Head to head: laptop or Surface Pro for education – what’s better?

By JASON BROWN, Sunday 11th January 2015, 22:00 PM

At Wymondham High Academy we welcome technology in the classroom and encourage the students to bring in their own devices to work on. Using the power of Office 365 and OneDrive, it is now possible for students to work on the same document on a range of devices, from desktop PCs to smartphones and even games consoles (if you are mad!), it makes more and more sense to buy your own portable device to work on in school and continue working at home either on the same device, or on a different device without the need to worry about transferring the latest version of your document to a flash drive and then deleting or overwriting old versions or having to worry about emailing yourself the latest version.

When choosing a device for school what is the best thing to go for? Are you better off being ‘boring’ and ‘sticking to what you know is tried and tested’ and getting a laptop, or are you better off being adventurous and using a tablet or a ‘convertible’ device for your education?

Option one will probably bring you to a laptop from somebody like HP, Dell, Acer and Lenovo. You tend to get good value for money and can even pick up machines with dual-core Hyper-Threaded i5s for as little as £500 these days which comes across as being great value. There is a wide range of devices to choose from, with screen sizes ranging from a tiny 11.6″ to a massive 17.3″ and processors ranging from the smallest Intel Atoms to the biggest quad-core i7s with some AMD options and i3s and i5s in between.

When choosing a device for school I needed something that was tough, reliable and dependable. It also needed to be fast and able to run Adobe CC 2014 well as well as of Office 365 of course. I also needed a decent battery life and I wanted something with a great display and I wanted something that was fairly portable.

A traditional laptop or a tablet convertible? It can be a tough choice!
A traditional laptop or a tablet convertible? It can be a tough choice!

I ended up spending upwards of £900 on a Lenovo ThinkPad L540. The reason I went with Lenovo and the ThinkPad was because I am a big fan of Lenovo and I owned several ThinkPads whilst they were still manufactured by IBM, so it’s true that you never ‘get over your first love’. For those of you who are not familiar with the ThinkPad line, they are legendarily reliable business machines, with even the most basic models being ‘military-spec tested’ in this day and age. They are not what you call ‘beautiful machines’, being somewhat square and ‘corporate-like’, but I love them because they are quite unique in the United Kingdom where I live and there is something about them that I find very ‘badass’.

Yes, for what you get people told me ‘you’re crazy to spend this kind of money on a mid-range ThinkPad’, but hey, I wanted the ThinkPad, so I went for it.

I ordered my ThinkPad L540 in April 2014 with the following spec:

– Intel Core i5 4200M @ 2.5GHz

– 8GB DDR3 1600MHz RAM

– 15.6″ 1080p display

– 1TB Seagate SSHD (Hybrid HDD)

– Windows 8.1 x64

The ThinkPad arrived a few weeks later. In a flurry of excitement I opened it up and fell in love. The laptop felt fast, robust and powerful. I had a full review written of the laptop within a month of owning it which you can read here (if you have the time! Warning – it is long!)

My ThinkPad L540 is a fast machine, but it is heavy and bulking. I struggled to get it in my bag with my books and in the end my bag started to split!
My ThinkPad L540 is a fast machine, but it is heavy and bulking. I struggled to get it in my bag with my books and in the end my bag started to split!

I intended to use the ThinkPad for studies at Sixth Form at Wymondham High, for use in class to type up notes on and to do my photo editing and Adobe work on for. The ThinkPad was ferociously quick, especially after I had replaced the 5400 RPM SSHD with a proper fully-blown Samsung 840 EVO 250GB SSD (which can achieve reads and writes of 500MB/s without a problem) and the keyboard was amazing for note taking because of how comfortable it was to type on (I don’t think any laptop or tablet can match the keyboards on the ThinkPads – they are world class), but there were several problems with it for me:

– The weight. 2.5KG may not seem like a lot on its own, but unfortunately I also have to cart heavy textbooks to school which alone probably weigh a couple of kilograms. Add the laptop to that and my school bag is very heavy. But it gives my shoulders a good workout!

– The thickness. Originally when I took it out of the box I was surprised – it was thinner than expected. But again, taking it to school everyday, the thickness shows! Sometimes it’s hard to get stuff to fit in my bag because of the thickness of the laptop. The annoying thing is that most of this thickness is the DVD drive that I never really use.

– The battery. It’s not bad, and considering I’m doing stuff like Photoshop on battery I can’t really complain, but I can’t make it through a whole day on a single charge. My school days are typically 8am – 4pm and usually I end up charging the battery in my free lessons, which isn’t a bad thing, but it just means sometimes I have to take the A/C adapter to school (but I usually leave it there during the week and bring it home at weekends).

– The size. It’s a big laptop. I find it’s fine for use in computing and art lessons where I’m in IT suites anyway, but for note taking in geography and economics lessons where I’m in normal classrooms it takes up a lot of desk space.

The laptop was so heavy that it actually ended up splitting my bag and because it took up so much desk space in most of my lessons, I ended up taking my Surface RT in to use in lessons such as geography and economics where I also have folders. But of course the Surface RT was not a great ‘all-rounder’ for me because of the obvious limitations with Windows RT meant it could not run the Adobe suite or Python or Visual Studio for my computing lessons.

Don’t get me wrong, the ThinkPad is one hell of a laptop, if a little showy, expensive and heavy, but sadly the weight was the biggest downfall for me. Eventually my backed ached so much from carrying it and a load of textbooks that something had to be done.

