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Last minute Back to School tech guide - laptops, tablets, and more
Winter is coming.
There is no surer sign of this, than the fact that the roads to Oxford are once again at a standstill between the hours of 8-9am and the streets are once again filled with long-haired teens in tweed.
It’s alright for me: I work from home. But for parents it means the ‘school run’ is back with a vengeance. And for kids, the news is even bleaker. Days spent playing Pokemon Go (or whatever kids do these days) are over and it’s back to the classrooms. And the homework. And the swirlies.
For college students, it’s a return to pretending to work, binge drinking and Game of Thrones. Poor guys.
But what can make all this a little bit easier is the right tech bag. With the right gadgets, kids and students alike can work smarter, stay more organized and perhaps even enjoy a little gaming in between lessons/lectures. They’ll be the envy of their classmates! Except they won’t be, because giving a kid a $3,000 gaming laptop is not a good idea and students can’t generally afford anything you would consider ‘desirable’. They get ‘sensible’ stuff and ‘budget’ stuff instead. For the most part.
We already brought you a general back school tech guide, but now we’re going to dive in even further a take a last minute look at the tech you need when you go back to school.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t be slick, powerful and useful. Here is some of the best ‘back to school tech’ for fall 2017, to help you survive the next academic year with style.
A laptop of some description can go an awfully long way to helping kids work better and smarter. More and more laptops are making their way into the classroom and they’re pretty much essential in colleges these days.
What a student looks for in a notebook is a little different from what an office worker or household might need. Students need laptops that are:
- Not too expensive (in case it gets lost or damaged)
- Strong on battery life
- Unlikely to be distracting
And with that in mind, here are some top picks.
Winner: Acer Chromebook R11
That list of criteria is precisely what makes any Chromebook a strong choice. Running Chrome OS means that serious gaming isn’t really an option, which is a good thing. What Chrome OS gets you instead is a long battery life, a low price point and a lot of functionality: especially now that Chrome OS can run Android apps!
What Chrome OS gets you instead is a long battery life, a low price point and a lot of functionality: especially now that Chrome OS can run Android apps
The R11 is a particularly good choice thanks to a sub $300 price point, 8-hour battery life, touch screen and a hinge that can fold back on itself. That means it can double as a tablet and makes it ideal for interacting with Android apps. Keep in mind that the Acer Chromebook 15 is just around the corner though, which for $399 will get you a 12 hour battery life and some beefier specs.
Runner up: Samsung Chromebook Pro
A more premium but also more expensive alternative to the Acer’s Chromebook offerings. The Samsung Chromebook Pro has a great build quality, touchscreen and rotating display. It has a brilliant screen and the built-in pen has a number of useful applications for note-taking etc. The specs are good and it will let you download Google Docs for using offline when a WiFi connection isn’t available. If you have the extra cash, then these features are worthy of the investment.
Runner up: Surface Laptop
Perhaps I’m biased as an Android writer, but the Surface Laptop and Mabook Pro lose points thanks to their price points which are just too high for most students to afford on their paltry loans and certainly too high to be entrusted to schoolkids. For those that have the money though, the light weight, premium build and hefty battery life of the new Surface Laptop are perfect for taking into college and you don’t have to live the dongle life to get them. That’s precisely the crowd Microsoft is aiming at too with the new version of windows, ‘Windows 10 S’. The idea behind this is to limit the apps that can be installed to Windows Store apps only, thereby preventing those pesky kids from installing Steam, or filling their computers with Malware. Your parents didn’t buy you that shiny new computer so you could play The Witcher 3, darn it!
Of course older students will just upgrade to full Windows 10 (which is free for now), leaving them with one of the most slickly designed laptops on the market. If they can afford it.
Runner up: The GPD Pocket
One more runner up and my favorite little device of 2017: the GPD Pocket. This product marks a return for the UMPC (Ultra Mobile PC) as a full Windows 10 computer that can fit in your pocket. It has an alleged 8-hour battery life (it doesn’t quite live up to that in practice), an atom processor, 128GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. You can use this for word processing (the keyboard is surprisingly serviceable), photo editing (yes, PhotoShop runs just fine) and even a little light gaming. And it fits. In. Your. Pocket.
As a quick option for taking notes or working on the move, it definitely has some interesting use cases and might just be perfect for bringing to lectures.
A tablet can be a useful tool for students too, providing a convenient way to read textbooks, surf the web and perhaps take notes. For college students, having a reliable Netflix machine is also a must. Add a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse and any Android tablet can become a potential replacement for a full PC – as we’ll see.
Winner: HUAWEI MediaPad M3
This is a more affordable Android tablet that doesn’t require many compromises. It’s not the snappiest option out there, but it’s more than capable of handling the majority of tasks a student is likely to throw at it. The 8.4” display is also perfectly portable while still offering decent real-estate for working or watching media. It has an impressive 5,100mAh battery and expandable storage up to 256GB via microSD. It should last the day offer all the Android features you love from your phone on a slightly larger display.
Runner up: Pixel C
The Pixel C is the Android equivalent of an iPad Pro. In other words, it’s a tablet at heart that is trying to compete with the likes of the Surface line of devices.
The Pixel C has a beautiful design, a comfortable keyboard accessory, top notch 10.2inch screen and great performance
It can’t. Not quite. And it misses some important functionality like a home button on the keyboard. It’s also a little bit overpriced.
But on the other hand, the Pixel C has a beautiful design, a comfortable keyboard accessory, top notch 10.2inch screen and great performance. I’m not convinced it can replace a laptop but it’s a useful Word machine that is a pleasure to use. It’s also not quite on par with a Surface or even an iPad Pro in terms of what it can do, but it’s significantly cheaper than either of those, making it a better alternative for a lot of students.
Runner up: Surface Pro 2017
For those that do have the money, the Surface Pro 2017 is truly a tablet that can replace your laptop. Or a laptop that can replace your tablet. Not for kids, but a great pick for freshmen looking for an investment to last the next few years.
The Surface Pro 2017 runs full Windows 10, comes with a seventh gen processor of your choice and is backed up by 4-16GB of RAM. The form factor means it can be used for watching YouTube in bed, typing up notes in lectures or even sketching if you’re an art student. If you want something cheaper, then the Surface Pro 4 or even 3 are still good choices and are now available at significantly discounted prices.
Runner up: Kindle Fire HD 8
At the other end of the price/performance spectrum is the Fire HD 8. This comes with Alexa built in, which is a very nice touch and good for parties when combined with a Spotify account and Bluetooth speakers. It offers a good reading experience for downloading textbooks to enjoy on the go and if you’re a Prime user then you’ll be able to access a lot of media for free and even access cloud backup. The low price is appealing for students of all ages, while the bright colors make it stand out easily. The price is the best thing about it though and it claims to be twice as durable as the iPad mini too! Fire OS does limit your options to some extent and it’s not the fastest for gaming, but if you know what you’re getting, there is an awful lot to like here.
Power banks and accessories
Being caught without power is bad news at the best of times. And this problem is especially pertinent for students, whether it’s a school kid who can’t use their phone to let Mum know they’re in detention, or it’s a college student whose laptop is running low when they have no other way to take notes. I would have greatly appreciated a decent back-up power supply when I was at Uni, particularly for weekend-long climbing trips in the peak district!
Either way, a power pack is just one of several essential accessories when it comes to back-to-school tech. Here are some top picks for your consideration…
Anker PowerCore 20100
I looked around for several power bricks recently and in terms of value for money, found the Anker PowerCore 20100 to be among the best. It offers a 4.8A from a 20,000mAh battery and is surprisingly portable for those specs. It doesn’t need turning on – just plug it in and go! It can charge an iPhone 7 over six times and it works with the new MacBook Pro and Nintendo Switch. It’s just a shame there’s no pass-through charging. But you can’t have everything, I guess!
RAVPower FileHub Plus
This is a smart little ‘jack of all trades’ that has a lot of uses for those heading back to the world of education. Not only is it a 6,000mAh battery pack, but it also offers a backup solution as an SD Card Reader, can double as a wireless router (turning a wired network into a wireless one) and lets you share media wirelessly.
