Laptop, Tablet, or Desktop? Google Docs or Office 365? Which technology is best for high school and college?

What’s best for school, a laptop, tablet, or PC?

Heading back to school always feels like a fresh start. And like a new set of clothes, getting a new device just makes you feel good.

But for high school and college students, freshmen especially, the choice of technology can really impact academic performance. The wrong choice can make school difficult or, worse, become an excuse not to do well.

Into the start of the 2016-17 school year, I thought it’s time for an update from previous posts here on the topic. The technologies haven’t changed much, but there are more options — and most importantly, more affordable ones.

Here for previous posts on the best technology for school:
College bound: desktop, laptop or tablet? PC or Mac?
The Best Computers for College: desktop, laptop or tablet? PC or Mac pt 2

What has changed significantly, though, is the “cloud.”

The latest in computer tech for students: the cloud

I see as the most important recent innovation in computer technology cloud storage and syncing across devices. The ability to use a different device for different situations without having to maintain separate files, logins, and programs is brilliant.

DropBox offers an excellent file sharing/syncing service,,  but in my experience, Windows 10, OneDrive and Microsoft Office deliver the most intuitive, easy to manage syncing across devices.

Google Drive requires Chrome and is limited to Google Docs files and formats, so I don’t recommend it. Apple still doesn’t offer seamless syncing across devices and requires use of iTunes to sync a Mac with an iPad (see this Apple support article for instructions). Windows 10 does it without hassle or additional or third-party steps. You can sync Microsoft Office documents and settings across devices if you use a Microsoft Office 365 account on your Mac (more on that below).

Whatever your choice for managing files and user accounts, the important things to consider are:

  • will you have any-time access to effective wifi?
  • will you need your data across devices?
  • do you have a working backup strategy?

With DropBox, Google Docs, and OneDrive (Microsoft), there is no need to store files locally.  DropBox and OneDrive allow for offline and connected use of files, and Chrome can store Google Docs files for offline use, but only OneDrive has native offline/online syncing capability.

The limitation with OneDrive, however, is that you need to have enough space on your local machine for all your files. For students, that shouldn’t be much of a problem, although if they store tons of music and videos, it can use up disk space quickly. OneDrive allows for selecting folders and files to sync locally, while allowing for storage online of additional files. (My solution for my phone and tablet is to sync only my playlists, which adds up to about 15g,  rather than my entire, 200g music collection.)

Google Docs?

Many schools and teachers use Google Docs, so most kids are familiar with it. Again, the core limitation is that it is not available offline, and to store files locally you have to download them manually.

Still people like the Google Docs and its easy to use functionality. My problem with it is that compared to MS Office, it is extremely limited. MS Office has incredibly powerful productivity tools that are well worth teaching a student to use. Additionally, students should learn to use MS Office because most businesses use it, and MS Office literacy – especially Excel — belongs on any student’s resume.

Office 365

Most universities, including community colleges offer registered students a free Office 365 account, which brings a full suite of enterprise-level “productivity” programs such as Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Sway, and Access. Office 365 also resolves file  storage issues, as it comes with OneDrive and SharePoint, an enterprise-level sharing platform, all of which are designed for use on any tablet or computer on or offline.

If your school doesn’t offer Office 365, or if you want to own it yourself, Microsoft offers student pricing that makes it very affordable. A single license can be used on multiple devices.

Hardware: tablet, laptop or desktop pc?

In my previous posts on the question about which devices are best for a student, I recommended a Windows laptop with a docking station as the best solution for a student. A laptop is portable and powerful, and a docking station creates an efficient and dedicated working space for serious study.

I maintain this recommendation along with the even better solution of a laptop and a desktop computer with keyboard, mouse, and external monitor.

I also maintain that a Windows machine is the better alternative simply for the price advantage over a Mac. Windows PCs can do anything a Mac can, and the more expensive laptops from HP, Dell, and others now match the Apple laptops in terms of build quality and form. Again, most businesses use PCs, so there’s the added advantage in the job market of learning Windows. The less expensive Windows machines can be had for $300 new, and sometimes even less. The value is incomparable, especially if matched with an Office 365 account.

As for Chrome and Android tablets, I do not recommend these as serious productivity tools.

Dual Use Laptops: a tablet and a pc

iPads and straight tablets are convenient and easy to use. For serious study, however, I believe that a student should use a full PC environment with monitor, keyboard and mouse.

“Dual use” or “convertible” laptops such as the Microsoft Surface, can bring the benefits of both. With detachable keyboards and ready made docking stations, these offer a nice solution, especially since they all have “touch” screens that allow for easy management and pen or finger input.


The benefits of a touch screen for students are enormous. With a digital  pen or finger, students can mark up pdfs and even browser pages (see the Windows Edge browser) that can be saved as separate files. But touch is the less important feature between a laptop and a tablet. While a tablet may have touch and a laptop may not (available at higher price), the trade-off for the laptop is better.

Again, I stress to students and parents that a desktop setup is the best place to study.

A cell phone is not a school computer!

Too many students think that they can do everything on their cell phones. Yes, these phones can do most anything, but they simply do not make for good work spaces.

Even with attached mini keyboards and external monitors, they just don’t work as well as a full sized keyboard.

Cell phones should be an integral part of a student’s technological mix. They are invaluable for communication and calendar functions, but they should never be the driver of student technology, just an accessory to it.


For a surprisingly little amount, parents can provide students with both a portable laptop (or detachable) and a useful stationary workspace with external monitor, keyboard and mouse. If you want to spend the extra money on a Mac, that’s fine, but be sure to empower your student’s workflow with an Office 365 account for it.

There’s too much at stake for high school and college students to miss out on opportunities because of the wrong technology or poor use of it. Speak to your child about what’s best and think through you own professional environment and what you use at work. Students need a workplace, not just a shiny toy.

– Michael