Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Netbook for students

A friend recently asked me for advice on what portable computer to buy. They are doing postgraduate studies and need a computer they can use at home on the kitchen table and carry to the university. It has to run the usual office suite of applications and the SPSS statistical analysis package. This is now well within the range of just about any consumer level PC or laptop. I suggested the major criterion to decide on was screen and keyboard size.

The computer I use is a netbook with a wide format 10 inch screen (similar to those issued to NSW school students). This is very portable, but the screen can display only about half an A4 page. The keyboard is also cramped. At my university and home offices I have a large external monitor, keyboard and mouse, so only use the netbook's screen and keyboard when at a seminar.

The 10 inch screen netbook is too small to recommend to upper secondary school or adult students. At the other extreme I see people daily struggle with 15 inch laptops. These are good as replacements for desktop computers, but are not very portable. These will not fit in a reasonably sized satchel, so you have to have a second, special, large computer bag. This is something you will have to make a conscious effort to take with you. Also a 15 inch computer will not fit on a lecture theatre desk (or an economy airline seat tray table).

For my friend I suggested an 11.6 inch or 13.3 inch laptop. The 11.6 inch screen is large enough to display the contents of an A4 page (minus the 20 mm margin usually around a printed page) and the 13.3 inch screen a whole A4 page. With the larger screens you also get a full size QWERTY keyboard.

The 11.6 inch screen would be my preference, as this size computer will fit in a small shoulder bag designed for A4 size paperwork, with just a soft slip case to protect it. You can leave the notebook computer in your bag all the time and not have to remember to take it with you. Or you can take the computer with its slip case out and carry it on its own.

In terms of brand and model of computer, I suggested buying whatever friends and colleagues have. It does not matter how superior the computer you buy is, if everyone around you has something else you will have difficulties. If you have the same brand you can ask for help.

In buying a notebook the first issue is the operating system: Apple Mac person, Microsoft Windows or Linux? In theory it is possible to run Microsoft Windows on an Apple Mac computer, but if all around you are using Windows software, why make things difficult for yourself? In this case my friend's workplace used Windows computers, so that was the natural choice.

The next issue is the brand of computer. My advice was, as with operating system, buy what your friends and colleagues have. In this case the workplace had Dell computers and there was a discount scheme for staff to buy them. So I suggested a Dell, much like buying a standard fleet car: not exciting, but easy to live with.

Dell has an "Inspiron" range would do for a student:
  1. Inspiron M101z Netbook: This has a 11.6 inch screen, which some might find a bit small (this is the size of the small Apple laptops). About $750. Review.
  2. Inspiron M301z Netbook: Larger 13.3 inch screen. About $850. Review.
Neither of these have a DVD drive built in. The Dell external DVD drive is about $169, but you can get a third party one from your local computer store for under $100, if you need one. As an alternative Dell offer online backup storage. If set up properly, this could save a student a lot of trouble (I have seen a Professor in a panic when the draft of their new textbook was deleted).

1 comment:

Tom Worthington said...

The Lenovo X120e with a 11.6-inch display, AMD Fusion E-series processor and a price around $400 looks like it would be a good model for students. But it is not due out until February 2011.