Engadget recommends a variety of laptops every year as part of our annual back-to-school guide. But that’s not quite enough if you want a productive study environment. Whether you’re a student staying home this year or you’re returning to campus, you’ll benefit from a few additional essentials. A laptop stand is useful for preventing neck and arm pain, while a lumbar pillow supports the lower back. A pair of noise-cancelling headphones does wonders for blocking out distractions and a LED lamp helps ease eye fatigue. From an external keyboard to a USB dock, we think all our suggestions below will lead to much-improved setup for those long study sessions.
Soundance Laptop Stand
While laptops are more convenient than desktops, using just your notebook for long periods of time is bad for your posture and can lead to neck ache. That’s why we strongly recommend getting a laptop stand. You can position your machine so that the screen is at the appropriate height. In general, you want your eye level to be one to two inches below the top of the display.
One of our team’s favorites is this one from Soundance, which can support laptops with 10- to 15-inch screens. It’s made from a sturdy aluminum alloy and the surface that holds the laptop is rubberized, which prevents it from sliding around. And, thanks to a series of detachable components, it’s also one of a few stands that’s easily portable. You can take it apart and put it together in minutes, making it great not just for your desk at home, but also for using it in the library.
The Soundance raises your laptop six inches above the desk, which should work well for most people. Also, the elevated design both facilitates better posture and helps ventilate your laptop. There’s even enough space underneath for you to store your keyboard and mouse when they’re not in use. If you want one with adjustable height, we recommend the Rain Design iLevel 2. It’s not quite as portable and it’s more expensive than the Soundance, but it’s a good option if you need a stand with more flexibility.
Logitech K780 multi-device wireless keyboard
If you do get a laptop stand, you’ll definitely want an external keyboard to go along with it. (It’s not going to be comfortable typing on your laptop while it’s docked in the stand.) We recommend a wireless model so you don’t have to worry about cords cluttering up your desk. Logitech’s line of Bluetooth keyboards is an Engadget favorite, and the K780 is one of the brand’s most versatile models. It’s a full-size keyboard complete with a numpad, but it still feels slim and compact. The keys are responsive and comfortable as well, and you can pair it with up to three devices. There’s even an integrated cradle if you wish to use it with a smartphone or iPad.
Logitech M525 wireless mouse
In addition to the external keyboard, you should get a wireless mouse to match. Logitech’s M525 is a great option thanks to its ergonomic design and affordable price point. It’s small enough that it won’t take up much space on your desk and It has an ambidextrous design that’ll fit both right and left-handed users. Its precision scroll wheel has a tilt function that allows for side-to-side scrolling as well. We should note, however, that this isn’t a Bluetooth mouse; you connect it to your computer via a USB receiver.
If you’d rather have the convenience of Bluetooth, consider the MX Anywhere 3. It has a 4,000-dpi Track Anywhere sensor that works on most surfaces, even glass. However, the MX Anywhere 3 is a lot pricier at $80 and it doesn’t include the aforementioned tilt wheel, so bear that in mind.
Purple Back Cushion
Long study sessions often mean sitting for an extended amount of time, which can result in lower back pain. You could get a chair with better back support, but those can be expensive. Plus, if you’re living in a dorm, you probably don’t have much choice in furniture anyway. The next best option is to get a lumbar support pillow. I personally recommend the Purple Back Cushion because it has a cushy grid that’s malleable enough to mold to the contour of my spine. One of the features that sets it apart from other cushions is that it has hundreds of air channels, which means you won’t get a sweaty back after sitting in a stuffy dorm room all day long. It comes with a washable cushion cover and an integrated strap that helps you attach it to most chairs.
Taotronics LED Desk Lamp 38
Another desk must-have is a lamp for those late-night study sessions. And if you’re going to spend money on one, it’s a good idea to get a lamp that can charge your devices at the same time. We’ve commended the Taotronics desk lamps in previous buying guides due to their multi-functionality, which is why we feel so confident recommending the Taotronics LED Desk Lamp 38 for most students.
The lamp has a built-in Qi-enabled wireless charger on its base that works with fast-charge compatible iPhone and Samsung devices up to 7.5W and 10W, respectively. Additionally, it has a USB port for charging other devices that aren’t Qi compatible. A multipurpose lamp is perfect for students who have a limited space and budget, plus the quick-charging base means you can quickly top up your battery in between classes. Of course, not having to deal with a charging cable while you’re studying is also a bonus.
The LED Desk Lamp 38 is also just a really excellent lamp, with five lighting modes and five brightness levels. You can use it on your nightstand too: It has a “night light” and a timer mode that automatically shuts off after an hour, which is helpful for those of us who like to read before bed.
