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Buying back-to-school gadgets on a budget

NEED TO KNOW
  • 36% of shoppers plan to buy electronics for school shopping
  • Consumer Reports releases list of best computers for kids
Buying back-to-school gadgets on a budget

If you’ve bought back-to-school gear for your kids, or any kid, in the past couple of years, you’ve probably noticed that the entire back-to-school shopping experience isn’t what it used to be. Spiral binders and big heavy textbooks have been replaced by tablets and e-readers. And although kids may be thinking about how cool they’re going to look with that sleek new gadget in hand, a lot of parents are thinking something else: pricey!

According to a survey by deal-aggregator site TechBargains, about 36% of shoppers plan to spend more money on electronics during their back-to-school shopping this year. And it isn’t because people are all of a sudden rolling in dough; the majority of those who expect to pay more say it’s because schools are now requiring more.

About 25% of shoppers plan to buy a tablet and 14% of those say it’ll actually be their primary device for school. No surprise here, the iPad is the most wanted tablet, followed by the Google Nexus and then the Kindle Fire. And even more people are after laptops. About 28% of shoppers plan to buy a laptop. And here’s the biggest sign of the times: 30% of people will spend at least half of their back-to-school budget on gadgets.

But fortunately, shoppers have learned a few lessons over the past few years. About 90% of people plan to do their shopping online, and then about 95% of them will use coupon codes to save! Gadgets can get pricey, so consumers need to be smart.

Another thing to consider for back-to-school shopping is when you buy. HLN Money Expert Clark Howard says the best time to buy a computer is in September or right around the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Obviously if kids are headed back to school, they need the gadgets now, but doing a little research and comparison shopping can save you a lot of money.

Clark suggests using electronics pricing sites like Shopobot.com and Decide.com to help you figure out the best time to buy a particular gadget. The sites provide historical pricing data so you know if you’re getting the best price, or if you should wait. TechBargains also has some back-to-school sales going on for computers and laptops, while the deal-site Dealnews has an overall guide to back-to-school savings.

For deals on tablets, check out Micro Center. Some deals are online and others are only in stores. Just know that if you can't get a deal online, Micro Center is currently only in 16 states. Also check out Ben's Outlet. The site offers daily deals on various types of gadgets and there have been some huge bargains on tablets recently.

We did a little extra digging around Consumer Reports to get you started and we found some great ways to stick to your budget, without compromising on quality gadgets and other supplies.

Electronics gear for college students

Consumer Reports came up big this year with tips on how college kids can keep up with the latest and greatest technology without giving up everything else in their life. As tradition would have it, most college kids are on a budget and live in a small confined space, but even they might pass up the biggest and most expensive TV if it means living on store-brand Ramen noodles and having basically no space all year. And since TV technology changes so quickly, spending an outrageous amount of money on a TV that’s going in a dorm full of college kids may not be the best idea.

The compromise is a 32-inch Samsung model that’s big enough to get the full high-def experience but small enough to pull double duty as a computer monitor. This model is $480, according to Consumer Reports, and it’s one of the few 32-inch sets in the CR’s ratings to provide excellent high-definition picture quality. The TV even comes with a feature called ConnectShare Movie, which lets users directly play videos, music or photos stored on any device or flash drive that can be connected to the TV’s USB connection. Borrowing music and movies from buddies down the hall just got a whole lot easier!

And one thing to remember about buying a TV, Clark says never, never, never buy the extended warranty. No matter how many times the person in the store asks you, don’t buy it. The technology changes too quickly for it to be worth your money. But buying the TV with a credit card will get you some protection.

College kids who already live in the world of Apple are probably there to stay, so when it comes to streaming video the Apple TV is your best option, according to Consumer Reports. It’s only $99 and connects your iTunes TV shows, movies and music libraries directly to your TV. It also offers access to Netflix and YouTube. And there’s more. Apple TV allows users to stream content from an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch.

For students who want even more content, Consumer Reports suggests the Roku XS for only $100. Everyone knows college kids love their games and movies, and the Roku offers access to Amazon, Epix, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, and Netflix. It also has Pandora Internet radio and Angry Birds. But, no YouTube.

If you’re looking for even more, check out Consumer Reports’ suggestions for Headphones and Home theater in a box.

Computers for kids of all ages

You can’t fight it anymore, kids of all ages need computers these days. And although your kids’ penmanship may be slowly circling the drain, it’s still important to keep them up to speed with the latest equipment.

So where do you even start? First of all, the necessary features and capabilities of gadgets vary for students of different ages. A college kid and a kid in middle school probably don’t have the same priorities when it comes to gadget capabilities. 

Computer for the home

For kids in elementary and middle school, using the family computer at home most often should suffice. Consumer Reports recommends a few desktop computers that are great for schoolwork, but have features that appeal to the entire family.

  • High-end desktop: HP TouchSmart 520-1165xt – An all-in-one desktop with a 23-inch HD touch screen that actually tilts back up to 30 degrees so you can adjust it. It costs about $1,000 and includes a built-in memory card and Blu-ray reader.
  • Budget desktop: Dell XPS 8500 i5 – A full-size desktop that costs only about $700, but still has a lot of features like capabilities for demanding video games. Consumer Reports testers rated it a Best Buy.

Just a note about desktops in general, Consumer Reports found that Apple desktops are among the most reliable.

Clark says if you do want to buy a younger kid a laptop, you don't need to spend a ton of money. You can get a great full power laptop for around $250. So use that as a target price and do some comparison shopping online.

High school

As kids get older, their school demands begin to increase. So high school students may need more than just the family computer. Consumer Reports suggests a 15-inch laptop. And if the kids are reaching the end of high school, keeping the laptop through college would probably work just fine.

  • High-end: 15-inch MacBook Pro – There probably isn’t a high school student out there who wouldn’t love one of these. This model is $1,800 for tons of the latest and greatest features. It also has Apple iCloud built in so you can share content across all your Apple devices.
  • Budget: Dell 15-R-2nd Gen i5 – Huge price difference between this one and the high-end laptop. This one is only $550, and maybe even cheaper some places, and it’s very portable and versatile, with plenty of space for music, photos, movies and of course school projects.

College

Consumer Reports suggests a powerful 13-inch Ultrabook laptop, which usually has a lot of features and won’t take up too much room.

  • High-end: Sony Vaio SVT1311CGXS Ultrabook – This one is a little pricey for a college kid’s budget, but it’s a great tool and it’ll last. It costs $1,200 and is powered by the latest Intel processor, which CR says “makes it a good choice for hard-core gaming after the schoolwork's done.”
     
  • Budget: HP Folio 13-1035nr Ultrabook – Priced at only $800, CR named this one a Best Buy. It’s thin, light, and has enough battery power to last through a full workday.

So when you head out to buy electronics, remember to shop, shop, shop. Make sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck!

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