Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Tech for studying (1) - choosing a budget laptop

There is a tech website trend to present  a 'back to school/university' feature, between September and October, that  recommends devices that improve studying and learning. This posts - part of a series of posts - continues in that trend but extends the focus beyond formal education to cover budget tech for studying, researching and learning in general. This first post is dedicated to laptops and considers a budget laptop choice as both a primary and secondary device:

Primary device

A budget laptop that can be used as a primary device is usually found at the higher-end of the category and, in my opinion, should, as minimum, weigh less than 2KG, come with a full HD 13 inch or larger display, a capable quad core mobile class processor (e.g. Intel Celeron N3160, N3450 or Pentium N4200), 4GB RAM and 64 GB storage. Two devices, from established vendors, meet this criteria - the Asus Swift 1 and Asus Vivobook L403N. It is is possible to purchase an imported laptop from smaller and lesser known vendors - e.g. the Chuwi Lapbook 14.1 - but there is always a risk with after-sale support should any problems appear with the device.

The overall best option is the Asus L403N, in comparison to the Acer Swift 1 13.3, and below are some reasons:
  1. The Asus L403NA, even when not on sale, is priced at £330; on sale the price ranges from £279 - £300. The Acer Swift 1 13.3 is priced higher at £350.
  2. Asus advertises an 'up to 14 hours' for the Vivobook L403N but this an over-estimate (PC World list a more accurate 'up to 8 hours' estimate). From personal experience a better estimate would be closer to 7 - 8 hours. This lower estimate includes low brightness and running the device in battery saving mode. The Acer Switch 1, on the other hand, advertises an 'up to 10 hours' and this also is an over-estimate. I haven't used the Switch 1 but based on this review of the US version, expect closer to 6 - 7 hours (the US version is given the same estimate). Even with the over-estimation by both vendors, the Asus Vivobook has the better battery life.
  3. It needs mentioning that the Acer Swift 1 comes with an IPS display; in comparison the Asus L403N does not. Despite the IPS screen advantage, the L403N comes with a larger 14 inch screen and the extra screen estate makes a difference.  
  4.  The Asus L403N is bundled with a one year subscription of Office 365. The Acer Swift 1, based on its listing, is not. 
  5. Overall, Asus produces superior hardware
Secondary device

If a powerful desktop PC or laptop is the user's primary computing device then it makes sense to use a secondary device for on-the-go computing and the lightweight Lenovo 110S meets that purpose (I previously reviewed the previous generation). While the entry-level 110S comes with only 2GB RAM there are other unique advantages that includes a better quad core N3160 processor, a full year subscription of Office 365, acceptable 'up to 8 hours' battery life and an IPS screen (there are different models of the laptop and it seems not all come with the IPS display). At the moment, the 110S sells for £159 brand new on Amazon. Another issue to consider when purchasing an entry-level laptop is the ability to install a Linux distribution. This makes sense, with low-end hardware, as Linux distributions, in general, are less resource intensive in comparison to Windows 10. Lenovo laptops, in general, work well with the major Linux distributions. Acer, unfortunately, make it difficult to install Linux on their laptops and require a relatively good technical know-how to boot the device from the user's chosen distribution.

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