College-bound students already have a number of decisions to make: Which courses should I take? Live on campus or nearby? Scrape up the cash or apply for a student loan?
Another choice boils down to what tech to use for note-taking, online research and writing assignments.
Do you go with a conventional laptop or opt for the newer, sexier tablets? Or what about a tried-and-true desktop for the dorm room?
If you can't afford all three solutions (or even two), be sure to consider the pros and cons for each form factor. The following are some thoughts on each choice.
LAP IT UP
A quick checklist of the benefits laptops have over tablets:
• A physical QWERTY keyboard is faster, comfortable and more accurate than typing on a tablet's virtual (onscreen) keyboard.
• A laptop's screen is bigger than a tablet's, so it is more suited for multitasking and watching video. A laptop's screen is typically 12 to 17 inches, compared with a tablet's 7- to 10-inch screen. A desktop monitor, however, offers even more screen real estate.
• A laptop (and desktop) has multiple ports, which makes it easy to get info on and off the computer. This includes USB ports for thumbdrives and external hard drives, as well as SD card slots, webcams, printers, microphones and game controllers. Many laptops (but only some tablets) have an HDMI port to connect to a TV, monitor or projector.
• Laptops offer more capacity (storage) than a tablet; most laptops start at 500 gigabytes (GB), compared with an average of 32GB on a tablet.
• A fold-and-go "clamshell" design protects the screen when not in use.
• Because they've been around longer than the two largest tablet platforms (Apple's iOS and Google's Android), Windows and Macs both offer a ton of software, including programs recommended by educators. Many laptops and desktop still have an optical disc drive for those who want one for DVDs and CD-ROMs.
• Laptops typically start at $299 for a Windows 8 machine — but don't expect decent power without paying at least $499 — while a MacBook Air starts at $899 for an 11-inch model. A beefier MacBook Pro will set you back at least $1,099. Students on a tight budget might also consider a Chromebook, as these Google-powered laptops start at just $179.
WHERE TABLETS ARE TOPS
Tablets, on the other hand, offer a number of compelling advantages:
• Tablets are thinner, lighter and smaller than laptops, making them more portable (and comfortable) to tote around all day. While laptops are usually 3 or 4 pounds, most tablets are under a pound.
• While laptops and desktops are getting better with boot-up times, you don't need to wait for a tablet to turn on and launch programs.
• Most tablets can last 10 to 12 hours between charges, which might be twice or even three times as long as the average laptop.
• Because they're lighter and shaped more like a real book, tablets are more conducive for reading electronic books than laptops, as well as digital newspapers and magazines. Remember: Textbooks are going digital, too.
• Using your fingertip on a touch-screen tablet, like an iPad or Android tablet, is incredibly comfortable and intuitive. Many younger (and older) users who might struggle with a keyboard and mouse don't have these obstacles with an all-touch interface.
• Not only are tablets less expensive than laptops, on average, but applications ("apps") are very affordable compared with computer software. In many cases, tablet apps are just 99 cents or even free.
• Some tablets have integrated cellular connectivity — therefore you don't have to hunt for a Wi-Fi hotspot to get online — whereas laptops require a USB modem. Tablets also boast one or two cameras, GPS and Bluetooth.
• Because tablets use durable flash memory (like your digital camera), with no moving parts, as opposed to a spinning hard disk drive (found in most laptops today), your data won't be as susceptible to damage.
• Tablets start at about $99 for a generic 7-inch Android model, while brand name machines like a Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 or Windows 8.1-based Toshiba Encore 2 start at roughly $199, a new Google Nexus 7 at $229 and iPad mini at $299. Premium tablets start at about $399 for a 9.7-inch iPad or 8.4-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab S, or $799 and up for a Microsoft Surface Pro 3.
DESKTOPS AREN'T DEAD
Finally, while their popularity has waned over the years, stationary desktop computers are still a consideration for many. Here's why:
• Since they're not designed for on-the-go use, desktops are less prone to damage; they sit in one place and can't be banged or dropped easily. They're also less likely to be stolen as they're always in one (presumably safe) place.
• Desktop computers have larger screens than a laptop or tablet — up to 30 inches in some cases — therefore are better for multitasking (having multiple windows open at once). Depending on the subjects, students might also prefer a larger canvas in which to work — be it pouring over architectural designs, computer-generated art or animation, and other graphics-intensive studies.
• On a related note, many computer gamers prefer desktops as they're more "modular": It's much easier to upgrade components on a tower-based desktop than a laptop — such as a video card, hard drive, system memory (RAM), and more. Note: Many "all-in-one" desktops, however, aren't that easy to change components as they're packed in behind the monitor.
• Just as laptops now offer tablet-like touch-screens in most models, many desktops let you use your fingertips on the screen itself — along with or instead of the keyboard and mouse.
• Parents with young students might consider a desktop in a central location in the home, such as a kitchen, family room or any other highly trafficked area. Why? Kids can feel independent while surfing online but not be "alone."
• Desktops typically start between $249 and $399 for a decent entry-level machine, but prices hover around $599 to $799 for a more advanced Windows desktop computer. Souped-up gamer rigs can set you back as much as $5,999 for a top-of-the-line model. All-in-one Windows desktops start at about $329 for a basic model and up to $1,999 for a high-end model; a 21.5-inch iMac all-in-one starts at $1,029. A powerful Mac Pro starts at $2,999, but a tiny Mac mini desktop computer starts at $599 (with no monitor).
Deciding between a laptop, desktop and a tablet boils down to your needs, budget, mobility and comfort level.
The above-mentioned advantages and disadvantages should help you narrow down your choices, but at the risk of complicating matters, you do have other options if you're having a hard time choosing one for your schoolwork.
For example, you could always pick up an external keyboard accessory for a tablet, which isn't too costly. Or perhaps you'll spring for a "2-in-1" laptop that borrows the best from the tablet world — including a touch-screen that folds or flips down over the keyboard when you don't need to type or detaches altogether to take with you.
Follow Marc on Twitter: @marc_saltzman. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.