Laptop or Tablet? Here’s Which You Should Bring To Campus In 2021

So, you’re getting ready to go back to college. You have some money burning a hole in your pocket, and a pressing need to pick up a new device for the upcoming semester. As you start shopping around, you discover that things aren’t quite so simple — choices abound and are about more than just the manufacturer and the price.

First off, your options these days aren’t limited to a traditional clamshell “laptop.” There are great tablets and convertible 2-in-1s to consider as well, as well as many on the Windows side that function just as well as a laptop. Toss in the wealth of options on different platforms such as Mac, iPadOS, Android, and Chrome OS, and the decision of what machine to bring to campus becomes rather complicated.

You may even be wondering if you can get away with only bringing an iPad to college. It’s a daring feat, but is it possible? Here are our recommendations, broken down into sections that highlight the pros and cons of each type of device.

Design

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

As alluded to in the introduction, you have three types of devices to consider. There’s the traditional clamshell laptop, the tablet, and the convertible 2-in-1 that can morph between the two. Your choice of the operating system will vary based on form factor, with Windows 10 and Chrome OS supporting all three, MacOS supporting exclusively laptops, and iPadOS and Android supporting tablets. Before you get started, you’ll want to check out our list of best laptops for college to get a feel for the best that’s out there, and if you’re on a budget, then you’ll want to reference the best budget laptops you can buy as well.

For starters, the classic laptop in the clamshell format has its advantages. It’s likely to have the largest battery, the most ports for connecting to external devices (although some modern laptops are lacking in this regard), and the best full-size keyboard with a standard layout. One of the most important tasks for a college-bound laptop is taking notes in class, and you’ll want a good keyboard that can keep up with your typing speed — comfortably and without causing fatigue. Two great examples include the Dell XPS 13 and the Apple MacBook Air M1, both of which have excellent keyboards and battery life but limited connectivity. The USB-C-only port selection means you might need to have some dongles in your backpack when needs arise, such as quickly swapping data via a USB flash drive.

The tablet, meanwhile, also has its advantages. To begin with, it’s built around a touch display that’s easy to navigate and often includes or supports a stylus for taking handwritten notes, annotating documents, and drawing on-screen. If you like to take notes by hand rather than typing, then a tablet is a great option — and there are advantages to doing so, such as the ability to include sketches in your notes along with the text. You can attach a keyboard to most modern tablets that let you use it as more of a traditional laptop, although how well such configurations work in a lap can vary, and detachable keyboards tend to have less key spacing and a wobbly feel. And tablets, especially iPads and Android tablets, tend to have great standby battery life that lasts for days when you’re not actively using the devices.

There are many great tablet options including Microsoft’s Surface Pro 7 and Surface Go 2, various Chrome OS tablets including the Lenovo Chromebook Duet, the Apple iPad Pro or iPad Air, and a veritable menagerie of Android tablets. Apple iPads were once poor choices as all-around computing devices because they lacked external mouse and touchpad support, but that’s changing with the latest versions of iPadOS and the available attachments such as the Magic Keyboard. Not to mention using the Apple Pencil with an iPad Pro is a sublime experience.

The convertible 2-in-1 has a display that flips around from clamshell mode through tent and media modes to tablet mode. It shares many of the same advantages as clamshell laptops, including a full-size keyboard, a large battery, and a good selection of ports. You’ll find that it’s not as comfortable in tablet form as a true tablet because you’re holding not just the display but also the bottom half of the chassis. You’ll get pen support, however, and recent convertible 2-in-1s with 16:10 and 3:2 aspect ratio displays provide more paper-like dimensions for taking handwritten notes. Check out our list of the best 2-in-1s for great options, including the all-around best, HP’s Spectre x360 14, which has a 3:2 display in a small chassis that’s well-built and looks great.

Portability

iPad Pro running iPadOS 15, with the Digital Trends homepage on the screen, Apple Pencil to the right and keyboard to the left.

Tablets are by far the most portable devices, usually coming in at well under two pounds and being extremely thin. That’s true whether you’re talking about a Windows 10 tablet like the Surface Pro 7 or the latest 12.9-inch iPad Pro. They’re less portable once you include the detachable keyboard, but even then, they tend to be thinner and lighter than traditional clamshell laptops and 2-in-1s.

Most clamshell laptops are over 2 pounds and slightly thicker than the tablet/keyboard combination. They can be plenty portable, though, such as with the 2.8-pound Dell XPS 13 that’s a tiny 13-inch laptop by any measure. Today’s best laptops, including Chrome OS machines and the MacBook Air and Pro, don’t have to take up a lot of space in your backpack nor weigh you down.

The same is true for convertible 2-in-1s, which are usually around the same width and depth as their clamshell equivalents but sometimes slightly thicker. The HP Spectre x360 13 is probably the smallest 2-in-1 you’ll find, although it’s constructed of machined aluminum and so it weighs as much as the XPS 13 at 2.8 pounds. Note that if you’re interested in this style, you’ll be limited to Windows 10 and Chrome OS. This is one kind of laptop that Apple has yet to tackle.

