Heading off to college is equal parts exciting and nerve-wracking. Just because our teens can’t wait to fly the coop, doesn’t mean they won’t want to land in a dorm room that still has all the comforts of home.
Here are some high-tech, fairly low-cost ways to make their new college living space more comfy, cozy, productive, and fun. Like home, but with no annoying parents.
When I geared up for this story, the first thing I did was go to Amazon’s Off To College store. It’s quick, easy, provides checklists on the essentials, and can save tons of money on everything from Amazon's rental textbook program to it’s $50 Fire tablets. Plus, you can shop in your jammies and have stuff delivered directly to your doorstep or dorm room.
Amazon’s suite of handy devices stand out this year too—for being super affordable and a great fit for dorms. Chief among them is the Fire TV Stick ($39.99); a tiny HDMI dongle that turns even the most basic HDTV into a smart entertainment hub with support for Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, Amazon Video, and a ton of other apps and games.
The Amazon Tap ($129.99), a portable Bluetooth speaker with the Alexa virtual assistant built right in, keeps the podcasts and music flowing during those long study sessions. Alexa’s handy voice commands also let students look up information, get the latest weather reports, or even order a pizza — just by asking for it. And with Amazon Prime Student, which your kids can try for six months before paying ($49.99 per year — half of what grown-ups have to pay), students get access to even bigger bargains, free two-day shipping, and might even be able to pick their order at one of the new Amazon Campus stores.
Space is at a premium in any college dorm room, so a full-sized desktop computer is out of the question. Intel’s ridiculously cool Compute Sticks pack the power of a traditional desktop into a tiny HDMI stick that plugs right into any compatible computer monitor. These pint-sized PCs come with Wi-Fi built in, as well as expandable storage, integrated graphics, and a whole host of other features. There are several models to choose from, including sticks that come with Windows 10 pre-installed for less than $90.
I know a lot of parents are shopping for smartphones with their college-bound students right now. If budget is key, take a look at T-Mobile's latest promotions, like getting free Samsung Galaxy On5 or J7 smartphones with family plans that include 6 gigs of data at a wallet-friendly $30 per line. The real boon here though might be the Binge On unlimited streaming feature. College kids addicted to Netflix, Spotify, YouTube, HBO Go, and dozens of others services can enjoy as much as they want without racking up data costs. That means you won’t get slammed with a surprising overage fee just because a boring lecture turned into an impromptu Game Of Thrones marathon.
Moto Mod magic
The new Moto Z ($624.00) Droid has a really cool trick up its’ smartphone sleeve: Moto Mods. The Mods snap-on the back of the phone like high-tech magnets to transform an already awesome handset and give it some crazy-cool features. The JBL SoundBoost mod ($79.99) adds a set of high-powered stereo speakers and a handy kickstand right to the back of the phone, while the Moto Insta-Share Projector ($299.99) actually lets the Moto Z project a massive 70” virtual display onto any surface, which is perfect for a college movie night.
Not your parents' beanbag chair
I’ll just come right out and say it: dorm furniture totally sucks. Finding something that will fit in such a small space is a challenge on its own, and when money is tight, the result is usually some hand-me-down loveseat or chair that has more stains than a chef’s apron. Yogibo’s adult-sized bean bags (starting at $89.99) are a fantastic replacement for the worn-out, curbside college furniture stereotype we’re all so used to. They’re big, super comfortable, extremely durable, and they come in different sizes to fit any living space.
Get up, stand up
Have you heard that sitting is the new smoking? That’s what many are saying about long, sedentary hours stuck in a traditional computer chair. Oristand ($25) can turn any normal desk into a proper standing desk, getting your college kid on their feet while they research their term papers, browse Facebook, or play games. It’s basically a cardboard pop-up piece that folds out to create a standing desk, or folds back down to tuck away out of sight.
Even if your college student adores their roommate, sometimes the lack of privacy in a shared living space can be a serious issue. The Privacy Pop bed tent (starting at $129.99) is a cool, affordable way to get a little alone time without having to actually leave the room. It’s just like a real tent, complete with mesh sides and a double-sided zipper, and it comes in any size from twin to queen. Perfect for any teen who needs to be cut off from distractions during a late night study session or simply for some relaxing “me” time when they need it.
Built for speed
A router is the gateway between a college student and all the vital research, streaming entertainment, and information that resides online, so it’s obviously pretty important to send your kid off to school with one that won’t break down halfway through the semester. TP-Link’s Archer C9 ($149.99) is a decent dorm room companion, with lightning fast 2.4GHz and 5GHz connections and a total bandwidth of 1.9Gbps. You don’t need to know what any of those numbers mean — kids know more about these things than us parents most of the time anyway — all you need to know is that TP-Link has a fantastic reputation for quality, and the Archer C9 is a budget-friendly router with some serious muscle.
Putting high-tech pen to paper
Of course, some days your kid is going to be burned out on digital toys and tools, and reach for a pen and paper instead. When that happens, Moleskin’s Smart Writing Set ($199) lets them scribble notes, doodles, and stories on paper, and then the high-tech pen digitizes them. The digital copy of their work is saved right to their phone or tablet, and they can save it or share it wherever they want. It’s great for those long school days where a screen just doesn’t cut it.
Food, glorious food
When I was in college, the coffee came from a vending machine and mini-fridges were nowhere near as cool as they are today. My top picks for food gadgets are Igloo’s Dry Eraser Board Refrigerator ($129.99) and the Uber Chill XL ($129.99) retro mini fridge. The first is super cool because you can write on it, the second just wildly great looking. For a fast and inexpensive gadget to make better-than-Starbucks fancy coffee, there’s the MiniPresso GR Espresso Maker ($64.99). This handy gadget can keep young caffeine connoisseurs happy through college and beyond. And when it comes making ramen, heating-up Hot Pockets, or just making toast, SKG’s High Performance Mini Oven ($67) is a small, but mighty little beast that can keep up with the most urgent of snack-attacks.
What’s the best dorm room gadget you’ve ever run across? Be sure to let us know, in the comments section below.
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech contributor and host of USA TODAY's digital video show TECH NOW. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferJolly.