Buying Guide: Specs Your Child's Christmas Laptop Needs For School

Christmas shopping season is upon us, and that means deciding on the best presents for the people in your lives. If you're a parent, it makes sense to consider a new laptop for your kids that can also serve them well in the new school year. Here are some important tips on what to look for...

The Basics

Before you start on your quest to buy a shiny, new laptop, convertible or tablet for your kid this Christmas, it's worth considering the basics that should underpin all tech purchases:

Ask The Teacher

There's no national standard for laptops or convertibles in schools these days, which can make selecting a laptop for schoolwork tough. There are a few ways you can make sure you're buying the right device for their education.

Nobody knows your kid's curriculum better than the person teaching it. Maybe the school is using a particular program this year? Maybe the school prefers convertible tablets over laptops? Even better, maybe there's a minimum spec list required or school discount available.

Alternatively, if you want double-confirmation on what you should be buying, go and have a chat to the IT manager at the school. They're technologically proficient for a living, and they're a great place to find a second opinion to confirm your purchase.

Know Your Budget

Setting a budget and sticking to it is paramount when it comes to tech buying, and it's especially important when it comes to getting a laptop or convertible. Laptops are big ticket items, which means you'll be living with a device for a long time.

If it's beyond your means or not the right device for you, you'll be stuck having purchased your child something they don't need or you can't afford. Do a bit of maths, find a figure you can comfortably afford to spend and stick to it. Don't let yourself be duped by slick talking tech salesfolk.

At the end of the day, it's always you left holding the bag.

Research Your Device

Once you have one or two devices in mind, hit up Gizmodo and see what we think about the device. Search Google for reports of problems. You might just find that it goes bang after a month with the device or it doesn't do something you hoped it actually did.

Look for included value (a bundled copy of Microsoft Office can really sweeten the deal) and make sure you try in-store before you buy.

Armed with that knowledge, let's get started...


Which Specs Are Important?

Navigating a specs sheet can be tough, and let's face it, your kid may even know more about the latest specs than you do. That can be a one-way ticket to a trap, buying something that they want rather than something they need (and that could get dropped, lost, etc without you having a fit). With our advice, you'll be able to balance the two.

Tablet? Laptop? Ultrabook? Convertible? When you're researching online or looking on the store shelves, you could be forgiven for feeling intensely overwhelmed by the amount of choice available to you.

For kids, convertibles are a great place to start as they 'convert' between tablet mode (great for casual use consuming content) and laptop mode (where the work happens). Some devices, like the $450 Asus Transformer Book T100, have a detachable keyboard design. When connected, you'd barely tell it's not a traditional laptop. The Surface Pro 3 (starting at around $989) takes a more flat-cover approach to this same concept.

Another type of convertible is the 2-in-1 Intel Ultrabook. Thin and light, high-performance Ultrabooks — fully functioning PCs — with touchscreens that flip, twist or swivel around so they can also function as a tablet. The Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro (starting at $2099), for example.

MORE: Gizmodo Laptop Buying Guide 2014: Convertible Designs & Styles Compared

Convertibles

• Devices that have clip-in keyboards like the Asus Transformer T100 usually achieve bonus battery life — as the keyboard attachments stash extra battery capacity. Clip-in your keyboard and you might expect to double your life, depending on which device you buy. Make sure you check with the retailer before handing over your cash though, to make sure you're getting a keyboard dock with integrated batteries.

• You'll save space in your bag with a convertible, simply because the peripherals you need can be integrated straight into the one unit. Nothing clunking around is definitely a pro.

• 2-in-1 Ultrabook convertibles running Windows 8 straddle the tablet and laptop/ultrabook categories, meaning you get the benefits of both in one petite yet powerful package. Touchscreen, battery life and portability that you'd normally find on a tablet, paired with the practicality of a touchpad or mouse nib and — more often than not — a full-sized keyboard. Some devices like the Asus VivoTab even come with their own Wacom digitiser pen for drawing and scribbling inputs.

• Some low-powered convertibles can cost as much as a super speedy, non-convertible Ultrabook. So make sure you do a like for like comparison between the specs and consider your specific needs before handing over your cash.

• Be mindful of which version of Windows your convertible comes pre-loaded with. Both Windows RT and Windows 8 Pro are great, but the latter will help you get so much more done in the long run. You get a deeper experience when it comes to the desktop and you can install unsigned software without having to "jailbreak" the damn thing. Better bang for buck comes from being able to get more done, especially on a convertible. For that, you'll need Windows 8 Pro.

