20 tools for back to school

Are you or yours heading back to school? These apps belong in your digital backpack.

Education can be expensive, but learning tools don't have to be. We've done the homework on apps and services to help you buy textbooks, take notes and voice recordings, research, create projects, quiz yourself, and block distractions. Enroll these 20 study aids to help you make the grade.

Shopping

Amazon Student

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If you shop on Amazon, its $99 Prime service is a deal. And if you're in college, it's even better. Amazon has a college-student version of Prime called Amazon Student. You start off with a free six-month trial membership with free two-day shipping. After six months, an annual membership costs $49 and includes access to Prime Instant Video and Prime Music. If you do lots of online shopping, the free two-day shipping alone is worth the price.

Books

Kindle (Android, iOS)

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Now that you're a member of the Amazon Student program, you can start shopping for textbooks. Amazon offers new and used textbooks and an option to rent them by semester. You can even buy and rent e-book versions of textbooks using Amazon's Kindle app.

OverDrive (Android, iOS)

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Through OverDrive, you can borrow e-books from more than 30,000 public libraries and schools. And with the OverDrive app, you can read the e-books almost anywhere, including on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iPhones, Android phones, and Windows devices. You can also borrow audiobooks and videos. All you need is a student ID or library card.

Chegg (iOS, Android)

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Buying textbooks from Chegg might save you up to 90 percent -- and spare you the long lines at the campus bookstore. Easily search for your book, then buy the e-book for instant access or have a physical copy shipped to you for free (for orders over $55). While you wait for snail mail, you'll have access to the e-book from your laptop, tablet, or phone.

Classroom tools

Google for Education

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Google offers a collection of tools called Google for Education, designed to bring Google's software to a classroom setting. The suite includes education-tailored versions of Gmail (Android, iOS), Calendar (Android, iOS), Drive, Docs, Sheets, Slides, Sites, and Google Play and gives school administrators control over user accounts and the ability to use the school's domain name.

Google also offers management tools for Chromebooks and Android tablets deployed through a school district and Classroom (Android, iOS). Classroom is a learning management system that helps teachers manage classes, keep track of assignments, provide feedback, and communicate with students.

As a student, you have access to the tools only if your school uses them. But if you use Gmail or Google's Drive apps, you shouldn't have trouble making your way around.

Writing and presenting

Google Drive (Android, iOS), Docs (Android, iOS), Sheets (Android, iOS), and Slides (Android, iOS)

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They're free, they're collaborative, and they're available anywhere you have an Internet connection. Google's cloud-based productivity tools are a good choice for budget-conscious students who need word-processing, spreadsheet, and presentation apps. It's easy to share documents with fellow students, work together, and chat in real time, with everything stored in the cloud. You can also use Google Drawings to add shapes and diagrams to your docs and Google Forms to create online forms and surveys. While none of Google's tools match the depth of Microsoft's Office applications, for schoolwork they are sufficient.

Pixlr (Android, iOS)

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Something like Google Drawings is fine for creating simple shapes, charts, and diagrams for class projects. But if you need to crop, rotate, and fine-tune images, check out Pixlr from Autodesk. The free app for iOS and Android has a nice collection of simple image-editing tools -- including the ability to make adjustments and add effects, overlays, borders, and type -- and a free browser version lets you work on your Mac or Windows machine.

Notes and recording

Evernote (Android, iOS)

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You need to take notes, and Evernote may be the best at it. The app helps you take notes, track tasks, and save websites, and everything is synced across your mobile and desktop devices. Evernote also handles voice recording and syncs audio files. The free version has a monthly upload limit of 60MB. Moving to 1GB a month costs $24.99 per year.

OneNote (Android, iOS)

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Microsoft's OneNote is another handy note taker, and it can store Web clippings and photos. OneNote is free and syncs files across Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android devices.

Notepad+ (Android, iOS)

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Notepad+ makes note-taking a breeze. Jot down notes, thoughts, and ideas using pens, highlighters, and colors, and of course your keyboard. Add photos, rearrange sections using drag and drop, and share your scribblings via email or Dropbox. You can even password-protect private notes.

