Laptop vs. tablet: which is better to take with you to school?

A Thinkpad laptop and an iPad are shown in this combination image. (Reuters)

For the average university or college student, having a personal computer is imperative. Between researching essays, typing up those essays, and taking a well-earned break from those essays, having a computer is critical.

Since most students end up lugging their computer from class to class, having something that’s light and portable is important. But that’s leading to an interesting change, as some students are forgoing the average laptop in favour of taking a tablet to class instead. With the right tablet and a few choice peripherals, chances are good you won’t even miss having a full computer.

[ Check out more Back-to-School tips in our Tech Guide ]

We break down the pros and cons of each option, to help you choose what will make your school year go that much smoother.


Pros: As the go-to accessory for many students heading off to college and university, you can get a great bargain on these devices by taking advantage of education discounts. Students can purchase discounted MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros through the Apple Store for discounts of $50 to $250, plus bonuses like a gift card to the App Store. If you’re looking for a PC, certain university and college students are eligible for discounts through Lenovo and HP. You may find discounts on some tablets in back-to-school sales, but since laptops are more widely recognized as a necessary student tool, you likely won’t be offered the same students-only discounts.

Along with the discounted hardware, you’ll be able to find student-priced software, too – something you may not find as readily for your tablet. If your laptop is going to be your only computer while you’re away at school, you’re probably going to want to have all your favourite computer programs on it. Many graphics intensive games will only run on a computer, and aren’t available for tablet.

Cons: While laptops have lost a lot of their heft in recent years, it’s still going to be heavier than a tablet. If you’re going to be carrying it back and forth to class every day, you could start to notice the weight on your shoulders before you even hit your first exams. One of the lightest laptops out there is the MacBook Air 13-inch model, which weighs around 3 pounds, while the average tablet generally weighs between 1-2 pounds.

Laptops tend to include a lot more moving parts that can get damaged, too. While in university, I saw all kinds of laptop problems that wouldn’t have happened with a tablet: broken hinges, jammed disc drives, expanding batteries that prevent you from using the mouse pad. Fewer elements in a tablet mean fewer things that can go wrong.


Pros: There’s been a big shift in recent years as tablet manufacturers are aiming to win over the business-person-on-the-go: they know people who have to travel for work often want to get just as much work done while traveling, so they’ve begun tailoring tablets to the needs of people who will be typing on the tablet a lot. There’s a growing number of tablets that come with integrated physical keyboards, like the Microsoft Surface RT and the ASUS VivoTab Smart. The cover that protects your tablet is also a keyboard, so you can dock your tablet in class and start typing away. Other companies like Logitech carry keyboards designed for just about any tablet, pairing over Bluetooth.

[ Related: Quick hit: Belkin Portable Keyboard Case for iPad Mini ]

While you won’t be able to get all the software that’s available for PCs, there’s a ton of software being created for current laptops that may fulfill what you’ll need. There are mobile versions of many Microsoft programs, like Office (including Word, Excel and PowerPoint), Outlook and Skype. Having access to the Google Play store or the App Store through your tablet will also let you use thousands of games and productivity software you can’t get on a PC.

Cons: Tablets aren’t always the cheaper option, depending on what you’re interested in getting. A basic laptop that will let you type up papers and surf the web can run you less than some tablets, especially if you’re drawn to the iPad or Microsoft Surface. The reality is, you’re paying for the convenience of a lightweight device.

In some cases, it’s a matter of one device trying to be too many things. Attempting to fit the functionality of a laptop or desktop computer into a compact tablet package can lead to disappointment; while a tablet can absolutely be used for photo editing, playing games, word processing, web surfing, chatting and more, if you’re looking at doing all those things on a regular basis, you may want to revisit other options. Like any computer, tablets can overheat, and because of their compact size, they’re not designed to be a lone workhorse.

If you’re looking for a long-term investment, tablets aren’t always an ideal option, either. In a few years when technology improves, you’ll be able to upgrade many laptops with better memory and the like. Tablets aren’t generally that flexible.

Final verdict: Think carefully about what you’ll be using your computer for: if you’re going to be running lots of graphics-intensive games and programs, you’ll likely want to get a laptop. If you’re going to be using it largely for taking notes in class and are more concerned about having something easy to lug around, you’re going to want to have a look at the tablets out there.

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