The Wirecutter Editor in Chief Jacqui Cheng weighs in on what to buy and what to skip.
On a recent episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, The Wirecutter Editor in Chief Jacqui Cheng talked with Recode’s Kara Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode about what back-to-school tech to buy.
You can read some of the highlights from their discussion at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Lauren Goode: So, Kara, how are you feeling after our juice overdose last week?
Kara Swisher: I’m feeling good about Juicero. That worked out rather well.
KS: It was good. I was mildly surprised that I liked it so much.
LG: The juice or the juicer?
KS: Everything about it. I was poised to dislike it entirely, and I did not.
LG: There was so much attention on it when it first came out. People were saying it was ridiculous and …
KS: Yes. A wireless juicer.
LG: Yeah, why does it need Wi-Fi, and why is $700, and Yves Behar designed another thing for your kitchen. But you know, iif you’re going to spend, if you do some back-of-the-envelope math and you’re the type of person that’s going to spend $10 a day on juice anyway, it’s worth it.
KS: It’s kinda cool. The packets part is what got me. But I get it, I get why they’re doing it that way. I just feel like you could be left without anything if there’s a problem with the Juicero.
LG: Yeah, and Doug is a really interesting guy. He’s very earnest and passionate about his project. So if you’re interested in anything we’ve just said at all, or even if you’re not, you should go listen to last week’s episode.
KS: And the guy from Amazon is really amazing. It’s an interesting team, for sure.
LG: It really is a super smart company. So what are we going to be drinking today? Kombucha?
KS: I don’t drink kombucha.
LG: Soylent coffee?
KS: No, I do not. I had a delightful lunch with the CEO of Reddit today, and we enjoyed some lovely iced tea.
LG: Did you have Soylent iced tea?
KS: No, we just had regular iced tea, it was delicious. I’m just saying.
LG: You’re so normcore.
KS: I know, it’s true.
LG: Well, maybe another day.
KS: All right.
LG: Today we’re going to be talking about back-to-school technology. Because it is actually back-to-school season, which is crazy.
KS: Yes, it is.
LG: Here on the West Coast, I’ve seen a bunch of people in my Facebook feed already posting photos of their kids going back to school.
KS: Louis Swisher goes back to school.
LG: Your kids are going back to school on the East Coast.
KS: Freshman year — my son is going into high school. My oldest.
LG: Oh, my goodness.
KS: I know, I know, it’s amazing.
LG: Soon he’s going to be driving. Crazy.
KS: You know what? Hopefully we’ll have self-driving cars by then. [LG laughs] But yeah, it’s back to school. You know, I haven’t been in school since sometime in the last century.
LG: Which is not an exaggeration, I guess.
KS: No, it’s not in any way an exaggeration. I’m quite old, Lauren Goode, as well you know. But I think everyone feels good in the fall, back to school. There’s something about it that’s fresh, don’t you think?
LG: Yeah, it triggers this idea — if you’re no longer in school, or far removed from school, it triggers this idea of this, like, seasonal thing in your body. Like it should be a fresh start. Get new clothes …
KS: New clogs. [LG laughs] They had clogs when I was in school. Cowl necks.
LG: Thick wool sweaters.
KS: Yeah, yeah.
LG: And tweed and plaid.
KS: But there’s a lot of back-to-school tech that’s worth your time and money.
LG: There is, we’ve been asked about it a lot. In fact, earlier this week TheVerge.com put out a big back-to-school guide — not just gadgets, but things like the best bathrobe you can buy. So I encourage you to check that out. But today we’re going to bring in a very special guest. Jacqui Cheng is the editor in chief of The Wirecutter. And she’s joining us via Skype from her office in Chicago. Hey Jacqui, thank you for joining us!
Jacqui Cheng: Hi, thank you for having me.
KS: Yeah. You’re going to tell us all the back-to-school stuff, correct?
I guess so.
KS: Before we start, let’s talk about what Wirecutter is. Lauren and I both love Wirecutter and The Sweethome. So tell us a little bit of what you guys are doing. Because it’s one of techie people’s very favorite sites.