The RAVPower FileHub - a smart little ‘jack of all trades’ that has a lot of uses for those heading back to the world of education.
AGS Mini 2600mAh Lipstick-Sized Power Bank
While the PowerCore 20100 will live in your shoulder bag and offer hours of charges, it’s also a little large for fitting in a pocket. The problem with those ‘super portable’ power banks though is that I find they can be a little unreliable at times. That’s why I’m recommending this option from AGS: because I’ve actually used it (a friend’s bailed me out multiple times) and I know it’s good enough to give that little top-up to get you through the night. The small form factor is not only convenient but it’s also somewhat stylish. So there’s that.
The smartpen is an idea with a lot of potential that hasn’t quite taken off just yet, I feel. The Livescribe 3 is currently the best option though and is certainly good enough to have some usefulness for students. The pen lets you write as normal (as you would hope) but can also store digital copies of your notes and beam them over to your iOS or Android device. There it can use OCR (optical character recognition) to make your documents searchable and editable. A nice alternative to a laptop, for those still partial to analogue solutions!
The Microsoft Folding Keyboard
This is a fairly old piece of tech now, but it’s something I still use all the time and that I definitely feel could have some handy uses for the back to school crowd.
As the name suggests, this is a folding keyboard that can be paired with any laptop, smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth. When folded, it’s small enough to fit into a pocket with ease and when you flatten it out on a table (unfortunately, it won’t work on your lap), it provides a surprisingly comfortable typing experience. The battery is rechargeable via microUSB and seems to last forever. It can pair with two devices at once then switch between them easily and it’s even waterproof – meaning you can use it in the student bar and not worry about spilling beer on it.
Students get to enjoy being the ‘eccentric academic’ types for a few years and normally embrace that whole-heartedly, which can lead to more than a few lost keys, notes and phones. Also they are drunk all the time, which leads to lost wallets, IDs and phones. Tile Mate puts an end to this as a Bluetooth tracker that can be attached to practically anything. It’s also ideal for kids returning to school, who are still dribbling their way through classes and wantonly leaving lunchboxes and jumpers around the premises.
Dorm room tech
Finally, college students may appreciate a little tech to help pimp their dorm rooms. This can make their home-away-from home that little bit more comfortable, facilitate social gatherings and put Mum’s mind at rest.
Any Echo device will be a fun addition to a Dorm Room. Whether you want to add notes to a to-do list, play music from your Spotify library or ask who the 3rd president of the United States is (Thomas Jefferson), Alexa is a digital assistant who has your back.
The Amazon Show takes things to the next level though, by giving you a screen for bringing up recipes, watching videos or voice chatting. Mums will love it the most though, because it gives them the ability to ‘drop in’ on their kids and make sure they’re okay at any point and without warning. Students will love it, because they can turn that feature off. Unfortunately, these aren’t available in the UK just yet.
College isn’t just about learning, it’s also about having a good time and delaying being an adult for a few more years. The Nintendo Switch is the perfect tool for parties with games like 1, 2 Switch, Splatoon 2 and of course Mario Kart being ideal for get-togethers. It’s affordable for what it is and best of all, it can be enjoyed without a screen when you’re on the train. For younger students, the Switch is also the most ‘family friendly’ of the home consoles in terms of its library and it’s ideal for playing on the bus.
SWAN Vintage Teasmade
If there’s one thing that I relied on during my student years, it was my teasmade. This would wake me up with a cup of tea every morning to help make sure I got to lectures. And combined with my housemate Becka, who would usually be knocking on my door to remind me to get up while it blared in my ear, it just about did the trick. Usually.
Until it went mad one morning that is and woke me in a shower of boiling water. But I now have the SWAN and it’s far more reliable and recommended!
Hopefully some of these devices help make the transition back to school/college life that little bit easier on parents, kids and teens alike. I wish that some of this existed when I was still sitting through lectures!
Can you think of anything we missed? What’s your essential back to school tech?