As we all prepare for back-to-school in the coming weeks, many parents (and students) are getting ready to shop for their back-to-school supplies and tech, and a new laptop is increasingly part of that decision, especially for those who are about to start a new level of study, whether in high school or university.
I am headed into the final semester of a graduate program myself, and in the many years I have been in school over the past decade to complete undergraduate and graduate degrees grads, I also bought a lot of technology along the way, from graphing calculators for numeracy classes (actually the same numeracy class I failed miserably) to laptops for general and computer science classes.
And although I made exactly one mistake buying the wrong calculator (which is totally why I failed calculus, I swear), I used no less than four laptops during my stay at school, three of which were an absolute waste of money.
Not because laptops were particularly bad, mind you. In fact, one of these laptops was actually one of the best laptops for students when it was released in 2015. No, the problem was me, and specifically how I approached technology at the time, and I made some costly mistakes in my college career.
Now here I am, a sadder, wiser man, pulling you aside on your way to your local retailer to tell you my story in hopes it might help you avoid the same tragic fate.
Don’t buy into the hype
When I made the decision to go back to school in 2014, I was still rocking an old-school Acer Aspire One netbook that served me very well. I wish I had stuck with it because it was the best laptop I’ve ever owned. Instead, I kept hearing about those fancy new 2-in-1 laptops that seemed to be everywhere in those days.
Well I thought it would be pretty awesome to take notes on a 2 in 1 and save myself the trouble of managing paper notebooks so I came down close to a large on a Samsung 2 in 1 which would surely make my second time in college easier than the first.
Have you ever tried to take notes on a 16:9 2-in-1 laptop like it’s a laptop? If so, you already know this is a huge problem. The screen just isn’t large enough to be really useful, and even the best 2-in-1 laptops of 2014 were unwieldy abominations by today’s standard.
And, tragically, they were even clumsy back then, especially the larger-screen laptop I bought. At over an inch thick, there was no way to comfortably hold the laptop on my desk and take notes like I had planned. Not to mention that the style of “stylus” we had at the time had a bulbous tip as thick as a pencil eraser, so all my notes looked like they were written with a magic marker.
In the end I gave up and went out and bought a real paper notebook and just wrote in it with a pen which stopped buying a 2 in 1 in the first place . And even worse, the laptop sucked as a laptop so it ended up sitting there while I ended up using my trusty netbook instead and left my bulky 2-in-1 laptop and undernourished picking up dust at home. I practically set this money on fire for all the good it did me.
Think carefully about your needs
Before long, I hadn’t learned my lesson about buying from the hype and bought one of the first-gen Chromebooks when I saw them on display at a Best Buy. The experience dissuaded me from Chromebooks for nearly half a decade.
The problem wasn’t that the Chromebook failed to do what it promised, it absolutely did. I just hadn’t thought of the kinds of things I needed when I bought it. At this point, Chromebooks were still just a dedicated way to access Google apps like Docs and Sheets, and if you weren’t connected to the internet, it was pointless.
I had started with my double major in English and computer science at that time, and while it was fine for writing articles, my netbook was easily the same despite several years at this point. There were no C++ compilers on Chrome OS back then and that was before Chromebooks came with a built-in Linux kernel, so I couldn’t do the work with Linux that I needed to do. .
And while I could, theoretically, write code in Google Docs, coding with rich text formatting is a near disaster, so I again ended up letting this laptop sit on the 2-in -1 I bought a year earlier. Chromebooks got a whole lot better a year or two later, but by then I was making an even more costly mistake than the one I had already made.
Buy the cheapest option that gets the job done
In 2016 I decided I was going to give it one last try to get a laptop that would replace my netbook, which I thought was “showing its age”. I decided to jump on board the hype train and opted for a MacBook Air. It wasn’t as great for programming as if you were programming for a Mac, which I certainly wasn’t, but it still worked pretty well. It was also one of the best laptops for writers (and still is), so it worked great for typing papers for my literature classes as well as doing my own writing work.
It was also way more expensive than necessary for what I was doing, which ultimately could have been done on a much cheaper laptop at the time. I used my MacBook Air well before finally giving it to my mother who needed a new computer after her decade-old netbook died.
What this ultimately taught me is twofold: first, netbooks were amazing and we really didn’t appreciate them enough back then; and second, the cheapest option that can do the job is often a good bet. Just make sure it box do the work and do your research on what the best cheap laptops have to offer before you go this route.
But my $400 netbook from 2010 is ultimately what got me through an entire undergraduate degree, and I almost cried when he finally called it quits me after many years of honest work, so don’t you feel you don’t have to go big to get a great laptop for school.