You need tools…

So the new academic year is now drawing close – indeed some universities have already started. So you need to be getting ready! I won’t offer advise on what posters you need in your room or what the well dressed student should wear. Nor to state the obvious that you need pens, pencils, note pads and so forth. But I do have advice about tech.

These days, it is more or less expected that students have their own laptop. There will be desktops for you to use around campus but it’s so much easier if you have your own. So some quick advice about what computer you need.

Don’t skimp

You might be tempted by a small cheap note-pad type laptop. Sometimes these are called something like “fly book”. They are very small, light, incredibly cheap and almost always a mistake. Frequently they don’t have enough internal storage to be able to run proper word processing software and you can forget doing anything meaty like statistics or graphics. You should go for something that has a good warranty, large capacity and a good sized screen. Remember you will be spending a lot of time in front of it and if the screen and keyboard are cramped, this can lead to Repetitive Strain Injury – these are very nasty indeed. And you need it to be able to support your learning by running the right software. If anything buy something higher spec that you think you need – and this probably means more expensive than you would like. But it’s an investment.

Consider second hand

You can get a very good deal by finding a machine that is about a year old and many shops have sprung up that buy and sell these. Some offer full two year warranties which means you don’t need to worry about whether it will work or not. But it would be a mistake to go for a windows machine that is more than about 18 months old. Apple Macs tend to last longer (I am writing this on a four year old MacBook and it works flawlessly). But remember you need this to last you for your whole course. If you are flush with cash, I personally prefer a mac because they just work SO much better that windows (IMHO!). But I know Microsoft based machines are lots cheaper and these days the interface is as good as Apple’s.

Get backup

Most universities will not allow you credit if you lose your work. Basically a technological failure is not accepted as an excuse for handing work in late. So make sure you back up obsessively. I use Dropbox to make sure there is an up to date copy of everything I have in the cloud. I also backup to an external hard drive weekly. Oh and I have both desktop and laptop so I have 3 complete copies of everything and a backup on a hard drive.

In addition, if I have something I am investing a lot of time and energy in, I will have other copies too – perhaps on a memory stick. One trick I have found useful is to email documents to myself which means if everything goes catastrophically wrong, I can log in to my email via a browser somewhere and retrieve it. By all means have small USB sticks but these are always being left around as they are easy to lose.


I recommend you have a smartphone that you can rely on in terms of battery, coverage and contract (how many minutes, texts and how much data). It’s a safety thing, it is a comfort thing for keeping in touch with home and absolutely essential for your social life. Our surveys of students show that all students have a smartphone and increasingly it is assumed that you will have access to social media on it. In fact I have been working with a team of developers to create an app for students at Birkbeck so they can get all they lecture related stuff on their phones and message each other simply and quickly. Other institutions are looking at similar ideas so having a phone that is reasonably up to date is pretty well essential.

Once you’ve got your tech, get a nice bag and a cover for your precious laptop, protect it with passwords, install anti-virus, and you are sorted!

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