Oh, I’m so glad that you said that. So Wirecutter and Sweethome, I guess I would say that we are a set of sites that kind of cut through the stress and time spent of shopping by helping readers get actionable, quick advice on what to buy. What we do is, we research and test like crazy in all these different product categories, and we try to only test the best ones we can find after we’ve already done a bunch of research and talk to experts, and then we kind of just try to tell you that one or two things that are the best in that category.
KS: Yeah, you only pick a few. You don’t give us the whole panoply, correct?
KS: Where did you work? Did you work at CNET?
I used to be at Ars Technica.
KS: That’s right. So but a lot of these sites, they give like 20 different things. And you guys just really just pick one. Which I think is super useful. One or two.
LG: They do like one, and a budget one.
KS: Why is that? Because you’re just saying, “This is the best”?
Yeah so we usually do one main pick, and the idea is basically to cut out all the extra. If you’re normally doing comparison shopping on the web, I’m sure you know that you’re usually reading like thousands and thousands and thousands of words. So the idea is to cut all of that out, give one recommendation. We usually try to do a budget recommendation and then an upgrade. I would say those are our two other audiences — the people who are money-conscious and the people who want to upgrade everything. And sometimes there’s like one or two kind of offshoot recommendations, but we try to stick to the main, simple ones.
LG: And I should point out that our colleague Peter Kafka did a Recode Media podcast not too long ago with your colleague at the Wirecutter and Sweethome, Brian Lam. And that is an excellent podcast if you’re interested in hearing a little bit more about the business model that they’re working under. Because it’s a little different from some traditional tech reviews. The reviews tend to be very long, very granular, as Jacqui’s saying. They also do affiliate linking, and that’s sort of how they’re making money, and that’s super interesting so check that out. But for today, we’re going to stick to the topic at hand.
LG: Jacqui, not to go too off topic, but my boyfriend is quite possibly the biggest fan of Wirecutter and Sweethome, and Sweethome specifically. And I feel maybe once every couple of weeks I come home and there’s some new kitchen gadget or sheets or olive oil. I mean, you guys just review everything. And I’ll say, “Why did you get that?” And he’ll say, “Well it was on The Sweethome, and they saved me nine months of research because of the way that they compile all this stuff.” So you’ve got a fan here. And I’m like, “Hey, did you ever read The Verge reviews?” And he’s like, “Sometimes.” [laughter]
KS: I hear that Lauren Goode works for them. So, back to school. Gadgets have always been big, even when I was in school when Ronald Reagan was president. The gadgets were big, and I don’t remember what they were. It might have been like a Sony Walkman at the time [LG laughs]. In fact, it was. So what are the gadgets, how big are they this year with going back to school?
We take a very, I would almost say holistic approach. So I would say that we don’t try to say that you should be using every single gadget. So that is one thing. I would say, as far as school goes, I think the important ones are the key ones, too — just like getting your stuff done right. So it’s probably laptop; battery packs are really becoming huge right now, not just because of school but because of Pokemon Go, and because of travel and just in general. Headphones, exercise headphones in particular, tend to be popular among students. Probably for lots of reasons, but even among people who are not huge exercisers. Even when I was in school, I was not into working out, but I love exercise headphones because they’re waterproof, so they’re kind of useful for when people dump drinks on you in the cafeteria and things like that [laughs]. And then from there it kind of depends on what you really need. I noticed today on Twitter, a few college students were asking about Wi-Fi accessories for the dorm, so there might be some of that. Wi-Fi routers are always nice if you’re going to live with friends off-campus. It kind of depends on what you’re doing, and how old you are, too. What school you’re really going to.
LG: Right. There’s a big difference between living in a dorm room or off-campus housing versus going into your freshman year like Louie Swisher is! I know we’re putting you on the spot a little, but Jacqui …
LG: … but maybe you have some of these handy, because you guys do rank these things as best. What would you say your personal Top 5 for just those categories you talked about, for what people need going back to school?
So, a laptop is kind of an obvious one. But a lot of people buy new laptops going into school. So I think we’d recommend Ultrabooks for most people in general, because they are both thin and durable, and not too too expensive. We like the Dell XPS 13 for Windows if that’s your thing, or the MacBook Air 13-inch. The only problem there is obviously that Apple has not updated their laptops yet this year, so that’s one thing that if you can wait, you might want to wait. But you don’t necessarily have to. You know, if you’re dying for a laptop now and you need one, MacBook Air is great, and it’s my personal favorite.
