Whether you're at school, college or uni, a decent laptop or tablet is an academic essential. You don't have to spend a fortune, either.
Our forum on computers, laptops & netbooks is a great place to get advice on buying a computer, as it's full of people who know their tech stuff. Here, one of the forum's regulars - Gofre - shares his expertise on the best laptops and tablets for students in 2014.
£100-£250: the bare essentials
Here we're looking at devices offering solid performance for basic tasks, especially with the help of web-based tools such as Google Docs to minimise the workload on their internal parts. The focus here is on quality products on a budget!
Tesco's Hudl is well-built, and has a fairly beefy quad-core processor for such an inexpensive product. With a higher-than-average display resolution of 1600 x 900 and a relatively uncluttered version of Android, the tablet has a clean, snappy feel. Its small size means it's not going to be suited for those of you looking to write enormous essays, where the 7-inch screen space has to be shared between the page and the keyboard.
Amazon's entry-level Kindle Fire HD tablet occupies a similar niche to the Hudl and is a tenner cheaper at £89. But, aside from the slightly better speakers, it's almost entirely inferior - lower-resolution display, dual-core processor, less storage for £89, heavily skinned software with no access to Google Play, and it's even ad-supported unless you pay a £10 premium.
Dell Chromebook 11 is small and light at 11" and is generally a solid performer in all areas. It has a relatively powerful processor compared with other Chromebooks, battery life is great thanks to the low power specs, the display is decent and it's well built. ChromeOS has all the functionality a lot of people will need, but for anything more demanding than office work or web browsing you'll need to consider Windows. You're also tied to your internet connection for getting most of the functions out of your Chromebook: something to watch out for if you can't rely on a constant connection.
The Dell Inspiron 15 trades the battery life, portability and SSD storage of the Chromebook 11 for a bigger screen and keyboard, large storage and, probably most importantly, a full version of Windows 8. For long essays, specialist software and generally the most functionality you can fit into a low budget, this is a great option.
£251-£500: Standard student workhorses
At this price you're well into the region of Intel Core series processors, which are more than powerful enough for the needs of most studenty tasks. If it's a tablet you're after, your budget will stretch to a premium option.
This Asus model has the holy trinity of specs for any student on a budget: a Core i3 processor for power, 4GB of RAM for multitasking and a 500GB hard drive for capacity. There are plenty of third-generation i3 laptops floating around at the moment for around the £300 mark, but this one offers good value for the specs and Asus is typically a very reliable manufacturer. Compare prices on the Asus X551CA
The Lenovo offers a decent upgrade from the Asus for less than £100 extra. The third-gen, low-voltage i3 processor is replaced here with a fourth-generation, full-power Core i5 processor which will handle casual tasks with ease and make more demanding ones run smoothly. Hard drive space is also doubled to 1TB for huge amounts of storage. Lenovo is widely regarded as a reliable brand. Compare prices on the Lenovo G510
Touch-screen laptops and convertible laptops are all the rage these days, and the Lenovo Flex series offers great examples of both. While it doesn't fold back fully into a tablet, the flexible hinge does allow you to use it as a standard notebook, or use the keyboard as a kickstand, propping up the touch-screen for ease of use. The rest of the spec sheet is no slouch either, with a fourth generation i3 processor, 4GB of RAM and 500GB hard drive.
The iPad Air and Galaxy Tab S 10.5 both represent the best tablet experiences on their respective operating systems. While they lack the raw power and functionality of a fully fledged laptop, both the iPad and Tab offer glorious high-resolution displays, all-day battery life and compact form factors. That makes them ideal for all your media needs and also for things like note taking or light essay work in bed. Which is best for you boils down to a few key differences - the iPad has a premium feel, is tied into Apple's cloud based services and integrates seamlessly across other iCloud enabled devices. It has the stability of iOS along with the unmatched selection of tablet-optimised apps its App Store contains. On the other hand, the Galaxy Tab S has a larger and even-higher resolution display, has expandable storage via microSD, and has the openness and customisability of Android. Compare prices on the iPad Air & compare prices on the Galaxy Tab S 10.5
Both the iPad and Tab S come in smaller-sized models, the iPad mini with Retina Display and Galaxy Tab S 8.4, with both tablets having identical specs and screen resolutions squeezed into a smaller package. Apple's older models are also still available for anyone looking for a slightly cheaper iPad. When it comes to Android, the Sony Xperia Z2 is a worthy consideration for its decent specs and waterproofing, but is otherwise inferior to the Tabs. Finally, a mention of the Nexus 7 and the venerable Nexus 10, too. The N7 is a rock-solid performer at only £200 for 16GB with a high-res 1920 x 1200 display, and while the Nexus 10 is getting a bit long in the tooth it still offers good performance and offers the same 2560 x 1600 resolution found in the more expensive Tab S models. The big defining feature here is that both Nexus devices have stock Android, making them infinitely customisable.
