BYOD = Bring Your Own Device
BYOD is being rolled out in high schools in Australia, and parents ask me which computer to buy. There are a lot of factors to consider, and budget. Personally I don’t like to over invest in any computers as they are quickly obsolete and have a tendency to die after a few years. If all this is too much, many schools partner with a supplier, so just buy whatever they recommend. If you want to look at options, I have listed here what I consider the most important factors…
Here’s the key things I think are important:
- Warranty – 3 years with accidental damage.
- Battery Life – 7 hours (or more)
- SSD Hard drive – 128Gb
- 11″ screen
- CPU (Processor ) – Intel Pentium, Intel i3 or Intel i5. Do not buy an Intel Celeron, or Intel Atom. AMD – maybe (see below)
Let’s face it. Your high school teenager is going to drop their laptop. It will happen. If you doubt this, look at the condition of their text books and backpack after 12 months. What about 3 years? Laptops are fragile and are difficult and expensive to repair. Get a long warranty, with accidental damage cover if you can.
Most schools don’t allow students to plug into power to recharge their laptops. So the battery needs to be good. The battery power output (like say 32 Amp Hours) and number of cells is less meaningful than the run time. A high powered machine with a big screen, large hard drive and powerful CPU will chew through the battery very fast, and needs a huge battery to last 3 hours, whereas a lean machine may have a small battery, but last all day on it. So look at the battery life or run time on battery rather than the amp hours. The other thing to consider is that batteries only last about 3 years or 1,000 cycles, after which they will only run for about half the original run time. This deterioration is noticeable usually after about a year, and gets worse from there. Sometimes the battery is useless after as little as 2 years. Other times they will last 3 years, but your battery life by then will be poor. So best case scenario 10 hours battery life new = 5 hours battery life at 3 years. Some laptops will allow you to replace the battery, at an cost of around $100 – $200 (and the battery is almost never covered by more than a 1 year warrranty), which isn’t bad if it means another year or two from the laptop There are also new battery technologies which may survive more recharge cycles. In any case, it will pay to make sure the battery is long lasting, and the next three items will help towards that…
There are two different technologies for hard drives – SSD (solid state) and “normal” or HDD (hard disc drive).
HDDs are older tech and have physical spinning discs. HDDs are larger, use more power, run slower, can “crash” and break down far more often. However they have larger capacities. If you see a laptop with 500Gb or 1Tb hard drive that is cheap, you can be just about guaranteed it has a HDD. The laptop versions of HDDs (2.5″) are a bit more rugged that your desktop HDD (3.5″), but even slower and lower capacity than their desktop cousins.
SSD hard drives are smaller in size and capacity, and are like memory cards – no moving parts and very fast. They use way less power too. The catch is they die after about 5-7 years (HDDs are lucky to last that long anyway), and they are much more expensive. So to keep the cost reasonable they tend to be a lot smaller. However 32Gb is just too small for a hard drive. 128Gb is the go. If you have to get a 64Gb drive you may manage OK. Just don’t get 32Gb – that’s just silly for a Windows 10 computer.
SSD is the smart choice. The speed of the hard drive matters because on all other counts this laptop is likely to be a bit on the slow side of things. A slower CPU = a longer battery life. So to make up for the sluggish CPU, get a faster (SSD) hard drive.
Screen size determines the overall size of the laptop, and how much battery power it takes. So for a smaller system that won’t break your kid’s back, and will last all day long, get a smaller screen. There are reasons to get a larger screen – for example if you have a child with glasses (like I do), or if they are doing high end graphic design or CAD work – a larger screen might be warranted. But for most students an 11″ screen equals a small, light, and long battery life computer. I took my daughter (who doesn’t wear glasses) to JB Hifi and we looked at screens, and while the 11″ was too small for my older eyes, hers were fine with it. We still bought one through her school anyway, but it was good to check the screen size in person.
Good: Intel Pentium, i3, i5 (i7 is overkill)
Bad: Intel Celeron, Atom.
