Our granddaughter is off to university this year and we will be buying her a laptop. We will discuss this with her, but some advice from you would be welcome.Mike and Joan
This is a common question every summer, so a broad reply might help a few people. There are lots of things to consider, including course requirements, the usage scenario (portability, ergonomics etc), the user’s previous experience, support and backup strategies and your budget.
In most cases, a laptop will be the best answer, but many students use more than one device. A full “educational IT” system could include a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop and a USB backup drive, plus a laptop riser or docking station with an external keyboard and mouse.
On course for uni
Ask your granddaughter to check with her university department to see what kind of software she will need, whether there are any special requirements for her course and whether student discounts are available. In many cases, any PC will do. However, some students need to run professional software from AutoCAD, Adobe, Microsoft and other suppliers, and some will need to run sophisticated modelling or statistical software.
Students on general courses might be able to get by with low-end hardware such as a tablet, a cheap Windows 10 laptop or even a Chromebook. Students on technology, engineering, programming and other courses may need a powerful PC with at least 8GB or 16GB of memory. This will obviously cost more.
Also, ask your granddaughter to seek advice from students who are currently doing the same course. She may even know girls who left her school last year, or the year before, who are now doing the same course at the same university.
What’s the use?
The most important questions are: where is your granddaughter going to work, and how much portability does she need?
There is generally a trade-off between screen size, weight, battery life and price.
If she is going to use her laptop in her room, she might be happy with a heavy laptop with a 15.6in or even a 17.3in screen. If she is going to carry it around all the time, she will want something small and light with good battery life. Today, this usually means a laptop or 2-in-1 with an 11.6in screen and a solid-state drive(SSD) instead of a traditional hard drive.
One strategy would be to buy a laptop or desktop PC to use in her room, and a small tablet or large smartphone for use on campus. There are plenty of portable keyboards that work well with tablets and smartphones. I use a Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard – a cheap deal from Amazon – but there are alternatives from Microsoft, Logitech, and many other suppliers.
Different people like to work in different ways, and your granddaughter may already know what will suit her, based on her sixth-form experience.
However, I still take handwritten notes during “lectures” (press conferences etc) because I find it more effective than using a laptop. Some academic research supports this approach. See: Students who use digital devices in class ‘perform worse in exams’.
What does she use now?
Since your granddaughter is old enough to go to university, she probably has at least a decade’s worth of experience with PCs, and perhaps half a decade’s experience of smartphones and tablets. She may well be a very proficient user. If so, you should buy something that supplements or improves on whatever she has now.
I usually recommend against switching away from a familiar system, because it sacrifices hard-earned experience. The transition may be painful, and often there are few real advantages, if any. All the main platforms – Windows, MacOS, Linux, Apple iOS, Android etc – have their fans and their detractors, but they all have tens or hundreds of millions of users. Some have more than a billion.
Most educational and business software runs on Microsoft Windows, and such software might be a course requirement. However, if your granddaughter is an Apple Macintosh user now, I’d recommend sticking to it. (Macs can a run Windows 10 conveniently, in addition to MacOS Sierra, and well using Parallels Desktop for Mac, albeit at extra cost – £64.99 for the one-time purchase.)
If your granddaughter already has a laptop, aim to double the specification. Try to buy something with twice the memory, more or faster storage (ie, an SSD), and a faster processor. You probably won’t be able to run any speed tests, but you can read reviews online. If in doubt, aim for a laptop with a recent (sixth or seventh generation) Intel Core i5, or at worst a Core i3-6100. See: How can I tell if a PC processor is any good?
This may be overkill in your granddaughter’s case, but it’s better to have too much power than too little.
Efficient businesses work out how much money they’ll save by buying faster PCs, because they know the value of wasted time (based on hourly rates and other employment costs, such as rent and rates). I’ve not seen anyone do the maths for students paying £9,000 a year plus subsistence costs for a 40-hour working week, but a decent laptop is a small part of the total cost of getting a degree. (Well, £1,000 is 2% of £50,000. On that basis, I’d spend at least £500.)
Purchase and support
Computers are great until they go wrong. I often suggest HP or Dell laptops because you can buy them online with three years of reasonably priced on-site service. Also, both companies sell professional quality business machines, and getting a university degree is a serious business nowadays. If buying a Mac, buy AppleCare and try to live close to an Apple Store.
Tier1 Online, which sells second-hand business class laptops such as IBM ThinkPads, often sells three-year warranties, but not with on-site service. I particularly like the X220 and Carbon X1 models.
Student computers can also get stolen, so insurance is another consideration.
Worst of all is the prospect of losing a term paper with a deadline looming. It’s essential to have backup copies. I often make multiple backups by saving to an online cloud drive (OneDrive, Google Drive, Dropbox etc), saving copies on USB thumb drives and external hard drives, and emailing myself unfinished articles. A long article may well be worth more than the laptop it’s written on.
My ideal student laptop
If I were going off to university this year, I’d like a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (from £635 to £1,890) with a keyboard cover and a pen, for making handwritten notes and annotating things on screen. The SP4 is a touchscreen 2-in-1 that works as both a laptop and a tablet. It’s much more robust than the average Windows laptop, but light enough to carry around.
College students can get Microsoft Office free, and the full OneNote may be the single most useful program you can get for educational use.
Back in my room, I’d plug the SP4 into a Microsoft docking station, or perhaps a Plugable UD-3900, with an external monitor, keyboard and mouse. Laptops are not good for sustained work. See: How can I use laptops and tablets without suffering from physical pains?
But there are lots of alternatives including the Dell XPS 13 and XPS 15, HP’s Spectre x360, the Asus Zenbook UX305 and Zenbook Flip UX360, some of the Lenovo Yoga laptops and almost all of Apple’s MacBooks. Cheaper options include the Acer Swift 3, and several models from the HP Pavilion and Lenovo Ideapad ranges.
However, for many courses, almost any laptop with 4GB of memory and an Intel Core processor would be fine.
Have you got another question for Jack? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com