Back to School: Off to Oxford with a MacBook Air

Unlike the last time I was in school when all of my notes were taken in long-hand and reports were done on typewriters, this time I had all kinds of digital tools at my disposal.

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In late July, I had the great privilege of attending a special course about the history of British scientists at Christ Church in Oxford, U.K.

Going to Oxford to study has always been on my bucket list, so when this opportunity came up, I jumped at it. As one who has chronicled the PC industry from its birth and tracked the tech market since 1977, I was pretty much on top of the modern day scientists and inventors that drove our current tech revolution. However, when I was in college, my history and engineering classes paid only lip service to the pioneers in physics, computing and natural philosophy who did a lot of the research and experiments in these fields from 1720 through the early 1920s or thereabout, which laid much of the groundwork for a lot of the technology we have today.

While this Oxford class was fascinating and quite insightful, perhaps the most eye-opening experience came from going back to school and being a student again. It has been 35 years since I was in college, and when I started, we just had slide rules to work with. Towards the latter part of my college days, the portable calculator hit the scene (thanks HP), although back then we could not use them for tests.

While going back to school again did not frighten me, I have to admit that I was a bit nervous. Over the years I have taught college-level courses and even today, I often speak to business school students about the economics and dynamics of the PC market. But being on the other side of the desk again was much more intimidating than I expected. