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Our Favorite Back-to-School Picks for 2022

Whether they're heading back to the classroom or moving into a dorm, this is the stuff students will need.

This story is part of Gift Guide, our year-round collection of the best gift ideas.

It's that time of year again. Retailers are already stocking up on school supplies, which means if you get a jumpstart on your back-to-school shopping, you'll be sure to get exactly what you need -- and for the right prices. So to save you some time and money, we've rounded up many of the products that students will need when they head back to dorms and classrooms this fall. 

From the best laptops to water bottles  to everything in between, we've compiled a list of our top back-to-school picks for the gadgets, gear and services that will help students stay productive and engaged in the classroom, library, study lounge and anywhere else their education takes them this year. Have a look. We'll update this list periodically.

Sarah Tew/CNET

While they've been out for quite a while, the Apple AirPods Pro remain a top choice among students. That's largely due to their winning design and fit, good sound, effective noise canceling and spatial audio for watching movies and TV shows. They're also excellent for making voice calls and have a top-notch transparency mode. Also worth noting: They are IPX4 splash-proof so they're suitable for sporting activities (for a more secure fit you may want to invest in third-party foam ear tips, which are grippier than the tips Apple includes). 

Yes, they're expensive at $250 from the Apple Store, but they tend to sell for $200 or less on Amazon. The updated version adds MagSafe compatibility, so these stick to magnetic wireless chargers.

Read our Apple AirPods Pro review.

 

Hydro Flask

Staying hydrated is a key component of keeping your mind sharp and getting you through the school day. Hydro Flask bottles exploded in popularity a few years ago, and it's still a top choice among students. Thanks to its double wall vacuum insulation, it keep liquids cool for up to 24 hours and hot drinks warm up to 12 hours. Plus, it's tough enough to survive the rigors of campus life and being shoved into a backpack.

See more of the best water bottles of 2022.

 

Amazon

Most schools have ditched mask mandates, but no one wants Covid, and you certainly don't want to bring it home to Grandma and Grandpa. Most hand sanitizers are gooey and super-smelly, but this EO lavender spray goes on smoothly and has a soothing scent. And the 2-ounce travel size makes it perfect for popping into a backpack.

Amazon

The best way for a student to stay productive is to get a good night's rest. Heavier than a regular blanket, this weighted blanket provides a calming effect that will help students get some good shut eye. Bonus points: The fuzzy texture makes it extra-snuggly. This blanket normally retails for $60, but you can get it for $57 when you apply a 5% coupon at checkout.

Amazon

No matter which grade they're in, students go through a lot of pencils -- so it's important to have a massive stash of them on hand before school starts. You could go all out and get them fancy Palomino Blackwings, but considering how often pencils get lost, it's best to stick with a more budget-friendly option. Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils are much easier on the wallet and have been a classroom favorite for generations. I prefer buying pre-sharpened packs -- since it's not fun to stay up late the night before school starts sharpening pencil after pencil. 

Amazon

Even if you buy pre-sharpened pencils, you'll need a pencil sharpener on hand for when they start going dull. PowerMe's electric pencil sharpener does the job and comes in a variety of colors. I like that it's battery-operated and compact so it doesn't take up much desk space.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Apple's new M2-powered MacBook Air is shipping this month, and it has a lot of new features -- but Apple also bumped up the price by $200. So if you're a student, it's hard to go wrong with the older 2020 M1 Apple MacBook Air, which still remains available for $999, and if you're a student or teacher, you can shave off an additional $100, thanks to Apple's educational discount. The base model features Apple's M1 processor with an eight‑core CPU, seven‑core GPU and 16‑core Neural Engine. It also has Touch ID, Apple's Magic Keyboard, a Force Touch trackpad and a 13.3-inch Retina display. 

Read our MacBook Air M1 review.

 

Josh Goldman/CNET

If you don't want to plunk down a ton of cash for a new Apple laptop, a Chromebook is the way to go. They're almost always less expensive and simpler to use than a laptop running Windows or MacOS. This HP Chromebook x360 14c is durable, portable and does everything it needs to do to get your schoolwork done. The two-in-one design means you can use it as a tablet (though it's a bit heavy to use handheld). You can also tent it, connect an external keyboard and mouse and use it as a small all-in-one computer. 

