As we approach the point in the year when parents are looking to send their children back to school, the demand for laptops and other bits of technology that might encourage them to get on with their homework, has never been higher.
That being the case, bargains are few and far between. But they are not completely lacking, and those out there are sometimes in the least expected places.
Asda is currently peddling a pair of machines for £110 and £159, with the cheaper of the two doubling as a tablet. Can a computer costing so little possibly be worth the trouble?
The £110 offering is the more interesting of the two because its box says it is “compatible with Microsoft Office, making it perfect for homework”. It’s made by RCA – the Radio Corporation of America – whose name on small consumer devices is unfamiliar here but whose products are distributed via Asda’s US parent, Wal-Mart.
The device is a 10-inch tablet running Google’s Android operating system, with 32GB of built-in storage and a detachable keyboard, which also serves as a table stand. The 2-in-1 arrangement means it can be used as a laptop as well as a tablet, but the caveat is that with only 1GB of memory, it’s not going to be particularly fast in either mode. A sensible minimum for any Android device is 2GB and for a phone, 3GB. RCA does make a 2GB variant, if you can find it.
The shortage of memory will slow it down but it won’t stop it working, and it will indeed accommodate Microsoft Office. The screen size is significant here, because 10 inches is the maximum size of device on which the main components, Word and Excel, can be used without payment.
But it’s worth noting that Office is no longer a required tool for completing homework assignments. Google’s suite of rival products is not only universally free but also, in most respects, better – not least because your work is accessible from all your devices irrespective of what operating system they’re running, and because everything is saved and updated automatically. That’s why Microsoft can no longer command premium prices for Office.
Asda’s other offering is a more conventional laptop – an Archos 140 Cesium, with a 14-inch screen and Windows 10 pre-installed. The hard disk is only 32GB, and Windows itself takes up a huge proportion of it, but to compensate, you get 100GB of storage on Microsoft’s cloud service.
The Archos device is an attempt to compete with the new generation of Google Chromebooks, which are slimmed-down laptops that rely on cloud-based apps rather than those installed on your hard drive. With this one, you’re free to install programs with which you are familiar, though only within the constraints of that 32GB disk, which will soon fill up, and the supplied 2GB of memory, which is the very bare minimum for Windows.
The bottom line is that if your expectations are modest, laptops and tablets like these are a reasonable buy. You’re never going to be able to edit video on them, but the kids will certainly be able to compose an essay on the works Alfred Hitchcock for their media studies teacher.
And when, after three months, the device is lost, dropped or swapped for a set of Panini stickers, you will be secure in the knowledge that not only is their work is safe in the cloud, but also that you didn’t have to take out a second mortgage .