The Best Computers for College: desktop, laptop or tablet? PC or Mac? pt 2

Choosing technology, especially deciding between laptops, desktop, and tablets is not getting any easier.

The reason: they’re getting to be all the same! 

In my post a year ago, College bound: desktop, laptop or tablet? PC or Mac?, I analyzed the best bet for your college computer purchase. I hoped that students and parents would weigh carefully between laptops, tablets and desktops, as each has specific advantages and disadvantages. I measured price, utility, usefulness, and durability. Given the number of readers on that post, I’m hoping it has led to one or two more informed purchases.

This year I’d like to update the review as well as to add a thought on how to leverage both dollars and utility for the best technological experience for high school and college students.

Cell = Tablet = Laptop = Desktop?

As cell phones get bigger and more powerful, tablets get cheaper and, on the upward side, more expensive and more like laptops, it’s harder and hard to know what to get.

Eventually all devices will be unified under a single operating system, be it Windows, IOs, or Android. In fact, Microsoft is merging everything  already phones, tablets, desktop — and Xbox gaming consoles (link goes to Yahoo news article), Pretty cool stuff.

Operating systems are merging across devices, so what becomes important is not the software but the container — what holds the software and how it fits your needs in terms of utility, productivity, reliability and durability.

Meanwhile, differences still exist, especially in terms how a device’s container defines its use and value.

Disadvantages First

  • Cell phones are too small for serious work. (I have seen students write essays on phones — NOT RECOMMENDED!) Cell phone apps are islands and are usually not compatible with other devices, and are thereby not useful for important school work.
  • Desktops provide the best working environment — too bad you can’t fit them into your backpack.
  • Laptops are supposed to mimic the desktop experience in a portable device. They do, to an extent. They also break, get lost or stolen, and have small keyboards and screens.
  • Tablets are convenient and cool, yes, but do not provide a strong working environment. Like laptops, they are easily lost or stolen, and, worse, they are prone to screen breakage. Additionally, lower-end tablets, including iPads, do not have full desktop/laptop operating systems.

Advantages: the Upside

  • Cell phones should be an integral part of a larger system of time  and calendar management, reminders, and workflow. They are not solutions unto themselves, but students should be using them advantageously to monitor workflow, tasks, due dates, and email.
  • Desktops provide the best working environment. Don’t underestimate the value of a set place to work:  it provides focus, consistency, and stability. Then there’s capacity, reliability, and cost-effectiveness. In these, desktops are the best.
  • Laptops are portable, durable, and easy to integrate into a desktop setup via a docking station on your desk (or better, just have a monitor, keyboard, and mouse that are ready to plugin whenever you’re on your desk). Additionally, most laptops have full desktop operating systems (unlike most tablets), and Windows 8 laptops generally have touch capability, which is huge.
  • Tablets are great. To be truly useful, though, they need external keyboards and mice, which create better working environments. iPads accommodate Bluetooth keyboards  and mice, while Surface tablets have detachable keyboards. Also, Surface and other Windows 8 tablets have USB ports for external monitors, keyboards, and mice, which makes them the equal to laptops in docking-station setups. Get a USB-extender that has multiple ports.

Best Solutions

Too many kids are running around with $800 tablets with broken screens and $2,000 laptops that can’t do half the utility of a far cheaper touch-screen tablet.

Let your budget be the guide. And don’t get sucked into the most expensive or cool. Think purpose not style.

My overall recommendation is a laptop with a docking station or a combination of a laptop and desktop. Therefore, I recommend:

  • Single device: laptop with full operating system and Windows Office software (Mac or Windows, not Android) and a docking station.
  • Combo of devices: laptop or tablet + desktop.
    • (Smart phones should be part of the mix, regardless.)

If you have to choose between devices, a laptop with external monitor and keyboard is the top solution (docking station). Windows laptops with touch are available for under $400 now, and even Macs are dropping in their prices. If you must go top-of-the line, God bless you, but I’d recommend that you spend that money across a couple devices rather than just a single, super-cool laptop.

Tablets are super convenient for classroom and on-the-run use, and I strongly recommend the tablet experience — so long as you can also afford a laptop or desktop to go along with it. Tablets are complementary additions, not complete solutions. The exception here is the Surface 3 tablet, which runs full Windows 8 and is very fast. It works as a laptop and docks well onto a desktop station. The danger, as with all tablets, is screen breakage and theft.

Desktops are super powerful, stable, and cheap. Do not forget this old school solution. I cannot stress enough that desktops (or docked laptops PROVIDE THE BEST WORKING ENVIRONMENT.

For serious work, you need to control your distractions, contain your physical space, and stay focused. Desktops work.

Notes on OS:

Apple: If you like Apple, get an iPad and a Mac desktop. There’s no need to get the high-end laptop. Get a machine that will be reliable and capable and that will integrate with your other devices.

Windows: I strongly recommend a Windows 8 touch-enabled laptop, or a Surface RT along with a Windows 8 desktop. The Surface 2, with RT, does everything a student needs, while a full Windows 8 desktop can do any and everything else. And, best, you can get both for about the cost of an iPad.

If you have to choose, go with a Surface 2 tablet, because it will do everything you need, but be careful with any tablet to store, keep, and protect it.

Android: I recommend caution with this system. It’s neither as capable nor as tested as iOS and Windows, and being cloud-based, it depends on constant internet access. Apple and Microsoft have far more capable products.

MS Office: whatever system or device you use, stick to Microsoft Office: and use OneNote, you students! It is the best note-taking, organizational tool around. (See EverNote for an alternative, although it does not integrate as well with the other Office programs.)

Whatever you do, be wise about it. Don’t get “the latest” just because, and take a minute to think through what you really need. I’ll be glad to answer your individual questions any time.

– Michael