The best tech for students – from laptops to note-taking tools

It’s that time of year again when students are gearing up to go to university. But this time, it’s under very different circumstances – which makes having the right equipment even more important.

From laptops and phones to headphones and note-taking tools, here’s a guide to some of the tech that might help improve your student experience … without breaking the bank.

Laptops and tablets

Given that a lot of teaching and learning will probably be done online over the coming months, it is arguably worth spending a bit more than you might normally.

Look for the latest 10th-generation Intel i5 or i7 processors, at least 8GB of RAM, and 128GB or more of SSD storage. Don’t be tempted to buy a laptop with a traditional magnetic hard drive. They may be cheap and come with a fair bit of storage, but they’ll be slow.

Screen size is up to you – smaller is better for carrying around, larger better if it’s fixed to a desk. I recommend a 13-inch to 14-inch screen as a happy medium. Make sure it’s at least 1080p resolution.

Generally, you can get a good Windows 10 laptop for about £500. Be aware that at this price you will sacrifice typing and mousing experience, speaker and webcam quality, and probably battery life, too. Of the traditional laptops on offer for £499 or so, the Asus X409JA or Acer Aspire 5 are worth looking at.

But if you want something a bit more flexible, the 10.5-inch Microsoft Surface Go 2 Windows 10 tablet costs around £479 with a keyboard with student discount.

If you have a bigger budget, and want a better screen, keyboard, trackpad, speakers and performance, particularly for video conferencing, my picks for laptops under £1,000 are the excellent Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 at £899 with student discount, or the latest Apple MacBook Air. The latter typically costs £999 but is available with a variable student discount in the region of 5-10%, and is on offer with a free pair of AirPods earbuds.

Smartphones

The good news is that you don’t have to spend £1,000 to get a really great one.

For budgets under £450, the Google Pixel 4a is one of the best phones of the year at £349, with a top camera and great software including the excellent auto-transcribing Google Recorder app.

If you want 5G, the OnePlus Nord, at about £379, is a true bargain, with a good camera and great performance, battery life and screen.

Alternatively, Apple’s cracking iPhone SE 2020 at £419 is equally excellent value. It doesn’t have 5G or a better camera, but it has better performance and will last up to five years with software updates, whereas the others will last about three.

For budgets up to £800, the £799 OnePlus 8 Pro is arguably the best Android phone released this year, and the £729 iPhone 11 gets you Face ID, a better screen and camera, and longer battery life than the SE.

Headphones

They can make a huge difference when it comes to being able to concentrate in a busy library, cafe or student house.

For on-the-go listening, choose true wireless earbuds. Samsung Galaxy Buds+ are small, super-comfortable, block out noise, work with Android, iPhone, Mac and Windows, and last a long time on a charge with an excellent case. Available for as little as £105.

Apple’s AirPods are great, too, but they do not block out noise, relying instead on simply drowning it out. Excellent for calls and can be had for around £125, or free with a Mac or iPad for students.

If concentration is your key need, noise-cancelling headphones are essential. My top pick are the older Bose QuietComfort 35 II, excellent at both active and passive noise blocking, isolating you from speech better than most rivals. They are also extremely comfortable and durable. At around £220, they still undercut some top-priced competition.

Note-taking apps

For taking notes you can access anywhere and for free on any device, I’m a long-time fan of Evernote and Microsoft’s OneNote.

Both sync to the cloud, can handle text, images, handwriting, drawing and attachments to notes, including audio recordings – excellent for lectures – and have apps on the web, Android, iOS, MacOS and Windows.

Evernote Basic is free to use on two devices with a 60MB per month upload limit for notes, which is fine for just text and the odd photo.

Evernote Premium costs £4.99 a month with up to 10GB of uploads per month, unlimited devices and notes up to 200MB in size. Students get Evernote Premium for half price when bought yearly.

OneNote is free to use, but notes are stored in OneDrive, which comes free with a Microsoft account with 5GB of space. More OneDrive storage costs £1.99 a month for 100GB of space, or it can be bought with a Microsoft 365 account starting at £59.99, which includes 1TB of storage as well as Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook apps.

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