LG: More so than the MacBook?
Yeah, you know, I’m not a huge fan of the MacBook MacBook, and the MacBook Pro is a little heavy for me, so I’m just kind of secretly hoping they keep the Air around. But I suspect they may not.
KS: I’m not going to age myself, but when I went to college it was like a small suitcase. I had a Kaypro.
LG: Did you have shoulder pads and wear blazers and your feathered hair?
KS: There is a very good Charlie Rose interview with me and Michael Wolff about the internet at the beginning of the internet, and I’m wearing shoulder pads. And I had feathered hair, and someday I’ll let you enjoy it. But in any case, so the smaller the better, is what you’re thinking, Jacqui? Like, it’s just light.
Yeah, I think if you’re going to have this as a tool that you’re carrying around with you all over the place, you don’t want to kill your shoulders, but you do want to make sure it can run your stuff.
KS: But people don’t use laptops as much, do they? I mean, do kids use laptops as much as they used to? Or do they need to? I don’t use mine as much as I used to.
Yeah, you know what, I don’t use mine as much as I used to, either. I think it depends. Especially for college students. Just yesterday, just to make sure I wasn’t too old for this, I actually asked a bunch of our younger staff members how they had taken notes in school. And a lot of people said that they did not use like a computer or anything. They loved to just take notes like on a normal notepad. And so, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know if kids are really into that or not. What do you think, kids?
KS: Tell us, kids. What else is another thing that’s important?
I mentioned battery packs. I think that this is one that, like, almost literally everybody probably could use, unless you like never leave the house. Which is possible.
LG: My ideal world [laughs]. Go ahead, I’m sorry.
No, it’s okay [laughs]. We have a huge variety of battery-pack recommendations, depending on your use case. The one that I like is a really thin one, it’s called the TravelCard. It’s almost like a credit card, basically. And you can slip it into your wallet; and this one in particular, because it’s so thin, it has a little bit less capacity. So it probably has like a 50 percent charge or something for your iPhone. But that’s great for if you’re caught out at night and you need to grab an Uber home, or whatever. We have a few others. Like we really like the AmazonBasics Power Bank as kind of a go-to battery pack.
KS: That’s one that Amazon makes.
Yeah, right. Amazon makes a lot of their own stuff now that is branded Amazon, and they do pretty well in our tests. Not every single thing, but for the most part their stuff is pretty solid.
Their battery pack is one of our favorites.
KS: And that’s the thin ones. How many charges do you get? Because I had to run out. I think I do the TravelCard, and it’s great, but it runs out really quickly.
Right, yeah. The TravelCard probably has, like, not that much battery. The AmazonBasics is, I want to say, it’s like huge. Probably like 16,000 milliamps or something.
LG: Oh, wow.
So that’s going to be multiple charges on your smartphone, and probably your friends’ smartphones. So that’s a good one to have if you’re going to, like, actually get on a plane and go somewhere, and you’re not really sure where the next outlet is.
LG: Yup, absolutely. You mentioned headphones earlier, and I should note that in your wireless sport headphone review, you guys landed upon the JLab Epic 2 as your top pick, and then you recently updated it and said those are still the best. And The Verge also voted for the JLab Epic 2s as the best wireless headphones for your buck.
KS: Why? Tell us why.
LG: I’ll let Jacqui explain the reasoning, and then I can see if our opinions align in that.
Actually, now that you’ve spiked my curiosity, I want to know why you guys liked it. They came out in our original test because it was the perfect balance of that price with features, and then also they did really well with our kind of waterproofing tests and sweat tests. And then we had to reevaluate them because I think they had run into some quality issues and whatnot. But ultimately they came back, and a lot of readers bought them and told us that they loved them, so we just kind of, you know, tested them against the new stuff, and decided it was still the best balance overall of being able to get them wet and also in this kind of mid-range price. What did you guys think?
LG: Similar. The battery life is pretty good. They get 12 hours per charge, which for me — Bluetooth headphones are always just generally annoying, because you have to charge them and pair them. But if you have to go with Bluetooth, you want something that has a really long battery life per charge.
