Every geek worth their (Taco Bell) salt has a stash of tech gear they can’t live without. And it’s not just a pile of expensive stuff: old-school gaming consoles, a stack of hard drives, or a forgotten drawer of old smartphones. There are plenty of essentials that are worth packing into your toolbelt, fanny pack, or backpack—or at least having on hand for those few, critical moments when you need a particular item to accomplish a technological task.
I recently stumbled across a great Reddit thread of tech product recommendations—better still, because the focus of the thread was on amazing gear that you can get for under $50 (and in some cases, way under $50). I’ve gone through every upvoted recommendation to come up with a list of items worth considering for your own setup, and added a few of my own personal recommendations to the mix that didn’t seem to get any Reddit love.
Since the Redditors’ recommendations cover a wide range of items, I’ve also grouped them into categories to make it all easier for you to scan. And before I get to the list, I have one extra caveat: I’m not going to recommend specific products for you to purchase. I haven’t tested many of them and I don’t want you to buy something that turns out to be terrible. Instead, I’ll talk about the product’s type and why it’s important. (The photos are intended to serve as visual examples, not product recommendations.)
Tiny, annoying tech essentials
I have bags and bags of various cables—and even backups—because I know the minute I throw one away, I’m going to need it for some project the following week.
Everyone has different devices they need to connect to something else, I get that. Were I collecting cables (and I do!), I’d focus on these, at minimum:
- USB Type-A to mini-USB (USB 3 Type-A, preferably)
- USB Type A to micro-USB (USB 3 Type-A, preferably)
- USB Type A to USB-C (USB 3 Type-A, preferably; also, USB-C for most newer non-Apple devices)
- USB Type A to Lightning (USB 3 Type-A, preferably; also, only applicable to Apple fans)
- USB Type A to USB Type B (for devices like your old printer)
- USB-C to Lightning (for charging your iPhone from your Macbook)
- USB-C to USB-C cable (getting expensive!)
- Thunderbolt 3 cable (though probably not applicable to most people)
- Standard three-prong power cable
- DisplayPort to DisplayPort or Mini DisplayPort cable (those connecting monitors to desktops or laptops)
- HDMI cable (whatever’s cheapest that supports the latest HDMI standard)
- 3.5mm male to male audio cable (you never know!)
- Flat Ethernet cable (cat 5e, at least, and flat because it’s a lot easier to deal with and store than a regular one, especially at greater lengths)
What good is a great cable if your device doesn’t support it? Only you will know what awkward combination of cables and dongles you need for your devices. Some that might be worth picking up include:
- A USB Type A to USB-C dongle (or vice versa, depending on your setup)
- A Lightning to 3.5mm audio dongle (which I frequently lose)
- A USB Type A or USB-C to Ethernet dongle (if you want a sweet wired connection for your laptop)
You can also pick up a more badass hub containing a bunch of ports that you hook up to your laptop via USB (likely USB-C). Get one of those, and you’ll be set for just about anything you need to do.
Longer cables for your favorite device
Even if you already have most of the cables you need for the devices you charge or connect at home, consider upgrading the tiny little cables that came in your favorite device’s packaging.
You can probably find a cheap version of the same cable from Amazon (the AmazonBasics brand, that is) or Monoprice—and get something a lot longer than what you already have. That will give you the flexibility to, say, charge your smartphone in new and exciting locations that your shorter charging cable couldn’t reach.
“learning that dangling off the side of my bed wasn’t a requirement to using my phone while it was charging was a game changer” —Redditor starfishaf
A power bank
The first thing I think about packing whenever I’m going on vacation is my trusty portable smartphone battery—large enough to power my laptop and Nintendo Switch as well, in case of emergency. I never have to worry about finding a spot to charge up when I’m no trips, nor do I have to waste precious time plugging in at a local Starbucks, since I can just charge my phone in my pocket while I walk around.
The specific portable you get depends greatly on the devices you’re looking to charge—how much charging they’ll need, as well as how fast you want them to charge. For example, you don’t need to carry around a heavier, bulkier portable battery that can power a laptop if you’re just looking to stuff something in your pocket that can effectively double your smartphone’s battery life.
A number of Redditors called out a newer type of portable charger—newer to me, at least—that doubles as both a wall charger and a portable device. I love the concept, since it kills two nerdy birds with one stone. Plug it in, and you have a useful adapter for charging multiple devices at once. And while it’s doing that, it’s also charging itself. Unplug it from the wall, and you now have a handy charger you can carry around with you.
“I have a 25000 mah Powerbank with solar panels. Believe me, except for handing out free drugs there is no better way to make new friends at festivals than supplying everyone with phone charges for days” —Heiminator
Cheap backup earbuds (or headphones)
How many times have you lost earbuds? Broken (or forgotten) your favorite headphones? It never hurts to have a cheap backup pair that you can leave in your bag or backpack. Buy something inexpensive—no Beats—and you won’t feel bad if you lose or break those ones, too.
Secondary to this, a number of Redditors recommended picking up a cheap pair of Bluetooth headphones. No wire; no fuss.
Wall outlets with USB charging ports
Instead of picking up some kind of multi-port adapter that you plug into an outlet, why not replace your wall outlet with one that comes with built-in USB ports? While you won’t want to use these for, say, your energy-sucking laptop, they’re a great option for your smartphone or tablet. Plus, you’ll still be able to use the actual power outlets, too.
“We install them in offices and breakout areas and they are fantastic. I have no idea why they aren’t standard in the residential market” —woobboomooboo
An LED headlamp
Flashlights are old school. And while the “flashlight” built into your smartphone is incredibly convenient, it can still be a pain in the butt to hold that and a tool while you’re fixing something—or whatever it is you might need some extra light to see. Pick up an inexpensive LED headlamp, and you’ll be set. Since it’s hands-free, it’ll be as convenient as it is bright.
A magnetic screwdriver
This is my addition, so I’ll be brief. Once you’ve witness the power of a magnetic screwdriver, which holds your screw in place while you position it over whatever it is you’re working on, you’ll never go back.
Bonus points if you find a magnetic screwdriver that’s also one of those crazy six-heads-in-one kinds of setups, which gives you lots of flexibility when you’re working on something.
Bulkier (or more expensive) gear for your geek den
A great power strip or surge protector
Surge protectors won’t protect your electronics against a lightning strike, but they can help keep your electronics safe from less-intense power fluctuations that can still harm your gear.
And should a giant storm roll into your area, it’s a lot easier to pull a single surge protector (or power strip) out of the wall—which you’ll want to do, in case lightning does strike—than have to unplug and plug in a bunch of separate devices.
“Surge protectors are a good idea, don’t get me wrong, but its also important to consider that they absolutely do not protect you from an actual direct lightning strike, they only protect against mild surges.If you have your yard, a tree near your power lines, or the power lines them selves get hit by lightening, it will still kill everything. Also consider that the lightning can also hit the internet and phone lines, killing everything plugged into them. Just make sure you have insurance because that is really the best way to cover yourself in that event.” —LabMember0003
If you’re still using an older mechanical hard drive in your laptop, desktop, or gaming console… don’t. The speed boost you’ll get from switching to an SSD is noticeable and worth every penny, especially if you get a smaller-capacity drive that doesn’t cost very much. To really get your money’s worth, spend some time at Storage Review to make sure you’re getting the speediest SSD for your investment.
Motion-Sensing Light Switches
I’m a sucker for automation. Were it up to me, I’d wire every room in the house with smart plugs and smart lights, so I could control various “sets” of devices via a voice command or smartphone tap.
If that sounds a bit much, you can at least automate your home or apartment a little bit by replacing your regular light switches with motion-sensing light switches. This spares you the minor annoyance of having to turn the lights on when you enter a room, and ensures you won’t accidentally leave anything on when you leave the house—unless you have a pet, of course.
