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The little things can get you when you’re in college. You arrive on campus, fresh and ready to go, but before you know it, you’re a few weeks into the new semester and you have a long list of small things you forgot to pack. You may also think of unassuming items that could make a big difference in how you work and play while at school. To prevent you from playing catch-up, we’ve compiled the best gadgets for school under $50 so you can cross the most crucial ones off your list before you even set foot on campus.
The Echo Dot is Amazon’s most popular smart speaker for a reason: It’s small, it sounds pretty good for its size, and it does a lot more than just play music. Students will like the fact that they won’t take up much space on their desks and that they can ask Alexa to play music from Spotify, Apple Music and other services whenever they want to have an impromptu dorm-room dance party. And, since it plugs into a wall outlet, they never have to remember to charge the Echo Dot like they would with a portable speaker. What’s more, when an assignment stumps them, students can consult Alexa for help. Are we suggesting they ask Alexa for the answers to all their homework conundrums? Not exactly, but at the very least, it’ll be fun to see how much the voice assistant actually knows about any given topic.
Buy Echo Dot at Amazon – $50
Anker Powerline cables
When you’re a student, there’s nothing worse than realizing your iPhone is down to 2 percent battery in the middle of a long day filled with classes, extracurriculars and study sessions. The charging cable that came with your phone has probably served you well, but having a second, longer cable can allow you to power up in dire situations even when the closest outlet is across the room. We’ve been fans of Anker’s Powerline series for a while, and this 10-foot USB-C to Lightning cable is worth investing in. Not only is it MFi-certified so it will work well with all Apple devices, but its length gives you much more flexibility than your standard three-foot cable does. It also supports fast charging if you have an appropriately specced adapter to use it with. And for those who don’t have iPhones, Anker has a 10-foot USB-C to C cable that should serve your handsets well, too.
Buy Powerline USB-C to Lightning cable at Amazon – $21
Incase Bionic accessories organizer
Staying organized is key to staying sane while in school, and that’s true for both your digital and physical essentials. For the latter, Incase’s Bionic Accessory Organizer is just the right size to act as both a pencil case and an “everything else” pouch. It has a number of pen loops inside for those who prefer to take handwritten notes, but it also has a bunch of variously sized pockets that can easily hold things like your portable hard drive, an extra phone charger and even a compact wireless mouse. And, unlike those cheap pencil cases you’ll find at the dollar store, this one’s made of ocean-recycled material that’s equivalent to seven plastic bottles.
Buy Bionic organizer at Incase – $50
Lention 4-in-1 USB-C hub
Your brand new laptop might be blazing fast and super lightweight, but it probably doesn’t have as many ports as you’d like. Such is the trade-off companies make when creating powerful thin-and-light machines, us stuck living the dongle leaving life. But it doesn’t have to be so painful if you get the right adapter. Lention’s 4-in-1 USB-C hub is a great option for students. It’s compact, measuring 3 x 1.4 inches, and it includes three USB-A ports and one USB-C connection. That should let you connect accessories like mice and keyboards, and even access files on a thumb drive when you’re working on a group project. The USB-C port is for charging only, but that’s not necessarily a downside — you can use it with your laptop’s power adapter and USB-C cable to power your machine while using the adapter at the same time.
Buy 4-in-1 USB-C hub at Amazon – $22
Anker 335 Power Strip
You only realize how much you need a power strip when it’s too late. You’ve used every AC outlet available to you in your small dorm room, and maybe you’ve even convinced your roommate to give up one of their precious sockets. And yet it’s still not enough, and you’re forced to swap plugs when you need to power up different gadgets. Instead of succumbing to that lifestyle, a power strip and surge protector like Anker’s 335 will more than do the trick. It has six AC outlets built in, plus a 6.6-foot cord with which you connect it to a wall outlet. A cord that long will let you snake the power strip around furniture and put it in the best spot in your room where you can create a homebase for all of your gear. We also appreciate that it has two USB-A ports built in, along with one USB-C port that can deliver up to 30W of power – enough to easily fast-charge your phone or tablet before your next class.
Buy 335 Power Strip at Amazon – $50
Logitech M350 Pebble mouse
You may be used to using your laptop’s keyboard and trackpad for everything, but you can upgrade your ergonomic situation with a mouse like Logitech’s Pebble. There are tons of wireless mice out there, but we like the Pebble for students thanks to its compact and colorful design and quiet nature. The oval-shaped peripheral could slip into a back pocket if necessary and it has an ambidextrous design that will suit both left- and right-handed people. Its clicks are pretty subtle, so using it will not distract other students in the library, and it can connect to your laptop either via Bluetooth or via the included USB receiver. But arguably the best part about it is its AA battery – it provides enough juice to keep the mouse running for 18 months, so you won’t have to remember to recharge it.
