Dear Lifehacker: Can I Survive University With Just A Laptop PC?


Dear Lifehacker, A combination of dire economic times and a certain level of job dissatisfaction has steered me back towards uni. I’ll be starting a course in Tasmania in mid-Feb and I was wondering what systems people were using to get the most out of their study. I’m considering going down the laptop route however feel that there are times where paper will be necessary. Is all electronic the way to go? Unfortunately I didn’t buy a tablet and can’t see myself getting one in the foreseeable future due to budget restraints. Thanks, Ryan

As my only exposure to universities in recent years has been when attending conferences, I’m definitely opening this one up to the readers, but I will make the following points first:

  • Access to power is your biggest challenge — very few if any lecture rooms have power at every seat, and even libraries are tricky — so maximum battery life is an important consideration.
  • Every time I’ve tested tablet PCs for note-taking, I’ve abandoned them. They seem OK for business meetings, but not for lectures where detail is more likely to be important.

Beyond that, though, I’ll ask everyone else: have you managed a wholly electronic education?


  • I just completed a Bachelor of IT at QUT. To be honest, I rarely took notes. The lecture slides provided were sufficient enough for study later on. In first year I printed all the slides and took additional notebooks but as I got used to it I ended up going with just a biro and a single notebook for all 4 units. Final year I got a laptop and played Tetris throughout lectures.

    Depends on your degree but I would recommend just getting a note pad for each unit and sticking them in your uni bag.
    Alternatively just a laptop is great but people frown on you when you don’t have at least a pen and paper (for group work etc).

  • If you are taking any subjects that involve diagrams, formulas or sketches…paper is the way to go. A lot of universities will upload PDF lecture notes to the internet (depending on the course), most people print them and scribble additional notes on the same paper. It’s probably the easiest way to go IMO.

  • For me office one-note has been an absolute life saver. the amount of times I have misplaced important notes (when written on paper) is just plain sad. I am using an old Fujitsu s6240 and as long as I charge it the night before I have enough juice to get me by. Though I am doing a multimedia course so power outlets are usually in at least half my classes.

    Word of advice: turn your screen brightness way down and you will save heaps of battery.

    At the end of the day nothing beats the organisation of having all your notes in one spot. oh and most unis these days upload the lecture slides to their website so its always nice to be able to read the slides on your own screen instead of squinting at the main projection at the front of the room.

  • I’ve used only electronic note taking for my MBA. Laptop + Freemind, and then later MindJet Mind Manager. Works well, but you have to be a decent typist. Freemind allows you to store everything on the USB key, and also link in your documents. I have pretty much written every essay based on electronic resources, and scanned books when I have to.

    Works well for me. YMMV

  • i did the first year of my Masters using a laptop and found it was fantastic, but i think it depends on the university and how good you are on a computer… i found i could take more detailed notes on the PC as i type faster than i handwrite; also, when the lecturer refers to a paper or online source you can go online and bookmark or download it on the spot.

  • You’ll survive fine with just a laptop.

    Call me a traditionalist, but i do believe that writing notes with a pen is a better way to take notes. I feel the brain absorbs more when writing, as opposed to typing. Besides, i’ve seen so many laptop “note-takers” playing Solitare that i feel justified in this view.

  • As a uni student, I have found that note taking, the old pen on paper way, is the best for me. (look for an old Lifehacker article on “Cornell” note taking.) I then use my laptop for internet research, reading the odd online article, writing essays, and the odd coding project (though those are easier to do on the Lab computers.) Google docs and open office is what I use for writing. I don’t take my laptop to uni often, because I’d hate to lose it.

  • I’m currently doing a B Engineering(Software) at UNSW, and I’m using a Macbook w/ MindJetManager and smultron to take notes and the like, but I also picked up a LiveScribe Pen.

    I’ve been using the Macbook and the LiveScribe Pen and it’s been absolutely wonderful for summer school, I have the recordings of the lectures and the notes, and it’s really easy to do all the design and prototyping I have to do for Software Engineering.

    That plus Things on my Mac and my iPhone means I don’t miss a beat and I can stay up to date with what I’m doing.

    Make sure you take advantage of your calendaring software on your laptop and your phone whatever platform you’re using, so that you don’t miss any assignments or the like.

  • I was at Uni in the late 90s so couldn’t afford a laptop, but used an old desktop at home to do internet research. Now of course I wish I had an electronic copy of all by lectures and notes.

