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The best smartphones, tablets and smartwatches for students

New school year, new gear.
Engadget, @engadget
07.22.19 in Mobile
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Will Lipman Photography for Engadget

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New school year, new gear. Maybe you're due for an upgrade, or maybe you broke your phone over summer break, or maybe you just want a new toy. Either way, you might be looking to refresh your slate of devices before heading to campus. For the mobile section of our back-to-school guide, we considered the best phones you can get on a student-friendly budget. We also threw in our favorite smartwatches for both Android and iOS users.

But "mobile" means more than just phones and phone-like things meant for your wrists. We also included our favorite e-reader and make a case for why someone might want to splurge on an iPad Pro. (Hint: art and design students might get a kick out of it.) We know that in your haste to get to class on time you might occasionally forget to charge your devices, so we've also included a portable battery that can keep all your stuff running. And life isn't all work and no play, so when it's time to chill out in your dorm, you can strap on our favorite wireless headset and take out some aliens in VR -- no need to make your roommate trip over any cables.

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite (2018)

amazon

What sounds better: lugging around a backpack full of books or toting a sleek e-reader to class? The answer is clearly the latter, and Amazon's latest Kindle Paperwhite is still one of the finest ways to access loads of books in one place. It's slightly slimmer than the model it replaces, the screen's lighting is more even, it comes with even more storage (8GB, up from 4GB) and it's fully waterproof. There might not be a more convenient way to blow through all that Chaucer you were just assigned.

Admittedly, though, Kindles are less than ideal in certain ways. For one, not all Kindle books have page numbers that correspond to written copies, and lit majors won't have much luck downloading Norton Critical Editions. That said, these devices make for a pleasant reading experience; that's nothing to sneeze at when your list of required books starts piling up.
-- Chris Velazco, Senior Mobile Editor

Buy Kindle Paperwhite on Amazon - $130

Apple iPad Air (2019)

apple

Some people swear by the iPad Pro for note-taking, and thankfully, Apple took just about everything that made the tablet ideal for schoolwork and transplanted it into a more affordable package. This is the first iPad Air that Apple has made in three years, and the wait was worth it: The new Air shares a processor with last year's iPhone XS and is compatible with Apple's Pencil and Smart Keyboard accessories. Because of the way the tablet market has been shrinking, you'd also be hard-pressed to find a device with a 10.5-inch screen that looks as good as this one.

More importantly, the Air is going to get better with time. We already know that iPadOS packs significant enhancements to performance and multitasking, but new additions -- like the ability to save and manage files directly on the tablet -- mean the iPad Air will be better-suited for getting work done. Sure, it might not replace your standard laptop for everything you'll need at school, but since it handles work and play equally well, it's a valuable addition all the same. -- C.V.

Buy iPad Air (2019) - $499+

Apple Watch Series 4

apple watch

The Apple Watch has come a long way since its debut in 2015. And with the Series 4, Apple made its wearable even better than the previous model, thanks to a bigger, edge-to-edge screen; longer battery life; more-accurate step-tracking; and an electrocardiogram test that can detect an irregular heartbeat. That's in addition to being water-resistant and working with thousands of popular apps out of the box, which is what makes the Series 4 a well-rounded package.

The Apple Watch Series 4 starts at $399 for the GPS-only, 40mm model or $429 if you want the bigger 44mm screen. Meanwhile, the LTE version, which lets you make calls from the Watch without a paired iPhone nearby, costs $100 more. If you already have an iPhone, though, your best option may be the GPS edition, since you can still make calls from your wearable as long as your smartphone is within range.
-- Edgar Alvarez, Senior Editor

Buy Apple Watch Series 4 on Amazon - $349+

Google Pixel 3a

pixel 3a

The original Pixel 3 and 3 XL were nice enough in their own right, but the newer, cheaper Pixel 3a proved Google could make excellent phones on the cheap. $400 gets you one of the best smartphone cameras on the market right now, not to mention years of big software and security updates and some of the best battery life we've ever seen out of a Google device. Play your cards right -- by which we mean don't drop it in a beer -- and the 3a could easily get you through the next few years of academia.
-- C.V.

