Laptops are the ultimate in portable computing, but that doesn’t mean that a laptop can’t be made even more useful with the right accessories. If you’re a student, or someone looking to help a student out with a thoughtful gift, we’ve compiled a list of the most useful laptop accessories for students.
We’ve organized them by type. The first batch is handy add-ons for just about every student, regardless of their area of study. The second batch is a bit more specific, with suggestions that can improve a laptop’s ability to work with special software, or enhance its power.
Guide to Must-Have Student Laptop Accessories
Here are the accessories we’ll be covering, so if you already know what you need, you can go ahead and click on what you want to know more about:
Accessories for All Students
- External Mouse
- Portable Hard Drive
- USB Thumb Drive
- USB Light
- External Monitor
- USB Hub
- Screen Privacy Protector
- VPN Software
- Security Lock
Specific Needs Accessories
- Graphics Tablet & Pen
- External Graphics Card
- USB Number Pad
- Port Replicator
The trackpads and pointer sticks on today’s laptops are superb and easily the most convenient way to control your cursor. But sometimes you want even more precision, or simply a change of ergonomics to prevent repetitive strains. An external mouse provides you with both benefits, and there are hundreds of options to choose from.
Are you a gamer? Then you’ll probably want a wired mouse to eliminate even the slightest lag in response time. If your workspace is limited like on a plane or while taking notes in class, look for a wireless mouse. Bluetooth mice don’t require a wireless dongle or giving up a precious USB port to keep your mouse connected.
Portable hard drive
There’s simply no such thing as too much storage. A portable, external hard drive not only expands the amount of space you have for large files like movies, it can also act as backup device in case anything happens to your laptop’s internal storage. The size of the external hard drive should be based on how you’re going to use it.
If your external storage is needed as a repository for really big files, a 2 TB drive is ideal, but if you’re only looking to back up the contents of your laptop, then a 256 GB SSD, 1 TB, or even 500 GB, will fit the bill. If durability is a concern, look for models that have rugged enclosures that protect from shock, dust, and water.
USB thumb drive
Thumb drives, flash drives, or USB keys as they’re sometimes called, are an ideal way to share both large and small files between users. They’re also one of the easiest ways to make those same files accessible to a TV, printer, or network. Capacities and prices are changing constantly, so don’t go overboard on size unless you really need it. A 32 GB thumb drive should suit most people’s needs. Read/write speeds can also vary between models, so be sure to check the manufacturer’s claims before you buy.
A lot of laptops come equipped with backlit keyboards, making it much easier to see in darkened rooms. This tends to be a premium feature on higher end models, and some laptops simply don’t have it. If you’re in the second camp, don’t worry – for less than the cost of movie, you can pick up a USB light.
These accessories have tiny LED lights in them attached to the end of a firm but flexible cable, which provide enough illumination to see not only your keyboard, but also your entire work area—without disturbing a sleeping roommate.
Laptop screens run the gamut, from smaller than 11-inches with only 1024 x 768 resolution, all the way up to 17-inch displays with 4k resolution. However, even the biggest and best laptop screen can’t compete with the sheer size and readability of a decent external monitor. A good monitor doesn’t have to break the bank. Plenty of decent 19-inch or 21-inch models can be found for under $300.
The added real estate of an extra screen can serve triple duty: As a second screen for keeping a web page open while you write in your main window; as a larger monitor when you need to see more detail; or as a TV replacement for when it’s finally time to relax with a movie.
The current generation of laptops is rightfully credited with having excellent keyboards, screens, and versatile designs. Laptop speakers, however, remain mostly underwhelming. The solution is both simple and inexpensive, using a decent set of external speakers.
There’s a lot of choice with these accessories, so once again, it’s best to think about how they’ll be used to find the best audio accessories for you. If you need better sound at home or in a dorm room, a regular pair of regular computer speakers will work just fine. If you need something that’s portable, you can buy mini-soundbars that are powered directly by your laptop.