LG: One of the reasons why I voted for them over something like Plantronics BackBeat Fit is that the JLabs still had a pretty standard three-button remote and microphone, whereas the Plantronics BackBeat Fit had these interactive earbuds that every time I went to go adjust them in my ears, I would accidentally skip a song or something like that, because I was touching the earbuds, which is where all the controls are. A lot of people like the idea of these interactive earbuds that you’re just going to like stick in your ear, but I tend to still like just having a three-button microphone and remote that will control your phone. So in our case, we looked at about a dozen different pairs, and those are the ones we went with. A hundred bucks might still be a lot for some college kids though. Especially high-schoolers. So there are some ones out there you can get for less.
KS: Alright, headphones, laptop, charger. What else?
LG: Yeah, what else, Jacqui?
KS: You gotta get to five, Jacqui.
Oh, boy. Well, one of my favorites — this is kind of a cheat, because we talked about battery packs, but we just published this new thing on battery packs that are meant for laptops. We’re calling it “best portable AC power supply,” because it’s kind of generic. You can use it for anything …
KS: That slips off the tongue.
[laughs] Yeah, exactly. Doesn’t have to be just for laptops, I guess is what I’m saying. It has your standard AC power outlet. The one that we like is by ChargeTech. And again, it’s kind of a balance between these huger batteries. You can get some really big ones — I think there’s one by Goal Zero that is huge. But this one is huge because it’s the size of a book, maybe, and you can slip it into your laptop bag or whatever, and carry it around, and you can probably charge your laptop maybe two or three times off of it. it does have USB ports. So you can even plug your smartphone in, too and just charge everything you have. That’s one of my favorites because if there’s anything that I hate, it’s hunting for a power outlet for my laptop.
KS: I know, like in the airport. It’s almost like “The Hunger Games” in the airport.
LG: I’m going to get one of the those.
Yeah! For real. And you know, you can even — if you want to make friends, you could like …
[laughs] Yeah. Plug a splitter into it and share. I think it’s just nice to have. And if you go camping or just traveling in general, it’s nice to have. I really like it.
KS: I think when you’re camping you’re supposed to not bring your laptop … but I don’t do that, so don’t worry.
LG: I like the idea as, like, social lubrication. Instead of being, like, “Hey, are you going to the keg party on Saturday?” it’s like, “Would you like to use my ChargeTech?”
KS: Share some energy.
LG: “You look like you could use some laptop juice.”
KS: All right, last one, Jacqui. What else? Something weird. Give us something weird.
Oh man, something weird? Wow. that’s going to be a hard one.
KS: Or it doesn’t have to be weird.
This might be kind of weird, but maybe like nerdy weird. I alluded to this earlier, but I know what it’s like personally to live in an apartment with a bunch of people and have the Wi-Fi be really terrible. So what we did at that time in my life was put up a bunch of Wi-
Fi extenders. And if you are in that same scenario, where you’re on campus or off-campus, and you’re trying to figure out the Wi-Fi situation and make it go further than it normally goes, I think that’s a good option. We like this one by TP-Link, the AC1750. It kind of works just like your standard Wi-Fi extender. Just make sure that you can connect to it from far away, and then there you go. Your phones and your laptops …
KS: So you just need the password and then you go on, correct?
Yeah. And I think this is a better solution than … I think powerline networking is becoming more and more popular lately, which is also actually kind of like a super old technology, but at least for as at Wirecutter, people are going to that guide all the time. But I think that an extender is way better, because number one, if you’re renting, you’re not going to really know what the power situation is in this apartment that you’re in. You’re probably not going to have access to things that are going on behind the walls. So that is going to affect the performance of powerline networking, whereas Wi-Fi extender, you know, obviously just kind of uses Wi-Fi, so you don’t have to deal with like anything that’s happening in the build of your apartment.
LG: Right. In a minute, we’re actually going to read aloud some of the questions we’ve gotten from our Too Embarrassed to Ask fans. But before we go make some money with ad reads, why don’t we talk about what was your favorite gadget when you went back to school, back in the day?
KS: My bucket that I put my shampoo in. [laughter]
LG: Is that even a gadget?
KS: It’s a gadget. I don’t know, I’ll have to think about that.
