10 Big Buys to Bring Back to School

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Effective back-to-school shopping isn't measured in packs of pens and reams of paper that will be gone in the first month, but in the goods built to last until graduation day.

As families flock to Target ( TGT), Walmart ( WMT), Kohls, Staples ( SPLS) and other stores to part with the $604.40 the National Retail Federation predicts they'll spend this year on back-to-school stuff, nearly half of their haul will consist of electronics and big-budget supplies. Though the K-12 crowd will contribute roughly $21 billion, collegians will accumulate about $55 billion in goods.

With that in mind, we at TheStreet took a look at both the day-to-day and more durable items available to parents and students this summer and selected 10 products that should last from the first bell to the cap-and-gown fitting:

Clocky

Available at: Nordstrom ( JWN), ThinkGeek

Any college student who's ever crushed a clock radio with their bare hands or parent weary of being grunted at, shrugged off or pelted with expletives or worse when it's time to wake their sleepy students should let the robots take over. Invented in 2005 by then-Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student Gauri Nanda when she had trouble waking up, Clocky gives sleepers one press of the snooze bar before it spins its wheels and runs away. The $39-to-$46 Clocky can drop three feet from a bedside table, mooting any chance of a mercy killing, and beeps in a random (and highly annoying) pattern as it runs away. By the time you've caught Clocky and turned it off, your body is awake and your mind, after formulating ways to destroy the elusive device, is ready for the day ahead.

Kata Sensitivity V Backpack

Available at Amazon ( AMZN), Thinkgeek

When your textbooks and notes are digital and your school supplies cost as much as a used car, you need a better backpack. The $99 Sensitivity V Backpack has a padded compartment designed for a 14-inch laptop, pockets with taut elastic sleeves for digital cameras and other devices and pockets inside the padded shoulder straps for MP3 players and cell phones. That $99 may seem high for a backpack, but Kata's founders based their form-fitting products on what the military uses and designed their bags pecifically for photo and video equipment. A high-tech and highly delicate $1,000-plus investment really shouldn't be relegated to a "book bag."

Cocoon's Grid-IT Organizer

Available at: Amazon

Some parents will shrug off this organizer as a high-tech Trapper Keeper -- just before they complain about movie studios remaking "Footloose," McDonald's getting rid of the McDLT and the dearth of such great bands as Edie Brickell &the New Bohemians. However, if students already have a laptop bag or even a three-ring binder, Cocoon's Grid-IT can help keep the rest of their accessories from becoming a bottom-of-the-backpack rummage sale. With elastic straps sized perfectly for smartphones, small HD cameras, portable gaming systems, memory sticks, earbuds, power cords, SD cards and even old-fashioned pens and pencils, accessories stay secure as students carom from classroom to classroom. While most of the $15-to-$30 organizers are designed for luggage, backpacks and binders, models for car visors and Apple ( AAPL) iPad cases are also available.

Bento Box Lunchbox

Available at Lunchboxes.com, Amazon

Do you think you can outcraft Kraft Foods ( KFT) by building a better Lunchable? Laptop Lunches' Bento Box kits allow parents and students to segregate their food groups into separate, washable containers without using disposable bags or plastic utensils. Though more familiar to sushi counters than school cafeterias, the Bento Box is surprisingly portable, even when stored with a small reusable bottle in its carrying case. Parents get portion control and a bit of environmental responsibility, while their cosmopolitan kids get a modular meal carrier worthy of a trip to Tokyo.

Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch MC374LL/A and Toshiba Satellite T230

A college laptop shouldn't look like a museum exhibit by senior year, which is why it pays to spring for the newer models now. The $1,200 MacBook Pro 13-inch is the standard-bearer for its size: Small enough to stow away and sneak into lectures when running late, but brawny enough to boast a Core 2 Duo processor, four gigabytes of memory and 10 hours of battery life. For PC proponents looking to spend a lot less, the $549 T230 Satellite has one gigabyte less memory and roughly nine hours of battery life, but also Microsoft's ( MSFT) Windows 7 and speed well beyond that of similarly priced models.

HP Mini 210-1092DX

For college, a netbook is somewhat superfluous. For grade school and high school, however, it's a great bridge. Starting at $329, this 10-inch-long tech toy with Atom's N455 processor, one gigabyte of memory and a choice of Windows XP and Windows 7 is little more than a Web reader and note taker in the real world, but will perform just about any task a K-12 student would require, without a notebook-sized payment or a 3G tablet's monthly toll.

Kensington retractable notebook lock

Available at: Wal Mart ( WMT), Amazon, Office Depot ( ODP), Staples ( SPLS), Best Buy ( BBY)

A kid or collegian wouldn't ride his or her $200 bike to school without a lock, and it makes sense to take the same kind of precaution for a $500-to-$1,200 laptop that grows legs in study hall when left unattended during latte breaks. The $35 MicroSaver keyed lock fits in your palm, but contains a four-foot retractable steel cable just beneath its hardened loop. Much like the better bike locks, the Kensington MicroSaver's key code can be registered with the company just in case you need a replacement key -- or to check on the terms of your lifetime warranty.

Livescribe Smartpen

In a word: Whoa. Livescribe's $130-to-$200 Echo and Pulse Smartpens have a voice recorder in them, but that ranks just above ink among the pen's features. When used with Livescribe's "Dot Paper," an infared camera near the tip records your writing. When you touch the pen to that writing later, the recorder will play back what was being said at the time. Meanwhile, the pen's USB cradle allows it to transfer notes to either your PC or Mac or to embed them in a blog or on a Facebook page. If that doesn't have you looking at your Bic ballpoint with disdain, the Smartpen's LED screen also enables apps -- including American Heritage dictionaries that translate tapped written words into English or Spanish, a French phrasebook that allows a user to write in English and see and hear its French translation and a listing of U.S. presidents that displays information about the appropriate commander in chief when a date is tapped. Your marbled notebook may as well be a stone tablet.

PlanOn Scanning Pen

There's good news and bad news about this $300-to-$400 pen-sized scanner. On the bright side, it can scan your notes, photos, contracts, receipts, bursar bills, beer bottle labels and just about anything else and share it almost immediately with your PC or Research in Motion ( RIMM) Blackberry. The LED screen lets users know when the rechargeable battery is running low, when the 64-megabyte memory capacity is running out, which resolution it's scanning at and even the date and time. The bad news: It's not worth a package of PaperMates if you own a Mac. Maybe PlanOn should take a course in compatibility this semester.

Emerson Compact Fridge With Erase Door

Available at: Target ( TGT)

Nothing says dorm life like miniature refrigerators and dry-erase boards. But what would they say if you put the two together in this $89, 2.8-cubic-foot Target-exclusive appliance? Perhaps phrases such as: "This is not a morgue for your takeout boxes," "Diet Cokes Amanda owes me: 27" or "I don't care what is in that jar on your shelf, I just want it gone before I get back from Cabo." Ah, college roommates: Can't live with 'em... nope, that's it.

-- Reported by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, The Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.