Tools of the Trade: Making Hardware Easy

Published 3 September 2013 ~

Supplemental Insert for Hardware Article 1The question of having the right tools to excel in your education used to be a simple one: got pencil and paper? Library card? Maybe a calculator? In the 21st century things are a tad more complex.

If you think you’re going to be the last noble holdout who doesn’t own a computer, think again – or at least prepare for an extremely bumpy educational experience. Particularly in your upper years, even humanities students are going to be spending a large chunk of your life working with computers. So for your own mental well-being, I suggest you make peace with this inescapable fact, and if you haven’t thought much about what kind of computer(s) would best serve your needs, this column’s aims to point you in the right direction.

I’m not going to run through all your options (see below, and hit up the web version of this article for more useful resources) – but I will make some recommendations based on my own experience through 7+ years of post-secondary education. If you’ve already got a computer and won’t be buying another any time soon, don’t fret: ultimately it’s what you do with it that counts, and in next week’s issue I’ll run through all the software you’ll need to rock your education, even if your laptop’s got that old and wizened look.

Having said that, in my experience the laptop + tablet route is really a killer combination for education purposes, so if you don’t have a usable one of each (or one that does both), it’s time to put that at the top of your wish list and exploit your relations’ kindness for all it’s worth: it’s for the sake of your education, after all.

The first thing to consider: you’ve got a choice of platform you need to make, and be aware once you’ve made your choice it can be very difficult – or at least extremely inconvenient – to switch platforms.

If you want a premium laptop that ‘just works’ and allows you to be highly productive, and you can afford it, by all means buy a Mac, just understand what that means: that you’ll likely be an Apple/iOS person for the foreseeable future, and it’ll cost you more than just the initial sticker price.

Much as I may loathe Apple for the atmosphere of classist smugness they consciously cultivate and for their restrictive, locked down approach to computing, I’ll admit their products are very effective from a productivity perspective: the Mac and iOS interfaces are designed to sort of fade into the background and let you Get Things Done®. Because there are so many iPads out there, and because Mac/iOS users are statistically more willing to pay for apps than Windows or Android users, they almost always get the crème de la crème of software (to my perpetual envy). This is especially true for creative niche demographics like artists and academics. So if you can afford to go the Apple route (for Macs that can mean a markup of several hundred dollars above equivalent PC hardware; iPads are a little less exorbitant), then by all means go for it, you probably won’t regret it. Just be prepared to pony up again for all that amazing software.

If you’re not rolling in bling and don’t have a generous relative willing to buy you that shiny new Mac for school, you can be just as productive with a little extra savvy and know-how. There are lots of advantages to being a Windows user: you have an immense variety of customizable computers to choose from, your hardware is significantly cheaper, and yours is the most widely supported platform, the de facto standard (except in those darn niche markets). Because it’s been the standard for so long, other platforms like BlackBerry and Android are also built to play well with Windows.

Windows tablets have been around a long time, but Windows wasn’t really built with them in mind – until now. Windows 8 tablets are a whole new ball-game, and when paired with a keyboard Win8 tabs are the only tablets that can also do double-duty as a serious full scale computer. If you’re in the market for a new laptop I strongly advise you to consider some of the touchscreen ‘convertibles’ available, like the Lenovo Lynx, ThinkPad Twist or HP Envy X2 – you can get the benefits of both for not much more than a regular laptop would cost. There is some disadvantage compared to owning to a separate laptop and tablet – basically you’ve got one screen to work with rather than two – but the advantages of having a full-power computer in a tablet-size package is definitely worth it. In my daily workflow as a Computer Science/Journalism student I use a Windows laptop (a workhorse ThinkPad) and an Android tablet, but I’m looking to get a light Win8 convertible soon so I can spare my back the pain of lugging 5+ pounds of hardware to and from school every day. In August, September, and October there’s going to be a flotilla of next-generation Windows tablets/convertibles arriving for both the low (Bay Trail) and high (Haswell) price scale. The new Bay Trail devices in particular are massively more powerful than the previous generation of low-end Atom laptops/tablets – unlike your pokey ol’ netbook these computers should be powerful enough to handle anything the average user can throw at them while offering twice the battery life, so the upgrade is well worth it if your present computer isn’t getting the job done.

Android is the newest contender for your computing attentions, but having tried for over a year to use Android tablets as a laptop substitute, I can tell you Android hasn’t yet reached the point where it can completely supplant the need for a more conventional computer. The same goes for the uber-cheap Chromebooks Google’s hawking: however alluring they may be, they don’t give you the full flexibility of a Windows or Mac laptop. Depending on your field, there may well be specific software you’ll be expected to install and use on your own computer; for that reason alone I’d advise you to stay any from supposed Android/Chrome ‘laptop replacements.’ The same goes for those cheap but crippled Windows RTdevices: if it can’t run any common program written within the last decade, it’s not a suitable choice to be your primary computer. As a secondary device, they might be useful.

That said, Android tablets do have many uses, particularly when it comes to ‘consuming content’ – which in the context of your academic career means READING, not YouTube. Likewise for iPads. If you’ve already got a laptop, a low- to mid-range Android tablet (10 inch are best for reading PDFs, the most common academic format) can be a worthwhile tool that doesn’t cost a fortune.

By no means have I covered all your options here – if you’re shopping for a computer there’s still a ton of research you need to do to make the right choice (see below) – but if you’re not a techie person, you should at least now have a basic understanding of where to start if you need a new tablet or computer. Next week, I’ll run through some essential programs that will save you time and raise your game to the next level academically.


Useful Resources

Before you make any hardware purchase you need to do some research to make sure you pick a quality product, with no glaring defects, and the right one for you. Here are some of the best hardware review sites around: