Editor’s note: This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter, a buyer’s guide to the best technology. This is a condensed version of several Wirecutter guides; you can find links to the full guides in the discussions below.
We go to conferences to meet people, learn things, and maybe set up some deals. But often we end up meeting sore muscles in our shoulders that we didn’t know existed, learning what dehydration feels like, and making compromises with our inboxes about when we might get back to all those emails — if ever.
We at The Wirecutter know how conferences go, since we’ve been to a lot of them. We’ve drawn on our own experiences hustling from room 104A to 305B, lugging an entire day’s worth of stuff on our shoulders to pick out this collection of best-in-class gear and supplies to help you (and ourselves) survive long battles with weak signals, minimal outlets, and other people in similar situations.
The Dell XPS 13 (non-touch) is the best Windows ultrabook for most tech-conference attendees. Photo: Kimber Streams
Ask anyone who has been to CES 10 or 20 times—when it comes to the light-enough laptop you’re lugging around for hours on end while trying to cover Press Day, a pound or two makes a big difference. For the best battery life and performance inside a light and well-made Windows ultrabook, we like the Dell XPS 13. If that’s a bit too much cash, the Asus ZenBook UX305UA provides most of the same benefits.
Normally we’d first recommend the 13-inch MacBook Air to anyone and everyone needing a laptop, but the timing is terrible right now, as the whole MacBook line is overdue for updates. If you specifically need OS X (soon to be macOS) for work, try to wait until that update happens; it’s expected in the next month or so. If you need a new Mac right now, check out our “Which MacBook Should I Buy” guide.
Carry your own Wi-Fi around with the Verizon Jetpack. Photo: Rob Pegoraro
Conference Wi-Fi is slowly getting a little better, thanks to newer technologies. And most carriers offer some kind of tethering option, so your phone can lend its Internet connection to your laptop in a pinch. But if you know you’ll need regular, solid, somewhat speedy Web access in a crowded space, you’ll want the Verizon Jetpack 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot AC791L.
Verizon’s LTE service is the best, but the hotspot itself is pretty handy, too, with 20 hours of battery life and the ability to charge your phone in a pinch. AT&T customers should check out the Netgear AT&T Unite Pro.
Portable AC power supply
If you need to power your laptop on the go, having a battery with an AC-power outlet like the ChargeTech can reduce outlet anxiety. Photo: Michael Hession
It’s just a fact of conference life: There are never enough plugs. Free yourself from the desperate search entirely with a ChargeTech Portable Power Outlet. It’s essentially a big ol’ portable battery with a wall plug, but it’s the best one so far in balancing size, capacity, and price.
Portable surge protector and USB wall charger
Get all of your stuff charged in one sitting—or share and make new friends—with our favorite USB wall charger, which offers four ports in a compact package. Photo: Michael Hession
It’s not easy to feel good about humanity at a tech conference. But you can make a few people smile if you turn one lonely AC port into four, or even six, fast-charging USB ports with a multiport charger like the Anker 40W PowerPort 4. And you can get three AC ports, no matter how cramped the socket, with our favorite travel surge protector, the Accell Home or Away. Even if you don’t get to be the hero, at least your hotel room will be well-outfitted.
USB battery pack
The Bolt is a bit smaller and a bit thicker than most smartphones—a good size to carry around all day. Photo: Michael Hession
Lots of factors conspire to kill your smartphone battery level at a conference. Bad cell reception inside a huge concrete bunker is one big factor. Boring talks and panels that leave you endlessly scrolling are another. Using GPS navigation to get to that restaurant you heard about? Yep, that too. Bring one of the four sizes of USB battery pack we recommend, such as the soap-bar-sized Jackery Bolt, and you can top off your phone more quickly and reliably than the folks who bought their packs at the airport.
iPhone 5 and 6 cases
Incipio’s NGP for iPhone 6 and 6s fully protects without being bulky, letting you stuff your pockets with business cards and thumb drives instead. Photo: Nick Guy
Whatever version of the iPhone has a special place in your hand, you don’t want it to be any bulkier than it needs to be. You also don’t want it to break while you’re away from home. Most cases are just okay, but a few are great.
We found that Incipio’s NGP case (for 6/6s or 6 Plus/6s Plus, and for 5, 5s, and iPhone SE) hits that midpoint of bulk and all-sides protection best. Of course, if you’re reading this article here, you probably know the iPhone 7 was just announced and thanks to its new camera cutout, iPhone 6/6s cases won’t fit. But if you’re not in a rush to upgrade, for less than $20, you can still ensure that your tried-and-true iPhone remains crack-free until it’s trade-in time.
