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 and need to buy ASAP. We at Engadget also know from experience that there are unassuming gadgets that can make your collegiate life easier. To help you get ahead of the game, we’ve compiled the best items under $50 so you can get the most crucial ones off your list before you even set foot on campus.
Anker PowerExtend Cube USB-C power strip
Basic two-receptacle wall outlets just don’t cut it anymore now that we all have a small army of devices that we rely on every day. A power strip like Anker’s PowerExtend will become a necessity for students as it gives them more power options than what comes standard in their dorm rooms. This cube has two USB-A ports, one 30W USB-C socket and three AC outlets, giving you more ways to keep your laptop, phone, tablet, headphones and other devices charged up. The five-foot cable is another perk as it prevents you from needing to hug the wall of the library in order to get things done. Also, it weighs just 9.2 ounces so you can bring it with you whenever you need your own personal charging station.
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” holder. It has a number of pen loops inside for those that 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.
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, leaving us stuck living the dongle life. But it doesn’t have to be so painful if you get the right adapter for your laptop. 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.
Anker PowerLine II USB-C to Lightning cable (10-foot)
When you're a student, there’s nothing worse than realizing your iPhone is down to 2 percent battery when you’re in the middle of submitting an assignment online. 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 long time, 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 powerful 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.
We’re all familiar with the panic that ensues when you realize you’ve misplaced your keys, wallet, phone or other valuables. There are plenty of gadgets that can help you find those items, but AirTags are arguably the best for those who live in Apple’s ecosystem. Like most Apple accessories, setting up AirTags is as easy as placing them in close proximity to your iPhone and figuring out how you want to attach them to your belongings (and you don’t have to shell out a lot of money for fancy key rings to do so). After that, if you do lose your stuff, you can use your phone to force the AirTag to emit a loud chime. And if you’re still within Bluetooth range, Apple’s Precision Finding feature can literally guide you back to your belongings. If you don’t own an iPhone, you can skip the AirTags and opt for one of Tile’s many Bluetooth trackers to get a similar experience.
SanDisk Dual Drive Go
While you may be used to saving your assignments in the cloud, it can’t hurt to have local copies as backups. SanDisk’s Dual Drive Go is a tiny thumb drive with both USB-C and USB-A connectors, so you can download and save important programs, files, photos and other documents from almost any device. It works with laptops, tablets and smartphones, and it even has a companion app that can automatically backup your files so you always have the most up-to-date version on hand. We appreciate the dual USB connectivity, the device’s tiny size and its affordable price — you can grab a 256GB model for only $30 to $40.
Amazon Echo Dot (4th-gen)
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 it won't take up much space on their desks and they can ask Alexa to play music from Spotify, Apple Music and others 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 the voice assistant’s answers could give them a good starting point for further research.
Anozer tablet stand
Whether you’re studying, attending a virtual class or watching a movie, it’s crucial to have your device of choice at a comfortable viewing angle. Anozer’s phone and tablet stand is a sturdy yet unassuming solution: It’s height and angle adjustable, its metal-weighted base with rubber feet helps it stay in place, and it can be folded flat so it’s easily portable. We also appreciate its silicone covered pad and rubber hooks that keep your phone or tablet from slipping and sliding around. It’s a must-have for anyone who primarily uses mobile devices to complete their schoolwork.
Manta Sleep Mask
Sleep can be hard to come by in college. Sometimes you may have to cram late into the night to prepare for an exam, but other times you’ll be subjected to the whims of others as they galavant around your dorm room as if classes and projects simply don’t exist. When you need to shut out the world in the hopes of catching a few ZZZs, Manta’s sleep mask could be a lifesaver. We like its adjustable eye cups that block out nearly 100 percent of light. The headband is adjustable as well; you can tighten or loosen the mask to your liking. And if it becomes indispensable to you, Manta sells different types of eye cups that you can switch out when you want relief from migraines or a bit more TLC for your skin. We also recommend completing the “do not disturb” bundle with a good pair of earplugs that block out audible annoyances when you’re trying to sleep.
RAVPower 20,000mAh charger
It goes without saying that a portable way to recharge your phone is essential nowadays. Even better is a battery pack that’s capable of charging all of your devices, including your laptop. RAVPower’s 20,000mAh portable charger does just this — it’s 60W output allows it to juice up machines like a MacBook Pro from 0 to 60 percent in just one hour. And if you’ve got your laptop covered, it can power your tablet, smartphone, headphones and other gadgets quickly as well. Just before publishing this article, RAVPower’s charger went up in price to $54, but even if it’s a bit more expensive than our original threshold, we still think it’s worth the investment.
USB desk fan
Dorm rooms can be insufferably hot throughout the school year, and there are few things worse than sweating when you’re trying to study. A gadget to help circulate air is a necessity and this USB desk fan is small and quiet enough to work in almost any environment. It doesn’t take up much space on a desk and its nearly four-foot-long cable makes it easy to plug into a power source — probably your laptop since it’s likely to be close by while studying, but it could also be a USB adapter connected to an AC outlet or even a portable battery pack. The fan also has three speeds and the head can be angled to direct air at your face or anywhere else you want it.
Brita filter bottle
The environmental reasons for carrying a reusable water bottle are clear, and hydration is important for everyone — not only students. Brita’s is a good option because it’s made of BPA-free plastic, comes in 26- and 36-ounce capacities, has a leak-proof lid and uses a filter straw to make the water you drink from it just like the water you’d get from a larger Brita container. And no, you won’t have to spend too much on replaceable filters either. The company recommends changing your bottle’s filter every two months, and a pack of three filters will run you only about $12.