Welcome to my new series on choosing technology, where I will be sharing my tips on purchasing devices, with a special concentration on students with low vision. I am studying information technology in college right now, but don't worry, I won't be using any fancy technology terms. Today, I will be talking about purchasing a laptop.
My laptop was the first device that I ever used in the classroom. I use it to take notes, complete assignments, and even take entire classes in the form of virtual education. I decided to write out what features to look for when purchasing a laptop for the educational environment, with a special concentration for people with low vision. Currently, I use a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (more information can be found on my technology roundup here), but have also used computers from Acer, Toshiba, and Lenovo without many problems.
Even if the user is visually impaired, they don't necessarily need the largest screen on the market. My first laptop had a 17" screen and was nearly impossible to carry around, and it didn't fit on most desks either. For a portable laptop, I would suggest getting a screen that measures between 13 and 15 inches, which is very easy to find.
One of the main things I look for in a laptop is how heavy it is, since I have back issues. While a rolling backpack is an option, it's important to choose a laptop that is easy to transport. Look for a laptop that weighs four pounds or less.
Since the laptop will likely be used frequently for writing, pay attention to the feel of the keyboard. Are the keys spaced out, or close together? Is it easy to make errors? Will you need to add large print or Braille stickers to the tops of the keys? Does it look like the keys will fall off easily? I prefer my keys more spaced out to avoid errors and do not add large print stickers.
My current laptop has one USB port, which is why I carry around a USB hub so my computer can have up to four USB connected devices. I have found that three USB ports is normally more than enough. I can connect a flash drive for an assignment, hook up an assistive technology device, and have my wireless headset all at once.
Most laptops on the market now have a touch screen built in, which can be disabled if needed. Some touch screens provide tactile feedback in the form of vibrations, but I prefer to turn this off. I like having touch screens because I can easily use familiar gesture controls, like zoom and pan, and I feel comfortable typing on an onscreen keyboard.
Laptop battery life can greatly vary depending on settings such as brightness and the applications being used. That said, I would look for a laptop with at least a six hour battery life, though my laptops are often in the 9-10 hour range for battery life. I always recommend bringing the laptop charger to class, just in case it suddenly dies.
Check to make sure that all necessary accessibility features can be enabled on the computer. How does the large text look? Is screen magnifier easy to use? What about screen readers? For more on Windows 10 accessibility settings, check out this post here.
Make sure that the laptop can run any accessibility apps or other softwares easily. For the most part, laptops are built to support all kinds of apps, but it never hurts to check between the application's website and the laptop specifications.
My laptop, purchased for a little over $1000, is still running like it's brand new, even three years after I purchased it. It made sense for me to invest that much, because I use it for all of my classes and take a large number of virtual classes. However, users can still find a great laptop with all of the features they need for $700 or less, especially if they hit the sales. Ask about student discounts, as well as discounts for people registered with the state department for blindness and visual impairments.
Should I buy insurance?
I chose not to buy insurance for my laptop, since I don't have a history of dropping my devices (minus one phone that shattered) or causing large amounts of damage to my devices. When it isn't in use, my laptop lives in its heavily padded case and I never leave it unattended. However, insurance might make sense if the user has a history of dropping devices or is likely to damage a computer. If a credit card is used to purchase it, check to see if there is automatic purchase protection or a similar feature.
Having a laptop has been extremely helpful for me, especially in college, since so many of my classes rely on the use of technology. If you have any more questions, leave them in the comments below!