School bags, uniforms, books, lunchboxes and... a laptop or tablet. The shopping list for back-to-school is a lot more expensive once you add in the take-your-own technology.
As well as parents needing to cover the cost of a laptop or tablet such as an Apple iPad or Microsoft Surface Pro for their school child, it can be a minefield trying to work out what to buy.
Our guide can help you understand the difference between BYOD (bring your own device) and BYOT (bring your own technology) school policies and pick the best device for your child's needs.
BYOD or BYOT?
Schools recognise the integral part that technology plays not just in life, but in learning and education. To keep up with this, you're likely to find your child's high school – whether it's public, private or independent – has developed a BYOD and BYOT policy. While the terms used to be used more or less interchangeable, these days BYOD tends to refer to devices such as tablets and laptops, while BYOT covers other tech like mobile phones.
Firstly you'll want to know if the school prefers to supply a device and charge you for it, or if the parents must choose the device based on the school's list of requirements. Many schools have a BYOD policy that outlines the minimum specifications for a laptop or tablet, which the student must supply. So before you rush out to grab a bargain, check the school's BYOD equipment policy, which can usually be found on their website. A smartphone is not usually considered sufficient as a computing device for students, so check the policy and confirm with the school before considering buying a smartphone for your child.
You may also be able to save money by getting free software under the school's licencing provisions. This may include Microsoft and Adobe software, but check with the school first.
You'll need the full list of specifications from the policy before you go shopping. Read the entire document to understand what the school expects and how the device fits in to the overall teaching and learning environment. Generally, you'll want to know:
- is there a particular type of device they require?
- does the school prefer a specific brand or model range?
- Windows PC or Mac?
- the minimum specs for processor (CPU), storage (hard drive) and memory (RAM).
- minimum screen size: generally 10-inch minimum for laptops – larger for creative or technical work.
- the operating system (OS) and any specific software such as Office, Adobe or security suites.
- the school's Wi-Fi wireless network band.
Watch the Wi-Fi specs
One of the biggest issues with connecting to the school network will be wireless capability. For example, most public high schools operate on a 5GHz wireless network and this means you need a laptop marked "dual band or 2.4/5GHz" for wireless connectivity. However, some cheaper laptops only have capabilities for 2.4GHz and may require the addition of a wireless adapter to the laptop (usually a USB plug-in device), so that it can connect to the school's network.
The other specification relates to the wireless standard and is designated with a letter. Newer laptops will be marked 802.11ac, which is the newest and fastest wireless standard. If the school's wireless specification is 5GHz 802.11n (ie the previous standard) and you have an 802.11ac device, you'll be OK as it's backwards compatible with the previous 802.11n standard. If the laptop you buy says 802.11n or 802.11abgn, it should also be fine as long as it's dual-band.
Other things to consider
Laptop or tablet?
The terms laptop and notebook are generally interchangeable in reference to portable computers. But there are several other terms to know:
- Ultraportables (thin and light laptops or ultrabooks) are small, powerful and relatively expensive laptops.
- Ultrabook is a specific type of ultraportable, designed to meet particular minimum specifications set by Intel, including size, weight and battery life. Among their strong points is strong security and anti-theft protection built in at the hardware level.
- Chromebooks look like a laptop but only run the Chrome operating system, not Windows, and require a constant connection to the internet. These are becoming quite popular with schools, due to their ability to be shared at school.
- MacBooks are Apple's laptops and run macOS (formerly known as OS X). The MacBook Air is the cheapest, though the now 10-year-old design is somewhat out of date, it has a relatively low resolution screen and lacks the latest USB-C connector. MacBooks can also be configured to run Windows as an optional extra. However, if you're going to do that it's better to go for onboard storage of at least 256GB (gigabytes), not the entry-level model's default of just 128GB.
- 2-in-1s (also called convertibles or hybrids) offer the look and feel of a laptop with the versatility of a tablet, usually via a screen that folds back 180 degrees (or in some cases detaches), but they're relatively expensive.
Then there are tablets, which are generally smaller, lighter and cheaper than a laptop. These come in Windows, iOS and Android versions. The Apple iPad is probably the most well-known example.
Tablets don't usually have a separate physical keyboard, but one can be connected directly or via Bluetooth. You should consider buying one if your child will be using the device to type up long essays. Onscreen keyboards are more suited to shorter writing such as notes. However, the iPad is designed to be used as a tablet and the keyboard really is optional, unlike the Microsoft Surface Pro tablet, which is more of a convertible laptop. Because the Surface Pro uses the full Windows 10 operating system, you really do need to get the extra-cost option of the keyboard (which includes a trackpad) to get the most out of it, and the Surface Pen is highly advisable for the precise selection required in drop-down menus and suchlike on the high-resolution screen. Using fingers-only (even kid-sized ones) on the Surface Pro can be a bit frustrating.
