With the school holidays nearing the end, it’s time to think about what to do about the sproglets and their technology needs. What should you buy? We’ll tell you that, and then some, covering where you can even score free software from.
Across the country, Australian families are dealing with the knowledge that students from grade 7 and higher now need their own computer, and this can’t just be the thing they use at home in the living room.
No, kids these days need a laptop for the regular day to day, the school work, and the general times when they’re done and just keen to Facebook with their friends.
That means they probably need a keyboard, a screen, and a decent processor and battery. Meanwhile, schools tend to prefer Windows and Mac, meaning you’ll probably want a laptop of some sort, though certainly some tablets qualify.
Ultimately, you’ll want to check with the school as to what your kids specifically need, but we suspect the list below will help in your search for the best laptop for a student you happen to be buying for.
A question of size
When it comes to shopping for the best laptop, make sure to pick a size that will work best for the person you’re buying for, not just because they have to look at it, but because they have to carry it, too.
Screen size affects both of those things, because the bigger the screen, the more real estate you might have on screen, and yet the larger the laptop it might end up being.
For kids, we generally recommend 11 and 13 inch computers, with the 11 inch machines made for kids in grades 6 to 9, and 13 inches being for above this.
These days, 13 inch laptops are the recommended notebooks for most people, adults particularly, as they tend to offer a good middle-ground in the laptop world, providing as much screen and resolution real estate as a 15 inch laptop, while also cutting back on the size and weight.
Kids, however, probably want the least amount of weight possible, and for that, we’d point to the 11 inch computer, which will match the smaller size well and still sit on the desk, providing enough space to work and view what they need to set their eyes upon.
Budget: up to $500
This year, budget offerings are in full swing, and if you need a computer for someone but don’t need all the bells and whistles, just the ability to run word processing, web surfing, and a few other apps, plus lasting through the day, you’ll find you only have to spend three or four hundred bucks. Easy.
Acer Cloudbook 11
Acer’s Cloudbook starts the budget computers, and while we haven’t seen it in the flesh, the specs check out, and it’s pretty hard to mess up this formula, with a sub-$300 price tag delivering a high def 11 inch screen, a Celeron processor, and support for an SD card.
Windows 10 is included in the package, as is a year subscription to Office 365, and while it’s made for a little school work and web surfing, we bet you could get a little Minecraft action on this one, too.
HP Stream 11
One of last year’s better selections for a student laptop is back in 2016, and while it retains the pink and blue casing and matte screen, it does get an upgrade to Windows 10, which makes the computer even more usable.
Hey, we hear it comes in purple now, too. Neato.
Lenovo IdeaPad 100S
Another of these $299 machines, Lenovo’s switches out a Celeron for an Atom, but pretty much keeps everything else the same.
If you like your laptop in black and trust the Lenovo name more than the others, this sub-$300 is probably worth a look in.
Asus Transformer Book Flip TP200S
A good middle-ground option, the 11.6 inch Asus Transformer Book Flip is a surprising little box with a decent screen and a hinge that turns this laptop into a tablet in a second.
There’s also a new USB Type C port included for high-speed data transfers and the display is good enough that it won’t make your kids want to find that right angle for viewing that cheap laptops often succumb to. The casing could do with some work, but hey, it comes with a one year subscription of Office 365 and a 32GB microSD card in case the storage inside isn’t big enough.
Mid-range: $500 to $999
Need a little more power than what a sub-$500 offering can deliver? These options should help out, jumping up from the Celeron processors found underneath to something with a little more portable grunt, and maybe a bit more battery life to boot, too.
HP Pavilion x2 10
A different take on the budget market, the Pavilion x2 is HP’s detachable take on a laptop and tablet with a magnetic hinge, allowing someone to go from laptop to tablet without thinking.
HP has provided a nifty USB Type C port for charging the laptop, though it’s only a USB 2.0 variant, so don’t expect high-speeds out of this. It also comes in colour options, so if you need something to stand out, this may well be it.
Toshiba Satellite Click 10
Another 2-in-1 just like the above laptop from HP, the Click is Toshiba’s take on the category with a tablet and laptop hybrid.
One thing we already like about the Click is the second battery, with up to 15 hours of life possible thanks to the two batteries. Unfortunately, there’s no USB Type C here, but given microUSB is a more universal standard, you’ll find that on this tablet/laptop/machine.
Microsoft Surface 3
Price: from $699
A good compromise between tablet and laptop, Microsoft’s Surface 3 is a good little all-rounder designed to look like a modern tablet even though it’s all computer on the inside.
