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What computer should you get for online school?

Updated: Feb 18, 2023

With many school districts pivoting to online learning this fall, students may be wondering how they can maximize studying at home — and specifically, what devices are best suited for this new normal. Here are some of my picks. These are suitable for high schoolers and college students alike. I’ll break each option down in terms of learning function, pros/cons, etc. Forewarning: I’m a social sciences college student, not a technical expert, so we’ll keep the explanations simple and free of jargon. Let’s get started!

Keeping it in the family: 

If most of your devices are Apple and you want to stick to the same ecosystem, the MacBook Air is a classic choice. It’s light, portable, and has a strong battery life — not that it’ll make a difference moving the laptop from your bedroom to the living room, but it’ll help once things are back in-person. This is a great option if you don’t plan on doing anything too crazy with your laptop (e.g. no hardcore gaming). Plus, Apple’s back-to-school sale lands you a free pair of AirPods with a purchase of a MacBook Air (or iPad Air). 

…but you also plan on using heavy-duty programs:

Unlike its Air-y cousin, the MacBook Pro can run your art program, coding software, or whatever technical program you may be using for class. While this definitely falls on the pricier side, you get what you pay for, and what you pay for are beautiful displays and incredibly competent hardware. The Pro packs a punch with its power and hard drive space, but if you won’t be fully utilizing it, it may be smarter to stick with a cheaper alternative.

Also, note the differences between the new 16-inch and the 13-inch Pro. The Pro 16 is more robust and boasts better graphics, but it boils down to your intended use. If you’re tinkering around on Photoshop or Lightroom, the Pro 13 will be sufficient. But if you plan on doing serious 3D modeling or game development, the Pro 16 may suit your needs better.

Just covering the basics:

Chromebooks blossomed on the tech scene a few years ago, boasting a lightweight frame and a sweet price tag, thanks to the Google Chrome operating system it runs on. Do remember — Chromebooks can vary in capability and price, so make sure to do your research on the specific models! For the most part, Chromebooks won’t be your go-to if you plan on using any hardcore programs e.g. Photoshop. But these devices are perfectly suitable for schoolwork and office work.

Hunting for a 2-in-1 laptop and tablet deal:

The Surface Go 2 is compact, light, and relatively cheap. For students who want a laptop that doubles up as a tablet, this is a strong bet. While not the most powerful machine around — again, if you’re planning on using programs for design, development, etc., you’ll want a laptop with greater processing power — the Go will cover most of your bases. Its vibrant, touchscreen, and gorgeously saturated display will make your online lectures look beautiful. Of course, the screen is only ~10 inches long, so if you want something bigger, you might want to consider upgrading to the Surface Pro.

Balling on a budget:

It’s not the spiciest piece of technology on the market, but this laptop will get the job done at a reasonable price. You’ll be able to tackle your lectures and homework, but anything intense like gaming will be (somewhat) out of the question. Maybe that’s a blessing in disguise…? 

Do it yourself:

If you need a laptop that covers the basics — and I mean, the very basics — here’s a brand you can build yourself! With models starting at only $45, this is sure to be a fun project for any engineering or computer science hopefuls searching for some hands-on application. The Pi plugs into any standard monitor, keyboard, and mouse (not included). Understandably, we recommend you have a secondary device to do any heavy-lifting on, but a Raspberry Pi will keep you engaged. Hey, you get to say that you built your own computer during lockdown! Talk about bragging rights.

Other tips:

  • Laptops are expensive; buying refurbished devices is definitely an economical way to do it!

  • Many newer tablet models are as powerful as laptops. The iPad + Apple Pencil is a popular combo that I see all around my campus — great for handwritten note-taking, but also able to connect to keyboards too.

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Angie Lin was formerly the Humanities Specialist at College Torch.

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