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12 great gadgets that can smarten up a dumb dorm room in 2020

Heading back to a dorm room this fall? Consider bringing a couple of these handy devices with you.

Ry Crist Senior Editor / Reviews - Labs
Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a writer, a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, broadband and home networking.
Expertise Smart home technology and wireless connectivity Credentials
  • 10 years product testing experience with the CNET Home team
Ry Crist
8 min read

Gee, must have been a long night if you're sleeping in until half past noon.

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Back to school season is here, complete with all sorts of new complexities thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Some schools don't know when, exactly, they'll be able to invite students to return, while others are already planning to stick with virtual classes through the fall. Some schools including Harvard seem inclined to split the difference by inviting at least some students back to campus but keeping classes online.

At any rate, it seems that a good number of students can expect to head back to school this fall, one way or another. 

One option: Smarten the place up with connected devices that can help make things more comfortable and convenient. If you're one of the lucky ones with a window air conditioner for your room, why not press the advantage and pair it with a smart plug so you can tell it to start cooling things down when you're on your way home from an afternoon lecture on a hot day? A good color-changing smart bulb in your bedside lamp can help you show some school pride on game day, or just gently help you rise in the morning before your alarm clock goes off. 

And hey, speaking of alarm clocks, we've tested tons of the things and have a few basic ones we can recommend -- but why not upgrade to something smarter and more futuristic, with built-in voice commands for modern bedside multi-tasking? 

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One caveat: This post assumes that your dorm will have a Wi-Fi network that supports devices like these, so you'd be smart to check with your school to make sure before you buy anything. If Wi-Fi is out, you can still consider gadgets that use Bluetooth to pair directly with your phone -- I'll call out some good ones as alternate picks as we go.

Color-changing bulbs are a fun, easy way to add a pop of personality to an otherwise bland atmosphere -- and if you want to exhibit some school pride on game day, they'll do the job with, well, flying colors. 

Spec for spec, the best bulb I've tested is the Lifx Mini, which you can currently get for about $38. It uses Wi-Fi to connect directly with your room's wireless network with no hub needed, and it shines brighter and bolder than Philips Hue (or any other color-changing bulb I've tested in this price range, for that matter). On top of that, Lifx offers an excellent, easy-to-use app with tons of features like color cycles and wake up fades, and it works with just about everything. It's a can't-go-wrong color-changer, and a perfect pick for that bedside lamp.

If adding smart bulbs to your dorm's Wi-Fi network isn't an option, don't fear -- you've got plenty of alternatives that use Bluetooth instead for a direct connection with your phone. Among these, my top pick for iPhone users is the Sylvania Smart Plus LED, currently selling for less than $25 each. It puts out bright, vivid colors, and it supports Apple HomeKit, which means you can turn it on and off or change its color with a quick Siri command on your iPhone or iPad.

If you're an Android user, take a look at the C by GE lineup of Bluetooth smart bulbs, all of which use Bluetooth to pair directly with your phone. A single color-changing bulb sells for $30 at Best Buy.

Another nice budget pick for iOS users: the Sylvania Smart Plus Lightstrip. Like the bulb, it uses Bluetooth to pair directly with your phone, and it support Siri voice controls for quick color changes on the fly. It retails for $60, but as of writing this, Amazon's got it on sale for less than $40. That's a great bargain compared to fancier strips from Lifx and Philips Hue.

Speaking of Bluetooth, this $30 LED from GE features a built-in Bluetooth speaker and comes with a remote that can also dim it up and down. You can pair the bulb with your phone, your computer, or with a smart speaker for surprisingly adequate sound quality whenever you're playing a podcast or listening to your concentration playlist on Spotify while cramming for finals week. It's available as both a normal, A-shaped light bulb and as a BR30 floodlight, and you can sync additional bulbs up with the first one for multi-point surround sound.

Another option for that lamp of yours -- plug it into a WeMo Mini smart plug, then automate it turn on automatically with your morning alarm each morning. And it's not just lamps. With a direct Wi-Fi connection to your dorm's network that requires no hub, the WeMo Mini can smarten up anything you plug into into it and let you turn the power on and off from your phone, or program it to turn on and off automatically. Pair it with your desk fan or air conditioner for better control over your room's climate, pair it with a coffeemaker so a fresh pot is ready to pour as soon as you wake up, pair it with a decorative set of string lights, pair it with whatever -- there's lots of room for creativity here. Plus, the slim design won't block adjacent outlets, which means one less thing to squabble about with the roommate.