LG: What was special about the bucket?
KS: It just was very useful. Carried it back and forth to the bathroom. Everything’s a technology, Lauren. Even back in the old days.
LG: Did you have like a little transistor radio and …
KS: Yeah I had a transistor radio.
LG: Did you have something to take notes on?
KS: No, I had a MacBook. The first Mac. It was heavy as fuck.
LG: [laughter] Jacqui, what about you?
At the time, I was really into my webcam. I had a webcam stream on my website at the time. So that was my thing. My roommates got into it, too, so there was like a whole show of people that would come by all the time.
LG: That’s pretty hilarious. It was built into your laptop, or was it an accessory?
No, at this time it was probably like a fancy Quickcam or something. It was like the late ’90s.
LG: That’s pretty awesome. I had a Compaq. I also started undergrad in the late ’90s, and had a Compaq PC my second year, and it had a CD burner, which was a really big deal. Because we may or may not have been downloading songs off Napster at the time. And everyone wanted to make CDs, but not everyone had a CD burner. So my Compaq PC became like CD-burner central.
KS: You know, what’s really interesting is every era has different tech. Like it depends. And I was joking about the shampoo bucket, but you know, I had the Mac, and it was heavy, and it didn’t save, and it was just the beginnings of that. But mostly a typewriter, really. It was just beginning to have computerized things. And I think there were no digital music players — you had tape and you made mixtapes for people. I mean I remember making a mixtape for someone I dated, and it was very weepy [laughter]. You know what I mean? Like that kind of thing. I found my mixtapes the other day, and they’re fantastic, I have to say.
LG: I’m sure.
KS: I didn’t have records — records was high school — but then mixtapes, and then CD-ROMs and then … every era of kids gets a new thing.
LG: I honestly can’t imagine the pressure that’s on parents now to buy this stuff for their kids to go back to school.
KS: Yes indeed.
LG: Because when we were going back, it was like, “Here’s a new box of pencils and a trapper-keeper and a marble composition notebook.”
KS: Well, they still use those.
Oh, I know.
KS: They still use the paper. But less and less. Everything at my kids’ school, every assignment — everything’s online. It’s still the same math, which I still don’t understand after all these years, but they just use different devices. You do have to keep up on it, and try to resist some of the too-much of it. I think the things that Jacqui talked about are all the things you need. But let’s ask our readers and listeners. We asked them to send in their questions and complaints and comments about this topic, and if you want to do this in the future, you can do it by tweeting at us with #tooembarrassed. This week, we asked our listeners for their questions about back- to-school tech. Lauren, do you want to read the first question?
LG: Sure. The first question is from David V; he’s @TheZeroDD1. I think he has sent in a question before, so thanks, David. He asks, “What tech do you recommend for taking notes in class? What about tech for students who commute? #tooembarrassed”. Jacqui, what do you think for taking notes?
Well, as I kind of mentioned earlier, I think that a standard notepad and pen would be great. And I think many students would agree. However, I also did hear from some young-uns that said that they did like taking notes on something like an iPad with the pencil or some other kind of stylus.
KS: Yeah, there was a big deal, there was big written things that would do that, but sort of fell out of favor, right? That you write it, and then it records.
Right, yeah. Yeah, there used to be tablets where you would write, and it would try to translate your text into like computer text. And that I think is still not … I think Apple does an okay job of it, but it’s not awesome. But I think one thing why people do like using tablets for note-taking is in like math and science courses where you have a lot of equations, and just kind of non-standard markings that you’re making; that is, at least compared to, say, taking notes on a computer — doing it on a tablet is way better. And when I was talking about this with people yesterday, they were just saying, if you’re used to taking notes on an iPad Pro for example, and you have, like, engineering courses or science courses, or whatever, it does make it easy to then just save those things out into their own file, and then you can either share them with friends or print them out and mark them up further. So if you’re not into the normal notebook and pen, I think a tablet would be cool.
LG: Liz Lopatto, The Verge’s science editor, when I asked her about this, she was all about index cards and pen and notebooks. She sent me a link to an NPR story that was about how writing is better for your information retention, — you’re processing the information differently, you’re giving it more context, like visual context when you’re writing it down in notes. It helps you recall better, like, all this. She was like, “Just write it down with pen and paper.” But then other Verge people gave a variety of answers, from Evernote, FieldNotes, to Simplenote for all of their favorite note-taking apps. There’s a bunch out there.