There’s a stand built into the body, a lightweight design, and a solid day of charge possible, plus it charges from the microUSB standard most phones charge from.
The downside? You’ll need to buy a keyboard separately, which means ponying up at least $180 for the privilege of adding a set of keys.
Lenovo ThinkPad 11e
Once the machine of choice for the education system, now it’s a computer parents should seriously consider if they fear the worst from the way kids hold and carry laptops.
Seriously, the ThinkPad made for education was built to survive some pretty serious situations, with a MILSPEC rating making it designed to withstand falls and drops thanks to a reinforced plastic body strengthened by glass-fibre. Fun stuff, especially if you’re afraid that the little one will break the laptop without thinking.
Just make sure to get this computer with Windows, because there is a Chromebook variation which we’ve reviewed, and unless the school wants Chrome, you’ll likely be needing Windows.
High-end: $1000 to $2000
If money is no object and you’re after something with a little more prowess than the rest, the options below should suit, while also delivering a little more in terms of design and build quality.
Apple MacBook Air 13
It’s hard to go past Apple’s ultra-light Air, with its superbly thin aluminium body, exceptional keyboard, and a design that just screams lovely.
Right now, the MacBook Air runs on fifth-generation Intel processors, making them due for an update in just a few months. When that happens, the current models will still be excellent, and we might even see a screen change, the one thing we wish Apple would fix.
Mind you, the screen is no big issue, because the MacBook Air is still one of the more lovely ultra-light machines you can find.
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
Without doubt one of the better tablets you can find today, the Surface Pro 4 arrives with an Intel Core i5 processor, at least 4GB RAM, and a design that makes it replace the tablet in your life.
A pen is also included, as is one of the sharpest screens you’re likely to see in a laptop, though the keyboard is optional, meaning you’ll have to spend another $200 to add this to the package.
Dell XPS 13
One of the better thin and light Ultrabooks you can find around, Dell’s take is a sleek and sexy machine featuring one of the most elegant uses of a 13 inch display you’ll find because it’s practically borderless.
Beyond this excellent screen, there’s a decent supply of storage, 4GB RAM, and even some Adobe software included, which could be handy if you’re into free Adobe software.
HP Spectre x2
One of the machines we’re looking at now, HP’s Spectre is a dead ringer for Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4, with a stand, magnetic fabric-covered keyboard, and a pen.
We’re already intrigued by the use of USB Type C, with a port on either side to charge the tablet however you want to, left or right, and HP has even been kind enough to include the keyboard free of charge, something Microsoft charges for.
The screen isn’t quite as high end, that said, but HP’s Spectre x2 is one very pretty tablet.
Apple MacBook Pro 13 with Retina display
The computer we’d probably buy if you needed a lot of grunt in a small form-factor, Apple’s MacBook Pro 13 is hard to go past.
You’ll find up to 10 hours battery life with this one, a few processor options, and Apple’s Force Touch trackpad too, making it up to date. The only thing missing from the package is a new Intel sixth-gen processor and a Thunderbolt 3 port, though we’re sure that will arrive in the next few months, too.
Right now, though, the MacBook Pro 13 is one stellar machine, even if it does cost a pretty penny.
Unless your laptop is made to take a beating — and some are, but not many — there’s a good chance you’re going to need to invest in something to make sure the laptop will survive when your child eventually and inadvertently throws their backpack down the stairs or on the asphalt without thinking.
Given that school bags are generally bought from the school, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to look into a specialised laptop bag with padding made for the laptop, so instead, think of grabbing a case or sleeve made for the size of laptop you’re buying, like these options below.
Note: as with all cases, look into seeing whether the size case you’re buying will be compatible with your laptop before purchase. Some computers may carry the same rough dimensions — 13 inch screen size, for instance — but they may have different dimensions in thickness, so before plonking down the money, make sure the dimensions all line up or try it in store.
Soft and padded, Incipio offers around eight varieties of the conventional laptop sleeve, but the Asher was the one we thought was basic enough for an ever day backpack, delivering faux fur on the inside and a nylon exterior to keep a laptop padded enough so that it won’t break in the regular backpack, which is kind of what you want.
STM’s soft padded sleeve includes two zip up sections, with one being for that lappy and another for any bits and pieces you might need on the side. It also arrives with a handle, too, meaning if you only want to carry this with you somewhere, you can simply take it out and hold the lappy in its protected case as you walk.
