Back to College Tech Guide 2015

macbook-air-2015It’s usually in August when parents 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. LifeHacker also has a quite long and detailed guide to buying a laptop That said given my years of experience, here is my general advice for the incoming class of 2015:

For a Standard Student Setup if you have a budget between $1200 and $1800 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 (3 lbs). 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. Education price: $1257. There are going to be a lot of this arriving on campus this fall. (more info)
  • If you’re looking for a tablet, I’d recommend either the iPad Air 2 or the iPad mini 3. Both come standard with 16GB of storage, and costs only $529 or $419! If your budget is tight, then go for the iPad mini 2 for $309.  
  • macbook proThis 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 AOC 23” are relatively inexpensive at only $199.  

Total Cost: $1985 + taxes for the top of the line gear including external monitor. For $1450 + taxes you can get the MacBook Air and the external monitor.

Budget Student Laptop: If you’re budget is more constrained, you can still have all the tools you need to conduct serious undergraduate research for less than $500.

  • You won’t be getting an Apple laptop for under $400, but the 13.3” Acer Chromebook 13 is an amazing value at $349, and weighs 1.5kg (3.3 lbs), and battery lasts 9-11 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 Office 365.  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. (more info)
  • acer-chromebook-13Again, 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 $140. (more info)

Total Cost: $489 + taxes. Compared to what students were paying a decade ago for a laptop alone, under $500 is a steal!

For the Gamer / Scholars (and you know who you are… although parents may need to ask their child), I’d recommend you buy an ChromeBook of some kind for taking notes and collaboration while on campus, and the use your dual monitor gaming rig for research and writing while at home.  A very light yet capable machine is Acer ChromeBook 11, which sells for $249. I’d personally pay a bit more for the 13.3” Acer Chromebook 13 which for $349 give you a larger screen and longer batter life at the expense of a little bit more weight (3.3 lbs vs 2.5 lbs)

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 Office 365 for free as a student. –
  • Citation managers make the tedious work of citing sources and creating bibliographies so easy you won’t believe it! You can use the free browser based citation manager called RefME. If you’d rather use a desktop client, I’d recommend the free, Open Source software package called Zotero – .  
  • 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 whiteboards 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.
  • 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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