KS: There’s lots.
LG: What do you use, Kara?
KS: I just do Simplenote. I use SImplenote from WordPress. I don’t use paper that much anymore. Sometimes I do. I can’t read my own writing, that’s really why. But I use Simplenote.
LG: I’m surprised you don’t use paper. I envision people scribbling notes for you on a newspaper, sticking it under a flower pot …
KS: [laughs] No. Someone we know uses the tiny little notebooks, you know those tiny little reporter — “Hi, give me the scoop.” [LG laughs] I don’t do that. I know it sounds crazy, but I have like a very strong recollection, and when people say things to me, I remember them, and I go after I talk to them — I try not to have something between me and the people I’m covering, and then I run in the bathroom and write it down. But it depends. And then I check back and make sure I didn’t get anything wrong. But I don’t like the pen and paper. I think, as a reporter, it gets in the way. People realize I’m a reporter, and then I can’t fool them into telling me exactly what I want to hear.
LG: Can’t fool them.
KS: I pretend I’m their friend. You know how that ends for them.
LG: Well, for students, it sounds like a good way to remember the information might be use paper and pen, and then if you need to back up your notes later on, then transcribe them later on. And you know what, then you write them down twice, and you remember everything.
KS: I take pictures of notes sometimes.
LG: You do that, too, you take pictures. But I never remember the stuff I take pictures of with my phone, though.
KS: I do.
LG: Someone shows a slide in class …
KS: I like the tippity-typing.
LG: And then in terms of tech for students who commute, I’d say refer back to earlier in podcast when Jacqui mentioned battery packs, because that is going to save your life. Okay, the the next question is from Emmanuelle Rushki, who asks: “Will the iPad Pro plus Apple Pencil ever be able to totally replace actual notebooks for taking notes and stuff?” [cat meow in the background] I think that was a cat. I’m so excited! There’s a cat!
Sorry about the cat.
LG: That’s okay, I was very excited.
KS: Are you kidding? Lauren went crazy. Anyway, I put Pro and Pencil, a lot of people want to use this … [cat meow]
LG: Kitty! Come join us!
KS: Calm down, Lauren. Let’s get back to tech. Will that ever work? Because everyone’s hoping for that, right? I mean I remember interviewing Bill Gates 15 years ago about the idea of a pencil and a pad. it’s just not there yet.
For me, it’s definitely not there. But again, I may be biased towards the notebook and pen, but I just think people want to like it, like you said. There are a lot of appealing elements to using an iPad Pro like that, but I think for most people there’s something about it that’s missing. There’s something about that experience of, like, drawing or writing. And then maybe, too, if it’s someone who’s used to taking notes on a computer and typing, it might even be too slow and annoying to use something like a tablet. So I’m not totally sure. But I do think for certain kinds of people — I think for, like, illustrators, for example, it could really become a huge thing..
KS: Is the Pencil a big kit? I didn’t buy one. Interestingly, Steve Jobs in an interview with me many many years ago was like, “We’re never going to have pencils.” He was sort of against them, and Bill Gates was for them.
LG: Yeah, he was.
KS: If you remember the stylus.
LG: The Pencil is quite nice, though. I’ll give it that.
KS: Yeah, but I didn’t buy it.
It is pretty nice.
KS: Why didn’t I buy it?
LG: Because then you have to buy — for a while you could only use it with the 12.9-inch giant expensive iPad Pro, and now you can use it with the smaller, or I should say regular-size iPad Pro. But it only works with those two things.
KS: I have too much technology. And I lose it.
LG: It might work for designers and people who have to draw, and things like that.
Yeah, that’s the thing. I know a lot of designers and illustrators, and those are the people who love it the most. And then otherwise, you know, I think there’s a lot of regular people in the middle who are like, “Yeah, I tried it, and it was okay for me, but it didn’t stick.”
LG: Absolutely. And let’s not forget — Emmanuelle, thank you for sending your question — that if you’re just hooked on the idea of a stylus and some type of notebook computer, you can also look at something like the Surface and spend a little less money than you would on the giant iPad Pro.