'True' Tablets

• You have to consider just how much you want to get done with a slate tablet before you sink up to $1000 on one. These things can have a habit of becoming an expensive secondary device to those with a laptop or ultrabook, so consider your needs. Do you really need a second screen to compliment your laptop, or is it just something you're going to watch movies on? If it's the latter, consider avoiding a tablet and investing the cash in a convertible or straight-up Ultrabook.

As always, check with your school. Some actually now require students to have iPads for certain classes.

• Bluetooth-enabled tablets — most of them these days — allow you to pair accessories such as wireless mice and keyboards directly to the device, so you can bring your favourite devices with you and still get a whole mess of work done expediently. Even if you don't have Bluetooth, some tablets have USB ports for USB keyboards and mice.

• Dedicated tablets have amazing battery life, but compared to convertibles and Ultrabooks, often pack lower-power processors. Not ideal for having lots of tabs and programs open for school assignments, and games like Civilisation V and Dead Space are probably off the menu. Smaller casual games like Cut The Rope and Angry Birds will fare just fine, but think about just how much high-powered work you're going to be doing before buying.

Ultrabooks

What's the difference between an Ultrabook and an ordinary laptop? Well, Ultrabook is a laptop category spec devised by Intel.

For a PC to be dubbed an Ultrabook, it has to meet certain thin and light size plus battery life criteria. Specifically, an Ultrabook must have between five and nine hours of battery life, a power-up time (from hibernation) of under 7 seconds, all the while fitting into a specific height, weight and processing speed threshold.

These are the elite athletes of laptops: high-end, svelte, sexy and powerful devices.

Into 2015, all new Ultrabooks will also need to have touchscreens — a must to really make the most of the Windows 8/Windows 10 experience.

• Because Ultrabooks are so thin and light, they're portable and bag-friendly. And as we've mentioned, 2-in-1 Ultrabooks are fully functioning PCs with touchscreens that flip, twist or swivel around so they can also function as a tablet.

• Ultrabooks are also surprisingly pocket-friendly, with a good one only likely to set you back between $1000 and $1800.

MORE: Gizmodo Laptop Buying Guide 2014: The Best Ultrabooks Under $750 And $1500

• Don't let that tiny footprint fool you, either. Intel has built Ultrabooks to balance power and portability. With Core i3 and i5 processors, Ultrabooks are ideal everyday work, study and productivity machines. But still not very good at playing the higher-end games you might want to play.


Processors

While we'd encourage power users to upgrade from Intel's Core i3 range, for simple school work and web browsing, this is an attractive balance of price and power.

Primary school/early high-school: If your child only needs a device for note taking, online research, and maybe a movie or two on the go, Core i3 specs will get you a sub-$800 machine perfect for the job.

You can also spend much less (easily sub-$500) if you look at Intel Atom-powered machines like the Lenovo Miix 2 and Asus Transformer T100. Intel Atom is a very different beast now compared to netbook days, particularly with the introduction of the quad-core Z3000 series. Atom processors are renowned for sipping power, so they're great for kids going all day without having to charge their machines, and they're usually present in funky new form factors, too. Convertibles, tablets with clip-in keyboards and slates all have Atom processor models available. And because they're such portable little workhorses, you can get them for a great price.

For high-schoolers and uni students: multi-tasking prowess is a must-have for a new machine. For this, a 4th-Gen ('Haswell') Core i5 processor is the most common and best bang for buck when it comes to a chip. Core i5 processors are middle of the range, dual-core (most often) chips that power devices like ultrabooks and even some convertibles. i5 processors are like Goldilocks chips: they don't use too much battery, they aren't too underpowered: they're just right. Not great for gaming or intensive processor work, but they'll get the job done for an everyday machine.

At the big end of town, you have the Intel Core i7 processors. They give the best performance you can get in a laptop these days and are usually found in high-end gaming laptops or all-in-ones PCs.

The i7 is often a quad-core beast that is designed to handle complex tasks like high-frame rate gaming and image/video tasks with relative ease. Unless they're a CAD design or photography student, you'll notice that absent from that sentence is "school work". The Core i7 processor is the Intel-equivalent of smashing a nut with a sledgehammer when it comes to using it for schoolwork. If you child says they need one for school, check with the IT department or their teacher first on what they need so much power for, or make a deal with them that they need to do a few more chores if they want something they can play AAA games on. They won't sneak that one by you again.

So Atom, Core i3, Core i5, Core i7.... hopefully the scale now makes more sense. One new option to also look for: Intel 'Core M'. These are the processors using Intel's latest 'Broadwell' chipset and don't require fans to keep cool. That means an even thinner, quieter, more power-effecient generation of Ultrabooks, 2-in-1s and MacBook Airs. Core M has already turned up in the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro, Acer Aspire Switch 12 and Dell Latitude 13 7000.

