Get the right tech for pandemic era learning

Laptops, printers, smartphones and headphones should be chosen with care

 Online school class at home

Online school class at home

 

With Covid-19 an ever present threat, “back to school tech” has taken on a new meaning. Many students are facing a mixture of school- and college-based sessions alongside online classes in at-home learning. And, with the the threat of new lockdowns restricting our movement, it is all the more important to get the right technology in place for the year ahead.

So what should we be looking at?

Laptops

There’s a dazzling array of laptops for sale these days, each with a list of specs that, to the average user, probably don’t mean an awful lot. There is no point in spending large amounts of money on a laptop that you don’t really need. To make sure you get the right device, there are some questions that you need to ask yourself before handing over your credit card.

First of all, what will you use the laptop for?

Someone who is using a laptop for word processing and the odd online class every week has vastly different needs than someone who will be using a laptop for computer aided design, heavy editing work or other power intensive uses.

That could be the difference between getting a 14-inch Asus Chromebook (the C423NA costs €299) and or investing in a 16-inch MacBook Pro with an eight core 2.3Ghz processor (€3,245). Most of us fall near the lower end of that price range.

Where will you be using it? If the plan is to use your laptop at home, you can opt for a larger screen, such as a 15 inch device. If you are going to be using it on the move, small and light is the main aim, so go for a 13 inch or smaller screen. Also, battery life will be key here; if you plan to spend a lot of time away from power outlets, you’ll need a battery that will last all day.

Do you need a two in one? Most laptops mid-range and above come with a touchscreen but hit you in the battery life for little extra benefit, but the two in one laptops such as the Surfacebook 3 (from €1,849) give you the option of detaching the screen and using it as a tablet if that is something that appeals to you.

What’s your budget? Around €600-€700 will get you a decent all-rounder laptop, if you aren’t looking for anything too fancy. For that price, you may sacrifice a solid state drive – faster to boot up, a little more robust – in favour of a larger hard drive. You may also have to sacrifice some of the more premium finishes for a more cost effective look. One worth looking at is the new Avita range. The Pura (€450) is a 14-inch laptop that will work as a school laptop, covering all the basics.

Other things to consider when you are investing in a laptop include the quality of the webcam. It’s not something that would have been a primary consideration before Covid, but video classes mean you will need a decent webcam in your laptop. Not all laptops are up to scratch, so try before you buy.

Dull as it may seem, it’s also worth looking at the ports that the laptop has. You may need to invest in adapters to get your laptop to connect to standard USB devices, which is an extra expense and not something you want to be surprised by.

Could you get by with a tablet? For some people, the answer is yes. But again, it depends on your needs. Tablets, with a decent keyboard cover, can replace laptops for word processing, video editing and online classes. They are more portable too, and most work with a stylus, so you have a built in digital notebook.

However, if you need specific software, it is worth checking if it will work on your tablet of choice before you spend your hard earned cash on it.

Smartphones

While your smartphone may be the centre of your social and work life, in pre-Covid times you may have been more conscious of your child’s screen time. While we aren’t advocating dismissing all concerns and completely chucking out all limits, it’s likely that smartphones have become a little more essential to teenagers in particular. But how can you get a decent phone without signing up for a long contract, or blowing your budget?

At the lower end of the price scale, Nokia offers some decent phones with good features that won’t break the bank. The Nokia 2.3 (€129) has a 6.2 inch HD screen, a battery that should last more than a day and a dual camera that will get some decent photographs. While it won’t win any prizes for groundbreaking design, it doesn’t scream “budget” either.

For a slightly higher price tag, the Google Pixel 4a pitches firmly at the midrange market. The sibling of the Pixel 4, the 4a combines essential features such as a great camera, decent sized display and a good processor but ditches some of the non-essentials, such as wireless charging.

It doesn’t look as nice as the Pixel 4, but considering its €383 price tag, we’re willing to forgo a bit of glass and metal. Another option is the Samsung Galaxy A51, which will cost you around €380 and includes a good camera plus it looks nice into the bargain.

The above options are Android, but if you are an Apple household through and through, it is probably best to stick with what you know. It will make it easier when sharing apps and services if you are all on the same system.

Although Apple’s iPhone SE isn’t quite as expensive as its top-end iPhones, it will still cost you close to €500 for the 64GB model. If that is a little too much to spend, you can opt for a refurbished iPhone from Swappie or Mint+.