Sony WH-CH710N noise cancelling headphones
A pair of noise-cancelling headphones is great for blocking out unwanted noise during study sessions, be it from annoying siblings or a raucous roommate. You might be hesitant to get one because you think noise-cancelling headphones are expensive, and for the most part that’s correct. Fortunately, there are some budget options that aren’t terrible.
Take Sony’s WH-CH710N wireless cans, for example. Engadget’s Billy Steele noted that it offers decent range and good clarity, adept ANC, plus it has dual noise sensors that can detect environmental noise. You can also switch to ambient sound mode if you need to quickly hear the world around you. They also offer an impressive 35 hours of battery life, plus USB-C quick charging that promises 60 minutes of playback on a 10-minute charge.
These headphones may look a little more basic than the higher-end XM4s, but Sony didn’t compromise on comfort here thanks to adjustable sliders and soft oval-shaped earcups. They’re also much more affordable at $198 (and we’ve seen them for less), giving you a lot of bang for your buck.
Cooper Standing Desk Converter by Fully
Sitting for long periods is bad for your health, which is why many people like to have standing desks. Unfortunately, they can be expensive, plus you might not even have the space for one. Instead, consider a standing desk converter that can be used with the desk you already own. Fully’s Cooper is a staff favorite, and we like it more than even the company’s Cora model because it has two levels: one for your laptop and another for your external keyboard and mouse. Raising and lowering it is easy thanks to a simple hydraulic lift, and it’s external-monitor friendly thanks to its 35 pounds (16 kilograms) weight limit. Plus, unlike a lot of other sit-stand converters, it’s pretty stylish to boot — we especially like the one with the bamboo finish.
CalDigit USB-C Pro Dock
Your computer can be your portal to, well, everything when you're in school — you're probably using it to attend classes and complete coursework all while also relying on it to connect with family, game with friends and the like. You may find yourself constantly connecting and disconnecting peripherals and accessories while pushing your machine to its limits, and that's where a dock like this one from CalDigit can come in handy. Commerce Editor Valentina Palladino likes it because it has 10 ports, including USB-A, USB-C, Gigabit Ethernet and DisplayPort (or HDMI, depending on the model you choose), and it supports up to two 4K monitors with a single cable.
Our favorite part, though, is that it works with both Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C laptops, so if you’re not sure which you have, you don’t have to worry about it. You can also use it with the latest iPads, such as iPad Pros and the 4th-gen Air. Unlike smaller dongles, it’s not the most portable solution, but the Pro Dock makes up for that by giving you many more ports than your traditional adapter has — and it provides up to 94W of power to charge your device while it’s connected.
24-inch ViewSonic VA2456-MHD monitor
Sometimes a laptop screen just isn’t big enough, and an external monitor is needed for you to do your best work. It’s useful for those who need more screen real estate for stats and charts, Excel spreadsheets, editing photos or video, or just looking over copious amounts of code.
However, monitors can be pricey. ViewSonic’s 24-inch VA2456-MHD, however, delivers an impressive feature set for the price. Though we haven’t reviewed it, it’s highly-rated on Amazon and we’ve liked ViewSonic’s other monitors in the past so we know the company has a solid track record for quality. The VA2456-MHD has HDMI, DisplayPort and VGA connections, which makes it pretty versatile for a budget monitor. It also has 1080p resolution and an IPS panel for wide-angle viewing. Its three-sided frameless design is sleek too, an important quality for such a relatively large object. Lastly, it has a blue light filter to help minimize eye strain.
We should note however, that those looking for a color-accurate monitor might want to invest in something more powerful, like Dell’s UltraSharp U2720Q, but it is also considerably more expensive at nearly $700.
Ironflask 24 oz Classic tumbler
It’s important to stay hydrated even when you’re at your desk, which is why we like having a dedicated water vessel nearby. Commerce Editor Valentina Palladino recommends the Ironflask 24-ounce Classic tumbler as a more affordable alternative to a Yeti or a Hydro Flask (the new Nomad tumbler is slightly more travel-friendly thanks to its leak-proof flip lid). Its double-walled, vacuum insulated construction can keep drinks cold for up to 16 hours and hot for up to four hours. That means you can use it for water as well as coffee or tea when you need a pick-me-up. It comes in a variety of colors, and it ships with two stainless straws, two plastic straws and straw cleaning brushes — so not only is the cup itself easy to clean, but you’re getting the tools to clean the straws, too. It also fits standard-size cup holders, which is great when you want to grab a drink on the go.