There's also Microsoft's Surface Laptop, which is aimed at the education market and runs a specially optimised version of Windows 10 called Windows 10 S. However, Windows 10 S only lets you install programs from the Windows app store, so check with your school first as to what programs are needed and if Windows 10 S is suitable.
Both Microsoft and Apple offer discounted education pricing for students. For more information, take a look at our laptop buying guide.
Many schools will have focused their resources on supporting Windows computers. Before buying, check that the school can cater for Chromebooks, Apple's macOS and possibly Linux operating systems and even Windows 10 S if you want to go down that path.
Students may be able to download Microsoft Office 365 and Adobe software for free if they have a government education email address. In NSW, for example, students can go to the Education Department hub to download free student software. Check the school's BYOD policy for information before buying any software for the device. The free student version should also include free cloud storage with Microsoft's OneDrive. Alternatively, Office 365 Personal (1 user) is $99 per year or Office 365 Home (5 users) is $129 per year.
Some new PC devices may come with productivity software, such as Microsoft's Office Home and Student 2016. This includes Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote programs, and lets you store files in the cloud via Microsoft's OneDrive online storage service. If it's not included with the computer you can pay for a plan that starts at $2 per month for 50GB of storage. If you have an Apple laptop, there's the similarly-featured Office Home & Student 2016 for Mac ($180).
Alternatively, you may save some money by buying your computer without included productivity software, and instead 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, macOS and Linux.
Google also has Google Docs, a suite of free cloud-based office programs that includes spreadsheets and word documents.
Some schools have requested students bring iPads, which come with Apple's own productivity software iWork (Pages, Numbers, Keynote), Photos, iMovie and Garageband.
Don't skimp on memory (RAM) – 8GB is a good rule of thumb for laptops. Check with the school for their minimum and recommended configurations. Tablets generally have, and require, less RAM (1–2GB) which isn't upgradeable. However, the amount of storage they come with can vary from a very minimal 32GB up to 512GB (or more for some Microsoft Surface models).
Protecting your investment
Look into insurance for accidental damage, theft and loss. Start by checking to see if the laptop or tablet is covered in your own home and contents insurance policy as a portable device. You may be able to add it to your policy as a listed item, although this could increase your premium. Our members have also told us there are companies specialising in insurance for BYOD for schools that have pretty reasonable rates.
But be wary of buying extended warranties – they offer little extra protection over your standard Australian consumer rights and don't typically cover accidents or mishaps.
Typical spec list
- Device type: Windows/Mac laptop/tablet
- Weight: aim for under 1.5kg;
- Up-to-date security software;
- Wireless: dual-band (2.5GHz/5GHz)
- Min screen size: 9-inches
- Min storage capacity: 128GB (laptop); 64GB (tablet)
- RAM: Minimum 8GB (laptop)
- Max device age: Two years
- Minimum battery life: Six hours
- Accessories: Protective case/cover, headphones, security lock/cable.
Laptops and tablets range in price from $500 to $1500.
Is a laptop or tablet really necessary?
Sending your kid off to school with a laptop or tablet worth hundreds of dollars when they can't seem to look after a school jumper might leave you asking, "Do they really need a tablet or laptop at school? Will they really be disadvantaged or left behind if they don't have their own device?"
Those questions are best answered by your child's school, but the NSW Government's Student Bring Your Own Device Policy gives an idea as to why Australian schools in general are moving towards using personal devices in class:
"The increasing availability of personal mobile devices has accelerated the demand for new models of learning... Schools are in a position to harness students' connection to their own personal mobile devices for the purpose of developing 21st century learning skills and for fostering digital literacy, fluency and citizenship in a safe environment."
However, there is an argument that mandating BYOD disadvantages students who aren't able to afford new technology like a laptop, puts the onus on families to pay and potentially creates a digital divide among students.
Each state government will have its own BYOD policy for public schools, and each public school will have its own policy and minimum device specifications. Independent and Catholic schools also have their own policies and minimum device specifications.
Before you part with any cash:
- Check directly with your child's school for the BYOD or BYOT policy and requirements.
- Use this as the basis for your shopping.
- Check the Wi-Fi network specifications and match them to the new device.
- Read this guide for a general overview of what's available.