Buy Pixel 3a - $399

Fitbit Versa

fitbit

This Apple Watch lookalike is actually quite pretty in its own right, especially if you get it with a rose gold case and lilac strap. But looks aside, the Fitbit Versa is also a powerful fitness-tracking smartwatch that's ideal for those who care more about their workouts than being able to reply to messages from their wrist. You can track a variety of activities, including swimming, and refer to the Versa's built-in workout guides if you need some inspiration at the gym.

If you really need to save $30, consider the Fitbit Versa Lite, which does most of the same stuff but lacks a gyroscope to count laps in the pool, an altimeter to detect flights climbed, not to mention WiFi, music storage and on-screen tutorials. That's why, if you have the funds, we strongly suggest the Versa instead. -- Cherlynn Low, Reviews Editor

Buy Fitbit Versa on Amazon - $179.95

Mophie Powerstation XL

mophie

If you're carrying multiple gadgets to and from class, it's a near certainty that at least one of them will run low on battery during the process. That's where Mophie's updated PowerStation XL comes in. It doesn't weigh much more than a standard paperback, so it won't put any undue strain on your back, but its 15,000mAh battery means you can charge whatever you've brought with you several times over. You can even charge multiple devices at the same time, assuming that at least one of them uses USB-C cables to draw power. This year's models come clad in surprisingly nice fabric too, so this most utilitarian of gadgets now feels a touch more stylish to boot.
-- C.V.

Buy Powerstation XL on Amazon - $69.95

Oculus Quest

oculus quest

Just because you're on a tight school budget doesn't mean you have to forego quality VR. At $399, Oculus' Quest headset is an affordable way to get into virtual reality while preserving many of the features that make the technology so great. You still have six-degree freedom of movement and full-featured controllers, but you won't have to buy a powerful PC. There aren't any wires to trip you up either. And when you can both watch videos as well as play hot VR titles like Beat Saber and Vader Immortal, it offers plenty of ways to tune out your roommates.
-- Jon Fingas, Contributing Editor

Buy Oculus Quest on Amazon - $399

OnePlus 7 Pro

oneplus 7

You don't have to give up dreams of owning a top-tier smartphone when you're scrimping and saving for tuition. The OnePlus 7 Pro may be more expensive than past OnePlus devices, but it still delivers flagship-worthy smartphone features for hundreds of dollars less than other premium devices. Its giant, responsive screen is a treat for watching videos in between classes, and its speedy performance ensures that you can juggle all the chats for your next big party. While the camera isn't spectacular, it's more than fine for the price -- and the rest of the phone is done so well that you probably won't mind. -- J.F.

Buy OnePlus 7 - $669+

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active

samsung

You'll be pleasantly surprised by how much better Samsung's wearables are at tracking your activity than Fitbits and Wear OS watches. The Galaxy Watch Active is Samsung's most affordable smartwatch, and it's proactive about reminding you to get up and move when you've been idle for an hour. By calculating your heart rate variance, the Watch Active can also gauge your stress levels to tell you to take a breather -- a useful feature when midterms roll around.

In addition, the device tracks your sleep, lets you dictate or type out email and text replies, and has a no-frills aesthetic that will blend with most outfits. It can even act as a remote control for your presentation so you can advance to the next slide by swiping your watch face. Plus, it lasts two to three days on a charge, which means you'll still be able to track your morning run if you stayed out all night. Those with bigger budgets should go for the $330 Galaxy Watch, which features a useful rotating bezel that makes navigating the Tizen OS interface easier and more precise. That watch also has a bigger face and lasts longer. It has a more masculine look, though, so if you want something more neutral you're better off sticking with the Watch Active. -- C.L.

Buy Watch Active on Amazon - $179+

Skagen Falster 2

skagen

Don't discount Wear OS watches yet. With a user-friendly activity-tracking interface, compatibility with a ton of apps and the powerful Assistant baked in, Google's wearable platform is useful for those looking for convenience who don't need a lot of frills. The best thing about this ecosystem is the vast amount of options available, so you can pick one from your favorite luxury brand or simply go with the prettiest.

In our humble opinion, the Skagen Falster 2 is the most attractive, thanks to its clean, minimalist design. It's also impressively light and comfortable yet water-resistant enough that you can take it for a lap or two in your pool. One thing to note though: Most Wear OS watches available last about a day, regardless of the chipset they use, so maybe get a bedside charging stand too. -- C.L.

Buy Skagen Falster 2 on Amazon - $275

Check out our complete 2019 back-to-school guide and find all of our student-friendly buying advice right here!

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
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