam out)
Having a decent pair of speakers is always nice, but chances are most students will be using a pair of headphones a lot more if there are others in the household. That’s why it’s important to choose a pair that have active noise cancelling, so you’re not distracted by the commotion of a bustling home.
If you’re looking for the best value, the Sony WH-CH710N wireless headphones are an awesome pair that set a high bar for audio quality and noise cancellation at their price. With 36 hours of battery life, you have a very long time to enjoy these top-rated cans before you have to plug back in and be distracted by your roommates or family again. Our reviewer loved them, and chances are you will, too.
However, if you’re really looking to splurge, the Sony WH-1000XM3 are some of the best-sounding headphones around, and they just happen to have some of the best noise cancellation around, too. Even audiophiles approve of this pick, and they've been atop many of our best headphones lists for a shockingly long time.
Can't decide between the two? Here's a breakdown of both pairs rated side by side.
10. A webcam for those inevitable Zoom classroom discussions
With distance learning becoming more common, webcams are notoriously hard to find these days. But we scrounged up some reliable picks from the bowels of the world wide web.
The highly affordable Logitech C270 is one of the hottest webcams at the moment, and it’s currently in stock at the Logitech store. It’s a 720P webcam from one of the best makers in the market, and it’s been selling so fast that a lot of brick and mortar retailers are limiting sales to in-store only. Snag one if you see it in person, or try Logitech’s website.
If you can spare forty more dollars, the Aver Media Livestreamer CAM 313 is a solid 1080P camera to get. Aver is known for its game-streaming peripherals, so the CAM 313 is optimized for streaming. That means you get a good frame rate and resolution to show off to your Zoom peers.
Bonus: A few luxuries to up your digital game
Here we’ve moved beyond the realm of essentials, but these extra goodies can really improve a student's quality of life.
For reading and note-taking, tablets are ideal for their paperish form factor that makes it a cinch to write on and hold like a book. Apple's iPad (2019) offers a great intersection of price and performance if you’re looking for an all-around tablet for academic use.
A USB Microphone
If you find your PC or webcam has a barely audible microphone, get a USB mic and make your life easier. The Samson Go Mic is a great choice from a respected audio company, thanks to its quality, its portability, its value, and its ease of use.
If you’re in desperate need of storage on your PC, there’s several ways to remedy the problem.
A MicroSD card, like the Sandisk Ultra 64GB Micro SD card, is a great choice for systems with a MicroSD port, as it’s a cheap way of adding permanent, basically integrated storage.
A Flash drive, like the Sandisk Ultra 64GB Dual Drive USB Type-C, is another cheap solution that’s great for travel.
If you need a considerable storage upgrade, an external hard drive, like the Western Digital 4TB My Passport Portable External Drive, or cloud storage, like Dropbox or Google Drive, will do the trick.
A USB Port Hub
If you find your PC is starved for port availability, add in a port hub, like Sabrent's 4-Port USB 3.0 Data Hub with Individual LED Power Switches.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.