In our testing, the Core i3 processor and 8GB RAM kept this HP Chromebook running smoothly even with a couple dozen tabs open and streaming video in the background. And its battery life held up well, lasting 10 hours and 40 minutes in our tests. 

Ninja

Whether you're at home or away at school, coffee is an essential ingredient for academic success. This jack-of-all-trades Ninja makes regular coffee as well as cold brew and even tea, with separate settings and baskets for beans and leaves (loose or bagged). It has a foldaway frothing arm for latte-style drinks -- so not only will it save money on Starbucks runs, it'll make the dorm the most popular spot to study. It includes size settings too, so you can brew a full carafe or a single cup.

Read our Ninja Hot and Cold Brewed System review.

 

I've been using Burton's Spruce 26L backpack for the past few years, and I think it's the best, most versatile bag I've ever owned. It's comfortable to wear, looks cool and is made with durable materials, including weather-resistant zippers. From the quick-release magnetic buckles to the fleece-lined laptop pocket, this bag is extremely well-designed from top to bottom. And it comes with Burton's lifetime warranty. 

If you're looking for something a little higher-end, I also love the weatherproof Rhake backpack from Mission Workshop. At $370, it's expensive, but the 22-liter roll-top compartment is cavernous, the laptop compartment that opens from the side is so handy -- and the bag just looks slick.

Read CNET's list of best back-to-school backpacks and bags.

 

Instant Pot

If the dorm allows it, an Instant Pot is a no brainer for college students. It can do almost anything: make morning yogurt, boil perfect eggs, cook big batches of protein to stretch into meals all week long and even pull off easy desserts. The smaller 3-quart mini Instant Pot might be better for dormbound students, but the larger 6-quart model (Duo Nova 7-in-1) pictured above is occasionally on sale for $80 or less, making it a tough deal to turn down.

See more of the best Instant Pots of 2020.

 

Decomposition

Not everything requires a Chromebook or Macbook. Sometimes you just want to jot something down with a good old-fashioned pencil and paper. The timeless Decomposition Notebook is a classic and comes in a variety of patterns, starting at $5 on Amazon. It's lightweight and perfect for tossing into a backpack for your next brainstorming session.

Chris Monroe/CNET

The Lenovo Smart Clock is a minimalist, customizable smart clock that can recommend alarms based on your calendar. It comes with the full power of Google Assistant voice control, so it's basically a Google Home Mini with a clock face. My favorite feature is also the most visceral -- you can snooze your alarms just by whacking the thing.

Sarah Tew/CNET

For students, the TV is central to many forms of modern entertainment. This particular model comes with a Roku built in, making streaming apps effortlessly accessible. It has a decent picture quality and is ridiculously affordable -- perfect for a student on a budget.

Read the TCL S425 review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

For the lucky student who already has a TV, the Roku Plus will transform it into a full-featured streaming device. This model supports 4K and HDR video, has the best search interface and can control the TV's volume and power. (If your smart TV is missing any key apps, this will plug all those pesky content holes.)

Read our Roku Streaming Stick Plus review.

 

Stitch Fix

Many students will need a wardrobe upgrade this fall. Stitch Fix makes it easy with a monthly delivery of curated clothes, shoes and accessories delivered right to your student's door. They can try them on, keep what they like and send back the rest in a prepaid United States Postal Service envelope. Stitch Fix gift cards, which can be printed, emailed or snail mailed, are available in denominations from $20 to $1,000.

See more of the best clothing subscription boxes for 2022.

 

Hello Fresh

Cut down on visits to the dining hall with a meal kit delivery service. HelloFresh provides perfectly portioned ingredients and detailed recipe instructions, helping even novice cooks pull off impressive meals. There are plenty of other meal kit delivery companies to choose from, and many offer plans for special diets including vegan and gluten-free selections.

Read more: Best meal kit subscription services

More back-to-school recommendations

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