Best of all, the WeMo Mini doesn't cost much. Right now, it's just $20 on Amazon, which is basically a no-brainer, and $5 than the Amazon Smart Plug, which is only a good pick if you're an Alexa user. The WeMo Mini supports Alexa and the Google Assistant, and also Siri via Apple HomeKit.


A smart speaker like the Google Nest Mini (left) or Amazon Echo Dot (right) can smarten up the whole room. They'll play your favorite songs or podcasts on request, they'll give you a quick weather rundown while you're getting dressed for that annoying 8:00 AM class -- and if you're using other devices like that Lifx bulb or that WeMo plug, they'll let you control things with your voice, too.

Both of these options are currently available for $50 (make that $60 if you upgrade to the Echo Dot that adds in a built-in clock, like the one in the picture). If you need help deciding on which one is best for you, we've got you covered. I tend to lean towards the Echo Dot because it has an aux out jack that lets you plug it directly into a larger audio setup without needing to fuss with Bluetooth. Honestly though, these two are neck and neck, and it mostly just comes down to whether you prefer using Alexa or the Google Assistant.


Look, you're not always going to have time for the dining hall, and who knows what's been in the dorm's communal microwave. Better off bringing your own -- and if you're already bringing an Echo Dot, why not bring a microwave that it can control via voice? As CNET Executive Editor Rich Brown put it at the top of his review of said appliance, "For $60, you can buy this AmazonBasics Microwave and find out what it's like to say, 'Alexa, microwave 3 ounces of popcorn.' Spoiler: It feels pretty natural." 

Bottom line: At $60, it's a low-risk way to bring some unique, conversation-starting smarts into your dorm room. And hey, sure beats the gunked up communal microwave in the dorm lounge.


Quit using your phone as an alarm clock, you're already reliant enough on that thing as it is. Instead, dedicate some nightstand space to the real thing -- or better yet, to the Lenovo Smart Clock. It's an adorably minimalist and customizable smart clock that can recommend alarms based on your calendar, and it comes with the full power of the voice-activated Google Assistant, so it's basically a Google Nest Mini with a clock face.

Our favorite feature is also the most visceral -- you can snooze your alarms just by whacking the thing (because let's face it, nobody can be bothered with buttons at 6 a.m.). Oh, and did I mention that it's just $50?


If you're more of an Alexa fan, then check out the Amazon Echo Show 5, which retails for $90 and is often on sale (sure enough, as of writing this, Amazon is offering it for $70). We found it worked best as a bedside alarm clock thanks to the sunrise alarm feature that uses light to help fade you awake. And yep, you can shut the alarm off just by whacking the thing, too.

In addition to the alarm clock smarts, the Echo Show 5 offers Alexa's full capabilities, complemented by a 5" screen for quick info at a glance. There's a built-in camera for video chats, too, as well as a privacy shutter to block its view when you aren't using it, which, in my humble opinion, is pretty much a mandatory feature when we're talking about cameras that you might keep pointed at your bed.

Prefer something with a larger screen for bedside YouTube binges, along with a built-in camera for video chats with friends and family? You'll want to upgrade to a full-size smart display. Google offers its own Nest Hub smart displays, but you can save some cash by going with the excellent Lenovo Smart Display, which currently costs $130 for a model with an 8" screen and $158 for one with a 10" screen plus a fancy bamboo pattern on the back.

Both work exactly like Google's own smart displays and feature the full intelligence of the Google Assistant, and they also come with a privacy shutter that'll block the camera when you aren't using it. All you're really missing out on are a few niche hardware extras, like the Nest Hub Max's facial recognition and gesture recognition features.

OK, so maaaaaybe discuss this one with the roomie first, but if you want to go all out with the decorations you could consider smart, color-changing wall panels that sync with your dorm's network via Wi-Fi. Right now, your best bet is the touch-sensitive Nanoleaf Canvas. You can customize the colors and the animations to your heart's content, control it via voice commands with Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant, or even use the built-in microphone to sync it with your music.

A 9-panel starter kit costs $200, and if you want to start a little smaller, you might consider the 4-panel mini version of the starter kit that's available via Nanoleaf's website (you can always add more panels later). If squares aren't your thing, Nanoleaf sells triangular versions, too -- but they aren't touch-sensitive and the microphone accessory comes as a separate attachment. Hexagon-shaped versions are due out any week now, so keep an eye out for those, too.