Having only just recovered from the horror that was winter, 2013-2014, I can’t believe I’m saying this: It’s time to start thinking about fall. Specifically, about school, and the gear that goes with it. For many kids that means a new laptop.
My son, for example, is about to start middle school, and he’s eligible for the district’s “laptop program,” which integrates technology into the curriculum. Thankfully, the school no longer requires a Windows laptop and Microsoft Office; the requirements now allow for just about any device with a screen and keyboard. And that begs the question: What’s the best choice for students: laptop, tablet, or Chromebook?
That same question applies whether you’re catering to a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) program like my son’s school’s or just looking to outfit a high-school or college student with a tool for typing papers. (They still do that, right?) Obviously if the school has some specific requirements, you’ll have to cater to them, but these days you have a lot of freedom of choice.
Therefore, let’s run down the various pros and cons of the three major categories:
A Chromebook runs Google’s Chrome operating system, meaning you don’t have to worry about viruses, Blue Screens of Death, and other familiar Windows hassles. They boot quickly and run smoothly even on low-power hardware — which helps explain why they cost less than a traditional laptop.
So is a Chromebook a good choice for students? It can be, as smaller people have an easier time working with smaller machines (many Chromebooks have 11.6-inch screens and correspondingly cramped keyboards). They’re reasonably thin and light, and battery life is usually at least as good as a laptop’s.
What’s more, I’m increasingly seeing deals on refurbished models. Last month, for example, Woot had a 14-inch HP Chromebook for around $200. And Acer’s eBay outlet currently offers the popular C720-2802 model for $199.99, a savings of $30. (In that case, though, it’s probably worth spending the extra $30 to get a full one-year warranty instead of just 90 days.)
Bottom line: Chromebooks are cheap, and Chromebooks are good — provided your student doesn’t need to run Windows software.
No Windows hassles
Fast and easy to use
Lots of free apps, including Google Docs
Not compatible with Windows software
Many models have small screens and cramped keyboards
Not a lot of models to choose from
It’s hard to argue with the good old laptop, which offers unparalleled versatility, a roomy screen and keyboard, lots of storage, and, for many kids, familiarity.
But be prepared to open your wallet a little further–or maybe a lot. Any Apple MacBook will cost you at least $800, and many models run well into four digits. A Windows-based Ultrabook starts in the same price range. Thankfully, you can also get an entry-level Windows laptop for as little as $300, with decently equipped models available for $500-600.
Should you opt for a touchscreen? Windows 8 supports it, but it’s hardly necessary for a student–and it will add cost and weight to the system. And speaking of weight, unless you do spend extra on an ultra-light model, a laptop will typically add 5-6 pounds to your kid’s backpack. That’s a lot.
Most models are on the heavy side
Higher-end laptops can be pricey
Windows is susceptible to viruses and other maladies
If you pair it with a keyboard, sure. Indeed, any tablet with a keyboard case or clip-on keyboard would make for a great laptop substitute: thin, light, great battery life, and so on.
But there are a few potential obstacles, like if the school requires specific software that has no app equivalent. Also, most “large” tablets (like the iPad Air and Google Nexus 10) have comparatively small screens, which can prove limiting for certain kinds of work. Given what you’d pay to deck out something like an iPad Air ($500 minimum) with a keyboard case ($70-150), you might be better off with a full-blown MacBook.
The thinnest, lightest option
Instant on, instant standby
Most models have terrific battery life
Few tablets come with keyboards
Software compatibility could be an issue
What kind of mobile device will be accompanying your kid to school this year? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!
Veteran technology writer Rick Broida is the author of numerous books, blogs, and features. He lends his money-saving expertise to CNET and Savings.com, and also writes for PC World and Wired.