The end of summer is here and with it the beginning of a new semester at the university. The learning landscape is certainly looking brighter than in recent years, but the need for the right equipment is just as great, with many universities offering a mix of classroom and online learning.
From laptops and phones to headphones and note-taking tools, here’s a guide to some of the technologies you can use to make the most of the student experience in times of tight finances.
laptops and tablets
Most of the work is done on a laptop, so getting the right machine makes student life a little easier.
Portability and screen size are important trade-offs. The bigger the screen, the easier it is to work on, but the harder it becomes to lug it between classes. I recommend a 13- to 14-inch screen as a happy medium, but if you frequently connect a monitor, a smaller device might be preferable. Make sure the display has a resolution of at least 1080p.
Look for 11th or latest 12th Gen Intel i5 or i7 processors, at least 8GB of RAM, and 128GB or more of SSD storage.
Don’t be tempted by the cheaper price or larger storage space of a laptop with a traditional magnetic hard drive, as it will be slow.
In general, you can get a solid Windows 11 laptop for around £500-600. Note that at this price point, you’re sacrificing typing and mouse experience, screen, speaker, and webcam quality, and likely battery life as well. Of laptops typically priced at around £550, these are Acer Aspire 5, HP Pavilion 14 and Dell Inspiron 14 are worth considering with the right equipment.
But my pick for a sub-£600 portable would be the mid-range Surface Laptop Go 2 at around £566 with student discount.
If you’re on a bigger budget and want a better screen, keyboard, trackpad, speakers and performance, my pick for a sub-£1,000 laptop is the massive one Apple M1 MacBook Air for £898 with student discount, which offers a groundbreaking 16 hours of battery life so you never have to take your charger with you. If you need Windows, that’s the Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 at £849 with a student discount is also very good.
The good news is that great smartphones can be had for well under $500.
The recently released Google Pixel 6a is the best budget phone of the year, priced at £360 with student discount. It beats many phones twice the price, with top performance, a great camera, and excellent software, including the excellent Google Recorder app for automatic transcription.
Alternatively the iPhone SE 2022 at around £419 is equally good value if you’re in the Apple ecosystem. It looks dated but has excellent performance, lasting up to seven years with software updates while most others last around five years.
If you can get the hang of it, a tablet can also be a very useful addition to your computer arsenal as it offers useful learning and entertainment opportunities.
Apple’s base iPad, for example, costs £319 or less with student discount and has a good 10.2-inch screen that can be used for taking notes with an Apple Pencil (£85) or as a portable second screen for a Mac if you need a second monitor for on road. There are plenty of study and productivity apps for that, as well as a keyboard case if you want to use it as a small replacement for a laptop. With all the video or music streaming services available, it’s a great portable TV too.
Amazon is price conscious Fire Tablets, starting at £60, offer the entertainment options but aren’t great for productivity. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab A8 from £219 is more useful but lacks stylus support and the multitude of productivity and education apps available for the iPad.
Concentrating in the hustle and bustle of a busy library, coffee shop, or college dorm can be difficult without a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones.
Wireless earbuds are great for listening on the go. Nothing is Ear 1 have noise cancellation, sound good, last a long time on the battery, and have a funky transparent design that’s comfortable to wear. They work with Androids or iPhones as well as laptops and cost around £89.
apples AirPods 3 are good too, but they don’t block out noise, instead relying on simply drowning it out. They’re great for calls and can be had for around £180; Just watch out for fakes.
If focus is your priority, you can’t beat a great set of over-ear noise-cancelling headphones. My first choice are the older ones Sony WH-1000XM4, which are still excellent at blocking out most noise and sounding fantastic. They can connect to your laptop and phone at the same time, fold up nicely for travel, and are pretty sturdy. Shop around and you can often find them for well under £250.
It can be difficult to keep your digital notes, lectures, and ideas organized and easily accessible on the go, but luckily there are plenty of tools that can help.
I’m a long time fan of Evernote as a cross-platform tool for collecting notes, images, audio, and just about anything else in one cloud-syncable place, with apps for almost any device. It’s free for up to two devices, e.g. your phone and laptop, with 60MB monthly uploads, which is fine for text notes and the odd photo or two. Evernote Personal is £5.99 a month, or students get 40-50% off an annual subscription.
Microsoft’s A note is an excellent alternative with similar features and apps on most devices. It’s free to use, but notes are stored in OneDrive, which is free with a Microsoft account with 5GB of storage. More OneDrive storage costs £1.99 a month for 100GB of storage or can be purchased with a Microsoft 365 account from £59.99 which includes 1TB of storage plus Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook apps.
apples Remarks is also very good, especially for handwritten notes on an iPad, but isn’t cross-platform and can’t handle quite as many file attachments or advanced features. It’s free to use on iPhones, iPads, Macs and in the browser, but it uses your free 5GB of iCloud storage, with 50GB of storage costing 79p a month.