Monday, 16 December 2013

Best computing device for students

Students need computers. This is becoming clearer with every passing month and year. Maybe secondary school students don't, but college students certainly do. Well, it's a pain to go without one.

So which one is best for students? An ideal computer for students would be cheap as chips and very portable, without losing out on power or screen/build quality. A pretty tall order, and really it's up to you which device you go for; all I can do is give you a few things to consider before spending a few hundred euro/pounds/dollars. For this, I'm going to restrict my budget to portable devices which cost less than €500, eliminating all Macs and desktops.

There was a time when the only halfway-cheap computers you could buy were running Windows. Not any more. You can pick up a perfectly good Chromebook for €250.

Chromebooks are basically laptops running a glorified version of Google's Chrome browser. Almost everything is done in the browser, including editing documents, courtesy of Google Drive. Naturally, you'd want to be fairly heavily invested in Google's ecosystem for this to be a seamless transition. Programmes like Skype and Office are missing, although Google does have alternatives. There's also no "swiss-army knife" video player like VLC on ChromeOS (I could be corrected on that one though).

So what good is it then? It's ideal for people who use their laptops for web-surfing and general work, or who want a second computer. Thankfully the OS is also light enough to balance the middling specs.

Windows is undoubtedly the best supported of all the Operating Systems, simply because so many companies use it. It's also had enough time to get lots of programmes, unlike ChromeOS. While Windows 8 has proved to be very controversial, it is still a lot more complete as an operating system. You also get brilliant programmes such as Microsoft Office and the VLC Media Player.

Of course, decent Windows laptops cost a lot more cash than Chromebooks. A decent Windows laptop will cost at least €400, if you want more-than-mediocre specs. There are also lots of brands to choose from. Personally, I quite like Dell, and I've heard good things about Lenovo, although I can only say for sure about Dell.

There are netbooks around, which are on the nice side of €300, but typically they have a severely limited version of Windows, and very poor specs. Couple that with a resource-heavy OS, and you've got a very sub-par user experience. Honestly, if you're looking at netbooks, take a look at a Chromebook instead.

Or you could look at a tablet, if it's within budget. Getting a tablet and a keyboard dock may satisfy your needs. I've always found touchscreens to be awkward to type on for longer documents. Apple's iPad has a large advantage in this area, as there are any amount of officially recommended keyboard docks available. Android's offerings suffer in this respect, as there are only 3rd party options, and then only for the most popular devices. You should also watch out that your tablet is secure in the dock, and isn't liable to fall over (not something you want happening in a lecture theatre).

Android's sub-par tablet-optimised app selection is a discussion for another day, but it's enough to say that Apple's selection wipes the floor with Android's. That said, there are enough good Office suites to choose from on Android (personally I use Polaris Office and Quickoffice). The iPad has lots of options, and, though I can't vouch for anything personally, I hear that Office2 HD is a good option.

The iPad Mini starts at €299, and the iPad 2 starts at €389. Keyboards can then cost anything up to another €150. Android tablets are generally cheaper, with my personal favourite being the Nexus 7 (2013), starting at €250. Keyboards for the Nexus 7 can be bought on eBay or Amazon for around €35-50. You can also buy more expensive tablets from Sony or Samsung, although once again you're faced with the issue of keyboards. ASUS got around this issue by including selling their own docks with their tablets. These tablet and dock combinations tend to cost around €500.

Really, it's up to you what you choose.If all you want is something to write essays and surf the net on, then I'd recommend a Chromebook. If you need a more supported Operating System, or just more processing power, then a Windows laptop is the way to go. While I have seen people using iPads as their main device, I wouldn't recommend it unless you're sure that it'll do what you need it to.

The best thing to do is to go into somewhere like Curry's, where they have display models you can play around with. That's worth as much as any guide.

If you think I've left anything out, please feel free to comment.