The end of the summer is here, and with it the start of a new semester at university. The landscape of learning certainly looks brighter than it has for the last couple of years but the need to have the right gear is just as big, with many universities offering a mix of in-person and online learning.
From laptops and phones to headphones and note-taking tools, here’s a guide to some of the tech that will help make the most of the student experience at a time of stretched finances.
Laptops and tablets
Most work ends up being done with a laptop, so getting the right machine makes student life that little bit easier.
Portability and screen size are key trade-offs. The bigger the screen, the easier it is to work on, but the heavier it will be to lug between lectures. I recommend a 13in to 14in screen as a happy medium but if you are frequently going to be plugging into a monitor, a smaller machine might be preferable. Make sure the display is at least 1080p in resolution.
Look for the 11th or the latest 12th generation 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 of a laptop with a traditional magnetic hard drive as it will be slow.
Generally, you can get a solid Windows 11 laptop for about £500-600. Be aware that at this price you will sacrifice typing and mousing experience, screen, speaker and webcam quality, and probably battery life, too. Of laptops usually on offer for £550 or so, the Acer Aspire 5, HP Pavilion 14 and Dell Inspiron 14 are worth considering with the right spec.
But my pick for a sub-£600 portable machine would be the mid-range Surface Laptop Go 2 at about £566 with student discount.
If you have a bigger budget and want a better screen, keyboard, trackpad, speakers and performance, my pick for a laptop under £1,000 is the tremendous Apple M1 MacBook Air at £898 with student discount, which has a gamechanging 16-hour battery life, so you will never need to carry your charger. If you need Windows, 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, costing £360 with a student discount. It beats many phones double its price, with top performance, a great camera and superb software, including the excellent auto-transcribing Google Recorder app.
Alternatively, the iPhone SE 2022 at about £419 is equally good value if you are within Apple’s ecosystem. It looks dated but has top performance and will last up to seven years with software updates, whereas most others will last about five.
If you can stretch to it, a tablet can also be a very useful addition to your computing armoury, offering utility for learning and entertainment.
Apple’s basic iPad, for instance, costs £319, or less with student discount, and has a good 10.2in screen, which can be used for note-taking with an Apple Pencil (£85) or as a portable second screen for a Mac when you need a second monitor on the go. There are lots of educational and productivity apps available for it, as well as a keyboard case if you would like to use it as a small substitute for a laptop. With all the video or music-streaming services available, it makes a great portable TV, too.
Amazon’s budget-conscious Fire tablets costing from £60 offer the entertainment options but aren’t good 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 hubbub of a busy library, cafe or student house can be hard without a good set of headphones to block out the noise.
Wireless earbuds are great for listening on the go. Nothing’s Ear 1 have noise-cancelling, sound good, last a long time on battery and have a funky transparent design that is comfortable to wear. They work with Androids or iPhones, as well as laptops, and cost about £89.
Apple’s AirPods 3 are good, too, but they do not block out noise, relying instead on simply drowning it out. They are excellent for calls and can be had for about £180; just watch out for fakes.
If focus is your priority, you can’t beat a large set of over-ear noise-cancelling headphones. My top pick are the older Sony WH-1000XM4, which are still excellent at blocking out most noise and sound fantastic. They connect to your laptop and phone at the same time, fold up nicely for travel and are pretty robust. Shop around and you can often find them for well under £250.
Keeping your digital notes, lectures and ideas organised and easily accessible on the go can be tricky but thankfully there are many tools that can help.
I’m a longtime fan of Evernote as a cross-platform tool for collecting notes, images, audio recordings and practically anything else in one cloud-syncable place, with apps for almost any device. It is free for up to two devices, such as your phone and laptop, with 60MB of monthly uploads, which will be fine for text notes and the odd photo. Evernote Personal costs £5.99 a month, or students get 40-50% off a yearly subscription.
Microsoft’s OneNote is an excellent alternative, with similar features and apps on most devices. It is free to use but notes are stored in OneDrive, which comes free with a Microsoft account with 5GB of space. More OneDrive storage costs £1.99 a month for 100GB of space, or it can be bought with a Microsoft 365 account starting at £59.99, which includes 1TB of storage as well as Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook apps.
Apple’s Notes is also very good, particularly for handwritten notes on an iPad, but is not cross-platform and cannot handle quite as many file attachments or advanced features. It is free to use on iPhones, iPads, Macs and in the browser but uses your free 5GB of iCloud storage space, with 50GB of storage costing 79p a month.