Laptop vs. Tablet - the best choice for a school age child

Do you have a kid approaching middle school age? Chances are your child has already done some school projects using the family computer. He's had to research the Web, or type and print out a report.

Now you may be considering the purchase of another device to support his needs as he heads into tween hood, high school and beyond. What is best - a laptop or a tablet? What device will be more advantageous for schoolwork, and also support the social networking and game playing that kids will inevitably want to do?

Technology Use in Schools

Here are some examples of how kids are using technology in schools.

  • Online and visual learning: Many teachers have incorporated videos of lessons into their plan, either of themselves teaching the lesson, or from an outside source. Often, watching an assigned video is part of the homework.
  • Practicing skills: Playing math games are a fun way for kids to practice skills or math facts. Students also practice test taking or other skills with online games.
  • Researching topics: At an early age, schoolchildren start using the Internet to find information about topics they are learning about. The average young student knows all about Wikipedia, which has all but replaced the encyclopedias we used to use.
  • Reading: Textbooks and literature are becoming more available in e-book format. This reduces the need for students to lug heavy books to and fro.
  • Producing content: Students have become accustomed to using computers for typing and printing traditional papers and reports. In addition, technology makes it easier to create more involved projects, such as slideshows or Power Point presentations, or videos. Many classrooms post their own content in a class website, showing what they've learned.
  • Taking and submitting tests: teachers can administer online tests. At our school, band students can videotape and post music performances online which the teacher watches and grades at his convenience. This frees up time for both student and teacher.
  • Doing homework together: using Skype or Facetime, kids can collaborate with each other.
  • Communicating and networking: Almost every school has a website now. Teachers use sites like Schoolrack.com to communicate to students and parents what is going on in the classroom. They post homework assignments and classroom news on these sites. Our schools use Zangle.com to post grades throughout the year so families can stay on top of their students' status. School groups (like band) often use a social media site like Facebook to communicate to all group members and their parents.

typical iPad 2 screen (but not a typical dog)
typical iPad 2 screen (but not a typical dog)

Extracurricular activities

You can count on kids wanting to use their device for some popular extracurricular activities - social networking, gaming, and possibly blogging.

  • Social networking: A parent can only manage to hold the kids off from joining Facebook or Twitter for so long. Each of the social networking sites at this time offers free and easy access whether you are on a laptop, tablet or mobile phone. However, sometimes the mobile or tablet app is more difficult to navigate than the full version due to the limited display area.
  • Gaming: The gaming habits of your child may be a more decisive factor in choosing a device. Will you want permit them to use the device for games? Even if you had been strict about video games when they were young, as they get older they will want more freedom to play games like their peers are playing. So you should consider how involved your child is in gaming. Does he already do most of his games on another system, like a Playstation? Or is he hogging the family computer on weekends to do Minecraft with his friends? If the kid is into any PC-based games at all, a laptop would be preferable. Popular games like Minecraft (is there any kid that doesn't play Minecraft?) work on a PC or laptop; even the full paid version of the tablet app just isn't the same. As always, it will be up to the parent to monitor game time usage as appropriate.
  • Blogging: Is your enterprising kid doing any blogging? Blogging platforms like Wordpress and Blogger have made apps that are available for tablet use, but they are nowhere near as powerful as the real on-your-PC platform.

Where's the iPad?
Where's the iPad?

Size and Portability

Tablets are smaller, thinner and lighter than traditional laptops, weighing under 2 pounds. They can be held with one hand and slipped into a large purse. Except for some ultrabooks, most laptops are much bigger and heavier, between 3-10 lbs. That can weigh down a backpack.

The delicate size of a tablet warrants an additional purchase of a protective case, which will add to the expense and weight of the unit. Laptop carriers often choose a specially padded backpack or bag also, to give extra protection. The small size of a tablet also lends itself to careless handling, and I guarantee you will find that thing wedged in between your sofa cushions at least once. We are talking about kids, after all.

Portability for a parent is not always a good thing. It will become easier for your child to view inappropriate things on the Internet, or misuse social networking, with a portable device. So Parental Guidance is Suggested!

Epson printer
Epson printer

Versatility

Laptops still function as a surrogate for desktop computers. They are generally equipped with everything you need for office or school based functions. Most laptops come with software for all the basic functions: word processing, spreadsheets, browser, wifi, etc. A laptop is a self-contained computer, which means you do not need to plug it into or sync to another computer to do any kind of setup.