    These days I think a Laptop will do you fine, just remember to keep it secured and also have a backup HDD, the USB ones are great for that.

    To save you lugging it into Uni each day, have you see the Livescribe? ( Officeworks sell them in Australia. Could be a lifesaver for you for recording the lectures whilst also synching that to the notes you write on the notepaper. I’m on a Mac which means their Mac version is a little behind the funcitonality of the Windows software (e.g. not being able to print out my own notepaper) but this could give you the best of both worlds.

  • Pen and Paper is the still the best.
    Unless you’re a fantastic typist, and know how to type formulas in markup quicker than you can write them, you’re going to miss alot of important information.

    Also, the “Go back and fix that” part of note-taking where you realize you copied something down wrong, etc, is much easier with a pen; Draw a line through it, put a quick arrow to a side-note, jot it down, and done (It’s also a good way to remind yourself of common mistakes you may make).

    Alot of my lectures were not available online, so most of what I studied were my own notes, which I can guarantee were much better retained in my head than reading over electronic slides.

    I would start off with more than you need. A book at least for each subject – different coloured pens (header, side-notes, normal text, important points, etc) – All the text books – pre-print lecture slides before class, etc.
    Once you get into the groove (probably after your first semester so you’ve done everything including exams at least once) you can start removing the parts you didn’t use, or don’t need.

    It’s all down to personal preference. I recommend testing early so you don’t miss any important bits (you know, in the “Introduction” classes, etc). Figure out what’s best for you now and constantly re-evaluate as time goes on.

    Best of luck with it!

  • Why not a netbook? I did a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education last year which involved travelling in on the tram (45 mins). I bought a little Asus EEE with the Xandros desktop and it was brilliant – small enough to work on the tram, small enough to tuck into a pile of books and not be very obvious. There were not enough desktops available in the library, so it was great to work on there, too. Great battery life and comes equipped with all the software you need.Only thing is the keyboard may be a bit small if you are typing in a hurry in a lecture. I just put up with the typos and put the whole file into my desktop word processor spell check when I got home.

  • I experimented back and forth between notepad++ ( for simplicity ) and Word 2007 ( for features ) but i don’t feel one hundred percent comfortable with either, I may give office onenote or “the guide” a try. Or maybe i’ll just go back to using WikidPad for the simplicity of linking pages.

    Also I want to say I’m really impressed at the number of Uni students on here, I guess I always thought I was the only one.

    Anyone here studying at Burwood? We should have a lifehacking brainstorm.

  • Thanks for all the useful feedback.

    I’ve been through all the posts and it’s interesting to see how everyone tackles this essential part of uni life. After some consideration I’m going to give onenote a shot and supplement it with a good old notepad for drawing diagrams to slot into my notes following the lectures.

    It’s simple but i hope that it works.

  • Flex – I am studying at Burwood! Personally I like to just go to the lecture, sit there, write any ideas I have down in the lecture on paper and then iLecture the lecture a few days later doing notes on the PC. I can pause/speed up bits then and get notes down much better, with the advantage of time to think about the material in the lecture instead of just trying to hurry it down on to paper.

  • I survived my bachelor and my master just fine with just a laptop. I’ve using KeyNote (with .knt extention) app. It helps you organise your notes easily. It’s free so you can give it a try.

  • If you do want to use a laptop, OneNote is the way to go. Also some lecture halls have maybe 1 or 2 power points tops.

    I took my laptop to most of my first semester and for the last 3 semesters i just took a single notebook and a pen.

    I’m thinking of getting a netbook, and trying to use that.

  • – take a picture of your handwritten notes on your phone, upload it, evernote does ocr and you can search it like a doc.

    I couldn’t do it without a laptop.

  • Cool Tom, you can email me on my deakin email [email protected] ( I’m sure you know the rest )

    I find that streaming lectures can be a godsend sometimes, especially if the lecturer uploads all the slides as well.

    I’ve been limited to just a laptop the entire uni year and at no point have I felt deprived because I didn’t have access to a desktop.

  • I use a notebook for everything except when I think I will need to ‘draw’ graphs or formulas. I purchased an ACECAD notebook that allows handwriting and drawings to be uploaded digitally. The handwriting recognition works well for most. My handwriting is inconsistent, so it does not work for me.

    The key is to store everything digitally. Ensure that you BACK UP!

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