It's that time of the year in which minors openly weep as they plod back to their classrooms and everyone else rejoices at the sudden silence that blankets the land from the morning until the mid-afternoon. This is also the time when all of the tech blogs rate the best school-friendly gadgets so that you can be sure to send your kids off properly equipped to get the most of their education. It's something we've done in the past and will likely do again in the future. This year, however, we're doing something a bit different. We're tackling a different question.
Instead of whittling down the best tablets and laptops for inside the classroom, we're digging a bit a deeper and asking a more fundamental question. Out of the two devices - laptops and tablets - which is actually more suited for school?
The Case for Laptops
As someone who writes for a living, laptops are absolutely invaluable if you have a lot of word processing to do. Sure, touchscreen, snap-on, and Bluetooth keyboards have come a long way, but most (if not all) still pale in comparison to the reliability of a sturdy, built-in laptop keyboard. If your tablet has a USB port, you could always use a traditional keyboard, but at that point you're creating something bulky and burdensome.
A laptop will likely give you more processing power than a tablet. If all you're using are word processors and spreadsheet programs, then a lot of power isn't necessary, but it's definitely something to take into consideration, especially if you're a college student and your laptop is your only computer. In that case, you might want something that can handle a few games. Tablets offer games too, but of a different variety. Unless you're prepared to spend a lot of money, a tablet isn't good for heavy computing. You have computer programs to think about too. If you need photo editing software, Photoshop is far more extensive than anything you can get on a tablet. And let's not forget about other specialized software, like Illustrator or AutoCAD, that you might need for your studies.
That brings me to my next point, which is price. Basic laptops aren't light and fancy like tablets, but that also means that you're paying a lot less. A barebones laptop can be pretty cheap and even the lowliest laptop can do things that a tablet can't. To top it off, if you're a student, you can probably find a lot of good discounts on various laptops.
The Case for Tablets
The most obvious advantage a tablet holds over a laptop in this discussion is portability. You're going to be taking that thing with you everywhere. That's the point; it's not going to leave your side. In the grand scheme of things, laptops aren't actually heavy. Nobody is going to have trouble lifting a five-pound laptop, but toting it around day after day, to and from each class, it will start to wear on you. This could be spun as a form of exercise, some weight training on top of your cardio, but it's going to make life more difficult.
Another huge benefit of tablets and something I take advantage of with my Galaxy Note 3 (not a tablet, but it's applicable) is the quickness and ease with which you can jot down notes. If you have a closed laptop, you'd have to open it up, wait for it to come out of sleep mode, possibly put in a password, and then open an application. With a tablet, you can simply click the screen on, tap an icon, and start writing a note or sketching a diagram. Trying to quickly sketch a diagram on a non-touch laptop is far from easy.
The outward facing camera on a tablet is ideal for taking pictures or even video of an entire lecture. Even if your laptop is outfitted with a webcam, it's facing the wrong direction.
A tablet will give you access to an app store--whether it be Google, Apple, or Windows--with a myriad of free apps. You can find plenty of free software for a computer, but it's not as readily accessible.
Finally, and this is a big one, the battery life of a tablet can far surpass that of a laptop and that alone can be a deal-breaker if you're not able to charge your device throughout the day. A dead laptop can't help anyone.
Why Not Both?
The last thing I want to do is end this comparison by saying that each device performs its own specific tasks admirably and you should get whichever one best suits your purposes. That's not untrue, but the problem is there's going to be situations where you want the convenience of a tablet with the ruggedness of a laptop, so your best choice is going the hybrid route. A tablet with a slapped on keyboard might not cut it, but something more complete like a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is likely the way to go. There's also the Lenovo Yoga series. Their convertibles offer a touchscreen that can flip around and become a tablet.
If you can't afford that, and not many students can, I wholeheartedly recommend a cheap laptop and a quality bag that makes carrying it around as easy as possible. Tablets are wonderful machines, but in my experience, they're more for passive consumption and not interactive use. Even with the camera and battery life, you still can't beat the solid experience of typing on a laptop. And educators seem to agree with me, even if the "laptop" is just a Chromebook.