Bag brand Booq does some cool little products, and the Viper is another of these, bringing a moulded body hard case to a sleeve with ballistic nylon on the outside and a little more resistance than mere plush. If you’re concerned the laptop owner may be unforgiving, a hard case like this could make all the difference.
Thule Gauntlet TAS series
Thule makes a soft case like everyone else, but it also makes something with a semi-rigid hard shell and a design that repeals water. This one is a little different and may feel a little heavier, but the foam material also means you may not have to worry about the goods inside — the laptop — breaking when the kids happen to be a little careless.
Owning a new computer is only one part of the package, because obviously you need software.
The very thing that makes a computer usable, much of the software the kids will be needing will very likely be provided by the school, so before you go out and buy a licence for Microsoft Office or a subscription to Adobe’s Creative Cloud, get your kids to talk to the IT department at your school and find out what can be provided.
If the school already has licensed copies of the application they need, bonus and you won’t have to spend any money. If, however, your IT department isn’t sure, it might be advisable to head to the online resources provided by the people in charge of your state’s education, because depending on where you live in Australia, you might qualify for free software anyway.
For instance, if you’re living in NSW, the OnTheHub system used to service the educational software needs of the nation offers quite a bit of choice, with Office 2016, Windows 7 through to 10, Adobe Photoshop Elements, Adobe Premiere Elements, and even Adobe Creative Suite, all for free.
Victorian students will find a different set of software, with CyberLink’s multimedia software, EndNote, and Parallels, but no Microsoft Office and Windows that we could find.
Digging a little deeper, Victoria’s education department suggests that licenses to software from Microsoft will have to be purchased, unfortunately.
The same goes for Tasmanians where the OnTheHub system also doesn’t offer much, merely providing Parallels, WinX software, Nero disc writing, and EndNote, but no Microsoft or Adobe software.
Western Australians fare a little better, with Microsoft Office and Windows both taken care of, as well as Parallels for remote desktop access, though no Adobe software for free.
Queenslanders and residents of the Northern Territory can’t be found on the service, and indeed the websites offered by each of the educational divisions for these states also appear to offer very little, forcing residents of these states to either ask the IT department again or turn to one of the other options below, which might mean to get out that wallet.
If you do need to get out that wallet, consider a four-year subscription to Microsoft Office, officially called the “Office 365 University Edition”. This version of Office 365 is pretty much the same as what you normally get, except it’s cheaper — $99! — and works on two separate computers with a four year subscription.
Alternatively, you could buy Office yearly for $100 to $150 like every one else, paying that fee yearly. Students get all the deals.
Adobe’s software won’t be needed by all, either, but if you have a future photographer, designer, filmmaker and editor, or just someone who likes to dabble living in the same house, consider a yearly subscription to the Adobe Creative Cloud, which starts at $9.99 per month for access to the photographic apps (Photoshop, Lightroom) or $14.99 for every Adobe app.
If you don’t want to be locked into a plan, however, you’ll find stores like Officeworks sell the “Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan Education Edition” in a card, providing a one year subscription to Photoshop and Lightroom for $139.
You don’t have to pay money for software if you don’t want to, though.
In fact, so many pieces of software can be found online for free, with clones of software filling in much needed gaps and providing that basic provision for nothing at all.
For instance, if you don’t want to pay for Office, you can always get by with OpenOffice, a totally free clone of Microsoft Office that includes versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for nothing at all. Not everything always lines up, but OpenOffice has gotten a lot better over the years, becoming something quite a lot of people turn to over Microsoft Office.
Alternatively, there’s Google’s own equivalent, Google Docs.
A little different, Google Docs requires a Google account typically used for Gmail or another Google service, and this activates storage on the cloud to let you write documents, edit files, work on spreadsheets, and create and edit presentations inside your web browser in a fully-featured system that saves your files to your Google account for access anywhere.
Once stored in a Google account, owners of an Android phone or tablet, or even an iPhone or iPad can find — with the right app — that they can access their files from their mobile device.
Students doing a little more on the creative side will find they have free installs available of 3D modelling software like Autodesk’s 3DS Max and Maya, while anyone keen on trying their hand at architecture or industrial design will find Autodesk’s AutoCAD and Revit.
And programmers aren’t being left out either, because while they can code in basic text editors of which there are certainly quite a few around, Microsoft’s DreamSpark program could kickstart the whole development process, while a free edition of Visual Studio could keep them there, encouraging students to code their hearts out.