Buy Logitech Pebble at Amazon – $30
Logitech K380 Bluetooth keyboard
If you want to complete the ergonomic step-up, Logitech’s K380 wireless keyboard is a good option. While students will likely use it most with their laptops, this keyboard can connect to up to three devices at the same time and switch between them with just a press of a button. That means they can go from writing a term paper on their laptops to responding to text messages on their phone without lifting a finger from the keyboard. The K380 works with most operating systems, too, so even if you upgrade from a Chromebook to a higher-end Windows laptop or MacBook, you’ll be able to use this keyboard along with it. We also like that it runs on two AAA batteries, which allow it to last up to two years before replacements are needed.
Buy Logitech K380 at Amazon – $40
1Password Premium membership
Students have enough trouble remembering weekly coursework, deadlines, test dates and the like when they’re at school, so giving them a way to easily access credentials for all of their online accounts will be a welcomed gift. A subscription to 1Password takes all of the guesswork out of logging in to student portals, personal accounts and more. All they’ll need to do is remember one master password, and that will give them access to all of their other login information. 1Password’s browser extensions will even automatically fill in the right usernames and passwords for the websites they’re trying to access, and when the software spots a weak password in their vault, it’ll suggest ways to make it stronger.
Subscribe to 1Password – $3/month
Soundance Laptop Stand
It’s all too easy for students to spend hours hunched over their notebook as they study, but a laptop stand can help them avoid physical pain down the line. We like this one from Soundance because it raises their machine’s screen to eye level, making it less likely that you’ll spend your days in a physical slump. It has a detachable design so you can quickly break it down and stick it in a bag if you want to take it to your next study session, and we also like that it encourages proper venting from the bottom of their laptop. On that note, this stand supports 10- to 15-inch notebooks, so chances are it’ll work with the laptop you have now and whichever you upgrade to in the future.
Buy Soundance laptop stand at Amazon – $40
White Crown LED desk lamp
Dorm rooms can feel like caves with their poor lighting, lack of fresh air and cramped quarters. The former can be fixed fairly easily with the introduction of a good desk lamp like this one from White Crown. It has an attractive, sleek design, but its adjustable light modes are an even bigger selling point. It has five color modes that span the spectrum from cool to warm light and 10 brightness levels, so students have a number of ways to customize the light shining on their desks. It’s also fully adjustable and even has 160 degrees of swivel action, so you can direct the light directly downward onto your textbooks, or elsewhere in the room if need be. You’ll also appreciate the built-in USB-A port, which will let you conveniently power up a piece of gear.
Buy desk lamp at Amazon – $22
Iron Flask 32 ounce Sports Water Bottle
It’s almost banal to say now, but hydration is key for anyone with a busy schedule, students included. A water bottle like this one from Iron Flask will make it that much easier for you to keep your favorite drink with you at all times. Its double-walled, vacuum-sealed design keeps cold liquids cold for 24 hours and hot drinks hot for 12 hours, plus it comes with three lids (straw, flip and stainless steel) so you can choose your favorite. We like the 32-ounce model because it’s big enough that you can fill it up in the morning and have enough water for a full day of classes and activities. However, the 32-ounce doesn’t fit in a standard cup holder, so if you spend a lot of time in the car, opt for the 22-ounce model or smaller.
Buy Iron Flask water bottle at Amazon – $24
College can be distraction central: from your noisy roommate to the loudest group in the library, there are plenty of things students will encounter on campus that can prevent them from getting things done. A good way to focus is to block out the world however you can, and while we often recommend noise-cancelling headphones for this, we know not everyone can listen to music while they bang out a paper or student for an exam. That’s when earplugs can come in for the save. They’re cheap and discreet, and they can minimize distracting sounds significantly, giving students a more peaceful studying environment or sleeping space. We recommend Mack’s Ultra Soft Foam earplugs for those looking for the best value, as you can pick up a container of 50 pairs for $10 or less. But if you want to go a bit more fancy or prefer a standard earbud-style plug, Loop’s earplugs are a good choice and they come in a few levels of noise reduction.
Buy Macks earplugs at Amazon – $11 Buy Loop earplugs at Amazon – $20
Tribit Stormbox Micro 2
While the Tribit Stormbox Micro 2 comes in slightly higher than our $50 threshold, we still think it’s worth mentioning as a solid, affordable Bluetooth speaker for students. It pumps out solid sound at high volumes, and it’s supremely portable, measuring only 4.1 x 3.9 x 1.6 inches. It can easily attach to a bike or a backpack, and it’ll last nearly all day long with its 12-hour battery. But the kicker for students is the speaker’s ability to double as a USB-C power bank. That means they won’t have to remember to bring a totally separate power pack with them, and they’ll still be able to power up their phones while they’re out. While the Micro 2 typically costs $60, we’ve seen it on sale for closer to $50.
Buy Tribit Stormbox Micro 2 at Amazon – $60