Back to College Tech Guide 2014

MacBook Air 13"
Creative Commons licensed by Alejandro Pinto –

It’s usually in August when people start asking me for advice on what laptop they should buy for their children heading off to university. If you are in a specialized technical oriented program like computer science, engineering or architecture, please consult with your faculty before purchasing your laptop.  That said, here is my general advice for the incoming class of 2014:

For a Standard Student Setup if you have a budget between $1200 and $1600 for a laptop and other hardware I would suggest the following:

  • For your laptop I highly recommend a 13” MacBook Air, with 8GB of RAM, and 128GB solid state hard drive. This is a beautiful, lightweight laptop that weighs just under 1.4kg (3lbs). To top it off, it has a real world battery life of over 12 hours. Say goodbye to your power cord almost all day long, as you won’t need to pack it to school and back unless you’re pulling an all nighter in the library. Cost: $1139. There are going to be a lot of this arriving on campus this fall. 
  • If you’re looking for a tablet, and don’t already have an iPhone, then I’d recommend Google’s Nexus 7. It has a gorgeous retina 7” screen, comes standard with 16GB of storage, and costs only $249! The Nexus 7 is almost due for a refresh, but it is still the best value for money in the tablet space today. If you have an iPhone, then you’ll be spending $400 on an iPad mini retina or $499 for an iPad Air.
  • This might seem like an extravagance, but a monitor to go along with the laptop you’ve just purchased is essential for anyone doing university level research and writing. Once you’ve worked on a paper with two monitors (the laptop screen plus a second monitor), you’ll never go back. For research related work most people are 20%+ more productive than using a single screen alone. The good news is that external monitors like Asus 22” are relatively inexpensive at only $160.
  • Total Cost: $1548 + taxes (note: $150 to $250 more for iPads)

If you’re budget is more constrained, you can still have all the tools you need to conduct serious undergraduate research for less than $400 with a Budget Student Setup.

  • You won’t be getting an Apple laptop for under $400, but the 11.6” Acer C720 Chromebook is an amazing value at $249, and weighs 1.25kg (2.75lbs), and battery lasts 8.5 hours. How can a laptop be this inexpensive you ask?  It stores all your data on Google servers, and runs Google’s Chrome web browser on a custom version of Linux. This means that you have to be connected to the internet in order to work on your term paper, because all your editing is done in Google Docs or Microsoft OneDrive.  The internet connection might be a show stopper for a small number of students, but wireless access is ubiquitous on campus today, and probably where your son or daughter is living as well.
  • Again, a monitor to go along with a laptop might seem like an extravagance, but is essential for anyone doing university level research and writing. As I mentioned before, for research related work most people are 20%+ more productive than using a single screen alone. The Acer 19.5” will only set you back $110.
  • Total Cost: $359 + taxes

Lastly you’ll need some software for your new laptop. Here are some suggestions:

  • I highly recommend Google Drive word processing, file storage and collaborative document editing. 
  • If you must have Microsoft Office, you can use the web based version called OneDrive for free.
  • Citation managers make the tedious work of citing sources and creating bibliographies so easy it isn’t funny. For Mac users, I’d recommend the free, Open Source software called Zotero.  For Chrombook users you can use a browser based citation manager called RefWorks. RefWorks is free to use for most university and college students.
  • Want to keep track of tasks and major due dates?  I’d recommend a combination of Google Calendar (for major project due dates and tests), and for tasks Todoist.    
  • Evernote is a great cross platform tool for capturing notes, web pages, and pictures of white boards that you can search the text on at a later date.  So many use cases to describe there. Check-out for all the details and a free account.
  • Diigo – Social bookmarking tool that also allows you to personally or collaboratively highlight and/or annotate web pages. Great for keeping track of articles you find interesting but don’t need to use in a paper right away. 
  • Trello is a lightweight project management that can help you if you need a little extra structure when confronted with term papers and large assignments. 
  • If you have a group project, I can’t recommend more highly Google Hangouts + Google Drive for group meetings and collaborative document editing. You have to experience it to realize how useful these two Google tools are for group projects.

Happy shopping!

P.S. Something that might be helpful a little later in the semester is a free eBook I published called, Research & Collaboration Tools for Students, Staff & Faculty.


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