Noise cancelling headphones

Don’t underestimate the impact of household background noise on your child’s ability to learn.While classrooms aren’t an anechoic chamber, there’s a difference between classroom noise, and the hustle and bustle – and distraction – of home life. A set of good headphones may help here, and the good news is that they don’t have to break the bank.

For younger children, Puro Soundlabs PureQuiet noise cancelling bluetooth headphones (£70) are a good buy. Not only are they noise cancelling, but they have the option of using cables or going wire-free, so you can use them with any bluetooth-enabled device, or older laptops with a 3.5mm headphone jack.

Like all children’s headphones should be, the PureQuiet are volume limited to help protect your child’s ears. That 85dB limit means the noise cancelling is pretty essential. The headband is well-cushioned too, making them more comfortable to wear over long periods of time.

They won’t challenge the sound quality of your expensive noise-cancelling headphones, but they will work fine for home learning – or kids’ TV shows, games and music.

For older children, you could go with in-ear bluetooth buds. They will work with any bluetooth device, regardless of platform, and there are plenty of choices out there to suit all preferences.

Samsung’s original Galaxy Buds aren’t noise cancelling, but they do give a good enough seal that you will be able to keep out the background noise. The app is available for both iOS and Android devices, plus they can be connected to your windows laptop or tablet. Battery wise, they last for up to five hours, and the case is the charger, so you can get a decent power boost with only a short time of charging and also avoid losing one of the buds.

If you want noise cancelling, Huawei’s updated Freebuds 3i are a good option without breaking the bank (€99). With similar styling to rival Apple’s original AirPods, the freebuds add silicon tips to make them more comfortable than their predecessors. It also blocks out a lot of the noise, with active noise cancelling taking care of the rest. The battery life isn’t as good – about 3.5 hours on a full charge, but the case will give you more than 14 hours of playback.

For some, only the more expensive option will do. The Apple AirPods Pro (€275) are ideal for Apple users, as they integrate seamlessly with iPads, iPhones and Macs. They will work with other platforms, but you will have to run through the set up process yourself.

These buds have active noise cancelling and are comfortable enough to wear for hours and, like the others, will charge up quickly once popped in the case for a short time.

Printers

Gone are the days when everyone had a printer at home. With an increasing shift towards paper-free offices, the humble printer has now been relegated to an afterthought for most people. However, during lockdown, having a printer was invaluable, particularly if you have children who needed a seemingly endless supply of worksheets to complete schoolwork.

If you are looking to buy a new printer, it is best to opt for a multifunction device – that is, one that will print, scan and copy. You may find it gets more use that way and if we do find ourselves with further lockdowns, schoolwork or other paperwork can be scanned when needed and sent on to the school.

While it may be tempting to spend as little as possible, buying the cheapest printer out there isn’t always a good decision. If you have to print things with any regularity, you’ll find the hidden costs can add up.

Inkjet printers are the cheapest of the bunch, with some available for as low as €50. However, where the companies make their money is in the consumables. While your printer may have cost next to nothing, make sure you price the replacement ink cartridges before you commit.

If they are more expensive than you’d like, keep looking. Some printer manufacturers are now offering ink subscriptions with printers; read the fine print and do the cost calculations yourself to figure out if this is the best option for you.

There are a variety of printers on offer these days. Some are simple two cartridge systems, with a black ink and a combined colour cartridge; others give you the option of replacing each individual ink.

If you are only going to be printing in black and white, the two cartridge system may work well for you. But if you plan on using your printer for anything besides documents, it is worth exploring the options. With a single colour cartridge, it is likely that you are throwing away perfectly good ink because one colour has been depleted; individual ink systems mean you are only replacing the colour that has wasted.

HP is one company that offers a trial of its Instant Ink with some of its printers. The Tango X All in One (€230) has a two cartridge system, and you can print via voice commands, with the printer supporting Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana digital assistant.

If you would prefer individual inks, the Canon Pixma G3501 (€250) offers the option of separate cyan, magenta and yellow inks instead of combining them into one, with a separate black ink tank.

If you are conscious of the waste that comes with printer cartridges, Epson’s EcoTank system could be the best way to go. Instead of replacing the whole cartridge, you simply top up the ink tank from a plastic bottle. It’s a small thing but it may make a difference.

The three-in-one options are a little more expensive – the EcoTank ET-4700 is €320 – but Epson typically includes a full set of replacement inks, so it should last quite a long time before you need to shell out for more ink.