As this laptop will mostly be using Word or other simple software, it doesn’t need to be the fastest thing going. Also a fast CPU will drain the battery quicker, so a slower one is a benefit. Usually I have a minimum of i3 for a laptop (i5 for a desktop), but with an SSD hard drive to speed things up and long battery life being more important, the Pentium class CPUs offer good value for money and are tolerable. Try them out. I recommend not over investing in a school laptop, but I draw the line at Celerons and Atoms. Celerons are basically the slowest that Intel can make a CPU, and Atoms are designed for phones and tablets. An Atom in a PC is like putting a small motorbike engine in a car – don’t do it.
2020 Update: in 2019, AMD really outdid themselves, making better processors than Intel at the performance end of the scale. I’ve not used a cheap AMD laptop CPU, so I don’t know if they have improved their game at the lower end where school laptops live, but maybe they are worth adding back into the mix? Though if you want to keep it simple, stick with Intel.
RAM – usually 4Gb or 8Gb. More than 8 is wasted, and most people won’t notice the difference from 4 to 8. Gaming / CAD / Video editing – 8 is the minimum, but school laptops don’t need it.
Dedicated Graphics – No. Dedicated graphics means there is a separate graphics processor to help render graphics. Useful if you want to edit movies, do 3D design work, or play computer games (though you are better off getting a separate desktop for gaming or movie work. Gaming and battery life are opposite objectives for computers). Dedicated graphics cards chew a ton of battery. If you see something like Intel HD Graphics 620, then this is probably integrated = long battery life. If you see AMD or NVIDIA Graphics, it is a separate (dedicated) graphics card which means short battery life but better gaming, movie editing and 3D CAD work.
CD/DVD – not needed anymore. Everything is downloadable. External USB DVD drives cost about $20 on ebay if you ever need one, and you can save a lot of weight and size in a laptop that doesn’t have a DVD drive.
Connectivity – wifi is standard on all laptops these days. It may have a network port which you probably don’t need. It should have 1 or 2 USB ports, and probably a display port or similar output for an external monitor. You will never use the Bluetooth and probably not the memory card slot if it has one (a memory card slot on a laptop is primarily there to read your camera memory card). You can buy a USB hub for less than $10 on ebay if you need more USB ports.
Extras – Consider an external keyboard, mouse and monitor if this is the only computer your child will use at home as well. One tip is to get a wireless desktop bundle of keyboard and mouse together (like the Microsoft Wireless Desktop 2000 for about $50), which only uses one usb port for the wireless receiver instead of one each for the keyboard and mouse. Some smaller laptops only have 1 USB port (though again you can use a USB hub). For the monitor you will need to check what type of output the computer has and probably buy an adaptor (like display port to VGA or mini display port to HDMI – check your laptop). Monitors are quite affordable these days – $200 will get a decent 23″ LG screen or similar. External keyboard, mouse and monitor allows your child to sit upright instead of hunching over a tiny keyboard and screen. Obviously you set that up at home and not at school.
Microsoft Windows – your laptop should come with Windows 10 Home installed. Unless your school specifically requires it you don’t need Windows 10 Pro. They will spell it out if you do, and you can always upgrade Windows later if you need to, but 99% of the time Windows 10 Home is all you ever need. But, a word of warning – don’t get Windows 10s. That little “s” on the end spells “so restricted you can only use apps from the Windows store and most of the programs you want to run won’t work on Windows 10s”. Well, maybe not, but that’s what it means! Windows 10s is designed to compete with Chrome books and other devices that will only run a limited number of programs.
Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, etc) – Do NOT buy this! There is no need as all Australian secondary school students can get a free copy of Microsoft Office – ask your school for details.
Antivirus – Laptops often come with a trial or 60 day antivirus, and Windows 10 has inbuilt antivirus, but it’s not good enough. The only one good enough is Malwarebytes. Click here to read why.
Don’t Pay to Repair Laptops
I don’t pay to repair laptops. Once the warranty is expired, then as soon as something breaks, I bin it. Computers follow a bathtub curve for failure rate. Very high initial failures (dead on arrival or within days of use) and then practically no faults until a certain point (2-4 years depending on the brand, less if abused), and then it’s one thing after another. As soon as the first thing goes, chuck it out. The reason is that the failure of one component usually predicts (or causes) the failure of others. A dead fan may cause the CPU to cook, which then damages the motherboard, which then fries the RAM and overheats the hard drive. A cracked screen means the laptop has suffered a drop, which will also damage the motherboard and hard drive. And sometimes they will fail at the same time, sometimes they will fail weeks apart, one after the other.
