Must-haves: Pinch-pennies need not apply

Back-to-school shopping is not what it used to be. Gone are the days of pencil boxes and three-ring binders; now it's digital pens and palm pilot organizers. As the school year approaches, gadgets targeted to students of all ages are must-have items. Here's a list of what to expect in the back-to-school bins.


Treo 650


Everything a kid could think of, crammed into a cell-phone. It organizes, plays music, takes digital pictures, videotapes, surfs the web– wirelessly, of course– emails, and instant messages.

Parents, beware: Treos are the latest and greatest, which makes them popular and pricey. Radio Shack can order you one for $450 with a two-year contract, or $600 without. And no matter how cool, they're not welcome at school– both Albemarle and Charlottesville prohibit the use of cell phones and beepers during school hours.



Leapster Learning System-


Education disguised as a video game. Although it's a bit pricey, a lot of parents consider $75 a small price to pay to give their kids a head start for kindergarten or elementary school. Kids sharpen their verbal and math skills while helping SpongeBob save the day or winning a baseball championship.

Recommended for kids ages 4-10, Leapster is available at Target, Walmart, and Toys R Us. Games– sold separately– run an additional $25 each.



Light-weight laptops-

Apparently, size does matter: computer makers such as Sony and Panasonic are competing to create the most petite PC. Best Buy carries the latest Sony model, the T350, for $2199.99. It has a 10.6" screen and weighs in at 3.04 pounds, so high schoolers or college students with backpacks will hardly notice the extra weight. Other than its stature, it shares most of the same features as its bigger brethren: wireless Internet, an Ethernet port, and an internal DVD/CD drive. They also run longer on a charge than larger models but have decreased power and hard-drive speed, so don't buy them for gaming or video editing.



Kasey the Kinderbot: This kid-sized robot teaches over 40 lessons that are easy for kids to stomach; he displays a screen on his belly with four interactive learning centers. Whether it's foreign languages, reading, or even manners, the animated toy is engaging and helps prepare kids ages 3-7 for grade school. Kasey costs $65 at Walmart and Toys R Us; back cartridges that hold the programs are $15 each.



Nokia's digital pen-


With a price tag of nearly $200, this is no ordinary ballpoint. Whatever you write– from college essay to note to a friend– is recorded, as long as you're using digital paper. Put it back in its stand, which also serves as a charger, and your words are transferred to your (compatible) PC. It also has a wireless connection to (compatible) phones, making note-sharing easier than ever. Available at any Nokia store in town.



Cell-phone tracking devices- This "family-friendly" gadget that attaches to a phone is currently available only through Nextel and Sprint, but Verizon Wireless and Cingular Wireless aren't far behind. Companies have begun buying them for their employees, and parents use them to keep tabs on their kids. But technicians fear that the devices– too much like those collars wildlife officers use to track bears and dolphins, perhaps– are too easy to hack into in order to disguise your true location or make the system seem like it's out of service.



Sound alibis- If the phone-tracking device conveniently does "lose service" after curfew, savvy parents may not be fooled by the well-timed inconvenience. That's why German company Simeda has created a mobile phone accessory that plays background sounds during a call. Users have several options of sound scenarios: a dentist's office, on the street, in the park, a thunderstorm, a circus parade, and a traffic jam are a few. Even if a parent suspects foul play, no one can argue with honking horns and screeching tires. The company plans to create alibis for all phone companies soon, but until they do, prices are still up in the air.



Three-in-One Portable Warmer- Don't think for a second that babies have been neglected in the gadget craze. There's now a portable bottle warmer for wee ones on the go. Designed for travel, it's battery-operated and warms both disposable and reusable bottles as well as baby food jars. Available at Weeville for $35.99.