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 or Surface Pro.

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.

Buying tips

  • Check with the school for their minimum and recommended configurations.
  • Check if the school prefers a specific brand or model range. Windows PC or Mac? Laptop or tablet?
  • 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 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.
  • Depending on the type of device you go for and the variations in processor, memory (RAM) and storage (HDD or SSD), a take-to-school device can vary quite a lot in cost.
  • Set a budget and stick to it. Don't be tempted to buy expensive components that aren't necessary.
  • Microsoft and Apple offer discounted education pricing for university students.

BYOD or BYOT?

There's no uniform technology policy across the country, so individual state and territory education departments may or may not have guidelines. It's generally left to individual schools to develop a policy, so it's essential to consult the school first to determine the requirements for the device you intend to buy.

Some schools such as private schools will build the cost of a laptop into the fees and provide the same computer to every student. This takes the onus off parents having to work out what to buy and ensures all the machines are standardised and can be managed through the school.

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.

Some schools will have their own BYOD policy setting out the basic requirements for processor, screen size, memory, wireless internet connectivity and software for laptops. This makes it somewhat easier as you can use the policy as a shopping list when comparing devices.

 
 

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Laptop spec list

Check with the school, but this is likely what you'll need on your shopping list.
  • Device type: Windows/Mac laptop/tablet
  • Operating system: Windows 7/ 8, Mac OS X 10.7 or higher, iOS 7 or higher
  • Up-to-date antivirus software
  • Wireless: Check with the school for Wi-Fi network such as 2.5GHz or 5GHz
  • Min screen size: 7"
  • Min storage capacity: 64GB
  • RAM: Minimum 4GB
  • Max device age: Two years
  • Minimum battery life: Four hours
  • Accessories: Protective case/cover, headphones, security lock/cable, portable or cloud storage

What about OS and productivity software?

Often you'll find that the Microsoft Office Home and Student productivity package comes bundled with a new Windows computer. This includes Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote programs, along with 15GB 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 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'll still need productivity software and can either buy Microsoft Office for Mac Home and Student 2011 for $169, or again, download the OS X versions of the free 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.


What type of laptop?

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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. 
  • 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.

What about tablets?

A tablet is generally smaller, lighter and cheaper than a laptop and comes in Windows, iOS and Android versions. 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.

Some schools have opted for iPads, which come with Apple Productivity Apps (Pages, Numbers, Keynote) and Apple Creativity Apps (iPhoto, iMovie, Garageband).
Like the Surface tablet, an iPad can be made more functional with the addition of a physical keyboard, such as those from Logitech.

For detailed information on choosing a laptop, see our laptop buying guide.
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