Also, there’s the cost. Your laptop is only going to last another year or two at best after a major repair, so spending $500 on a repair isn’t worth while when you can put that towards a new machine that will last 3-5 years, plus the new computer will be faster, have a larger hard drive, and a fresh install of Windows – it will be way better.
So, as soon as something breaks outside of warranty – throw it away. Oh, and don’t forget to make regular backups of important data. Consider using Microsoft One Drive to store files – they are synced and backed up to the cloud automatically.
You get what you pay for. There is very little difference in the cost to companies for their parts, and excluding Apple, the manufacturers make very little margin on hardware. So a cheaper laptop is cheaper for a reason. The less reputable brands do things like using tablet CPUs (like Atom), or desktop CPUs (the laptop versions of CPUs are more expensive, but specifically designed with low power usage in mind). I also find the build quality and number of hassles you have with a really cheap machine is not worth it. Having said that, it’s also unwise to over invest in a high school computer. Fortunately in computers it usually doesn’t cost too much more for a half decent one.
Good Laptop Brands:
- Microsoft (Surface Pro) – I own a Surface Pro and it is the best laptop I have ever owned. Bit expensive, but magnificent. You can buy aftermarket shells or covers to protect them too. Two negatives – the price, and you can’t replace the battery (but it lasts a long time). The Surface Pro is fast, acts like a laptop or a tablet, has full Windows 10, an amazingly beautiful screen, and is small and light for a laptop. Yes, I’m very biased.
2020 Update: while in the last few years the MS Surface became more expensive, and hard to justify, it has dropped in price now. Talking to a principal of a school whose teachers were all given Surfaces, they absolutely loved them. If you want top shelf quality and performance, and don’t mind spending a bit more, get a Microsoft Surface with an i5 CPU.
- Apple – Unless your school is an Apple environment, avoid Apple. They are expensive and if your school isn’t mostly Apple computers you will never hear the end of “Oh, not sure how to do that / that program doesn’t work on an Apple / this file is incompatible with Apple / no idea how to connect to your Apple…” In a word: Nightmare. Just don’t. And no, I’m not an Apple hater. I own a Macbook Air, and I love it. Great for doing your own thing. But I would never inflict the pain that goes with an Apple on anyone trying to work within a system like a school. Also non replaceable batteries.
- HP – my second pick after the Microsoft surface. Typically well build and work well. Just uninstall all the bloatware (unwanted extras) they add on – like McAfee Antivirus (it’s complete rubbish – use Malwarebytes instead). HP machines vary in performance quite drastically – stick to the CPU and other hardware suggestions above and you’ll be fine.
- Dell – Dell are typically decent. Just check the warranty (next day onsite is a hundred times better than “post it back to us”) and delivery time – on some computers it is 2-3 days, on other computers it is 2-3 weeks.
- Toshiba – I haven’t bought one in years, but people still tell me good things about them.
Brands I never buy:
- Acer / eMachine
- Lenovo. In 2005 IBM sold their hardware business to their Chinese manufacturer who continued to make computers under the Lenovo brand. The early ones were indistinguishable from IBM computers, but as time has gone on the quality has reduced (along with the price).
- Anything else
Many schools partner with the likes of Dell, HP, etc and include onsite support and accidental damage. These options are well worth looking into. They are more expensive than the cheapest Acer at JB Hifi, but entirely worth it. I am in the IT industry and have access to wholesale computers and such, but I still purchased a Dell for my daughter starting grade 8 through the BYOD program (with accidental damage cover). Her high school is going to look after any IT support and arrange any warranty claims for laptops bought through their partnered BYOD suppliers. I’m an IT guy and even I find that idea attractive.
If you want a simple solution that is pretty much guaranteed to work, just get one from the BYOD suppliers partnering with your school.
And good luck!