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5 best laptops and tablets for back to school

Consumer Reports' top picks for students of all ages

Published: July 14, 2014 06:00 AM
Photo: Travis Rathbone

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Students need a lot more than pencils and notebooks in today’s classrooms: The way they learn has changed radically since computers and the Internet arrived. As an educator and tech advocate, Vicki Davis, told us, “Tablets and laptops are the new paper, the new textbook, and the new podium from which teachers share with their classes.”

An education expert, Nicholas Provenzano, (thenerdyteacher.com) agrees. “It is crucial for students to have access to the best technology tools for their education,” he said. With that in mind, we present these five recommended devices to help prepare your favorite student for every stage of a modern, high-tech education.

Kindergarten

Samsung Galaxy Tab Kids, $200. Before they can use a keyboard and mouse, children easily master the touch-and-swipe logic of a tablet. This Android model (pictured above) comes with a protective bumper, and parents can approve the kidcentric content, such as interactive e-books and education-focused games, and set playtime limits (just note that Internet security is limited to turning the built-in browser on and off). Battery life is an impressive 9.3 hours, so kids can learn and play almost all day.

Check out more reviews and tips on tablets for kids.

Elementary school

Acer C720-2848 Chromebook, $200. Many schools are embracing Google’s Chromebook platform (the lightweight laptops now account for one in four devices purchased in K-12 education), and some schools are using Chromebook laptops to deploy Common Core tests—which is a powerful argument for getting your kid started on the platform at home as well. This Acer scored high in our lab tests. At 2.7 pounds, the 11.6-inch device is highly portable, and it delivers more than 10 hours of battery life. The Acer can be set up by a parent to give children “Supervised User” accounts (a Chromebook feature) to restrict adult content on the Web.

Middle school to high school

Lenovo U430 Touch, $600. Serious homework demands a serious computer. Lenovo’s highly capable laptop offers 11 and a half hours of battery life, so it will last through the most demanding of school days. And it’s an awful lot of laptop for the money—it has a 500GB hard drive, its fourth-generation Intel Core i5 processor delivers excellent performance, and it has lots of gee-whiz goodies such as facial recognition, as well as voice and gesture control. And at 4.1 pounds, it’s lightweight for a laptop of this size—a plus when your kid’s backpack is already laden with textbooks.

Want more information on laptops? Go to our computer buying guide and Ratings.

College: for the graphic design major

MacBook Pro 13-inch with Retina display and 128GB, $1,300. Most college-bound kids can get by with the same machine they used through high school, but a higher education in the visual arts can require a bit more horsepower. With a stunning 2560x1600-pixel display, excellent processing performance, and more than 11 hours of battery life, the MacBook Pro 13-inch with Retina display is about as premium a laptop as you can get, and its price reflects that. Nevertheless, for art professionals (and soon-to-be-professionals) who run graphics-intense programs such as Adobe’s Creative Suite or  Autodesk Maya, the MacBook Pro is the gold standard (although for those applications, Apple’s starter 128GB solid-state drive is pretty skimpy). And buying with Apple’s education discount brings the price down to $1,200.

Find the right model for you with the help of our tablet buying guide and Ratings.

College: for the double major

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 with Core i5 processor and 128GB, $1,000. Students deciding on a new computer before departing for college are facing a dilemma: laptop or tablet? Microsoft conceived Surface as the ultimate bridge between the two types of devices. The Pro 3 is the most laptoplike Surface yet, and with a large 12-inch, 2160x1440-pixel touch-screen display and adjustable kickstand, it can live comfortably on a lap. The Surface Pro 3’s backlit Type Cover can magnetically prop up at an angle, which may make typing easier, although it’s a shame that the $130 accessory is not included with the base price. Business students will appreciate that the Surface Pro 3 runs full Windows desktop productivity applications, and creative types will enjoy the pen interface that lets you draw or write directly on the screen. The Surface Pro 2 did very well in our laptop lab tests; we're currently testing this updated, larger model.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the August 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

   

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