This is a post in Back To School, an ongoing series where ReadWrite covers technology trends in education for parents and educators.

Preparing for college can be emotional, hectic and, of course, expensive.

According to the National Retail Federation, total back-to-college spending will reach $45.8 billion, the largest portion of which will go to electronics. That’s no surprise. University students have to gear up for more than just academics. Dorm life and roommate situations can loom large on the college experience, making technology more like a survival kit than a luxury. 

Indeed, there’s a lot of ground to cover, along with big potential to waste funds (and precious dorm space) on frivolous or redundant technologies. Fortunately, a little savvy can go a long way. Here’s the breakdown on what’s essential and what’s not. 

The College Conundrum

The best technologies solve problems and that’s especially true in a college setting. 

The challenges vary—from finding the right devices for research to blocking out distractions, like a roommate’s snoring, and getting oriented in a new town. And because nobody can (or should) function like a mere homework machine, hooking up entertainment deserves a spot on the list. After all, blowing off steam can be just as important as school work. 

Good thing today’s gadgets can do multiple duty. Smartphones, for example, not only enable communication and connection, they also work as a music source, handheld gaming console, study tool, alarm clock, calculator, maps, music player, voice recorder, camera and calendar. This reduces the physical load and the cost, since there’s no need to buy standalone products or programs. 

If there’s one conundrum about back-to-college shopping that comes up again and again, it’s not about smartphones; it’s the tablet vs. laptop debate. iPad initiatives are en vogue in the education sector, and their high portability and low-cost applications make them attractive for college students. 

But they can’t hold a candle to laptops for productivity. No wonder computers are still more popular among college students. And even when it comes reading, say, e-textbooks, they’re still not the best choice. An e-ink eReader like the Amazon Kindle would spare more eyestrain than a glossy full-color, backlit touchscreen. They’re far less expensive too, starting at just $69. 

Core Computing Gear

Since smartphones do so much, the handset decision is a pivotal one. That’s why, unless the school is steeped in a specific platform, stick with familiarity. Students with demanding classes don’t need an extra learning curve. What matters most is that the device performs well and has a decent camera for snapping shots of whiteboards, chalkboards and notes from peers. 

Android users have several decent options, including the HTC One X, Moto X or the Samsung Galaxy S4. The rugged S4 Active version even withstands dust and water—perfect for rainy campus days or a beachside Spring Break. And phablets like the Xperia Z Ultra or the stylus-packing Samsung Galaxy Note II (or upcoming III) can come in handy for class. iOS users, of course, have the iPhone. But if you’re ready to buy one new or upgrade, hold off for now: Apple will unveil the new version in just a few weeks. 

If an outstanding camera trumps app selection, consider the Nokia Lumia 1020. The Windows Phone 8 device boasts a 41-megapixel beast that works well in low light and has optical image stabilization. 

When it comes to laptops, there’s no shortage of choices—from ultrabooks like Apple’s MacBook Air to desktop replacements like Lenovo’s IdeaPad Z400 Touch. Another option for cash-strapped students: Chromebooks. Basically a glorified Web browser in a clamshell case, devices like the$200 Acer C7 are both light and cheap. And students may be surprised at how admirably they handle tasks like streaming, writing and research, email/messaging and even some graphic design. Bear in mind, however, that for intensive uses—such as gaming, video editing or 3D modeling—only a full-fledged computer will do. 

Although tablets can’t replace laptops, shoppers with bigger budgets may pick one up anyway, at least as an add-on device or because some colleges require them. So check with the school beforehand. (Some even supply tablets and laptops for students.) If you have a choice of product, opt for a compact device like the iPad mini, Nexus 7 or Amazon Kindle Fire HD (along with a bluetooth keyboard). 

There’s another possibility: the Microsoft Surface Pro. This Windows 8 tablet is a computer-grade device that works with a detachable keyboard for use as a laptop. This could offer the best of both worlds. But be warned—it’s pricey (starting at $799 for only 64GB), and the keyboard cover costs extra. Plus, those keys can take some getting used to for touch typists, so anyone interested should definitely try one out before buying. 

Other Considerations

Computing hardware’s only one piece of the puzzle. Thanks to apps and websites, users can equip themselves to handle everything from student lifestyles to academics, anytime and anywhere. Here are a few especially helpful ones for school: 

  • Notes:Evernote (includes text, audio notes and searchable photo notes) and Dropbox (offers everywhere access and simple file sharing)
  • Class/Homework/Tasks organization:InClass for iOS (features calendar, scheduling, tasks, notes) or MyHomework for iOS and Android (tracks classes/assignments) 
  • eTextbooks:Kindle Textbook Rental, as well as Chegg, Coursesmart, Google Play and the Apple iBooks, among others.
  • PDF maker:CamScanner (turns pics into PDFs, extract text and share) (iOS & Android) 
  • Voice Recording:Smart Voice Record for Android (offers variable quality, option to not record silence) and AudioNote for iOS (pinpoints text notes to places in recording)
  • Research:Open Culture (covers online courses, test prep materials, free e-textbooks, and much more culled from university sites and free-use libraries) 
  • Also, see if the college or department has any specialized campus or curriculum apps. 

The well-equipped student will need more than a phone, computer and apps. Here are a few other tech add-ons to consider.

  • Streaming box: The Roku 3 and Apple TV are solid choices, and less expensive than cable TV. There’s also the new, incredibly cheap $35 Chromecast, or go for a gaming console (below). 
  • Game console: Xbox 360, Xbox One and Sony PS3 offer games and a whole lot more—including streaming for TV, movies and music, and other connected features. 
  • Headphones: Nothing cancels out noisy roommates or annoying neighbors like noise-canceling headphones. Options like the $249.95 AKG K 490 NC are not cheap, but consider it an investment in your education. 
  • Speakers: You can find cheaper speakers than the $200 bluetooth UE Boom. And if audio snobbery’s not a factor, you probably should. But if tinny sound just won’t do, this small package delivers style and sound quality that will probably last beyond graduation. 
  • Battery power: The 2 port 13,000 mAh battery pack for under $50 can keep your portables charged on the go. 
  • Smartpen: Slow notetakers may need some extra help, and Livescribe could save the day. The smartpen saves audio recording as you write. Later, tap a note to hear what recorded the moment it was written. 

The tech survival kit involves a variety of things for students. For parents, it may just boil down to one: video chat. Seeing that young shining face regularly on FaceTime, Skype or Google Hangout can do wonders for moms and dads, who—let’s not forget—are going through a transition too. 

Of course, needs vary and every situation is different. But this list of gear and resources should cover the broad essentials.And if money’s tight, consider used or refurbished items. Or hang on to older devices and upgrade them a little at a time. It may take patience and focus, but after all, isn’t that the real key to surviving—and thriving in—college? 

Images courtesy of Shutterstock.