Fast Scanner (Android, iOS)

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Transcribing entire passages from books for essays or for later reference -- those days are long over. Quickly scan notes using your phone's camera, and Fast Scanner will detect page borders, improve brightness and contrast for easy reading, and share via email or your preferred cloud service.

Voice Recorder HD (Android, iOS)

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Recording lectures is a great way to review for a test, confirm something in your notes, or share a missed class with a friend. On iOS and Android devices, the free Voice Recorder HD has a simple interface and lets you upload files to the cloud and share audio files with fellow students.

Cogi (Android, iOS)

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For a bit more control, the free Cogi app lets you record highlights of a lecture. Cogi keeps a small buffer of audio, so you can tap a button to capture what the teacher just said.

Study aids

Khan Academy (iOS)

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With its engaging exercises and videos, Khan Academy is a great way to sharpen your math and science skills. The iOS app gives you access to Khan Academy's interactive exercises and more than 5,000 videos. The iPad app includes more than 150,000 interactive, Common Core-aligned math exercises.

WolframAlpha (Android, iOS)

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What can't the WolframAlpha app do? It can answer questions about chemistry, physics, and the weather. It knows statistics and astronomy and can plot graphs. It will tell you how many pints are in a gallon. Siri queries it for answers. This $2.99 knowledge source should almost be banned, it's so powerful.

Quizlet (Android, iOS)

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"Everyone uses Quizlet. Everyone," a high-schooler said when asked about the most useful study app. It's easy to see why. It's a snap to create flashcards and flashcard collections on both the website and with the free app. Study modes includes games and quizzes, as well as flashcards. Teachers can build class groups, create study sets, and monitor student progress. You can also search for study sets (such as vocabulary lists) created by other users.

Dictionary.com (Android, iOS)

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Every student needs a dictionary, and you don't have to haul around a physical copy to always have one nearby. Dictionary.com's free app for iOS and Android includes more than 2 million definitions, a thesaurus, and a word of the day. The companion website offers all that plus word games and other diversions.

Calendar

MyHomework Student Planner (Android, iOS)

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It's difficult staying on top of your coursework without a planner. With the streamlined MyHomework Student Planner app, you'll easily track your classes, homework, and tests, so there will be no more surprises on exam day.

Distraction blocker

Forest (Android, iOS)

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With so many distractions online and in apps, it can be difficult to stay focused on your studies. To encourage you to concentrate on schoolwork, the Forest app plants a seed on your phone. Whether this seed grows into a thriving plant or dies depends on whether you stay off your phone for at least 30 minutes. Keep your head in your work and, over time, you'll create a lush forest.

Languages

Speak & Translate (iOS)

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Just speak into your iOS device, and Speak & Translate will give you a verbal translation in over 40 languages or written translation in 100 languages. With the hand-off feature, switch devices mid-work, and use Speak & Translate's iCloud integration to sync your translation history across your devices.

Duolingo (Android, iOS)

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Duolingo enables you to learn 10 new languages -- Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Italian, Irish, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, and even English -- all for free. The ad-free app mixes up language learning with text, visual, and audio exercises, which keeps you engaged and immersed in your new language.

Calculators

Graphing Calculator by Mathlab (Android); Calculator3: 3-in-1 Scientific, Graphing and Programmer Calculator (iOS)

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You will likely need a handheld calculator for taking tests and college entrance exams, as schools and testing services don't allow mobile devices on exam day. But if you just want to plot a graph, you don't need to pay $100. The free Graphing Calculator from Mathlab for Android and Calculator3 from Variante for iOS can handle heavy-duty computational tasks.

Calculator Pro (Android, iOS)

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Quickly double-check your kids' homework with the help of Calculator Pro for Android and iOS. This handy app features a big keypad, numerous skins, accurate calculations, and a unit and currency converter.

Clifford Colby also contributed to this article.

More Resources

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About Joshua Rotter

Joshua Rotter is a copy editor for Download.com and covers iOS.