Back-to-school tech-buying guide

Head back to school with the right laptop or tablet computer
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02.What to look for


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.


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What type of laptop?


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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