Printing that book report with a tablet might be a little dicier, depending on what type of printer you have. With a laptop printing is a familiar procedure, either with a printer cable, a wireless printer, or a networked printer. Printing from a tablet requires some extra work-arounds. Depending on your tablet, you'll have to go through some combination of steps which might include getting a special app, setting up cloud printing, or getting a wifi or Bluetooth printer.

One advantage of Windows laptops is that your child will be able to view virtually all videos that he needs to watch regardless of format. On our tablet, we initially had trouble accessing some of the teacher videos because the format was not supported by Apple. There's still stuff out there that is not compatible with Apple. However, later that year, the teacher had her videos revamped so that they could be viewed on the iPad.

Both laptops and tablets have cross-connectivity with other devices that your children might encounter. For example, if they want to make a video or sideshow presentation, they can just connect the device with the appropriate cable to a projector at the school. You just have to purchase the appropriate connector.

You need software for laptops, and apps for tablets. While the availability of apps is rapidly growing, there are still a lot more software choices out there than apps.

the Big Mac computer (many hours of Minecraft played here)
the Big Mac computer (many hours of Minecraft played here)

Power and Storage

In general, tablets do not have as much processing power as traditional laptops. Although the tablet can do high demand tasks, it is designed and marketed for quick and easy use with low demand tasks like e-mailing, web browsing, or playing tunes. For high-power tasks, graphics, editing video, or multi-tasking, the laptop beats the tablet. For playing Minecraft and multiplayer online games, you use a beefed up laptop, not an iPad.

Data storage capacity will be much greater with a laptop. Hard drives on tablets (not tablet PCs) come with 16-128 gigabytes of storage, and getting the maximum amount of storage will cost more. There are ways (some more convoluted than others, depending on the brand of tablet) to store or backup your files from a tablet. Alternatively, your child can opt for "the cloud" (like Dropbox or iCloud) to store documents and files.

Battery Life

Tablets run with lower power requirements. A battery on a fully charged tablet can last up to eight, maybe ten hours. On the other hand, laptops run more powerful hardware, and have shorter battery running times, roughly 3-4 hours.

iPad tablet with a keyboard from Newtrent.com
iPad tablet with a keyboard from Newtrent.com

Ease of Use and Ergonomics

Screen size of a laptop is going to be bigger than a tablet, therefore easier on the eyes. Screen resolutions are higher as well. Laptop screens flip up and can be tilted at any angle to suit the viewer. Tablet screens can only stand up if you purchase a separate stand, and most stands only have a few preset angles for displaying your screen.

Input via typing is easier on a laptop with a regular alphanumeric keyboard, especially if the user has learned touch typing. Even if you get a bluetooth keyboard* for the tablet, that keyboard will tend to be smaller. And while navigating around websites is really neat on a touchscreen, cutting and pasting and editing is just easier with a mouse or mousepad.

Input via freehand and drawing using your finger or a stylus is easier on a tablet screen, when you have the right app.

For quick tasks like web browsing, or watching a video, or reading some text, it's quicker and easier to pick up a tablet. The whole process of opening and powering up a laptop seems quite tedious.

Which is Right for Your Student?

The laptop's main drawback is size and weight compared to a tablet. It will be heavier and larger, which limits its portability. It will weigh down a backpack, and you're going to want a padded backpack to protect your investment when it is being jostled around by your student.

However, for hardcore functionality, a laptop is the clear winner. In the areas of processing power, versatility, and ergonomics, it beats the tablet. It will be able to handle your child's growth as he learns how to do more advanced stuff on the computer into the high school or even college years. If you choose the right features, a laptop will be able to handle games, blogs, and other activities your child will get into. And it is a stand-alone computer capable of being the only computing system he needs.

On the other hand, if your student's needs are already being met by other computers in the house, a tablet might suit your child better. Perhaps he plans to use the tablet for primarily for tasks such as viewing content or music management. Perhaps writing papers isn't a big deal for him on a tablet. Or, the portability factor may be important if the device is being used by multiple kids in the household. For your family, a tablet might be a better choice.

Of course, price is an important consideration. Both laptops and tablets are available in a wide range of prices, from less than $200 for a Kindle Fire to over $1000 for a top of the line laptop. The more features and upgrades you get, the higher the price. A price comparison is more relevant when you have decided what your needs are in the areas of computing, data storage, and peripheral accessories.

The decision depends on the needs of your child. You should take into account what technology you already have in the home, and how the new device will fit in. Who will use what, and where, and for what purpose? Don't forget to consider your budget and try to get the best deal for the money.

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