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Buying a Tablet for School? Think Again!

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: J. F. Amprimoz•updated: 8/5/2011

The tablet is the new sexy. It's slim, it's cool, and it does things when you touch the screen. It's also completely inappropriate for school, and don't let anyone tell you different.

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    Forgetting Frugality

    Students? Not Always Frugal! You'd think that college students would be the most frugal people in the world. They're racking up debt and often times are studying too hard to hold down a job. This results in tight budgets and many nights eating pizza from Little Caeser's because Papa John's was too pricey.

    Despite this, expensive gadgets are appealing. MacBooks are far from the best value, but students love them. They're cool, hip, and remind young students of themselves. Windows PCs are less expensive and just as functional (for the needs of students) but they're often looked down upon as bland and unreliable chores to use.

    Now, tablets are rising to popularity. I've heard students wondering aloud if tablets would be suitable for college life, and at least one parent lamenting that his son wouldn't shut up about them. Are tablets a good choice? Well, I gave my answer to that one away in the title of this article, so allow me to explain why they're not.

    Image Credits:

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    Can I Turn in my Paper with Google Docs?

    Of all the rants against tablets I will make in this article, the one that's most important and most applicable to student life is simple - the operating system.

    Currently, there are two tablets on the market. The iPad, and everything else. The iPad runs iOS, while everything else runs Android. What you'll immediately notice about both of these operating systems is that they're not called Windows. In fact, they don't even run on the x86 processors that normal computers use.

    Because of this, software that runs on a laptop or desktop PC will not run on a tablet. Period. This can be a huge problem because it prevents students from using the most well-known and widely used Office suite, Microsoft Office. While there are many Office compatible productivity apps available for both the iPad and Android tablets, including Apple's own Pages and Numbers, relying on these apps to properly display your documents can be risky business.

    Everyone seems to support .doc these days, but the fact that you can save a file as .doc doesn't mean it will be properly formated when a professor opens it with his or her copy of Microsoft Office. The problem is even worse if they're using the newer versions of Office that are optimized for .docx.

    That's not to say the productivity app jungle is impossible to navigate. There are certainly ways to create documents on a tablet, and there are ways to make them compatible with a PC and properly display. However, these are extra steps that are both cumbersome and unnecessary.

    And heaven help the student who's given software from a profession for a class assignment. I had this happen several times in lab classes, where software was used to simulate and/or demonstrate experiments that aren't practical for undergrads to perform. While most campuses have computer labs readily available, why even purchase a tablet if you'll have to spend time in a lab? Just save the money and spend it on beer groceries. The $500 entry-level price of an iPad will buy a lot of Milwaukee's Best nutritious vegetables.

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    Not So Portable

    Student Tablets One of the most attractive features of a tablet is its portability. Your typical tablet weighs 1.5 pounds, and is less than half an inch thick. Combine that with battery life of eight to ten hours and you have a device that can be taken to and from class without worry or hassle.

    Well, that's the theory. But here's the problem. A tablet by itself is merely a content consumption device. It's great for watching video and playing games, but writing papers? Hah! Writing on a virtual keyboard is an experience that no one should willingly subject themselves to.

    This means that if you'd actually like to take notes, you'll need to pack a keyboard. That's not all that difficult, but for most tablets it means buying a special case that has room for a keyboard as well as a stand that can keep the tablet display upright while you're typing. That'll be another $50 bucks or so, and add a half pound to a pound. Then there's the keyboard itself, which will again be $50 bucks or so, and add another pound.

    Suddenly, you have a package that weighs as much as a PC ultraportable with a 13 inch display. But instead of that larger panel, you're dealing with a 10.1" display. And instead of a proper sized PC keyboard, you're dealing with cramped keyboard no better than what you'd find on a netbook.

    Granted, battery life remains an advantage. There are PC laptops that can obtain 8 hours of battery life, however, and unlike a tablet the battery is usually user replaceable. If a student must have insane endurance, it can be obtained by a second battery or an extended battery.

    Image Credits: Apple

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    Price Problems

    Given all of the disadvantages of the tablet compared to a PC (for students), you might expect to pay less for the tablet. It's less powerful than a laptop, has compatibility issues, and isn't any more portable once a keyboard is added.

    Yet tablets are pricey. One of the least expensive options currently on the market is the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer, which is $400. That's just for the tablet, however - add-on the keyboard dock and you're paying $550. The iPad starts at $500, but offers paltry storage. If you want more you could be paying as much as $700. And that's without any accessories like case or keyboard.

    If you go all-out and purchase a 64GB iPad 2 with a keyboard and a keyboard case you'll be paying at least $800. For the same price, you could purchase an excellent Windows laptop with battery life almost on par with a tablet.

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    The Bottom Line

    So, tablets aren't compatible with PC software, aren't more portable, and aren't cheaper. They're also undeniably slower and have less software available overall. Am I making this picture clear?

    With that said, tablets can have some uses for a college student as an entertainment device. They're great for watching movies and playing games, and because they're lightweight, you can take them anywhere. However, if you're a student and still have $500 to spend on a tablet, bite me. I don't want to hear about it.

    Tablets are sexy. But they're impractical and pricy. Don't worry - I'm sure that the cuties in your Introduction to Anatomy class will still introduce you to their anatomy even if you show up with a boring Windows laptop.