It used to be the case than when buying a laptop fleet, one size had to fit all. And that size was usually large and heavy, but relatively capable, or small and light, but relatively weak. Nowadays nearly endless configurations are possible thanks to the trade-offs between weight, battery life, storage, power, screen size and other functionality.
It’s a given that everybody on campus will be mobile. You know that from the always-growing demands on your Wi-Fi infrastructure. But not everyone needs the same amount of computing power in their laptop as they move from class to class.
The best policy these days is to be flexible. Having established a genuine need for a laptop, it should not just be a case of issuing the same model to every person. You will get the best results for your budget — and staff productivity — by matching individual needs with the right machine.
What is the use case?
Visual arts and technology teachers will need different machines to their colleagues in English and History – bigger screens, more RAM, better graphics etc. Maths and physics might require more RAM and a processor better suited to heavy-duty computation.
But don’t make too many assumptions; your English teachers might be preparing a lot of videos, and your STEM teachers might be heavy on theory and manual computation. Check in with the teaching staff (and their assistants) to get a true measure of their plans and needs.
RAM and processing power
RAM, processing power and graphics cards cost money and can quickly blow out the price of a laptop. Apportion your budget – and the truly powerful machines – accordingly.
That said, in broad terms even a machine that’s a generation or even two from the state of the art – like a PC with an i5 processor, 8GB RAM and a 256 GB hard drive – will deliver all the power and functionality needed to handle web browsing, video watching and document handling.
Just how mobile is the user going to be?
Everyone loves the idea of a big screen – say, 15 or even 17 inches – until they have to carry it around all day (not to mention having to plug it in all the time because the display drains the battery). There’s always a trade-off to be made between size and convenience.
Note also that not everyone needs a 4K touchscreen. The additional resolution is another drain on the battery and another cost that’s often not really needed.
If you’re on the cloud, you don’t need much local storage. 256GB should be plenty for most users, unless they’re planning to work on big files locally. If you’ve invested in software as a service (SaaS) and cloud storage, and are encouraging cloud-based collaboration, then massive hard drives are a luxury you can go without.
Another advantage of smaller drives is they’re more likely to be solid state, meaning faster access and fewer moving parts – always an advantage for a mobile device.
It’s probably not possible to buy a laptop today without a Wi-Fi antenna but pay attention to the networking protocols it supports – and prefer machines that are 802.11ac or even 802.11ax compatible.
If you’re looking to provide mobile data, then you’ll need to carefully consider whether the expense of laptops with LTE card slots is a better option than simply providing USB dongles that can be issued on an as-needed basis.
This is another crucial trade-off – the weight of a big battery or the convenience of a lighter machine? If you can provide power bricks in the classroom as well as the staffroom, then machines with small batteries may be your best bet.
This is a tricky one, as the industry is transitioning towards USB-C in a highly disorganized fashion. Most machines have a mix of different types of USB ports (A, C, charging, Thunderbolt, etc.), SD card slots, Display Port or HDMI ports, and so on.
Ideally you want at least one USB-C port and a monitor output, but which type will depend on how teachers connect to monitors, projectors and other peripherals.
Generally speaking, future-proofing your fleet by purchasing the most advanced machines possible is a good idea, but you can gain significant efficiencies by being sensitive to the different use cases on campus and offering a range of personalisation options to ensure each machine will deliver its user good service and a long life. It’s not difficult and your staff – and their students – will reap the benefits.