£500-£1,000: Premium machines
Though the slimness of the MacBook Air line is matched by a lot of the market now, there are three key reasons to consider one. They they run OS X, have best-in-class trackpads and get insane battery life. Mac OS X is a big enough draw on its own for many people, offering a distinctly different experience to Windows 7 or 8 as well as increasingly deep integration with iOS devices. The trackpads are a pleasure to use, with large glass windows where a lot of small Windows laptops opt for smaller, more cramped ones. Coupled with OS X's extensive gesture support it makes navigating a Mac an absolute dream. Finally the Airs squeeze out impressive battery life, with the nine and 12-hour estimates for the 11" and 13" models respectively being more than achievable with moderate use. They well and truly are all-day machines without having to use lightweight operating systems like Windows RT, iOS or Android.
In terms of other Apple options, instead of a 13" Air you could get the 13" MacBook Pro with Retina Display (ignore the non-Retina MacBook Pro, poor value and easily beaten by the i5 laptops discussed in the previous segment). You trade the sheer slimness and long battery life for a glorious display and full-power processor while still retaining lightness.
With the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft set the gold standard for tablets running Windows. Crammed into its remarkably thin and robust body is a Core series processor and a 1440p display, while usability is enhanced with a superb stylus, keyboard cover and kickstand. It's the closest attempt at finding a true laptop/tablet hybrid yet.
For the niche it fills, nothing else holds a candle to the Surface Pro 3. Perhaps the closest is the previous generation, the Surface Pro 2. It's still on sale and packs the same generation of Core processor, but lacks the refinements made in the transition to its successor models (albeit at a cheaper price).
PCSpecialist Cosmos II - From £466 @ PCSpecialist. Recommended upgrades: Core i5-4210M CPU, 1 x 4GB RAM, GTX 850M graphics (total: £537)
PCSpecialist is a custom laptop builder that has become increasingly popular by providing virtually unlimited scope for getting exactly the right specs you want at very competitive prices. The Cosmos II is an excellent platform for building an entry-level gaming machine on, capable of coming out with respectable innards like the recommended spec here for under £600. Don't expect to blow through all titles at max settings and certainly don't expect the laptop to stay nice and cool during intensive gaming sessions, but an 850M and i5 processor can handle most modern games at decent graphical settings. You can even choose to throw in Windows 7 if you like!
PCSpecialist offers huge scope for customisation. In terms of options from more recognisable brands, there's really nothing out there at the moment that can fit this much power into a sub-£600 machine.
This time a preconfigured PCspecialist model from ebuyer has a full-power, quad-core i7 processor which is pretty much the ideal CPU for gaming, 8GB of RAM for more intensive multitasking, and a beefy 860M graphics card. All this will throw out gorgeous-looking games on the 1080p display. You can expect to start pushing into the ultra-high settings of newer games with this setup.
Asus, MSI and Gigabyte make some pretty nifty gaming machines, and while you'll pay a premium for it you can shop around to find similarly specced laptops to this for under a grand packing nicer designs, backlit keyboards and so on. Watch the weight though, laptops this powerful can be tanks!
£1,000 and beyond: Beastly behemoths
This is where diminishing returns start kicking in and you start moving into top-tier machines. Whether you're looking a laptop that will laugh in the face of everything you throw at it for years to come or a specialised machine for your course's most demanding tasks, if you have the money you'll find something that will meet your needs.
This is the cheapest platform to offer the most powerful mobile graphics solutions currently on the market, either the twin Radeon M290X or twin Geforce GTX 880s. Yep, they take the most powerful graphics card from either manufacturer, put it in the machine, then do it again. Don't expect good battery life, do expect to treat any game for the next couple of years as a puny attempt to make these graphics cards cry. Of course there's the usual bevy of options PCSpecialist offers on all its laptops, so be sure to throw in a quad-core i7 and then whatever RAM and hard drive options you fancy. Double 1TB SSDs anyone?
At this price diminishing returns has well and truly kicked in for the Mac line. Looking squarely at the spec sheet you'll notice we started outdoing these specs quite a few entries ago. But with features such as OS X, the obscenely high-res display, entirely flash storage and awesome build quality, the high-end MacBooks remain enduringly popular among creative professionals. Whether it's using Apple's own editing programs or the Mac versions of universal apps, the 2880 x 1800 display means you can fit more in your timelines and even get full 1080p playback in the preview window of video editing suites.
Not the most powerful gaming machine on the market but certainly among the most premium. Forget Alienware, this one's a head-turner. Crammed into this ridiculously slim package are twin GTX 860Ms in SLI, about as powerful as a single top-end 880M, a full power i7, 16GB of RAM, three 128GB SSDs (and a 1TB HDD, because why not), all chucking out gaming goodness to a 17" 1080p display. Unusually light for a 17" laptop, especially one this powerful, if you want a beastly gaming machine in a suave, sophisticated package, look no further.
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