Updated August 2021
As the new college year begins, the role which technology plays in learning will be more important than ever. Many students are already accustomed to using technology for college coursework, but this year there will be a marked change as blended learning makes digital learning the primary delivery mode for many college courses.
This means it is more important than ever for students to be equipped with the right equipment to approach the college year head-on. The world of buying the right college tech can be confusing and daunting at the best of times, but this guide will hopefully make it easy to make the purchases needed to make the most of the upcoming academic year.
But first, a few notes. This guide is divided by budget, with a choice of laptops in each range. Mobile devices are becoming increasingly powerful, but to engage effectively and comfortably in any form of online education, you will need a keyboard and a larger screen.The nature of your college course will be the main determinant of how much you should expect to spend. A student in a course which is largely based around report writing and using software such as Microsoft Excel will have vastly different needs compared to a student in a course where there will be resource-intensive activities such as editing photography, design or programming.
It should also be noted that with much content being delivered online, a reliable internet connection could be considered more important than the specification of the machine you are using to access learning. While mobile broadband does provide an option for many, a fixed line copper/fibre broadband connection is preferable with a 2Mb download speed a bare minimum. This is especially important when viewing lectures online, as any form of streaming video is very bandwidth-intensive.
1. Your Course Matters
Whichever course you are studying will play a major role in the device which is right for you. Somebody studying business will have vastly different needs to somebody who is learning about video editing, for example. Different needs for each college course are reflected not only in the specification of the laptop, but even by the device itself. There is more on that later, but it is important to take what you will actually be studying into account when choosing if a laptop is the right device for you.
If you are studying a course which is largely based around using MS Office 365/ Google Docs, you will have many options. Word processing, spreadsheets and other office software is not particularly resource-intensive, meaning your expected spend can decrease greatly. However, if you are studying a course such as Computer Science or one which requires you to use specialist software, you will be asking a lot more of your device than other students.
2. Do you need a laptop?
Once you have considered the needs of your course, you should ask yourself if you actually need a laptop in the first place. Many universities operate laptop rental schemes, and depending on your college’s scheme, you might find that this is sufficient. Even if this is not the case, you should still consider other options outside of a laptop if applicable.
For example, many modern tablets (such as the iPad) are often comparable to fully-fledged laptops in terms of functionality and performance. Using one of these devices brings with it a myriad of other benefits, namely portability (an iPad weighs less than 700g), extended battery life and ease of use. You can also connect a wireless keyboard to a tablet to make extended typing sessions much more comfortable.
3. Some specs matter more than others
It is very easy to get bogged down in processor model numbers and RAM options amongst a litany of confusing sounding tech-related jargon when buying a device, but it is important to remember that some specs are much more important than others. For example, screen size should play a major role in your decision. Many laptops come in between 13″ – 15″ screen sizes. Although it might not seem like much of a difference on paper, the difference in these sizes can greatly affect whether a device is ultra-portable or so big it becomes more of a hindrance.
It is also important to consider that some specs have a greater impact on the longevity of your device than others. When buying a laptop, you should buy a device with a Solid State Drive (SSD) instead of a Hard Disk Drive (HDD). SSDs are faster, more reliable and future-proofed when it comes to storing your data.
Random Access Memory (RAM) is another important consideration as it controls the ability of a machine to run multiple computing processes at the same time. While 4GB is largely standard across most machines, it can oftentimes be worth paying a bit more to upgrade this. You can’t go wrong with more RAM if your budget allows, but equally there is no need to go overboard.
You will also probably need to decide how much storage you actually need on the aforementioned SSD. It can be tempting to play it safe and pay a premium for as much storage as possible, but remember that we largely live in a cloud-powered world today. This means there is less of a need to store a lot of data onto a physical machine. With video and music steaming services now commonplace, the idea of downloading masses of media is rarely a consideration that needs taking into account.
All third level institutions use Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), such as Canvas, Blackboard, Brightspace, Sakai or Moodle where learning happens online ‘in the cloud’ for the most part. Many universities also offer cloud storage with Google or Office 365 for your documents, so you might be surprised by how little storage you actually need. Down the line if you find you need more storage, external hard drives can be purchased easily.
4. Personal preferences
Over the years you may have developed your own preferences regarding what you look for in a device. Its important to factor this into your decision, as you will be using this device a lot during your time in university. Whether it be screen resolution, operating system or different types of connectivity options, the choice of devices available is ever-expanding so there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to find a device which serves you excellently throughout your time in college.
Below are a few choices in each price range, ranging from great value everyday laptops to high-end machines that will handle anything you can throw at them. The devices below, coupled with the points above will ensure you make an informed decision about your technology stack for college that will make you a more productive student no matter what college life throws at you!