Some laptops – especially those used for replacing an old desktop computer – are equipped with four or more USB ports, which is typically sufficient for general use. Smaller models tend to have far fewer ports, forcing students to swap which accessories they have connected, instead of having them all connected at once. A USB hub solves this problem by acting like a powerbar for USB, turning one USB port into many. They come in lots of sizes -- we’ve even seen one that has a mind-blowing 28 ports! If your laptop has a USB-C port, you’re in luck, as this has the ability to provide power as well as data connections, letting you choose hubs that are both small, and still packed with plenty of ports.
Screen privacy protector
Whether it’s sitting on a plane or in a lecture hall, you shouldn’t have to worry about a nosy neighbor checking out the contents of your screen while you work. A screen protector for privacy won’t shield your screen from prying eyes completely, but it will make it way harder for someone to steal a sideways glance. These display accessories do reduce screen brightness a bit, but that’s a small price to pay for privacy.
Speaking of privacy, a lot of students overlook the fact that the free WiFi at their nearest coffee shop can be an invitation to hackers to steal valuable personal information. For a small monthly fee, VPN software acts as private tunnel to shield from malicious intruders, connecting your computer to the website you’re visiting with bank-level encryption. Free VPN software also exists, but it tends to be ad-supported and not as fast or reliable as the paid services.
Don’t forget, your laptop itself is often just as valuable to thieves as your personal data. If you have a habit of getting up and walking away from it in public places, don’t trust your dorm roommates, or if you just want an extra layer of protection from theft, a Kensington-style lock and cable could pay for itself many times over. Simply pass the cable around a permanent piece of furniture and snap the lock into the hole that’s already built into your laptop.
Out of these must-have accessories, we recommend:
Laptop Accessories for Specific Needs
Graphics tablet & pen
Some graphic design activities require a high degree of precision. For these students, a graphics tablet and digital pen provide the ultimate in creative control. These accessories plug into an available USB port, and let users interact with a huge palette of digital tools, from paintbrushes to calligraphic pens, in a natural and comfortable position for the hand. They come in a variety of form factors and prices, from under $100 for a basic set-up, to well over $1,000 for a tablet with its own built-in hi-res display so you can see the results of your work right under your hand.
External graphics card
Some students need more graphics processing power than their chosen machine can deliver on its own. Hardcore gamers, cryptocurrency aficionados, and digital animators will always want a bit more juice. If the laptop in question has a Thunderbolt 3 port, you can give yourself a graphics upgrade, without any tools. External graphics card enclosures let you connect any full-size desktop graphics card to your laptop with a single cable. Though not for the budget-conscious, these accessories can take a laptop from a capable portable platform to a graphics powerhouse.
USB number pad
If you’re rocking a smaller laptop – say, 13 inches or smaller – you probably don’t have a full-size keyboard with a dedicated number pad. That’s a drag, because if you’re taking accounting or literally any course that uses a spreadsheet program, these extra keys are essential for fast and easy data entry. External USB number pads are widely available, highly portable, and work with any laptop, big or small.
Port replicators are the Swiss Army Knives of the laptop world, taking a single USB-C or Thunderbolt port, and turning it into a variety of ports, including USB 3.0, HDMI, DisplayPort, and headphone/microphone. They’re the ideal desktop companion for someone who regularly needs to connect their laptop to a variety of accessories like external drives, secondary monitors, 3D printers, etc.
- ThinkPad Thunderbolt Dock
- Lenovo Active Pen for Miix, Yoga 900s, Yoga 720 and Flex 5
- ThinkPad USB 3.0 Secure Hard Drive - 500GB
As with so many things, you don’t need to break the bank when buying a computer accessory for your college student. Just focus on what their current computer can do, and look for an accessory that fills in a gap. As you’ve seen in our suggestions above, sometimes the smallest items carry the biggest value. Still not sure what to buy? Ask your student… they’ve probably already got a wish list of accessories to pick from.