MORE: Intel's Core M Might Finally Give Us True Laptop-Tablet Hybrids

FOR NOW: If you want a cheap machine for note-taking and online research, check out either a Core i3- or Atom-powered machine. Fanless Core M-based models will get cheaper as more models and choice arrives. And if you are looking at an AMD-based laptop, at least make sure it's running one of the latest Kaveri processors.

RAM / Memory

RAM — or Random Access Memory as it's known in textbooks — is key to getting a good experience of your computer. Having the right amount of RAM for your tasks is just as important as having the right processor for the job, and balancing the two is a great idea. The general rule of thumb is that the more RAM you have, the better off your computer will be.

It's generally sensible to never stray under 4GB of RAM these days (Windows 8 64-bit requires a minimum of 2GB). Most machines will come with between 4GB and 8GB of RAM to help you get your tasks done, while gaming and other high-powered laptops will throw 16GB or more at the problem.

Storage / Hard Disk Space

As far as storage is concerned, you have three options: mechanical hard drives which are older, heavier and slower but have greater capacity; solid state drives (SSD) which are small, lightning-fast but have smaller storage capacity, or a hybrid of the two to balance speed and storage.

SSD drives are beginning to replace internal mechanical drives, simply due to the space and power gains that can be garnered from installing the former.

One of the added benefits of an SSD drive is the speed at which it runs. Because you don't need a mechanical head to move back and forth to fetch your data (what are we, cavemen?), you have a result in split seconds rather than a handful of minutes. Installing solid state drives will see your files write quicker, programs open faster and — more often than not — your battery last longer.

SSDs also make for smaller, thinner laptops, which won't break your kid's backs in their schoolbag.

The only drawback with solid state is the actual storage size on offer. Because SSDs are still relatively new, getting a big drive to slap into your ultrabook or laptop is an expensive proposition, and even if you do shell out the big bucks, you'll only end up with a drive with a fraction of the storage space you could have got with a mechanical drive.

If you're still someone hungry for storage space but desperate for a power boost in day to day computing, opt for a hybrid solution. Hybrid drives means that you have a small SSD — usually only about 4GB-32GB — installed for caching. Depending on how you have it set up, you can boot the operating system from the SSD to speed up load times, or install your most processor intensive programs onto it for faster performance. It gives you the best of both worlds, but you'll definitely notice the difference on the price tag.

Graphics

Unless your child is doing some video work at school, using a 3D modelling program in science class or bunking off by playing games, it's unlikely you'll need to get yourself a laptop with a dedicated graphics card. The integrated graphics option that comes with Intel's Core line of chips will do.


Armed with this knowledge, you'll be able to get your child a computing gift they'll love, as well as one they can use everyday after the school holidays is over, too! Happy hunting!


Comments

    Just a few things to add.

    Firstly, I'm a Technician at multiple Victorian schools, I have no interests in any resellers, or manufacturers of computers.

    I have been through many different changes, and different approaches to schools.

    Schools can offer SOME licensed software (including office and windows) to students, we are giving our students an Office365 subscription at one of our schools.

    PLEASE as stated, check with your student's school in regards to what devices are acceptable, if there is a panel of recommended computers, grab something from there, don't bring a windows machine to a mac school, and dont bring a mac machine to a windows school, windows to a mac school will really suck for your kids, mac to windows, don't expect much support, if any.

    PLEASE include INSURANCE as part of your purchase, the amount of computers that get trashed is ridiculous, and last years model with the fused LCD display is around $300 to replace, or with insurance, no charge (2 claims per year)

    AN SSD is probably the BEST thing you can get for your computer, having it basically instantly turn on will be great for your students, our oldest computers (decommissioned this year) take upto 5 minutes to start - not good at all

    when we come up with a BYOD or school program, please don't call your student's school, abusing the technicians and staff for going with a specific decision, it won't help you.

    Get a Mac

    They will be so popular, its like buying them selfesteem!

    Devices that have clip-in keyboards like the Asus Transformer T100 usually achieve bonus battery life — as the keyboard attachments stash extra battery capacity

    Correction: no extra battery in the T100TA keyboard dock. The battery life is pretty good though.

    We can buy computers in bulk and at the education rate for X dollars. Parents are not happy, want to purchase themselves.

    They rock up at the Apple store and say "No, the school said we could have them for X dollars."

    Sigh.

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