KS: All right, the next question is from Tom Labetti, @TLabetti: “Any OSX typing tutorials for young kids, third grade? Does that count as back to school?” Yes it does, yes it does. You need to learn to type. You start to get those little laptops in those early grades.
Man, so I saw this on Twitter, and I started to try and figure out the answer to this question, and I could not figure it out [laughs]. There are some typing-tutorial type apps on the App Store, but I have no experience with them. So I’m not really sure. I don’t have kids, either.
KS: I do, I just make them type. [laughter] There are typing programs but, you know, these kids already know how to type. My kid knew how to type since he was a toddler.
LG: He knew how to type on a keyboard, a standard keyboard layout?
LG: That’s pretty impressive.
KS: Well, I mean I think they grow up with it. On a phone first, and then it was, like, when they were two and three, it was like, “iPhone, iPhone.”
LG: That’s a different type of typing. My 8-year-old niece thinks typing is a poop emoji.
KS: Yeah, that’s true. They figure it out pretty quickly. I think.
You mean it’s not? [laughter]
KS: Everything’s going to be in emojis, don’t you know that?
LG: That’s true, they’re not going to need to know how to type, they’ll just need to know how to thumb different emojis.
KS: Point to the smiley face … All right, let’s get to the next one.
LG: The next one, yes. It’s from TG — that’s @TyGates on Twitter — who asks, “My little cousin says the Wi-Fi sucks at his dorm. He told me about Amplifier, are you familiar with that brand?” So I personally have never used a router like Hero or Luma or Amplifier or anything like that. But Jacqui, you talked about this earlier.
I kind of Googled it just to make sure I understood what it was after I saw that question, and it’s like a mesh network thing. I guess my initial answer to this question is, I don’t think that that will help in a shitty Wi-Fi dorm situation, because probably you don’t have control over the original Wi-Fi network to begin with. And a product like Amplify is really meant for someone who is, like, say, a homeowner, where you do have control over the network. I think that if you’re in a dorm and your Wi-Fi situation is bad, you may not even be able to do what I suggested earlier with the extender. You may kind of be screwed. When I was in college and we didn’t even have Wi-Fi, I just ran a really long Ethernet cable out into the hallway [laughs]
LG: Oh, Ethernet. Yup, yup. But you may want to, if your Wi-Fi’s that bad.
KS: Yeah I guess, that’s a good point.
So if your dorm has Wi-Fi but also you have Ethernet in your room, which I think a lot of dorms do, maybe not every one, but I suspect many do, then you can probably still just plug in your own router and actually just set up your own Wi-Fi network. So that’s what I would do if I was in that situation.
LG: The next question we actually got on Recode’s Facebook, it’s from Abdel Kadar Salame, sorry if I pronounced your name incorrectly: “I hate Chromebooks, so what is the best alternative for a midrange Windows notebook or laptop?” Before we get into the answer, we should note that Chromebooks are really fast-growing, and especially in the education market. Back in May, an analyst from IBC confirmed to The Verge that Chrome OS overtook the Mac OS in terms of shipments for the very first time in the first quarter of this year, and said, “Chromebooks are still largely a US K-12 story.” So they’re really big in education, they’re super cheap, but if you don’t want one, there are plenty of midrange Windows options out there. Jacqui, do you have any suggestions?
KS: Just to be clear, the schools give them out and you have to use them. You use the ones they have, because they’re all outfitted with all the school stuff.
LG: Really? Are your kids using Chromebooks?
KS: Yup. They get em at the beginning of the year, and then they give them back.
LG: There you go.
KS: There you go. They don’t have a choice. I mean, they have a MacBook, too, and they can use it to go into cloud stuff, but they have school ones, too.
Chromebooks are obviously beloved by many people, including students. But one thing that we write in our own reviews is, like, obviously you cannot install a lot of native software.
