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Latest Tech: Best back-to-school gear for $100 or less in 2021

The 2021 school year is full of uncertainties thanks to the alarming rise of the COVID delta variant. But whether the students in your life are returning to the classroom full-time, staying remote or adopting a hybrid learning model, they’re definitely going to need school supplies and gadget essentials to help them work — and play. And to help, we’ve assembled some of our favorite gear. These are the back-to-school essentials under $100 that we heartily recommend. 

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No, this EarFun isn’t identical to the Edifier TWS NB2 — that $100 model has a companion app, a “low-latency” gaming mode and a nicer textured finish on its case. But it’s very close and costs a good deal less when you factor in extra discounts.

The EarFun Air distinguishes itself with a comfortable fit, decent (though not great) noise canceling and nicely balanced sound, with good clarity and well-defined bass. They’re smooth-sounding earbuds.

Voice calling is also above average — noise reduction outdoors was decent and callers said they had no trouble hearing me (there’s a light sidetone feature that allows you to hear your voice in the ‘buds as you talk). Battery life is rated at up to seven hours with noise canceling on and these have an IPX5 rating, which means they’re splash-proof and are fine for working out (I ran with them).

While these are a good value at $72 with an on-page coupon, they have been closer to $60 in the past (with a discount code) and should go on sale again in the future.

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This wireless speaker is a colorful alternative to the slightly more costly Anker model below. It’s pretty compact and offers better — and bigger — sound than some of its slimmer and smaller rivals. It really can float and has better battery life than the original Wonderboom, too.

Read our UE Wonderboom 2 first take.


David Carnoy/CNET

The Hyperice Hypersphere Mini is a social-distance-friendly alternative to a massage at the end of a stressful school day. About the size of a softball (3-inch diameter), it charges with a Micro-USB cable (a full charge offers more than two hours of battery life) and does a great job of rolling out your muscles, with three speeds to choose from. It also travels well and makes a great dorm-room gift for a college student.

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A great way for a student to step up from that cramped laptop (or iPad) keyboard is with Logitech’s MX Keys — arguably the smartest low-profile Logitech keyboard I’ve used. It has “spherically dished” keys that cradle the tips of your fingers, and the keyboard is responsive and tactile. In that sense, it’s similar to Logitech’s Craft keyboard, which lists for twice the price. 

The keys light up as your hands approach and there’s a sensor that adjusts the illumination according to the lighting conditions. You can also turn off the light if you want to save battery life. The dual layout is designed to suit both Mac and Windows users, and the MX Keys is compatible with Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS and Android systems.

Using illumination, you can get 10 days of operation on a full charge or up to five months with backlighting turned off. When it’s time to recharge, the battery indicator LED glows red and you can continue using the keyboard while charging via USB-C.

Read our Logitech MX Keys first take.


Dale Smith/CNET

Yes, Amazon’s Echo Show 8 is a fantastic smart display and a great gift for anyone with an Alexa household, but some of us prefer the Google Nest Hub. It’s less likely to push Amazon products on the screen, for one thing. Plus, the voice assistant is a bit more intuitive and there’s no camera, so it feels more comfortable in the bedroom. This second-generation model is new for 2021.

Read our Google Nest Hub (2nd gen) review.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Know a student who’s always losing stuff on campus? In the locker room? Or just around the house? If they own an iPhone, gifting them a set of AirTags could be just the ticket. Once slipped into a backpack or a jacket, those items become trackable thanks to the AirTags using every nearby Apple device as a rangefinder. Grab a four-pack for just $99.

Read our AirTags hands-on.



Air fryers weren’t around when we were in school, but oh how we wish they were. We tested this compact cooker and it made insanely crispy chicken wings, french fries, dumplings and other college staples without any messy oil. The Magic Bullet is also smaller than most models and won’t crowd your already crowded dorm room or college apartment.

I’ve been a fan of Logitech’s earlier MX Master and MX Master 2S mice, which shared the same design. For the MX Master 3, Logitech’s engineers have made some upgrades to both the design and the mechanics of the mouse, most noticeably to the scroll wheel, which is driven by electromagnets and is buttery-smooth to operate. It’s fast and quiet — you can zip through thousands of lines in seconds when you switch from ratchet to free-spin mode. This stylish mouse costs just less than $100, and it’s a neat upgrade for the student who wants a break from a stubborn trackpad.

Read our Logitech MX Master 3 first take.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Earbuds are great, but if you’re buying for a student who prefers full-size wireless headphones, this model delivers solid sound for less than $60 — and with passable noise cancellation and great battery life, too.

David Carnoy/CNET

Anker’s Soundcore Motion Plus is larger than many mini Bluetooth speakers, but it’s still compact and manages to sound fuller than much of the competition for just over $100, with bigger bass, more volume and better clarity. It’s also fully waterproof (IPX7 rated) and has support for the aptX streaming codec for supporting devices such as Samsung’s Galaxy phones. Battery life is rated at 12 hours at moderate volume levels. There’s even an app for tweaking the sound. It’s an excellent value and fun addition to your school shopping.

Blue or red versions are available for $5 more.

Read our Anker Soundcore Motion Plus review.


This story was first published last year, and has been refreshed with new picks for summer 2021. Senior Editor David Watsky contributed to this story.

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