Performance

Dell XPS 13 laptop on a table.

The clamshell laptops you’ll likely consider for college tend to have the fastest CPUs available, and some even equip entry-level discrete GPUs that in many cases can handle light gaming and speed up creative applications. That’s perfect for anyone with a major that includes working with Adobe applications, for example. At the same time, if we’re talking about Windows 10 and MacOS, then the operating system requires more resources and will tax those faster CPUs and GPUs more than a lightweight OS like Chrome OS — which doesn’t run these kinds of resource-intensive apps in any case. You might find slower CPUs and only integrated GPUs in Chromebooks, but they’ll often feel just as fast because Chrome OS doesn’t create the same burden.

Convertible 2-in-1s are equivalent to college-bound clamshell laptops in their selection of CPUs and GPUs, and their relative performance is the same. You can get faster clamshell laptops, of course, including gaming machines, but in the thin-and-light category that makes the most sense for college, convertible 2-in-1s tend to keep up. Windows 10 tablets, on the other hand, use slower CPUs that generate less heat and extend the lifespan of a tablet’s smaller battery. They usually don’t perform as well as clamshells and convertible 2-in-1s.

Android tablet performance varies widely, and so there’s no hard and fast rule we can apply here. Apple’s iPads, though, particularly the latest iPad Pro models, are extremely fast tablets that benefit from their lightweight operating system and fast CPUs, including Apple’s Silicon M1 processor. They’ll provide performance that’s similar to clamshells and convertible 2-in-1s, if not faster in some cases. The caveat, which we’ll cover more in the following section, is that iPads don’t run the full versions of various applications, such as the Microsoft Office and Adobe suites, and so it’s impossible to provide an apples-to-apples performance comparison. iPad software tends to be simpler and requires fewer resources, which makes iPad apps fast but not fully featured.

Compatibility

HP Spectre x360 14 front view showing display and keyboard deck.
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Compatibility is also important. You want to make sure that your chosen device will run all the applications you need and access your school’s student portal without any issues. In addition, you’ll want to be able to access school resources like printers and have access to other accessories that you might need like scanners. Taking stock of your needs before you make your decision is vital — you might not need any unusual software or peripherals, depending on your major, but you don’t want to choose a machine that keeps you from getting your work done.

The most compatible platform by far is Windows 10. You’re virtually guaranteed to run every application and connect to every device used at college if you choose a Windows 10 machine. That level of compatibility provides some comfort. It means you can show up on the first day of the semester and get to work without worrying about whether you can access the school’s network, use its student portal, send documents to its printers, and connect to any peripheral on campus. Of course, Windows 10 doesn’t have support for mobile apps, but it’s unlikely you’ll run into such a requirement.

Next up in terms of compatibility is MacOS. While you might run into the occasional snag, you should be able to utilize all the required applications and devices. There are reasons why Apple laptops are so popular at colleges, and their compatibility is one of them.

Chrome OS is a popular platform among educational institutions, including both K-12 and secondary education. It’s possible that your school will provide great support for Chromebooks, including the ability to send documents to shared printers as easily as with Windows 10 or Mac OS. Chrome OS on its own, though, runs web and Android apps, meaning you’ll be getting limited versions of those apps that are supported, such as Microsoft Office, or no versions at all. For general homework and web access needs, Chromebooks are fine, but you’ll want to make sure all the applications you might need to run are supported. In addition, things like the aforementioned shared printers aren’t automatically supported on Chrome OS — you’ll need to make sure the college provides support for the Internet Printing Protocol (IPP). We can lump Android tablets in here as well because the same kinds of limitations apply.

The iPad is also limited in many ways. Again, you won’t find the full versions of applications like Microsoft Office and the Adobe suite. And you’ll need printers that support Apple’s AirPrint protocol, or vendor-specific apps provided by the printer manufacturer if you want to print your documents on the college’s equipment. The crucial step here, and this applies to Chrome OS and Android as well, is to research the applications you need and make sure an iPad will support them.

So which is best, a laptop or a tablet?

The safest bet is to invest in a Windows 10 laptop, MacBook, or Windows 10 convertible 2-in-1. If you’ll only be typing your notes, then a clamshell or convertible 2-in-1 will provide the best experience. Then there’s the question of getting your homework done — a Windows 10 or MacOS machine will ensure that you’ll have access to every application that you need, whereas a Chrome OS, iPadOS, or Android device will be more limited. Portability was once a more differentiating factor, but modern clamshells and convertible 2-in-1s are thinner and lighter than ever and aren’t so cumbersome as to make them uncomfortable to carry around.

One caveat: If you happen to attend a college that’s settled on Chrome OS as its platform of choice, then that will make your decision for you. And if you like to take handwritten notes, then a tablet or convertible 2-in-1 that supports a pen is required. But those are likely outlier situations for most students.

One option, if you can afford it, is to buy a laptop as well as an iPad or Android tablet. That way, you can have the best of both worlds — the most portable device possible for carrying from class to class and a fully-featured machine to ensure compatibility. A budget laptop and an entry-level iPad add up to not much more than a premium version of either.

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