Portable Computer Showdown: Laptops vs. Tablets vs. 2-in-1 Computers

Shopping for back-to-school supplies used to be so straightforward: purchase pens, notebooks and folders, and you were ready to learn. But now, with the increasing reliance on learning technology, there’s so much more to consider. Many schools are encouraging students to bring their own computers to school.


Before you start looking for deals at back-to-school sales, consider what kind of computer would be a good fit. “What is your school recommending?” asks Vicki Davis, a teacher, information technology director, author and radio personality who writes on education and computers at CoolCatTeacher. “They're saying ‘bring your own device,’ but you need to find out what the schools will be optimized for.” This goes far beyond simply buying laptops for school — it means examining the network setup for presentations, printing and more, to best determine what kind of computer will be a good fit.


These days, portable computers also come in many shapes and sizes. Pitting laptops versus tablets (or 2-in-1 computers) can make even the tech-savviest parents’ heads spin. Here are some factors to consider when looking for the right technology for your offspring’s learning.



Benefits: With the ability to run higher-powered and full-featured applications like Microsoft Office, laptops can perform almost any task a student would require. For example, laptops are very good for long, involved word processing sessions, says Davis. "You can do word processing on a tablet — it's okay – but it's really better on a laptop.” That means students are more likely to write better, more thoughtful papers on a laptop than they would using a tablet, largely due to its dedicated keyboard. Likewise, if the student will be running complex math programs, laptops are a better fit.


Drawbacks: If the academic environment requires quick computing, a laptop’s heft might slow the student down. Imagine, for example, that a teacher asks the class to pull up a Web site quickly. That means laptop users would have to take out their computer, open it up, and navigate to a Web browser. Tablet users, meanwhile, can be on the Web in just a few taps. Also, with a much longer boot time than tablets, laptops can make students feel left behind. And, with more moving parts than tablets, they break much more frequently. "I've seen more laptops break, than anything else,” says Davis. To combat this, she recommends students protect their laptop with a hard-shell case.



Benefits: Easy to slip into a backpack or to hold in various positions, tablets are a great mobile computing solution. When it comes to ease of use for tablets versus laptops, the touchscreen slate almost always wins out. And touch-based applications give students tactile ways to connect with content — this can help kinesthetic learners almost literally get a better grasp on topics and learn in new and exciting ways.


Drawbacks: Tablets’ superb portability comes at a cost, because in terms of computing power, they don’t measure up. In Davis’s experience, tablets lack the functionality of laptops, doing only 75 percent of what their hinged brethren can perform. In addition, it can be difficult to get large files off tablets, whether it’s to upload them to the web or to make copies for others. Also, because tablets are reliant on computers, students may not backup their tablets frequently enough, which can be a huge problem if files get corrupted or the student deletes an app. “And if it's not an app that backs up to iCloud, then they just lost their work,” Davis explains.



Benefits: Mixing the best of both worlds, 2-in-1s (also called “convertibles”) have the utility of laptops, and the ease-of-use of tablets. They come in many different designs, such as laptops whose screens bend all the way backwards, those with displays that spin around 180 degrees and others with keyboards that detach entirely. Their displays are always touchscreens, bringing the tactile learning to a laptop form factor, while their full-sized keyboards let students comfortably work on longer papers and other keyboard-intensive projects.


Drawbacks: Heavier than tablets and most laptops, 2-in-1 computers can be clunky and awkward to use. With more moving pieces than conventional laptops, they lack durability, and there’s often a price premium for the enhanced versatility these computers provide.


The Best Computer for Your Student

Ultimately, there is no "best computer for students.” Instead, there is a best computer for each individual student. Finding a good fit involves knowing how a particular student learns and how he or she handles sensitive equipment, as well as what demands teachers and courses will put on the devices themselves. Taking all those into account will help you determine which kind of computer will be the best fit.

By Adam

July 14, 2014