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How to find the best tablet or laptop for school

What kind of device does your child need for school? Find out with our BYOD and BYOT buying guide.

young boy doing homework on laptop
Last updated: 31 December 2019

A new year also means a new school year, and many kids will be needing a laptop or tablet in their backpack as they head back to the classroom. But how do you know which device will best suit their needs?

You may be tempted to rush out and grab a bargain, but you need to check your school's requirements first. If the school hasn't already outlined what's expected, the information should be on the school website under a bring your own device (BYOD) or bring your own technology (BYOT) section.

Private schools mightn't make this kind of information as readily available on their websites. You may need to contact the school directly if you haven't been given the information.

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Your choice or theirs?

Different schools take different approaches, with some things being at the discretion of the school management. A school might:

  • have an open BYOT policy, which accepts any personally owned device, provided it can connect to the internet; or
  • lay out a list of BYOD requirements and leave you to source your own. This is more common in a teacher-based environment where the focus is on students having the same software and desktop experience.

A school's list of BYOD requirements can look daunting at first glance, but don't ignore it; you need to pay close attention so you don't end up buying the wrong device.

Whether your school has an open BYOT or specified BYOD policy, these following factors are worth considering, and sometimes mandatory.

Surface go back to school-OL1

The Microsoft Surface Go 2-in-1 hybrid tablet, with burgundy detachable type cover.

Laptop or tablet?

Traditional clamshell-style laptops are often suggested by BYOD policies, but there are alternatives. 

Two in ones (2-in-1s) are laptops that have a touchscreen and fold-back or removable keyboard for use as a tablet with fingers or electronic pen/stylus. Some look just like a laptop until they flip or come apart. 

Other hybrid devices, such as the Microsoft Surface Go or Samsung Galaxy Book2, are Windows tablets with detachable keyboard covers (sold separately for Surface devices). This makes them super lightweight, but they can be pricey.

Other tablets, such as iPads, sometimes fit the requirements, but check with the school if they allow them. You may also need to purchase a physical keyboard cover or attachment. If the students need to use specific device-based apps, there will need to be an iPad version available. However, many schools use web-based programs such as Google Suite (including Google Docs and Sheets) that work via a web browser. The recently-released iPadOS now uses a desktop-class web browser and should be able to use these cloud programs. If in doubt, check with your school. They may have particular administration requirements.

Specifications

Operating system (OS)

Windows and macOS are commonly accepted by schools, as is iOS (iPads) sometimes. Chrome OS (for Chromebooks) and Android are less common. If you're buying second hand, avoid Windows 7 because it's no longer supported by Microsoft and therefore open to security issues. Windows 8.1 will stop receiving security updates in 2023. Windows 10 is the current and recommended version.

Wi-Fi

The Wi-Fi connection of many schools is 5GHz – not the equally common 2.4GHz. Most modern laptops support both frequencies. Look for Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) or the recently-released Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax). In a pinch, 802.11n should also work, but check that it specifically says '5GHz capable'.

Maximum weight

Laptops can be heavy. The school may have a limit of 2kg or lower.

Screen size

Any size from 8 inches to 15 inches may be accepted, though it's up to the school to decide.

Minimum RAM (memory)

Even if a school only requires 4GB for a Windows device, a minimum of 8GB is recommended if you want an efficient Windows computer that will last more than a couple of years. iPads don't have the same memory requirements.

Storage drive type

Schools may specify a solid-state drive (SSD) for laptops rather than an internal hard drive. SSDs are a better solution, being much faster than hard drives, and less easily damaged by bumps and hard knocks.

Storage capacity

A 128GB internal drive could suffice for a laptop, especially given online storage services such as OneDrive and Google Drive. If you expect the laptop to store a lot of videos or high-resolution images for classwork, you might need 256GB or more.

Software support

Your device needs to support any software specifically required by the school. This is usually an operating system-based restriction, so if your OS is in line with the BYOD requirements, you should be fine.

Battery life

It's hard to charge a laptop at school. Aim for eight hours or more of advertised battery life, and don't go below six.

Cost

How much should you spend?

  • At recommended retail price, you shouldn't need to go above $1500 for a good, new Windows 10 school laptop.
  • Eligible basic Windows models can go as low as $600, though expect limited performance and poor screen quality.
  • The latest 10.2-inch iPad starts at $529, plus $235 for the Smart Keyboard cover.
  • For macOS users, the MacBook Air (2019 edition) is a good option, starting at $1699. Apple doesn't make budget laptops, which means any Mac laptop from the past couple of years will be more than powerful enough.

Discounts and deals

Microsoft offers discounted prices for education use, and some retailers, such as Harvey Norman and JB Hi-Fi, offer education BYOD discounts for specific devices.

Second hand

You might be able to find a cheap, used laptop online, but be extra careful of private purchases and always inspect the goods carefully and try them out before you buy. You should also look up the make and model online to confirm its specifications match your needs.

Options for low-income families

If a used laptop is too expensive for now, some schools have a pool of devices available for loan. Microsoft's Shape the Future program allows qualifying primary and secondary educational establishments to buy devices with discounted Windows licences.

Your state government may offer heavily discounted or free one-off software licences to students for some apps. Look up your state's BYOD policy for more information on educational software licence discounts.

Insurance

A laptop or tablet can take a battering in the school bag, even if you do have good protection for it (which is essential). Kids are also prone to losing things. If you've spent a fair whack on a device, it's worth looking at insurance.

You can insure your laptop by:

  • adding it to the portable contents on your insurance. Depending on your policy, your home contents insurance may already include cover for portable contents up to a specified limit, such as $1000 per item. If it's not included, or your laptop is worth more, you can list your laptop as a specified item for a higher value.
  • buying single item insurance. You can get specialty insurance for your laptop direct from an insurer, from the retail store where you buy the laptop, or from an 'on-demand' insurance provider which is typically an app on your phone where you can turn the insurance cover on and off.

Which type of insurance you choose should depend on cost and policy exclusions. 

For example, if you have a $100 excess and your $1000 laptop is covered by your home contents at no extra cost, then additional insurance isn't worth it. 

On the other hand, if you have a $700 excess and a $1200 laptop that you need to specify in your portable contents cover, then you'll pay higher home insurance premiums and you're only going to get $500 back if you need to claim. In which case, a single item insurance may be worth it.

Policy exclusions

Yes, you do need to read the fine print. In particular, pay attention to who is 'insured' by the policy. If it's your name on the policy, will the laptop be covered if other family members such as your children take it to school?

And similar to travel insurance, portable contents cover will generally exclude cover for loss or theft of items out of your direct sight in a place where the public has access to. Depending on how the insurer interprets this, it may include a workplace or a classroom. In other words, if the laptop goes missing from the classroom while your child is looking in the other direction, such as talking to a classmate, an unscrupulous insurer may deny a subsequent claim for loss.