Buyer’s guide to budget laptops

With all the hype about cloud computing, it could be assumed that the size of the hard disk doesn’t matter. However, with meaty applications, digital images, audio and video to store, even a big drive soon fills up. This makes 320GB, 500GB or larger drives a wise investment. RAM is even more important. Windows 7 needs a minimum of 2GB to run efficiently, but it will run more smoothly with 3GB or 4GB, particularly if you need to dip in and out of several applications at the same time.

Buyer's guide to budget laptops

Good connections

Connectivity is important too. Many schools use projectors right now, which connect via an analogue VGA input. However, HDMI is very much the future, both for connecting to a projector or to a flat-screen TV.

For most schools, the most valuable connections will be the USB ports. Although the number isn’t particularly important, because you can daisy-chain devices if necessary, a minimum of two or three is ideal. USB 3 is available now, too, which facilitates data transfer at up to ten times the speed of USB 2, and it’s backwards compatible.

Budget laptop buying tips
    Try before you buy: Ask suppliers to let you test a device for a week or two, and don’t be afraid to let pupils loose on them.
    Shop around: Prices, warranty terms and after-sales service may vary. Traditional school suppliers may bundle in useful educational software or other extras. Ordinary suppliers may be cheaper – but you’ll find that there’s a management overhead in terms of uninstalling software or installing your own disk image, not to mention getting rid of inappropriate programs and desktop shortcuts.
    Negotiate: Ask for a price discount, or a computer trolley for every 15 laptops you buy. The worst thing that can happen is they say “no”!
    Look at other funding options: Investigate leasing or parental contributions. The eLearning Foundation has plenty of information that can help.

Robustness is crucial. Children tend to hammer keys, and can sometimes drop their laptops. Budget machines often cut corners here, but this can be the difference between a laptop you’ll be using day after day, month after month, and one that spends half its lifetime in repair.

All laptops now feature Wi-Fi connectivity, but not all Wi-Fi is created equal. It’s a good idea to ensure that laptops purchased by a school come with built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi, so they can connect to networks at the fastest possible speed. Even if your school has stuck to the older, slower 802.11g standard, it might well want to upgrade in the future. It’s also worth noting that having more than 25 connections to any classroom access point might cripple the network for everyone.

Battery life is key. It’s ideal if a device can keep going all day, but for most budget laptops this is unrealistic. Once pupils use them for making videos and conducting web research, three to five hours is more likely. Obviously, the longer a single charge lasts, and the quicker the battery recharges, the better.

The industry is working hard to help. Lithium-ion batteries are continually improving, and while the best batteries are restricted to premium models, many technological improvements are now trickling down to cheaper models. Processors, graphics processors and motherboard chipsets are getting better at ramping performance up and down to reduce power consumption when high-speed isn’t needed, and modern Intel processors can reduce power consumption to virtually zero when idle.

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