School’s out for now, but it’ll be back in before we know it. Here are the essentials on what you need to know about arming your kids with the right tech.

January. It can only mean one thing for kids – it’s time to head back to school. But it can be a dreaded month for parents who have to find a reserve of cash after Christmas has raided the bank to finance the return.

If you’re the parent of younger children, you can probably get away with a new uniform, bag and stationery. But for those with children entering a school level where a tablet or notebook is a requisite purchase, or if it’s time to upgrade an older model, allow us to explore what’s available at JB Hi-Fi and select a range of devices to take the hard work out of your buying decisions.

But first, some tech lessons.

Curriculum considerations

There’s quite a lot to factor in, which is why we’re here to help. The key starting considerations begin with the operating system. Then there’s your budget to consider, alongside device particulars. Processor power. Storage capacity. Battery life. Wireless networking capability. Weight for lugging around every day. And then the all-important content-creation potential.

Operating system

The vast majority of devices are running on a Windows operating system (OS). But there’s also Mac (and its related iOS ecosystem), Chrome OS and Android to consider, depending on the type of device. The more you keep devices within the same ecosystem – for instance, Mac, iPhone and iPad – the nicer they play together. But for schoolwork, that may depend on the compatibility requirements of the school. Check this last point in particular before purchasing.

Budget bucks

Cost is obviously a big one. Whether you’re spending hundreds of dollars on an entry-level solution or investing more than a thousand in something more fully featured, there are a range of options to meet budgetary requirements.

Device-orama explained

It used to be that there were two computing options: mobile laptops and immobile desktops. These days, it’s more complicated. For take-to-school purposes, laptops are flanked by options across tablet, Chromebook and 2-in-1 categories. Their size makes them all look kind of like laptops, but there are differences.

Laptops are generally more expensive, weightier and powered by Windows OS. The 2-in-1 is usually a laptop spin-off that mixes laptop and tablet functionality at around a similar price range to laptops. But just to complicate things a smidge, a 2-in-1 can also be any other device category that performs the functions of another.

A tablet is the most mobile option with great battery life and lightweight mobility, as well as mid-to-high-range pricing. And Chromebooks are low-to-mid cost options reliant on Android apps and cloud-based software, and have very limited internal storage for downloading stuff.

Processing processors

All of the devices we’re talking about here have processors, or central processing units (CPUs) if you want to use their formal salutation. The CPU, measured in gigahertz (GHz), is the heart of any of these devices that does the main heavy lifting for whatever your kid is doing. Because of this, more expensive devices tend to have more powerful processors that allow for faster and more efficient operation.

Short-term memory

A device’s random access memory (RAM) is aptly abbreviated to ‘memory’ because that’s its function: temporarily storing information based on what’s currently being worked on. Represented in gigabytes (GB), the higher the number, the better suited the device will be for multitasking.

Long-term memory

Confusingly, the other kind of “memory” in these types of devices is storage memory. Unlike RAM, which is designed to be used on-demand, internal storage – also called a hard drive (HDD) or solid-state drive (SSD) – is a long-term type of memory used to store software and files for the life of the product. Cloud storage is effectively a hard drive in the cloud, but items stored on local HDD or SSD storage aren’t reliant on an Internet connection to access.

Battery life

Measured in milliamp hour (mAh), expect these particular devices to last from a handful of hours to an entire day. Battery capacity is reflected in numerical form: the bigger the number, the longer the battery life. That said, certain tasks drain batteries faster. Basic word processing and web browsing preserves battery life, while watching videos or study-break gaming can quickly chew through even a fully charged battery.

Wireless connectivity

While a wired Ethernet connection is the fastest and most reliable for networking, slimline devices these days tend to shun an Ethernet port in favour of the convenience of wireless connectivity. For the devices we’re focusing on here, this equates to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth as standard (including all our recommendations overpage). There’s an alphabet soup of Wi-Fi standards, but the technology tends to be backwards compatible. Translation: while devices with older Wi-Fi may not achieve full wireless speeds, they’ll still work. The same is true of Bluetooth, except that’s more useful for connecting additional complementary devices like compatible wireless headphones, keyboards and mice.

Weighty options

If your kid’s going to be lugging this around all day, every school day, weight becomes an important factor. Generally speaking, laptops and 2-in-1s tend to be heavier than Chromebooks and tablets. Also, the bigger the screen, the heavier the device tends to be.

Sunny screens

Lighter devices like Chromebooks and tablets tend to have smaller screens than their laptop and 2-in-1 counterparts. Lower screen resolutions, depicted as horizontal pixels by vertical pixels (e.g. Full HD equals 1920×1080), are more noticeable on bigger screens. Though usually more expensive, higher-resolution screens are also easier on the eye, so if your child is studiously chasing dux accolades with some serious hours of screen time, that’s worth factoring in too.

Practical applications

It’s important to understand what exactly your kid needs the device for. If it’s for basic word processing and web browsing – or if you want to better restrict them to those tasks – Chromebooks are a great starting point. For application versatility, tablets are the next logical choice. From there, laptops and laptop 2-in-1s are closer to traditional computing with greater potential resources for more advanced tasks like faster photo editing and video editing that will make a device sound less like a jet engine during take-off as it tries to stay cool.

USB sticklers

Short for the unglamorous and non-descriptive ‘universal serial bus’, the versatility of USB ports are still handy despite the wireless zeitgeist. They’re useful for connecting external devices like keyboards, mice and hard drives. Sometimes USB ports can be used to charge things like tablets and phones. You’ll find them most commonly on laptops, 2-in-1s and Chromebooks. Tablets, on the other hand, may be restricted to a single (sometimes proprietary) port that’s primarily meant for charging.

Device differences

They may look alike, but there are key differences between tablets, laptops and Chromebooks. Tablets are lightweight with touchscreens and great battery life. Augment them with a keyboard for practical versatility. For ultimate versatility, though, opt for a laptop, which tend to be more powerful devices with greater storage capacity and a Mac or Windows OS that offers a greater range of software applications. Chromebooks sit between tablet and laptop, with solid battery life, speedy powering-on and automated security controls.

COUNTING CHROMEBOOKS

Cracking the Chromebook code

Chromebooks are built for pupils who spend a lot of computer time online. They may look like laptops, but these Google-powered devices are actually quite different in how they operate. For starters, Chromebooks tend to be quite affordable. They also power on incredibly quickly for faster use. Battery life tends to edge closer to a full day of studious use, while their slim design makes them lightweight and portable.

Specific to protecting pupils, Chrome OS includes inbuilt anti-virus and anti-malware protection to keep a Chromebook protected from malicious internet nasties. These security systems – as well as relevant apps and the operating system – are also designed to automatically and invisibly update when connected to the internet. On top of this, depending on the age of your Chromebook-wielding student, there’s also the option for parental controls (via supervised accounts) for limiting or tracking online activities.

Because Chromebooks are built with the Google architecture in mind, this means they can also seamlessly sync apps and passwords with Chrome browsers across devices: smartphones, tablets, PCs, etcetera. They also tend to include Google Drive storage space, which is effectively a cloud-based hard drive.

Lenovo 100e
This entry-level Chromebook operates on Chrome OS and is a solid starting point for less-demanding studious tasks. Despite the budget price, the Lenovo 100e still packs a webcam and four USB ports (two USB 3.0 and two USB-C 3.1). The CPU and RAM are okay but not flash, while the 1366×768 11.6-inch display and limited 32GB of internal storage make this less a multitasking powerhouse and more a single-function study machine.

HP x360 14
Cheekily, this Chrome OS Chromebook operates with a 2-in-1 function, care of clever 360-degree hinges that lets you rotate the screen to the base for tablet mode. It has a Full HD 14-inch touchscreen, too, on top of a decent dual-core CPU, 8GB RAM for respectable multitasking potential, and 64GB of internal storage. There’s also a MicroSD card reader, wide-vision HD webcam and three USB ports to round out the package.