The trouble is that with laptops unless you spend a lot of money it’s very difficult to find a good blend between power and performance. Most ultrabooks that are £1000 tend to have fairly weak CPUs and a small amount of RAM, which makes laptops such as mine seem more appealing and those £500 i5 laptops you see even more appealing.

What I really needed was a device that was small, portable and powerful.

The Surface Pro I got runs Adobe CC 2014 near enough perfectly and is small and light. Perfect mobility!
The Surface Pro I got runs Adobe CC 2014 near enough perfectly and is small and light. Perfect mobility!

Oh, what’s this we have here?

Could it be a Surface Pro 64GB running Windows 8.1 Pro x64 with an i5 3317U CPU and 4GB of RAM? I believe it could be!

The Surface Pro comes in several different variations and is the perfect blend of portability and power.
The Surface Pro 3 comes in several different variations and is the perfect blend of portability and power.

Option two may lead you towards something like this: the Surface Pro is one of many Windows tablets on the market now. The Pro is aimed more for those who want to truly replace their laptop with a tablet, especially the Surface Pro 3 with its i3, i5 and i7 offerings with 120GB, 250GB or 500GB SSDs and 8GB RAM, but you can now get your hands on a 10″ Windows tablet for as little as £150 these days which will run Office 365 and basic apps quite nicely. These cheaper tablets are absolutely ideal if you just want a portable tablet to fling in your bag or carry around to run Office and browse the web – and spend less than the cost of a Surface RT but have the flexibility of being able to run proper Windows desktop apps on it. Many of these tablets have quad-core Intel Atom CPUs and 1 or 2GB of RAM with a 32GB SSD, so the spec isn’t bad at all and for £150 or less the value certainly shines.

I got my Surface Pro tablet from Kevin because he was lucky enough to be given a Surface Pro 3 for free from Microsoft. All I can really is that it seems to me like it is the perfect blend of power and portability.

Yes, it’s not quite as powerful as the ThinkPad and it has an older CPU and half the RAM and yes 64GB of storage is a little limiting when working with the Adobe suite and Adobe Creaitve Cloud (but I did add a 32GB microSD card to increase the total capacity of the device to 96GB which has helped, and let’s be honest – my work is in OneDrive and it doesn’t need to be synchronised to my Surface) and the keyboard has taken some getting used to and yes this thing can run slightly hot at times, but the best thing about the Surface Pro is just the mobility of it. It is fantastically portable, something I can easily carry around in my bag or under my arm.

The pen and touch screen are nice novelties. I’ll be honest I don’t use them that often but Adobe Illustrator CC 2014 is pretty cool to use with a pen and it’s fun showing friends the OneNote ‘Ink to Text’ feature on my Surface. Several of them have been blown away by that, but again they were also blown away by the 180 degrees tilt on my ThinkPad’s display and its fingerprint scanner.

The battery life seems decent. When I owned a Surface RT the battery in that lasted for days but we have to remember that this Surface Pro has a fully-blown i5 in it whereas the RT only has a basic ARM processor, so this Surface Pro is much more like my laptop in terms of battery life. It doesn’t seem to be terribly good at estimating how much charge it has left though. Sometimes it can go from 5 hours to 2 hours in a matter of minutes when just browsing the web, and then it can shoot back up to 5 hours. But I haven’t completely drained it yet!

Side-by-side, the Surface is obviously much more portable than the ThinkPad.
Side-by-side, the Surface is obviously much more portable than the ThinkPad.

The performance is nice. Adobe CC 2014 runs very well on it. The display is nice and bright and with it being glossy the colours really ‘pop’ too so editing photos in Lightroom is good, but my gripe would be that the small size of the display makes working on big documents in programs like Word and InDesign where there is a lot of text quite hard. Mind you, with that being said the 1080p resolution makes good use of the small display and the real estate is pretty good as a result of this.

To conclude, the Surface Pro is a good all-rounder and is the perfect mobile device. I found that each machine has its benefits and each has its flaws, but for pure mobility and power in a tiny package, at the moment I am finding that the Surface Pro is probably the better machine for education. But that doesn’t mean to say that my ThinkPad is obsolete. I could go back to using it if I find more limitations with the Surface Pro.

But what device is best for you in education? It really depends on what you do and what your budget is if you ask me.

If you want something to just browse the internet with and write some documents using Office 365 on, grab a cheap tablet or laptop (it doesn’t necessarily need to be a Windows device, Office 365 apps are available for Android and there are some great low-cost Android tablets on the market too!), but ultimately if you want the portability then a tablet would probably be best. If you store your work on the cloud using OneDrive then storage space doesn’t really matter too much.

If you need something powerful and portable I would highly recommend something like the Surface Pro – look at the i5 Surface Pro 3. It’s the perfect blend of power and portability and for the same cost as something like a Lenovo Y50 or a ThinkPad T540p or a higher-end Dell XPS or HP machine, the Surface Pro 3 is the clear winner if you need power and portability. The other options are big and heavy, especially the gaming-grade Lenovo Y50 which may be able to max out the latest games at 1080p, but is big and bulky!

The bottom line is to think about what you want and need, and buy around that criteria.

Be sure to follow the Wymondham High O Team on Twitter for regular Wymondham High IT updates: @WyHighOTeam

The O Team also has a YouTube Channel with several Office 365 tutorial videos for students at Wymondham High Academy.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter so you can read all about my amazing life(!):@JasonBrown2K13

Also be sure to follow Kevin Sait’s Twitter for Microsoft Educational updates and updates on IT in the classroom at Wymondham High: @kevin_sait

Last updated: Sunday 11th January 2015, 22:24 PM

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