Budget Choices (< €550)
Acer Aspire 3 (15.6″, Intel)
Featuring an Intel i3 processor, a 14″ Full-HD display, 128GB SSD storage and 8GB RAM, the Acer Aspire 3 is the perfect budget pick for the student looking for a durable and capable laptop. Running Windows 10, this laptop also features a 720P webcam for those all-important online lectures and a generously-sized 15.6″ display. Although the 128GB SSD size is on the small side, if you comfortable keeping your documents on the cloud this is unlikely to be an issue. The up to 9 hour battery life is another bonus, meaning you can spend less time worrying about finding plugs and more time working.
HP 14a Chromebook
The suitability of a Chromebook largely depends on your coursework, but if your workload is primarily straightforward word processing and spreadsheets, then the portability and web-based nature of a Chromebook might be for you. Running ChromeOS, which is very lightweight, means that this laptop doesn’t need particularly beefy specs. It contains 8GB RAM, 128GB of flash memory and a battery life of up to 11.5 hours.
Mid-range (€550 – €999)
iPad Air with Smart Keyboard
In recent years, the iPad has become a good enough productivity device to rival the best of laptops. With native Google Docs, MS Office and a host of other productivity apps you would expect to find on traditional laptops, the iPad Air is the perfect mix of power and portability. Pair the iPad with the Smart Keyboard, and you have a full-sized keyboard at your disposal all while keeping the device slimline and portable. You can also add the Apple Pencil (€135), and potentially eliminate the need for paper alotgether from your notes workflow. Be sure to browse through the Apple Education Store for further discounts if you are qualified.
Dell Inspiron 15″
For those of you in courses with a more resource-intensive workload, this Inspiron’s 15″ screen, 8GB RAM, Intel i7 Processor and sizeable 512GB SSD will cover all of your needs. The screen size if perfect for students who want to look at two documents side-by-side, and the processor will handle all you can throw at it. Furthermore, despite all these features the Inspiron still only weighs a bit over 1.5KG, meaning you can carry it around campus easily.
HP Envy 13.3″
If you want the power of a higher-end laptop without the bulk, than look no further. An Intel i5 Processor means that this laptop will be able for intensive tasks such as data analysis and photo editing, and the 8GB RAM and 512GB SSD only add to the powerful specs offered. A 13.3″ screen allows for the perfect blend of power and portability, and an almost 10 hour battery means you can get through a full days work without having to worry about charging. Interestingly, this laptop also includes 32GB Intel Optane memory. This dedicated memory bank means that your laptop will be able to pull up your most frequent documents and programs much faster than using traditional memory.
High End (€1000+)
MacBook Air M1 13″
Where previously picking a MacBook would involve choosing different processors, memory configurations and graphics options – this process has now been much simplified thanks to Apple’s decision to move away from Intel and create their own processors. The main advantage of this is the fact that these processors are made with one goal in mind, to make MacBooks as fast as possible – and that they do. 8GB of Unified Memory (similar to RAM) and a 512GB SSD are the sideshow on this laptop, as the M1 processor does all of the heavy lifting. You can double the Unified Memory if needs be, but the M1 processor means that video editing, coding and photography tasks can be completed without this laptop even breaking a sweat.
Dell XPS 13
This line of Dell laptops are commonly referred to as ‘Ultrabooks’, and the specs on this model live up to that title. Once you configure the RAM up to 16GB, and add an Intel i7 processor, you have one of the best Windows 10 laptops on the market in your hands. Everything from the premium feel of the laptop to the full-HD screen is designed for power users, and with the power of this device you will have no problem creating (and playing) computer games and applications and editing media. The fact that all of this power comes bundled in a device weighing barely over 1kg (1.16KG to be exact) also means you won’t be lugging it to and from and college every day.
Generally, a laptop is all you need to engage effectively in online learning. But if you have room left in your budget, these extras can perfect your home setup.
Having an external monitor can be a great boon to your productivity. There are many examples of the advantages that having two displays offers, such as being able to have a lecture playing on one screen while you take notes on the other. This reduces the amount of time you have to spend managing your open windows and increases your screen real-estate massively.
Purchasing an external monitor shouldn’t break the bank, and screen resolutions such as 4K and QHD provide a level of detail which is not needed for day-to-day use. A monitor between 24″ and 27″ along with a HD resolution will provide you with plenty of space to get work done along with great picture quality. For example, this Dell 24″ HD monitor comes in at under €150 and ticks all the right boxes.
Keyboard & Mouse
An external keyboard and mouse oftentimes makes for a much more pleasant experience interacting with your laptop than using the built-in equivalents. If you do decide to opt for an external monitor, a keyboard and mouse is also important to make sure you can use both screens in an ergonomic manner.
The options around keyboard and mouse sets usually centre around whether they are wireless or wired. Wireless connectivity can make your desk look cleaner, but you will need to remember to change the batteries. Wired options offer a more steady connection and get their power from the device you plug them into. Microsoft make a comfortable and full-sized keyboard and mouse set which is available in both wireless (€45) and wired (€30) variants.