The ultimate back to school college essentials guide

Outfit your dorm (and your life) with stuff you can trust

Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.

Half the fun of getting ready to for college is all the new stuff you can buy. And while you might not be looking for the fanciest products, that's no excuse to get ripped off by buying junk. That's where we can help.

This list of back to school gear has been hand-picked by the geeks at Reviewed.com. It's all backed by thousands of tests and hundreds of hours spent researching and working in our labs.

There will be plenty of time for stress this semester, so don't stress about what to buy now.


WHAT TO CARRY

Best Backpacks

LL Bean, Fjallraven, InCase
Credit: LL Bean, Fjallraven, InCase

Backpacks are a very personal item. They need to deliver on functionality and style. Of all the backpacks we tested, we think this group of three does a good job of spanning different needs and tastes, and all received high marks from our testers. The L.L. Bean Quad Pack was ranked best overall because of its comfort and remarkable organization system. The Fjallraven Kanken 15-inch was named Best Casual Backpack, and certainly delivers on style. It's best for bulky, irregular items and a few books. If you're strictly digital, the InCase ICON won our Best For Electronics. It's a heavily padded backpack that is meant to keep your laptops and tablets safe.

L.L. Bean Quad Pack — Get it for $80 at L.L. Bean

Fjallraven Kanken 15-inch — Get it for $110 on Amazon

InCase ICON — Get it starting at $159 on Amazon

Best headphones under $50

RHA S500i headphones
Credit: RHA
The RHA S500i headphones outperformed much more expensive competition.

You don't need to spend a fortune just to drown out your roommates. There are a million in-ears out there and we've tested many, but RHA Audio offers a great value with the S500i. Not only are they durable, but they outperform many of their peers at this price point. With a sound performance that's perfectly suited for pop, they're a solid buy for the average Joe. Of course there are better buds out there, but you'll be hard-pressed to find them at such an affordable price.

RHA Audio s500i — Get them for $28 on Amazon

Best headphones for the gym

Beats by Dre Powerbeats 3
Credit: Reviewed.com / TJ Donegan
Powerbeats 3 will stay in place and deliver the bass.

The gym is a great place to burn off some stress. And the Beats by Dre Powerbeats 3 are the perfect headphones to get you through your workout. Their design uses a unique "earhook" to keep the buds in place, which is sure to please anyone who's struggled to keep their headphones on during a run on the treadmill. The battery's fast-charging capability turns a 5-minute charge into over an hour of use, and our tests put the Powerbeats at the top of their class in terms of wireless range.

Beats by Dre Powerbeats 3 — Get them for $135 on Amazon

Best smartphone under $500

Apple iPhone SEA
Credit: Reviewed.com / Michael Desjardin
The Apple iPhone SE delivers the best features, but stays affordable.

Your phone is basically your everything, right? But that doesn't mean you have to drop a fortune when buying a new one. There are actually a lot of good options out there. The iPhone SE manages to be one of the most affordable iPhones ever without performing like a second-rate device. In fact, the SE takes most of the internal components from the flagship iPhone 6S and combines them with an outer design that is the spitting image of the older iPhone 5S. For people looking for an affordable path to iOS and a small-but-powerful smartphone, the iPhone SE is one of the best around.

Apple iPhone SE - Get it starting at $399 at Apple

Best laptop under $200

HP 14‑an013nr laptop
Credit: Reviewed.com / Brendan Nystedt

There's no doubt about it—this is the $200 laptop to beat so far this year, topping our list. HP's put together a great package here, giving users a quad-core AMD chip, 4 GB of RAM, and—best of all—a great 14-inch, 1080p screen.

With a simple screwdriver, you can easily add more RAM to the 14-an013nr. There are plenty of ports, and a full-size SD card slot to boot. However, the real draw here is the big, high-quality display. For $200, you just can't find a 14-inch HD laptop that looks this good, but somehow HP has made it work.

HP 14‑an013nr — Get it for $199 on Amazon (w/ coupon)

Best laptop under $500

Acer Aspire E-15 laptop
Credit: Acer

One of the best bargain laptops, this Acer Aspire crams great battery life, a big 15-inch HD screen, and a competitive chip and graphics into a package costing less than $350. 4 GB RAM and a 1 TB spinning hard drive also come along for the ride, offering you a good chunk of storage. While it's bulky and thick, this powerful notebook is also easily upgraded, ensuring years of capable performance when running modern programs. You also get a nice trackpad and a backlit keyboard, which is almost unheard-of at this price.

Acer Aspire E 15 (2016, Intel Core i3, 1TB, 4GB RAM) — Get it for $350 on Amazon

Best Chromebook

Asus Chromebook Flip
Credit: Reviewed.com / Jackson Ruckar

Chromebooks may not be the right tool for every kind of student—particularly if you need to install custom software—but relatively low prices and incredible battery life are certainly points in their favor. That said, the Asus Chromebook Flip blew past the competition. Not only does it sport a gorgeous, Mac-like shell and a 1080p display, it was also aced one of more rigorous performance tests. We found that it could handle up to 15 simultaneous tabs in Chrome. It's not the cheapest Chromebook of the bunch, but it's certainly not going to disappoint.

Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA — Get it for $469 on Amazon

Best instant camera

Fujifilm Instax Mini 90
Credit: Fujifilm

This one is for pure fun. Fujifilm has a lot of different Instax Mini cameras out there, but there's no doubt that the best of the bunch is the Mini 90. This is the camera to get if you want the most features and hate messing with non-rechargeable batteries. Unlike its older brothers and sisters in the Instax Mini family, the 90 is the most full-featured Fujifilm camera right now.

Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic — Get it for $120 on Amazon

Other backpack essentials

We haven't done serious testing on everything in the world (yet), but if we step away from the Reviewed.com test labs for a moment, I can make some personal recommendations for other essentials. You can't go wrong with the Pilot Precise V5 pens ($5 for a 5-pack at Amazon), which kept up with my fast and furious undergrad note-taking. And to write on? These 5-subject notebooks ($22 for a 2-pack on Amazon) with a heavy-duty plastic cover survived some hard semesters.

The Kindle Paperwhite ($120 on Amazon) is the favorite e-reader of everyone on staff here, and the built-in light means you can read without waking your roommate. You'll also need power for your mobile devices. This Jackery Bolt power bank comes highly recommended our friends at Wirecutter and is only $27 on Amazon.

We haven't completed testing portable hard drives yet, but I can personally vouch for the LaCie Rugged ($140 for the 1 TB version on Amazon), which can survive some tumbles thanks to its thick padding.


DORM ESSENTIALS

Best 32-inch TV

Vizio D32h-D1
Credit: Reviewed.com / Lee Neikirk

A good TV can make your room the go-to for movie night. But, of course, you might be limited for space and need a small, 32-inch TV. The Vizio D32-D1 delivers. It might have a resolution of just 720p, but when you’re dealing with a 32-inch screen, the difference between 720p and 1080p/Full HD is a moot point. The D32-D1 features solid picture quality right out of the box. And cord-cutters will especially appreciate the inclusion of built-in Netflix, YouTube, and other streaming apps. Vizio’s 32-inch D Series is just a good TV at an absurdly low price.

VIZIO D32h-D1 — Get it for $260 on Amazon

Best TV Under $500

TCL Roku 50UP130
Credit: TCL

Have the room to go bigger than 32 inches? If you want a super-convenient 4K TV and don't care about fancy extras, the TCL UP130 series is a great choice (available in 43 and 50-inch screen sizes) in TVs under $500. The picture quality is decent, but the best part? Roku's smart TV platform is built right in.

TCL Roku 50UP130Get the 43-inch model for $389 on Amazon

Best streaming device

Roku Premiere Plus
Credit: Roku

Roku is our top pick among streaming devices, but they make several different versions. While not as fully-featured as the Roku Ultra or as cheap as the Roku Express, for most people the Roku Premiere+ is the one to get. It offers the simple Roku interface and easy access to the most popular apps. The Premiere+ also supports wired internet and comes with the roommate-friendly Roku remote, which has a headphone jack that lets you listen to your TV privately and wirelessly.

Roku Premiere+Get it for $84 on Amazon

Best portable bluetooth speaker

JBL Hero
Credit: Reviewed.com / Jackson Ruckar

Take your party to the quad, the beach, or wherever else you need music with the $80 JBL Flip 3. This pill-shaped, portable speaker—one among many we tested under $100—is available in a huge variety of colors. It features rubber cappings and some splash-proofing, giving it good legs to stand on when it comes to toting it along on unplanned adventures.

JBL Flip 3 — Get it for $79 on Amazon

Best affordable cordless stick vacuum

Hoover Air 2-in-1
Credit: Reviewed.com / Jonathan Chan

Don't be "that person" on your floor. You know, the one who never cleans their room. The Hoover Cordless 2-in-1 is the cordless vacuum we'd recommend to our family and friends. (Read: "It's not the $600 Dyson.") Although the 2-in-1 didn't come in first in any of our tests, the overall package impressed us with its versatility. What clinched the deal for us was the removable battery, which charges in an included cradle. It means you don't have to trash the whole vacuum when the battery eventually stops taking a charge—just swap it out for a new one.

Hoover Cordless 2-in-1 Stick and Handheld Vacuum — Get it for $103 on Home Depot

Best budget smart speaker

Amazon Echo Dot
Credit: Amazon

The full-sized Amazon Echo ($180 on Amazon) is our top pick for a smart speaker, thanks to Amazon Alexa's astonishing rate of integration with so many other products and services. These days it seems like you can ask Alexa to do anything.

The Echo Dot is the cute little brother of the Echo. While the speaker doesn't sound as good when playing music, the Dot replicates pretty much every other feature of the full-size Echo. Plus it costs just $50 and is perfectly at home in a dorm or small bedroom.

