Higher-learning high tech
The calendar still may claim that it’s summer, but try telling that to the millions of college students trudging back to campus for the start of another school year—assuming classes haven’t begun already. The return of lectures, cram sessions, and midterms aren’t the only things students have to look forward to, though—there’s also a return to dorm life, your home away from home, and the chance to put your own personal touch on the place where you’ll do all that studying (and partying) the next nine months.
Looking for ways to trick out your on- or off-campus crib? We’ve looked through an array of gadgets with an eye toward two features—something compact enough to fit in the less-than-spacious confines of a dorm room and something that won’t bust a student-sized budget. With these devices, you can stream movies and TV, rock out to your favorite jams, consume cold beverages responsibly, and keep your devices charged on the go—for all those late-night study sessions, of course.
Google may not have the best track record when it comes to dabbling in TV, but it seems to have found its footing with its Chromecast dongle. With Chromecast, you can use your smartphone to stream Netflix, YouTube, and other content to the big screen. (We’ve helpfully prepared a list of the best Chromecast apps, by the way.) You can even stream Chrome Browser tabs to your TV, turning it into a huge monitor for browsing web content. Since Chromecast is small and super portable, you can take it with you to friends’ dorm rooms for movie night and at just $35, it won’t break the bank, either.
Amazon Fire TV
If you’d like a more powerful set-top box instead of a tiny little dongle, look no further than Amazon’s $99 Fire TV. Not only will it stream Amazon Instant Video content, it also does Netflix, Hulu Plus, Showtime, and music channels. Add a $40 controller and Amazon’s set-top box also lets you play games like The Wolf Among Us, Walking Dead, NBA 2K14, and Minecraft. Hardcore gamers will prefer a dedicated console, but student with modest gaming needs, the Fire TV spares you the cost and clutter of another device.
Vizio 32-inch E320i Smart TV
You’ll need a TV for all this streaming and gaming, and since this will be located in a dorm room, you’ll want something both reasonably sized and priced. It’d also be nice if that TV was a smart TV that can connect to the web and let you stream content from Netflix and Hulu. Vizio’s 32-inch E320i does all of that. It has two HDMI ports for hooking up all of your connected streaming and gaming device; you could also use it as a second monitor if your computer supports HDMI-out. With an asking price of just $260, it won’t break the bank.
Amazon Ultra-Thin High Performance Antenna
After a stressful week of classes and homework, sometimes you just want to unwind with a little TV. And while there’s a good amount of content available for streaming, some programs—sporting events, award shows, and yes, even the occasional network show—aren’t available through your set-top boxes and streaming services. You’ll want an antenna capable of picking up local channels to watch The Simpsons, Under the Dome, or your local NFL team. At $36, the Amazon Ultra-Thin Antenna is a cost-effective, stylish antenna that will let you pick up local channels in HD. And it’s easy to install indoors, saving you a clandestine trip to the roof of your dorm.
If you’re like most college students, you’ll probably spend a good amount of time in your room listening to music. Unlike most Bluetooth speakers out there, the $199 Sonos Play:1 wasn’t designed to be portable. But the speaker our reviewer dubbed as a great entry-level product into the Sonos ecosystem does feature a modern, stylish design that will be a talking point of your dorm room, while helping your music really come to life. Plus, you can connect multiple Sonos devices together to create stereo sound for the whole dorm.
Maybe you want portability in a speaker—who could blame you, since you want to connect to your smartphone, tablet, or computer and get a better sound than what you hear from the built-in speakers on these devices. Jabra’s Solemate remains a favorite, thanks to its rugged design and high-quality sound output. You’ve even got a choice of colors so that your speakers won’t clash with the rest of your room.
College is filled with cramming for exams and spending long nights writing term papers. And that means avoiding distractions by studying away from your dorm room. You don’t need to leave the creature comforts of your room behind completely, though: the USB Thermoelectric Cooler & Warmer is a $20 portable, one-can system that will keep one canned beverage cool (or warm) on the go by plugging into your laptop’s USB drive. It’s perfect for enjoying a soda—or other beverage—while you pull an all-nighter on your classwork.
Sony Wireless USB Portable Power Supply
With long days of classes and homework, you’ll likely want to carry around a portable power supply that keeps your devices charged throughout the day. Several newer models of smartphone support wireless charging, where you simply place phone on a charging pad instead of plugging it in with a cable. The $70 Sony CPW5 Wireless USB Portable Power Supply is among the first dual-action charging devices to hit the market, and lets you charge your compatible devices wirelessly or via the included USB port. The CPW5 has a 5,000 mAh battery on-board, which is enough juice for about two charges for a smartphone or one for a tablet, which should get you through even the most unending of lectures.
We don’t want to shock you, but college students have been known to have a sip or two of alcohol at some point between arriving on campus and walking off with a diploma. If you’re going to drink, do it responsibly and equip yourself with a tool that can help keep you from do anything life-threatening when you’ve had one too many. We recently tested a trio of pocket breathalyzers that attach to your smartphone and alert you if your blood alcohol content is over the legal limit. The winner of our competition: the Alcohoot, which provides accurate readings at a $99 price tag that’s not overly expensive.
The Laundry Pod
Sometimes the best technology doesn’t have to be any more complex than centrifugal force—especially if it spares you from having to hoard fistfuls of quarters and elbow your fellow students out of the way to get to the laundry room’s only available washing machine. The $100 Laundry Pod, a small, environmentally friendly device, offers an electricity-free alternative for washing your clothes quickly and inexpensively. All you have to do is add clothes, water, and a bit of detergent. After spinning the load for a few minutes to let everything soak in—yes, you’ll have to do all the cranking yourself—you drain, rinse, drain once more, and hang up your clothes on a rack to dry. Now you can apply that stash of quarters to loftier pursuits.
Lots of lamps can help you burn the midnight oil during late-night study sessions. But not many can also stream music to help you stay focused when you hit the books. That’s the AwoX StriimLight’s special skill set. The $99 lightbulb also features a built-in Bluetooth speaker that’s capable of pairing with a computer or mobile device for providing a little bit of musical inspiration alongside illumination. The StriimLight draws power from whatever it’s plugged into, so there’s no need to worry about battery life like you would with other Bluetooth speakers. This isn’t a particularly smart lightbulb, like what you’d expect from Philips’ Hue LED lightning system. But in a dorm room, sometimes simplicity can be music to your ears.
If you enjoyed our 2014 guide to dorm-room gadgets, you'll love our 2015 guide.