A decent desktop microphone (or headset/mic combination)
Whether you’re a gamer, an aspiring podcaster, or you just like chatting with people around the web, it’s time to upgrade your earbuds—or that crappy business-themed over-one-ear microphone you’ve been using for years. Get a good, inexpensive desktop microphone, or a new headset+mic all-in-one combination, and your friends and guildmates will be thrilled that they can finally understand half of what you’re saying.
A Chromecast (or comparable stick-sized streaming device)
If you have an older, crappy TV—but can get an HDMI streaming stick working with it—you’ve suddenly turned an antiquated artifact into a smart TV. The same is true if your “smart TV” is starting to show its age a bit, and its interface is clunky or otherwise no longer being updated by your manufacturer. One Chromecast later (or Roku, or Nvidia Shield, or Apple TV, or whatever), and it’ll feel like a brand-new device.
USB jump starter
If you want to get a regular jump starter for your car—and can find it for under $50—great! However, one of those big-as-a-toolkit devices are a bit bulky to lug around, even if you stuff it in the trunk and never think about it until you actually need it. Instead, try going for a handheld jump starter that can charge via USB and doubles as a portable power bank for your other USB devices. Not only will you have an extra battery that you can carry around on a trip (or use in case of emergency), but you also won’t have to deal with finding another car and connecting up jumper cables ever again.
A dashboard camera
Why would you ever to have a camera recording every single minute you spend driving around? How boring. At least, that’s what you’ll probably think until someone sideswipes you and lies to the police, claiming you were at fault (or share the blame). A small investment in an always-on dashboard camera could save you hundreds, if not thousands—if you’re a safe driver, that is.
An OBD II device
A what? If you’re not that into cars, you probably don’t know that your car—and all cars build after 1996—have an on-board diagnostic system. That’s the “OBD” bit. Plug one into your car’s OBD II port, like so:
You’ll then be able to use a smartphone app to see what your car’s many sensors are trying to tell you. For example, you’ll be able to get a little more information about why your car’s “Check Engine” light popped on, and you might even be able to get a bunch of detail about your vehicle in the event of an accident (especially useful if that information helps to show that you weren’t at fault). OBD II devices that are wired will probably cost less than those that are wireless, but they’re probably more for diagnostics than tracking your car’s status—or where you’ve been.
Miscellaneous home stuff
An immersion blender
Yes, there are plenty of immersion blenders that cost a bit more than $50. If you’re a fledgling chef that just needs a quick and easy way to refine solid things into a fine paste—or what-have-you—then getting something that you can hold in your hand and twirl around a pot is a great kitchen upgrade. A conventional blender will also work, but it might be a bit more firepower than what you need, and cleanup isn’t nearly as easy.
A waterproof Bluetooth speaker
If you’re not into smart speakers, but you want something that you can carry along with you and plop down wherever you happen to be working—something that has better sound quality than your smartphone’s speakers, that is—consider investing in a portable (and waterproof) Bluetooth speaker.
The waterproof part is great if you’re planning on taking your speaker into the shower with you (or to the beach). If you just need something to carry around while you cook, fold clothes, or work outside, you can probably get away with a portable speaker that isn’t waterproof, but you better be getting a great deal for that trade-off.
A home security camera
Odds are good that your home or apartment will never get broken into, but you never know. And while a home security camera might not be enough to stop a theft, it’s possible that you’ll get enough evidence to help the police catch whoever stole your stuff. Beyond that, there are plenty of other good reasons to own a security camera. Maybe you don’t trust your roommates (or the friends they bring over). Perhaps you’re looking to create Instagram videos for all the silly things your pets do during the day. You might just want the peace of mind that everything is in its perfect place when you’re on vacation—and that nothing is leaking while you’re away, of course.
When camera-hunting, try to find one that can do at least 1080p resolution, take images during the day and night, and can continuously record to an SD card (rather than a cloud service that you’ll probably have to pay for). Motion detection is also a plus, as well as the ability to speak through the camera if you need to give whatever you’re viewing some instructions (or in the case of your pet, a gentle scolding).