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College is an exciting time, hopefully a period for self-discovery and education. However, it's also a crucial time, where your decisions and performance can set the trajectory for the rest of your life as you meet new people and learn responsibility in addition to studying for exams. Getting the right gear can help give you an edge in both study and leisure time. Based on our own college experiences and extensive product testing in our labs, we've come up with a list of must-haves for any college-bound student.
1. The right laptop for any task
The best choice for a laptop completely depends on coursework and lifestyle. We've narrowed it down to three categories: the generalist, the creative, and the gamer. As varied as these laptops are, they all cost under $1,000, a small price to pay compared to books and tuition.
For the generalist: Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA
For most students, we think the Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA is a solid pick. This computer comes with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of eMMC flash storage, making it a productivity machine. Tipping the scales at only 2.65 pounds, this laptop won't slow you down when you're running to class. After your coursework and studying, the C302CA is easily powerful enough to run Netflix and other streaming services smoothly. We should point out that the greatest strength of this laptop is also its weakness. As a Chromebook, this Asus is super stable, but you also very limited in what you can install on it.
For the creative: Microsoft Surface Pro 4
For creatives that need to draw, edit photos, and design, the Surface Pro 4 will meet your needs. Based on our testing and research, the Surface Pro 4's stylus is the best in its class, and its detachable keyboard, though sold separately, isn't too shabby either. For people who are deeply visual learners, we think this tablet could be a great help, allowing you to add drawings to notes.
For the gamer: Dell Inspiron 15 7000
A laptop with a decent graphics card and RAM can do more than just play video games. In addition to functioning just as well as a non-gaming laptop, you can use the added power to edit videos and run resource-intensive programs like CADs. We recommend the Dell Inspiron 15 because it gives you tons of power for a low price. However, we did find that its weight is a major downside. The Inspiron 15 comes in at 6 pounds, so it isn't as carry-friendly as some others. This is the type of laptop that sits on your desk in your dorm and doesn't move. If you like taking notes by hand, enjoy some gaming in your free time, and have computer-heavy projects, the Dell Inspiron 15 is a good value pick.
2. A backpack with comfortable straps
Whether you're traversing a huge rural campus or navigating the city on your way to class in an urban setting, you're going to be doing a lot of walking. A quality backpack will keep you organized without digging into your back. In our experience testing backpacks, the L.L. Bean Quad came out on top. It has the versatility to meet most challenges. We carried books, a laptop, and a water bottle for over 45 minutes with the Quad without struggle or noticing any pain points. This bag has plenty of storage, sturdy back pads, and enough adjustable strips to make it our go-to bag of choice for any college student.
3. A credit card to develop good spending habits
College usually means the start of financial independence. It is time to start building up your credit and learn to make good purchasing decisions. After researching a bunch of credit cards for students, we think the Capital One® Journey® Student Rewards card is perfect for those looking to open their first account. One major benefit: The card gives a boost in cash-back points of 0.25% on top of the standard 1% whenever you pay your balance on time. Developing this habit is crucial to avoid paying massive amounts of interest in the future.
4. A well-insulated water bottle to keep you hydrated
Speaking from experience, when you're out on your own in college, it's easy to fall into unhealthy habits like eating poorly and not exercising. One other major pitfall is not drinking enough water. People who stay hydrated tend to be more alert, maintain a healthier weight, and generally feel better. Having a well-insulated water bottle can help encourage you to drink more since ice-cold water just tastes better. Crafted with recycled material and coming with a lifetime warranty, the Hydro Flask is a must-have for the college-bound. Our testing showed that it can keep water cold for over 24 hours. Plus, it's double insulated so it won't bead with condensation, making it safe to store near laptops and cellphones.
5. A USB battery pack for power on the go
Today's campuses have a lot more open spaces for studying and socializing. This often means no power nearby. Think about the anxiety from all those times that your phone or laptop has been at 2% battery. Fear no more: The RavPower Turbo Series can recharge your cellphone and laptop without missing a beat. In our roundup of USB battery packs, we found that the RavPower was a bit bulkier than most, but it's still very versatile and affordable.
6. A single-serve coffeemaker for those late nights
Time management is another skill college students need to learn. However, before those lessons sink in, a compact coffeemaker will help make all-nighters a little more bearable. Coffee is also a great way to socialize with your fellow students in the dorm. It'll be like an indoor fika—the laidback Swedish coffee ritual. You'll want to wow your fellow college mates with a good aroma and a quality-tasting coffee. After taste-testing countless cups of java, we think the Nespresso VertuoPlus is worth the money.
7. An affordable microwave for midnight snacks
To go along with that coffee, a microwave can provide a warm midnight snack—ramen, mac 'n cheese, and the occasional cup of hot chocolate. We've spent a ton of time testing countertop microwaves, only to find there's almost no performance difference between them. For a college student who is probably going to toss their microwave at the end of the semester, we think the countertop model made by Hamilton Beach is a good deal. It has no special functions, but college kids don't need them.
Prices are accurate at the time this article was published, but may change over time.