Amazon Echo Dot — Get it for $50 on Amazon

Best smart plug

iDevices Switch
Credit: Reviewed.com / Ben Keough
iDevices Switch

Despite its name, the iDevices Switch is a smart plug, not a light switch. Our tests found it to be the best smart plug on the market. It offers a reliable app, an unusual multicolor "night light" LED strip, scheduling, energy monitoring, and remote control. Of course, it works with Alexa to control any product you plug into it—from lamps to coffee makers. And thanks to remote control, it can be a real lifesaver. Why run all the way across campus to check if you left the iron on when you can just check your phone?

iDevices Switch — Get it for $29.50 at Amazon

Best pod coffee maker

Keurig K575
Credit: Keurig

Staying awake: It's a necessary evil if you're going to finish term papers. Enter the easy-to-use pod coffee maker. The Keurig K575 features a responsive and easy-to-navigate touchscreen, a massive 80 oz. water reservoir (the largest available), and the option to brew a full carafe for roommates. Users can adjust everything from cup size, to temperature, to coffee strength, and even use it to make cocoa, tea, chai, and soup. The one drawback is that it can only be used with Keurig 2.0 pods, although the My K-Cup 2.0 reusable filter can accept whatever ground coffee you choose.

Keurig K575 — Get it for $160 on Amazon

Best electric kettle

Cuisinart
Credit: Reviewed.com / Kyle Looney

If your colleges allows you to have an electric kettle, this will make you the hero of all the tea drinkers and ramen eaters on your floor. This kettle may not look like anything special, but it does its job exceptionally well, and at a very fair price. It offers six preset heat settings for steeping tea and easily discernible, intuitive buttons. Simply select your desired temperature and press start, and in a snappy 5 and a half minutes, a series of beeps will let you know that your water is boiling. The machine automatically flips to a handy keep-warm mode that resumes its cycle regardless of how many times you remove the kettle from the base. This kettle is easy to use and very speedy, earning it our top spot.

Cuisinart PerfecTemp — Get it for $72 on Amazon

Best assemble-it-yourself bookshelf

Ikea Brusali
Credit: Ikea

You have to put all that stuff in your room somewhere, so we recommend IKEA. We assembled and tested many bookshelves, including two from IKEA: the Billy and Brusali. While the Billy was strong in its own right and more affordable, the Brusali eked its way to the top through slightly higher quality wood and a sturdier finished product. What both IKEA bookshelves had in common, however, was the stellar quality of the literal nuts and bolts that hold them together, as well as how those small pieces were organized.

IKEA Brusali — Get it for $90 at IKEA

Best dorm fridge

Igloo 3.2-Cu.-Ft. Platinum Fridge
Credit: Reviewed.com / Kyle Looney
The Igloo 3.2-Cu.-Ft. Platinum Fridge

Many colleges don't allow you to bring your own fridge, but mini-fridges are the perfect pick for off-campus living.. If you're just looking for a cool place to store food, the Igloo FR322 3.2-cu.-ft. Platinum Fridge is your best choice. It fits an impressive 100 cans of... um, soda. So there's plenty for the party. One important note: This is a mini fridge, which means temperatures up top are going to be colder than at the bottom, so be careful when positioning your... soda. Cans may start to freeze if they're on the top row for too long.

Igloo Platinum Fridge — Get it for $109 on Amazon

Best plastic food storage

Rubbermaid Easy Find Lids Food Storage Container
Credit: Rubbermaid

Rubbermaid’s extremely popular Easy Find Lids container set is our pick for the best plastic reusable food storage containers. The iconic red lids won’t spring a leak unless you shake the container violently, and drops aren’t a problem unless the container happens to fall on its side or a corner. No plastic container is oven-safe, but the set is marked dishwasher- and microwave-safe, and carries a lifetime warranty.

Rubbermaid Easy Find Lids Food Storage Container — Get it for $20 on Amazon

Best cheap countertop microwave

Cheap microwaves
Credit: Reviewed.com

Funny thing. When we conducted tests on the four top-selling cheap microwaves, we discovered that they were all identical. Literally identical—all made in the same factory with the same components. Tests verified all our suspicions. Only the designs and the labels on the front distinguished one brand to the next.

So our advice is to go ahead and buy whatever's on sale! All the microwaves under $100 are probably going to perform the same.

Other dorm essentials

Depending on your professors, you may be printing papers so rarely that it doesn't make sense to own a printer. But if you do need one, the Canon MG6820 Wireless All-in-One ($75 on Amazon) comes highly recommended by Consumer Reports.

We wrote a whole article about decorating your room on a budget and one for shower essentials, so we won't belabor the point here. The fact is that the right gear won't make or break your college experience, but it sure won't hurt. We hope you enjoy the products you decide to buy and have a great semester!

Prices are accurate at the time this article was published, but may change over time.

Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.

What's Your Take?

All Comments
Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below