Back to School supplies: tech we recommend

The brainiest Back to School sales and gadgets list for 2014

Back to School tech guide 2013

Look around the web and you'll notice that most Back to School tech guides deserve an F. They're either full of useless gadgets or focus on overly expensive ideas.

Remembering this is for students, we're pulling for an A by limiting our picks to the brainiest modern-day learning tools and affordable Back to School deals.

We put our thinking caps on for this Back to School gadget guide. It'll make reading, doing homework and paying attention in class a bit easier during the 2014-2015 school year.

If your tech supplies list calls for the best laptops, tablets and smart gadgets to get you through the next nine months of academics, consider this your official cheat sheet.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3

Back to School tech list
Third time's a charm for Microsoft's laptop-tablet hybrid

Price: Starting at $730 on Amazon.com

You may not know much about history, but you'll live in the wonderful world of versatility if you own the multi-purpose Surface Pro 3.

Yes, the third time's a charm for Microsoft's laptop-tablet hybrid thanks to a thinner, yet more premium design and powerful specs, topped off with 2160 x 1440 resolution.

Compare the Surface Pro 3 display specs to the Retina-lacking 11-inch MacBook Air (1366 x 768) and 13-inch Macbook Air (1440 x 900).

Microsoft also improved the Type Cover, kickstand and Surface Pen, features you won't get with the Apple's laptops or the iPad Air.

Cheat Sheet: There have been three Surface Pro tablets since February 2013, so buy cheap, keep it in good condition and trade it in to upgrade every two years for the best value.

13-inch MacBook Air (2014)

Back to School tech list
A beautiful design, even if the display specs are dated

Price: Starts at $949 and comes with $100 gift card at the Apple Store

Apple may launch a redesigned 12-inch MacBook Air in the next couple of months, but if you're looking for a laptop with the most straightforward operating system, this is the one.

The 13-inch MacBook Air defines the "notebook" subcategory with a lightweight design that contrasts well with its premium look and feel. It really does replace your looseleaf.

The base specs for 2014 are OS X Yosemite-friendly with a 1.4 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor that can be turbo boosted up to 2.7GHz. Of course, these specs can always be upgraded for a price.

Cheat Sheet: Max out the memory from 4GB of RAM to 8GB of RAM. It's just $100 more. There's also a "higher education" promo at the Apple Store until September 9. The base model is $949 (not $999) and comes with a $100 Apple Store Gift Card.

LiveScribe Echo Smartpen

Best back to school tech 2014
Live and let LiveScribe

Price: $117 on Amazon for the 2GB Echo model

You're smart, but your pen is stupid. It hasn't changed much since the fountain to ballpoint pen transition in the 19th century, which makes life a Bic.

LiveScribe smartpens will point you in the right direction when writing down and reviewing notes, thanks to the integration of an audio recorder. As you jot down handwritten notes on special paper with microdots (that you can hardly see), the pen remembers what was being said.

Go back, tap any area of the notes, and hear what was being said at the moment you wrote something down. This contrasts with normal audio recordings in which you're hunting through a 50-minute timeline for a particular section of a lecture.
Cheat Sheet: Stick with the cheaper LiveScribe Echo Smartpen. The newer LiveScribe Sky Wi-Fi Smartpen and LiveScribe 3 models offer wireless note syncing via Evernote, but it's less than reliable.

Microsoft Windows 8.1 / Office 365 University

Best back to school tech 2013
Still the teacher-prefered OS and software

Price: $69.99 / $79.99 at Microsoft

Microsoft's software is a little less relevant on campus every new school year compared to a decade ago, as you can get away with lots of tasks using Google Docs or OpenOffice.

However, there's no getting through a semester without one teacher requiring Office-based formats, and really Office 365 is one of the most reliable word processing program out there.

The good news is the Windows 8.1 improves upon many of the Windows 8 flaws, like bringing back the sorely-missing Start button, and Office 365 is now compatible with iPad.

that students and teachers don't need to spend a whole lot on the operating system or Microsoft's suite of programs, and they're more compatible with Macs than ever. Windows 8 Pro is only $69.99, and a four-year subscription to Office 365 is just $79.99.

Cheat Sheet: There's no getting around not using Windows or Office at least once, but at least there's a way to get around paying full price. Students and teachers pay $69.99 for Windows 8.1 and $79.99 for Office 365's four-year subscription, which is almost enough time to cover your secret five-year college plan.

Google Drive

Best back to school tech 2013
Show your teachers you have drive

Price: $24 for 100GB from Google

Word processing is more advanced in Word, but when it comes to storing files, Google Drive outdoes Microsoft's newer SkyDrive service as one of the best cloud storage options.

Drive comes with 15GB of free storage, which compares to Dropbox's 16GB. In Google's case, though, you don't have to pester all of your friends to sign up to earn the space. You may have two thumbs, but you don't want to become "that guy" on campus.