KS: That’s why they have them for school [laughs]
[laughs] Right, right. And especially if you are a little older, like you’re going to college. You know, a lot of times you will need some software, even if it’s like the basics. Office and whatnot. So there is one notebook that we like that’s kind of like that midrange sort of like Windows laptop that’s about the same price as a Chromebook, and it’s the Acer Aspire. The 15-inch E5-575. It has like all the same features that we like in an Ultrabook; it has 8 gigs of RAM, like 802 at 11 AC Wi-Fi,, all the best stuff. But it’s a little bit bigger and chunkier, so that’s basically what you get for paying half the price. And I think this one is like $550. So it’s about the same price as a Chromebook, but you can run Windows software.
LG: There’s some other ones as, well, like HP has the Spectre X2 that’s around $600. Another thing to keep in mind, too, is if you are a student or a teacher, a lot of these electronics makers will give you a discount if you just prove or say you are a student or a teacher. Lenovo does this, Apple does this. You can get something like the 15-inch Lenovo Yoga Flex for around $600. So … be savvy.
KS: There’s a lot of choices out there.
LG: Yeah, there are a lot of choices out there.
KS: Absolutely. But what’s interesting is they’re not all as jacked into the Mac system as they used to be. Used to be Macs, you used to save up coupons to get Macs for schools and stuff, and that’s not the case, it’s not as strong as it used to be. With the schools.
KS: All right, last question is from JP Balajadia @JPBalajadia. “Why do schools still have books? Why isn’t everything tablet-based?” You’re right. Why have books?
LG: Why are we breaking kids’ backs with books?
KS: Right, they definitely have books. I don’t know, JP. They’re not going to, someday, let’s just be clear.
[laughs] I think part of the reason schools still use books as opposed to — I assume we’re referring to the alternate being like a Kindle-type device or e-reader. You know, it’s easier to flip through and find … I think when you’re using books as a reference, and not necessarily as narrative reading material, it’s just easier to use them that way. They have better usability.
KS: Workbooks, everything else.
Yeah, like can you just imagine trying to like flip through and find some graphs that you saw in say an e-reader? It would be a pain.
KS: And it sounds dumb, but books work sometimes — like an egg. It kind of works.
LG: Yeah, there’s also the funding issue, too. I think a lot of the stuff we’re talking about, generally speaking, we’re assuming a certain amount of means on the part of the consumer or even the school system. But some school systems don’t have the funding for all these advanced technologies. My mother is a retired schoolteacher, but she worked in an inner-city public school system for her entire career, and they were always the last to get the newest technology, and sometimes it’s just not an option.
KS: But they are coming down in price, and eventually that will probably be the case.
LG: Eventually it will, and that’s great, because that also means that all the texts are immediately updatable, and you’re not dealing with five-year-old outdated school books during an election year, when maybe it actually makes sense to have the most up-to-date history you could possible have, or whatever it might be. But it’s not available to everybody, that’s for sure.
KS: I think the combination of both books and technology is a good one still.
LG: Yeah, I agree.
KS: On another show, we’ll do backpacks and stuff like that. I had to pick up my kid’s bag the other day, and I literally like almost lost one of my spine parts or something [laughter].
LG: The Verge recommends a backpack on their back-to-school list, but it’s like some $230 North Face or something. It’s really expensive. I’m not even going to get it.
KS: No, thank you. Are you kidding? I go to like Walgreens and I grab the first thing that doesn’t have Dora on it [laughter]
LG: I used to have a Jansport, did you have a Jansport Eric? Jacqui did you have a Jansport? I think I had the same one for a couple of years.
KS: I had a book bag. That’s what we used to have. Stuff like that. Anyway, Jacqui, thank you so much for joining us.
LG: Yes. Thank you.
KS: I’m so glad none of us are going to college right now.
LG: I think I want to go back to school now.
KS: Do you?
LG: I think it’d be fun.
KS: You did. You took a mid-career break and did that.
LG: I want to learn forever.
KS: Really? Oh, god, I hated school. I hated every bit of school.
LG: I’ll go back. Let’s come up with another degree.
KS: Yeah, yeah. A masters of what?
KS: Of nothing.
LG: [laughs] Exactly.
KS: Jack of all trades, master of nothing. Is that what a journalist is?
LG: Yeah, seriously.
KS: All right, Jacqui Cheng of Wirecutter and Sweethome, one of our favorite publications, thank you so much for joining us. This has been another great episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask.
LG: Yes, thank you, Jacqui.