It's the middle of summer, so any talk of education seems downright wrong. But now's the time to start thinking of the tech you're going to need to take to school, college or university.
Every student needs a laptop. Tablets are great for note taking, but when you need to get down to some serious work, only a fully-fledged PC will do. Or will it?
Deciding whether you should buy a tablet or laptop is a tricky proposition. In years gone by, tablets were devices for entertainment, not work, but with convertibles - or 'hybrid' - devices, companies such as Microsoft, HP, Asus and Lenovo say you get the best of both worlds at a great price.
However, most people still prefer to own both a laptop and a tablet rather than compromising and ending up (if you buy the wrong convertible, that is) with the worst of all worlds: an underpowered laptop and bulky, too-heavy-to-carry-everywhere tablet. Sometimes, it might even be cheaper to buy separate devices: a top-end Microsoft Surface, for example, costs more than a decent budget laptop and tablet.
We'll explain how to choose the best laptop, tablet and convertible here, as well as introducing Chromebooks - inexpensive laptops running Google's Chrome operating system.
How to buy the best laptop for students
When choosing a laptop, it's important to consider factors other than merely price and screen size. Those are important of course, but getting the best value for money means understanding the rest of the specifications as well.
Comparing specs will get you only so far, because numbers won't tell you whether the keyboard is comfortable to type on for long periods, or whether the screen has accurate colours, good viewing angles, brightness and contrast. That's where our reviews come in: they give you the inside information that you won't get from a retailer's web page or by going into a high street store.
Which is the best laptop for students, though? You can start by looking at our top budget laptops chart, but it's worth reading on to find out what to look for in a laptop.
Weight is an issue if you'll be carrying it to every class, so aim for 2kg or less. Power supplies can add a surprising amount of weight to your backpack, so a slightly heavier laptop which has a long-lasting battery could be a better choice than a lighter laptop which you'll need to plug in everywhere.
Battery life, then, is another factor. These days battery life varies from just a couple of hours to over 12 hours, but don't take the manufacturer's word for it. We always run the same tests to find out how long a laptop lasts so - again - check our reviews to see if the claims stand up.
Processing power isn't usually an issue even in budget laptops, so unless you need to run demanding 3D or video software, there's no need to pay extra for the top processor such as the Intel Core i7. Look out for an Intel Core i3 or Core i5, and consider 3GB of RAM a minimum. For laptops with AMD processors, look for an A8 or A10 series.
Many laptops dispense with an optical drive to save weight, bulk, cost and battery life. That's not usually a problem and even if you really need one, a USB DVD writer costs less than £15 now.
Laptop screens range from 12 to 17 inches, measured diagonally, and most have 15.4in screens. A 14in screen is a good compromise in usability and portability. Importantly, resolution is usually the same on 13.3, 14, and 15.4in screens: 1366x768 pixels. That means everything looks bigger on a larger screen, but there's no more detail. Generally a higher resolution is always better, though.
The screens themselves differ in quality, but most under £1,000 use so-called TN technology, rather than the IPS panels found in many tablets these days. That means viewing angles are more restricted and colours aren't usually as vibrant. A TN screen isn't a reason not to buy a laptop, but since quality varies enormously, it's crucial to read reviews to find out if your chosen laptop has a good one or not.
Some budget laptops have touchscreens, but you'll probably find this is more of a gimmick than a benefit. Unless the screen is on a hinge which lets you fold flat against the desk, or it swivels and lays flat on top of the keyboard, it's usually too uncomfortable to use for more than the odd stab to launch an application.
Last but not least, look for a laptop with an SSD instead of a hard drive. SSDs are much faster than hard drives and aren't as delicate. The only drawback is capacity: budget laptops might come with a 128GB SSD while the equivalent hard drive-equipped laptop will have 500B or even 750GB.
Best laptop for students: What's a Chromebook?
When searching for the best laptop, you'll probably come across Chromebooks. These look like laptops, but instead of running Windows 8, they run Google's Chrome OS. This is much like the Chrome web browser: everything is done online using web apps.
As long as you have an internet connection, Chromebooks can be just as good as a regular laptop since most of what you do is on the web these days. It's possible to create and edit documents without a connection but Chromebooks are severely limited when they're not online.
Since they don't run Windows, you can't install Windows applications and games on a Chromebook. You can't really edit video, or run Photoshop, but you can edit photos and play casual games online.
Printing from a Chromebook is possible, but it requires a printer that supports Google Cloud Print.
The real benefit of Chromebooks is their price: they usually cost less than £300 and some are under £200. Certain models have a SIM card slot so you can pop in a 3G SIM and get online almost anywhere, but they are at the top end of the price scale and you'll then have to pay extra for the mobile data.
Best laptop for students: Convertibles
If you like the idea of having one device which can be a laptop and a tablet, there's a reasonable range of models to choose between. Lenovo, Asus, Dell and Microsoft among others have convertibles, with the Surface Pro 3 being the newest addition to Microsoft's range.
One thing to consider is that most of them run Windows 8. That's fine for laptop use, but as a tablet, you're limited to Windows apps as opposed to Android or iOS apps. Currently the Windows 8 app store still lags behind Android and iOS.
There's also the confusion of Windows RT, which is a tablet operating system available on some devices which look like convertibles because they're tablets which come with a detachable keyboard. These can't run traditional Windows software such as Photoshop - they can only run apps from the Windows Store.
As we said right at the start, we still think that convertibles are a compromise over having a separate laptop and tablet. However, the low prices of some models such as the new Acer Aspire Switch 10 can be tempting. This sub-£300 tablet runs full Windows 8 and comes with a 'proper' keyboard. Beware, though, that a 10in screen isn't really large enough. Consider 13.3in a minimum for a usable convertible device.