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Smart Home

8 great gadgets that can smarten up a dumb dorm room

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

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

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I really hate to break it to you, but your college dorm room is likely going to be a cramped, plain-looking pill box of a bedroom that you'll share with a complete stranger who may or may not leave bowls of rotting fruit out for decoration (don't ask). And, while we've already offered up some helpful recommendations for essential, everyday gear to get you through the school year, maybe you've got bigger plans for that dumb dorm of yours.

One option: Smarten the place up with connected devices that can help make things more comfortable and convenient. A good color-changing smart bulb in your bedside lamp can help you show some school pride on game day, or just gently fade you awake 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 much smarter and futuristic, with built-in voice commands for modern, bedside multi-tasking? Maybe 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?

I could go on -- and you know what, I will! Just note that CNET may get a share of the revenue for any purchases made through the links on this page. 

One other caveat: This post assumes that your dorm will have a Wi-Fi network that supports devices like these, but 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 some good ones out as alternate picks as we go.

Lifx

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 $35. 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 you can't add bulbs like these to your dorm's Wi-Fi network, don't worry -- there are plenty of good picks that skip Wi-Fi and use Bluetooth, instead. My favorite among them is the Sylvania Smart Plus LED, which you can currently score for just $25.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

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 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 less than $20 on Amazon, which is basically a no-brainer.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

A smart speaker like the Google Home 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 $30 -- if you need help deciding between them, we've got you covered. I tend to lean towards the Echo Dot because it's newer, the sound quality is a bit stronger, and 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,.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

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."

At $60, it's a low-risk way to bring some unique, conversation-starting smarts into your dorm room. And that popcorn replenishment feature might come in handy if your friends tend to crowd in to binge bad movies or a favorite Netflix show.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

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 Home 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.).

Chris Monroe/CNET

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. Device for device, Lenovo makes the best smart displays we've tested, so start by considering the full-size Lenovo Smart Display, which comes in two sizes, and also comes with a privacy shutter that'll block the camera when you aren't using it.

Nanoleaf Canvas

Nanoleaf Canvas

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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.