What's on top of the school supply list this year? It isn't T-shirts and tennis shoes. It's the other T, for mobile tech.
Kids as young as elementary age are looking for smartphone upgrades, while the college set is sussing out the explosion in tablets, said Craig Johnson, president of the retail consulting and research firm Customer Growth Partners in New Canaan, Conn.
"The single most important thing is the acceleration of technology for back to school. Kids don't get excited about a new lunch box these days, or a new backpack. Cool means technology," he said.
That means e-readers with high functionality like highlighting, underlining, pagination and touchscreens. "All of the features are out now or in the process of coming out," he said.
The new Nook has a six-inch touchscreen and crisp, clear print for reading in bright light, tech analyst Andrea Smith told reporters at a recent Consumer Electronics Association trade show. It also indicates how many pages to the end of a chapter and has received praise for long battery life.
Back-to-school tech also means tablets. Once hallowed Apple ground, iPad 2 competitors are everywhere this season. Apple's still the big kid but Android technology is in pursuit. Some of the new tablets run Adobe Flash software, which Apple doesn't have.
In addition to the iPad 2, Smith suggests the 10-inch Toshiba Thrive for back to school. It runs on Android, has two USB ports and an SD card reader. The new TouchPad by Hewlett-Packard, she said, runs on webOS, has a 9.7-inch screen and touts easy multitasking among open apps.
For analyst Natali Morris, iPad 2 "really is the only tablet on the market that kids are coveting," though she added that some Android technology is good for note-taking and syncing.
Tablets are cool, but are they practical for actual schoolwork? That might have everything to do with the popularity of bluetooth-enabled keyboard add-ons, including the new one Smith and Morris like from Logitech with a case that easily turns into a tablet stand. Toshiba has a keyboard, too, also sold separately.
Morris' picks for student laptops: MacBook Air with an 11- or 14-inch screen. They weigh as little as 2.3 pounds and boot up in about five seconds, she said at the CEA line shows in June. Those features are good for students moving from class to class.
Going head to head with MacBook Air for PC-prone students is the sleek new Samsung Series 9, Morris said. It's light, boots Windows in 20 seconds and offers 160-degree viewing for group work.
Christine Mallon, vice president of retail marketing for Staples, agrees that mobile tech is leading the back-to-school drive and creeping onto supply lists for ever-younger kids.
"One of the biggest trends that we've seen is that technology is becoming a school supply," she said. "Kids need laptops, they need flash drives. We're seeing it in a very big way this year."
Flash drives shaped like animals — safari to farm — have taken off, she said. Also look for Tony Hawk-branded skateboard drives this year.
More cool from the supply list:
STUFF THAT WRITES: Pilot's B2P pens (for bottle to pen) are made from recycled plastic bottles and designed to look like one. They're lightweight with gel ink.
"The quality of recycled products has gotten so much better this year," Mallon said.
Animal print pens and erasers are everywhere, including Staples.
Post-it has been putting flags for tagging into the tops of pens and highlighters for a while now. There's a highlighter-pen combo in a three-pack with room for 50 color-coordinated flags on a shirt clip.
Sharpie has gone gel for highlighters for a wider variety of paper, including ink jet, glossy and extra-thin surfaces. Twist the bottom to push up the gel.
Crayola has a box of dry-erase crayons that come with an eraser mitt.
STUFF THAT STICKS: Kids still care about going green, especially when it comes to paper products. Environmentally-friendly sticky paper has come into its own.
Sustainable Earth by Staples comes in 3-by-3-inch sticky notes that are 50 percent sugarcane fiber and 50 percent recycled paper. Post-it Greener Notes are made with 100 percent recycled materials and a plant-based adhesive.
"A certain amount of excitement has gone out of that because green has become almost a cliche," Johnson said. "It's still a big thing, though, and strikes a chord with a lot of kids."
For student or mom, weekly peel-and-stick calendar sheets from Post-it come in a handy 7-by-8-inch size, 25 to a pack. Easy to plaster on the fridge or a notebook.
STUFF FOR PAPERS: Eco-friendly notebooks, composition books and binders abound, if that's your kid's thing.
In the simple reuse category, Pottery Barn Teen sells full-zip, water-resistant fabric homework holders in a variety of tween-girl patterns, from peace signs to zebra stripes. There's a three-ring binder inside and a front zip flap for quick access. Includes an insert for pencils and pens.
Avery's Style Edge plastic dividers offer a groovy rainbow of translucent bubble tabs.
Look for rhinestone-studded scissors, staplers, pens and calculators, along with glitter binders in four colors, at Staples.
Any true re-inventions on the horizon? Watch for Azuna 3D technology on notebook covers, Mallon said. They're available only at Staples.
"It's literally 3D," she said. "It's very, very cool."