Micro-USB and Lightning cables
A sturdy build is part of what makes Anker’s PowerLine cable particularly appealing, especially in a rough-and-tumble environment. Photo: Michael Hession
What sets apart a good Micro-USB or Lightning cable from the hundreds of others you can buy anywhere? Durability, for one thing. Anker’s PowerLine cables, both Android-friendly Micro-USB and Apple-oriented Lightning, are reinforced with Kevlar fiber and PVC strain-relief collars, and they feel stronger and better than any other cable we’ve tested. The company offers an 18-month warranty and has a solid reputation for hardware design and customer service.
The Tile can help you find a lost item within 150 meters, and it’ll do so even more easily with dozens of connected Tile owners around. Photo: Nick Guy
A Bluetooth-based tracker is pretty handy—wave your phone somewhere within 150 meters of your keys or bag or whatever you can’t stand to lose, and it’ll make a noise you can track. In the confusion of a conference, our favorite tracker, the Tile, becomes nearly essential.
With its Community Find feature, if you should, say, suddenly realize you’re without your backpack, you can mark it as lost, and Tile will quietly use the Bluetooth signals of everybody else who has a Tile (and in the world of tech conferences, that’s sure to be more than a few) to find your item. You can send that person an anonymous thanks, and the interconnected world will feel a little nicer.
Water bottle and travel mug
Our favorite water bottle, the 27-ounce Klean Kanteen Classic with Loop Cap, will keep you hydrated throughout the day. Photo: Seamus Bellamy
We’ve spent more than 70 hours researching and testing water bottles made of all kinds of materials over three years, testing 54 models for leaks, weird smells, dishwasher safety, and other features. To save money on rip-off conference water, and to keep yourself hydrated during your coffee-fueled, sleep-deprived days spent breathing recycled hotel and conference center air, grab a Klean Kanteen Classic.
If, on the other hand, your need to keep your good coffee and tea warm so you can avoid kiosk sludge, grab our favorite travel mug, the Zojirushi New Stainless Steel Mug. Both items deserve a place in your bag.
Laptop backpack and briefcase
The InCase Icon on our tester’s back. It’ll carry all of your conference needs in style and comfort. Photo: Tim Barribeau
Unless you need to project an aura of being a Professional in a Serious Field demanding Trust and Stature™, a backpack is much, much better than a briefcase for distributing your gear’s weight and preventing shoulder or arm pain.
Our favorite business-casual laptop backpack, the Incase Icon Pack, can fit a ridiculous amount―big loose stuff, a home office’s worth of little gadgets in pockets, quick-access things in the front, and more. If you do need the spiff and style of a briefcase, we think the Timbuk2 Hudson Laptop Briefcase 2015 is the best computer-friendly briefcase for most people.
Notebook, pen, and pencil
You can’t beat the portability and practicality of a pocket notebook, and writing down new information should help you remember it better. Photo: Nina Johnson
The motto for notebook maker Field Notes is “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.” Writing things down locks in ideas and makes you consider them more. For a few notes and quotes taken here and there, we recommend Field Notes three-packs in our travel guide.
If you’re a serious note-taker, consider a spiral-bound or hardcover notebook from Black n’ Red. All of those notebooks have paper with minimal to no bleed-through, and their bindings are tough enough to survive a ride in your backpack or briefcase. As for what to write with, although you can find plenty of free pens at conferences, you’ll feel better writing with a quality pen or a mechanical pencil.
Shaking hands and trading business cards? Yeah, that’s a germ experience. But don’t forget the other micro-bio-nightmares. You have escalator and stair railings, taxicabs and hotel shuttles, bins full of snacks (if you’re lucky), the handles on coffee creamer carafes, cramped meeting rooms in which people sneeze, and your phone screen, which you keep touching all day lo
ng. Fill one of your bag pockets with a bottle of Purell.
It performs about equally to our actual favorite hand sanitizer (Method Sweet Water), but it’s much easier to find. Alcohol-free sanitizers are around, too, but the CDC doesn’t recommend them, and their ingredients can sometimes cause reactions.
The links in these guides contain affiliate codes. These picks may have been updated. To see the current recommendations, please read Wirecutter’s guides.