Buying laptops for schools

20 Dec 2010
Laptops

Don't buy a schools laptop before reading Dave Smith's guide to picking the right hardware

Buying a laptop is a complex affair, and it’s easy to make the wrong choice because you didn’t fully think about why you’re buying the laptop and what it’s going to be used for.

For instance, are you buying laptops for pupils, teachers or both? The laptop used to check emails, access the school’s online learning environment, create a PowerPoint presentation, edit a spreadsheet and run an interactive whiteboard file is a different beast to the one used to create complex multimedia files and digital films. Will you need to plug in lots of peripherals? Do you need a portable device with long battery life that can be easily carried around?

The answers to these questions will dictate the type of laptop you’re looking for; there’s no single laptop that’s perfect for every situation.

Size and weight

If portability is important, a laptop’s size and weight is a vital consideration. There’s a lot of difference between 1.5kg and 2.5kg when placed in the hands of a pupil. A lighter device is fine for younger children, but pass them a heavier, bulkier device and it can suddenly become cumbersome – and they’re more likely to drop it.

You may well have to compromise on screen size and weight: a 15in screen may offer more space and be easier on the eye, but it inevitably pushes up the weight. A 13.3in screen is normally a good compromise. Also consider how heavy laptops will be in bulk. Once five laptops are put into a carrying cart and moved around a school, even lighter machines can be too heavy to carry.

Battery life

Laptop battery life doesn’t compare favourably overall with the best-performing netbooks. Laptops range from between less than an hour to just over three hours when used intensively – running multimedia programs and video, for instance. Under light use, such as word processing or creating spreadsheets, this can vary between three hours at worst and nine hours at best. If the device is being used in lessons the battery life is crucial: there’s nothing worse than a laptop battery running out before the end of a lesson. Also bear in mind that, in a year’s time, that six-hour battery life will drop to around four hours. Don’t skimp on battery life if you can help it.

Connections

If you’re connecting a number of peripheral items to the laptop, such as an interactive whiteboard, visualiser or data-logger, then you’ll need a good number of USB ports. Laptops tend to have between two and four of these.

Additionally, the majority of laptops now come with built-in memory card readers, allowing memory cards from digital cameras to be slotted straight into the laptop. Look out for laptops that offer xD compatibility as well as the usual SD and Memory Stick support.

Anti-theft measures

Laptops are easy to steal. Providing a laptop lock such as a Kensington-type device is a simple visual deterrent, but for the persistent thief with a pair of bolt-cutters this won’t be sufficient. It’s vital to use services such as SmartWater and Selectamark and scribe the laptop to make it unattractive to thieves.

The Association of Chief Police Officers goes further. “The educational institution should conduct a regular audit of their ICT and produce a complete asset register,” it said in a statement on the Becta website.

“This way all schools can quickly identify which items of ICT may have been affected by criminal activity and the police will have a clear idea of what they’re looking for.” The addition of an asset tag to a device will again make it unappealing to the criminal fraternity.

Insurance is a decision to be agreed between the school and individuals if the device is being taken offsite. This can often be a cause for concern, so it’s worth discussing all the insurance options before allowing staff to use laptops at home or on trips.

The specifications

You don’t want to be teaching digital video and suddenly find that your device is operating as if it’s in slow motion. A laptop with 4GB of RAM is going to help overcome this issue, but if you’ll be using your machines for intensive tasks such as video editing we also advise choosing the fastest processor you can. It’s no good going by processor speed alone, either: if in doubt, aim for an Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processor if a laptop is going to be used for video editing, number crunching or CAD applications.

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