Back-to-school tech-buying guide

Head back to school with the right laptop or tablet computer
 
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01 .BYO computer, but which one?

BYO laptop

If you have kids at school, there's now an extra item on back to school lists: a laptop or tablet computer such as an iPad. Funding has now run out for the Australian Government’s Digital Education Revolution (DER) program, which started in 2009 and ended in 2013. The so-called one-laptop-per-child program aimed to provide each public high school student with a laptop across years 9 to 12, along with better facilities and support for schools.

This year, however, many schools will ask students to bring their own computer devices to school, including smartphones, tablets and laptops. That adds a weighty cost to the back-to-school outfit, so you need to spend wisely. 

Our back-to-school guide can help you beat the BYO-tech blues and pick the best model for child's your needs.

BYOD or BYOT?

The government-handout laptops are no longer, so students may have to take their own laptops to school next year, but what do they need? There’s enormous variety in size, spec, price and performance of notebook computers, leaving non-techy adults and kids alike awash in a sea of confusing claims and general uncertainty.

BYOD (bring your own device) and BYOT (bring your own technology) are the new catchcries. The difference is that with BYOD, a school requests a particular computer model, which the student must supply. BYOT means students can choose their own computers. However, be careful, as some may use the terms interchangeably.

So before rushing out to grab a bargain, check with the school and see what their computer equipment policy is – BYOD or BYOT. Do they prefer to supply a device and charge you for it? Or is there an option for students to pick their own? And, if so, does the school have any specific guidelines.

For example, in NSW the Department of Education has released a BYOD/BYOT policy for its 2200 schools (see bit.ly/detnswtech). The policy recognises that technology changes rapidly and many students already have their own smartphones and computers and aims to harness this, but puts the onus on school principals to implement the schools’ BYOD policy.

Endless options

ONLINE_LaptopBuyingGuide_Hybrid_Dell_XPS_Duo_12If the school lets students bring their own, check if there is a particular type of device they cater for. Does the school prefer a specific brand or model range? Windows PC or Mac? Which operating system should you get? Laptop or tablet? The differences are significant.

The terms laptop and notebook are generally considered interchangeable in reference to portable computers. But there are several subcategories to consider: Ultraportable, netbook, Chromebook, MacBook, hybrid. And, of course, there are tablets.

  • Ultraportables are small, powerful laptops but relatively expensive. Ultrabooks are a subcategory of ultraportables. 
  • Netbooks are small and cheap, but relatively low performance.
  • Chromebooks look like a laptop but run only the Chrome OS operating system, not Windows, and require a constant connection to the internet.
  • MacBooks are Apple’s laptops and run OS X. The MacBook Air range is the smallest and cheapest. They can also be configured to run Windows as an optional extra.
  • Hybrids offer the look and feel of a laptop plus the versatility of a tablet, usually via a removable screen, but they’re relatively expensive.
  • Tablets come in Windows, iOS and Android versions. A tablet is generally smaller, lighter and cheaper than a laptop. They don’t usually have a separate physical keyboard, but one can be connected directly or via Bluetooth. Tablets that take an attachable keyboard can be the equivalent of a hybrid. The Windows Surface Pro tablet is a good example, but you need to buy the keyboard as an extra.
For detailed information on choosing a laptop, see our laptop buying guide.

 
 

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In many schools, particularly those that had geared up for the DER program, the school will have focused its resources on supporting Windows computers. New devices will come with the Windows 8 operating system, but may or may not be bundled with productivity software. Check for this, because you'll need a suite of programs that includes a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software.

Often you will find that bundled with a new Windows computer will come Microsoft Office Home and Student productivity package, currently in the 2013 version. This includes Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote programs, along with 7GB of SkyDrive cloud storage. If it's not included with the computer and you want it, you can add it for $169.

Alternatively, you can usually opt to save some money by buying your computer without included productivity software and simply download a FREE open source productivity suite such as LibreOffice or OpenOffice. These provide programs with functionality similar to Microsoft Office, including the ability to open and save the standard Microsoft Office file formats, but at no charge. You can install them on as many computers as you want. Versions are available for Windows, OS X and Linux.

If your school uses Apple laptops, you will still need productivity software and can either buy Microsoft Office for Mac Home and Student 2011, or you can once again opt for a FREE download of the OS X versions of the productivity suites LibreOffice or OpenOffice.

Some schools have opted for iPads, which come with Apple’s own productivity software iWork (Pages, Numbers, Keynote) and iLife (iPhoto, iMovie, Garageband).ONLINE_BacktoSchoolLaptops_iPad

Like the Surface tablet, an iPad can be made more functional with the addition of a physical keyboard, such as those from Logitech.

Both Microsoft and Apple offer discounted education pricing for students. 

Buying tips

  • Check with the school for their minimum and recommended configurations.
  • Set a budget and stick to it. Don’t be tempted by expensive components that aren't necessary.
  • Don’t skimp on memory (RAM) – 4GB is a good rule of thumb for laptops.
  • Consider buying from smaller retailers or online as well as national chain stores. Some smaller stores may have good deals. Also check out online specials.
  • Go with a brand name, if possible, and check service availability/turnaround and warranty terms.
  • If shopping in-store, don’t be afraid to ask for a deal. You can get a good price if you buy extra accessories and software at the same time.
  • Be wary of buying extended warranties - they offer little extra protection over your standard Australian consumer rights.

Help with costs

Depending on the type of device you go for and the variations of processor, memory (RAM) and storage (HDD or SSD), a take-to-school device can vary quite a lot in cost.

For those who need some help coping with costs, the Schoolkids Bonus, which replaced the Education Tax Refund, aims to help eligible families and students with the education-related costs of primary and secondary school studies. Eligible families and students receive up to $820 (two instalments of $410) for each child in secondary school. Half is paid in January and half in July.

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