HP x360 12

HP x360 12
Despite the smaller 12-inch 1366×912 touchscreen, this different HP x360 Chromebook is designed with more grunt. While it matches the 14-DA0000T in terms of 8GB RAM And 64GB internal storage, it’s the quad-core CPU that boosts the Chrome64 OS-powered system. It also includes newer Wi-Fi and Bluetooth hardware, as well as a MicroSD card reader, wide-vision HD webcam, three USB ports, and respectable B&O dual speakers.

TABLING TABLETS

Tablet choices

Core tablet models tend to have multiple options, particularly for Apple and Samsung devices. While confusing at first glance, the two core variants are those with Wi-Fi or those with Wi-Fi and 4G mobile data. The Wi-Fi-only models need a Wi-Fi connection to go online, whereas the Wi-Fi/4G ones can, like a phone, use a SIM card to get online as well as use Wi-Fi. Beyond this, the options are then separated by internal storage capacity. Microsoft, though, likes to mix things up for its Surface range by also separating by CPU type.

Microsoft Surface Go (64GB)

Microsoft Surface Go (64GB)
The 64GB Microsoft Surface Go is a tablet that wants to be a laptop, as long as you buy the optional-but-not-really Microsoft Surface Go Type Cover* (read: keyboard). You’re looking at all-day use (around nine hours) on a beautiful 1800×1200 10-inch screen. A dual-core CPU, 4GB RAM and 64GB of storage take care of the grunt work of a tablet that runs Windows 10 S. It also includes a 5MP front camera and 8MP rear camera.*Type Cover sold separately.

Lenovo Yoga Smart Tab

Lenovo Yoga Smart Tab
This 10.1-inch Full HD tablet is a great starting point. Despite the budget price, it’s packing an octa-core (that’s eight cores!) 2GHz CPU with a respectable 8GB RAM for responsive use. The 64GB of internal storage can be bumped up by a further 256GB with a compatible MicroSD card, while an 8-megapixel (MP) rear camera and 5MP front camera offer photographic/video versatility.

Apple iPad (128GB Wi-Fi)

Apple iPad (128GB Wi-Fi)
This seventh-generation iPad is sold as a tablet, but bolstered with purchasable bolt-ons like the Smart Keyboard for everyday typing and Apple Pencil for art class. Despite the seemingly limiting 2GB RAM, this iPad is powered by a quad-core CPU and boasts a commendable 128GB of internal storage. There’s a Touch ID fingerprint sensor for additional security, GPS for tracking, and up to 10 hours of battery life, and a multitasking iOS interface that complements busy pupils. Speaking of pupils, your kid’s eyes will appreciate the stunning 10.2-inch 2160×1620 Retina Display screen.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 (128GB Wi-Fi)

Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 (128GB Wi-Fi)
A 10.5-inch display is complemented by a 2560×1600 resolution, powered by a Qualcomm SM8150P octa-core CPU and 6GB RAM. This means stunning picture quality and responsive use. It also has 128GB of internal storage, with the option to expand by up to 1TB via MicroSD card. Top it off with dual 13/5MP rear cameras for photo and video, as well as DeX PC-like functionality, and the Tab S6 is a fantastic multipurpose tablet.

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 (i5 128GB)

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 (i5 128GB)
This is a powerful laptop masquerading as a tablet, as long as you fork out for the Surface Keyboard. The generous 12.3-inch PixelSense Display is paired with an ocular-friendly 2736×1824 resolution touchscreen. In terms of power, you’re looking at a quad-core CPU, as well as 8GB RAM and 128GB SSD storage. Windows 10 Home OS and around 10.5 hours of battery life effectively make the pricey-but-value-packed Surface Pro 7 a lightweight laptop option.

