Back to School Electronics

Every year, I get a question or two about the best laptop (or other technology) that I’d recommend for people to send with their students. This year, I include myself in that group – it was time for a technology refresh for the boy. The iPad Air he’s been using the last four years has served him quite well and is still going strong, but it’s time for something a little better.

I know he’ll need something he can use for browsing, writing a paper, maybe assembling a presentation. I also know he’ll have Office 365 available to him at school. What I didn’t know was what other interests does he have that are facilitated by one technology or another. I included him in the discussions, and all options (all makes, all models) were on the table.

That said, here’s the decision process I went through – and I’ll extend it to include the people with college-bound kids (because it’s essentially the same decision tree). If you want to jump straight to the recommended shopping links, click here. Otherwise, here we go – and it’s pretty close to the order that we we used.

Consideration 1: Cost

It’s usually the first things that comes up – the budget. Let’s table that, because I’m more about overall fit and function, versus the overall cost. This is a 3-4 year decision (barring unforeseen circumstances), so in the grand scheme, a few hundred dollars really isn’t as big a factor to me. Can’t speak for everyone on that, just me.

Consideration 2: Screen Size

We first thought about a 15″ solution – until the boy looked at it and said “that’s too big to carry around”. He’ll be carrying his device most of the time, so it’s a factor in his decisions. He was pretty firmly in the camp of smaller screen – so that left us with anywhere from 11″ to 14″ devices.

Consideration 3: Battery

Most devices tout 6-7 hours + of battery life. My experience with battery life is that it depends on what you’re doing. If you’re just working on a paper, then life is extended. Play/stream a lot of video, and you will crush the battery. One thing that’s not as subjective is that the bigger the screen, the more power it requires, so the batteries get bigger. Bigger batteries = more weight.

Consideration 4: Storage

If you can, get something with a solid state drive (SSD). They’re faster, and consume less power. Less power spent on the drive means more battery for the screen (or a longer lasting battery). For most people, 256GB is plenty, and many can get away with as little as 128GB (no less than that). That depends on what’s being stored – photos and video take a lot of space, documents very little space. Having readily available cloud storage might also help with reducing the need for a lot of on-device storage.

Consideration 5: Tablet-like things

Among the nicer aspects of “tablet life” are how fast they wake up, battery life, and how portable they are. The boy has gotten used to that, and frankly I’m spoiled on it myself with my phone. We talked to a number of people who have kids in high school, asking for feedback on how they use technology at school and what they’d suggest. One of the frequent comments was they used an iPad in the classroom (because it fires up quickly), and a laptop or other computer at home. It’s no secret that mobility in computing is a huge deal, and will be even more so for those a lot younger than me.

We looked at a number of 2-in-1 solutions (combination laptop/tablet, usually with a screen that either detaches or just flips all the way over to function as a tablet). They are all Windows 10 machines (Apple doesn’t offer a solution like that), and they’re really nice solutions. Lenovo, Dell and Asus all make a very nice 2-in-1. The Microsoft Surface Book is also excellent. There are many price points between them, which means there are options.

In the case of Apple, they have MacBooks and iPads. One way to create a hybrid is to add a Bluetooth keyboard to the iPad; in the case of the iPad Pro (which is absolutely laptop-grade hardware), it becomes a very interesting solution.

Consideration 6: Operating System/Ecosystem

This is usually where the “holy war” starts – the Mac/iOS versus Windows argument. In all honesty (because I use both), it’s hard to go wrong with either one. There’s good and not-so-good to each, so here’s the quick rundown (at least in my eyes).

  • Apple is a captive ecosystem – there’s one hardware vendor, and that vendor doesn’t haggle on price.
  • Apple runs everything from iCloud – and that includes the other i-things a person might own. If you are a person that likes for everything to play nice together, this becomes a compelling argument. If you’re in the mode of still having to manage a device (read: device tracking/location and throttles on things like YouTube for your still-learning-how-to-balance-screen-time teens), it’s really helpful.
  • Windows machine manufacturers offer a lot of options in terms of hardware, so there’s a much broader range of price points and options.
  • Add-on devices (things like webcams, and other third-party hardware) tend to be more plentiful on the Windows side.
  • If you’re an Office 365 user, make no mistake that the applications on the desktop play much nicer in Windows (though it’s improving in MacOS and iOS).

What we chose (and why)

We went the route of iPad Pro 11, and attached a keyboard/folio cover.

  • Size and portability became the driving factor in our decision.
  • He’s got an interest in working with photos and video, something he’s already tinkering with on his iPad. For those kinds of activities, the Apple platform is a better place to be.
  • We use the Family Sharing tools in iCloud, which also gives me the ability to easily apply management controls. I can use Find My iPhone to locate it, lock it down if necessary, share apps and content, back it up passively with no intervention, and govern screen time – at no additional cost.
  • We know we needed a way to encase it to make it a little tougher, so adding a keyboard that doubled as a protective case (we went with this item from Logitech) would get us to more of the “laptop experience”.
  • It should last him another four years, and is a supported configuration at school.
  • We have another Windows machine at home he can use, if needed.

The decision tree is the same, regardless of what platform you choose. Here are a few hardware options I’d feel good about recommending.

For Windows:

  • Windows 10 Operating System.
  • Window 10 Home (vs Professional) should be good enough – if you’re not sure what the differences are, look at this reference from Microsoft.
  • Nothing less than an Intel i5 processor.
  • Nothing less than 8GB of RAM, I’d go 16GB if at all possible.
  • Solid State Drive, minimum 128GB.

Manufacturers I’d recommend are Dell, Asus, Lenovo and also the Microsoft Surface and Surface Book. The Surface is much more of a tablet than it is a laptop (though it runs Windows 10), where the Surface Book is a laptop than can behave like a tablet if necessary.

The Microsoft solutions are on the higher end of the price range, with the Surface starting at $899, and the Surface Book at $1,149. I know, a little salty, but the hardware is very good.

For the others, I know that Best Buy is everywhere, so I did a quick search on the criteria I would use – this link should get you there. It came up with 39 results based on the bullets above.

Dell is running a pretty good back-to-school deal on an XPS 13 laptop – I mention this one because Dell offers more comprehensive support options at the time of purchase. Based on conversations with others, they do a good job with it (meaning this isn’t like the third party extended warranty kind of deal). For those far-flung students, it might not be a bad option.

For Mac:

  • MacBook Air – starts at $1,099
  • MacBook Pro – starts at $1,299
  • iPad Pro – starts at $799 for 64GB storage (but realistically $949 for 256 GB)
  • iPad Air – starts at $499 for 64GB storage (but realistically $649 for 256 GB)

Other places to check (if you’re so inclined) for recommendations:

  • The Wirecutter -here’s their Best Laptops rundown (updated 7/23/2019).
  • The Wirecutter also does a Back To School rundown that might be worth the peek.
  • If you’re a subscriber to Consumer Reports, they too have a recommended list. If you don’t have a subscription, here’s their top 10:
    • MacBook Pro 13
    • LG Gram 13
    • MacBook Air 13
    • Microsoft Surface Pro 6 (Core i7)
    • Samsung Notebook 9
    • HP Spectre 13
    • Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 (Core i7)
    • Microsoft Surface Pro 6 (Core i5)
    • Asus Zenbook
    • Microsoft Surface Laptop (Core i7)
    • (Coming in at #12 was the Microsoft Surface Book 2)

I hope this helps – feel free to comment here or on Facebook.