LANDING LAPTOPS

Dell Inspiron 15 3000

Dell Inspiron 15 3000
This dual-core 2.3GHz laptop is a solid entry-level option. The 15.6-inch 1366×768-resolution display offers okay image quality, with an HDMI port to outsource to a higher-res monitor. As for the other innards, there’s 8GB RAM and 128GB of SSD storage. Combo those innards with an SD card reader, webcam, three USB ports and Windows 10 Home OS.

HP Pavilion 15
This particular HP Pavilion 15 is another entry-level alternative to the Dell Inspiron 15 3000 at the same pricepoint. It’s also got a 15.6-inch 1366×768-resolution screen, albeit powered by a beefier quad-core 2.1GHz CPU. The 8GB RAM and 128GB of SSD storage are comparable, alongside three USB ports, webcam and Windows 10 Home OS.

HP Envy 13

HP Envy 13
With this particular HP Envy 13 model you’re looking at a 13.3-inch Full HD display for crisp visuals on a portable-sized screen. There’s power, too, care of the quad-core 1.6GHz CPU, which can use clever Turbo Boost technology for power up to 4.2GHz. The 8GB RAM and 256GB SSD round out the offering with a webcam, and Windows 10 Home OS.

LAPTOP 2-in-1s

Dell Inspiron 3000 (11.6-inch)

Dell Inspiron 3000 (11.6-inch)
This 11.6-inch (1366×768-resolution) model of the Inspiron 3000 line is designed as an entry-level 2-in-1 laptop. The touchscreen can fold around to the base for tablet mode. In terms of grunt, it’s respectable with a 1.8GHz dual-core CPU (which can boost up to 2.7GHz), 4GB RAM and a 128GB SSD. The HDMI port can outsource to higher-resolution screens, while three USB ports, webcam, MicroSD card reader and Windows 10 Home OS tick off the other essentials.

HP Pavilion x360 11
Compared to the earlier-covered Chromebooks, this x360 2-in-1 translates to more grunt: a 1.1GHz quad-core CPU (which can boost up to 2.7GHz), 4GB RAM and 128GB of SSD storage. The 11.6-inch screen also means lightweight portability, while the 1366×7680 resolution looks decent on the smaller display. This 2-in-1 is rounded out with an HDMI port, three USB ports, a webcam, MicroSD card reader, and Windows 10 Home OS.

Dell Inspiron 14 5000

Dell Inspiron 14 5000
Step up from the 3000 series to 5000 for a better screen and CPU. You’re also looking at a 14-inch Full HD touchscreen with a latest-gen dual-core processor that can boost up to 4.1GHz. Meanwhile, 4GB RAM and a 256GB SSD take care of the rest of the hard work. You’ll also find the other add-ons from the Dell Inspiron 3000 model, with a Windows 10 S operating system.

HP Pavilion x360 14
Despite being from the x360 line, this model is more than just a bigger 14-inch screen upgrade. The resolution and 128GB SSD storage (there’s also a 256GB model) might be the same as the 11-AP0000TU, but the dual-core 2.1GHz CPU and 8GB RAM offer more grunt for study and play. Being a more expensive model, you also get all of the other perks from the 11.6-inch x360.

Dell Inspiron 14 5000
For those who want an AMD alternative over the typical Intel CPUs, this particular Inspiron 14 5000 packs a powerful Ryzen 5 3500U quad-core CPU that can boost up to 3.7GHz. Combo that with 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD and study time is sorted. You also get everything else that comes with the other Intel i3 model.

Microsoft Surface Book 2
This specific Surface Book 2 model boasts a gorgeous 13.5-inch 3000×2000-resolution screen, which can be disconnected and used as a tablet, a grunty quad-core CPU (that boosts up to 3.6GHz) and 256GB of internal storage. Bump that internal storage up with USB drives (there are three of them), and any kid fortunate enough to score one of these will doubtlessly love the fantastic battery life and powerful versatility.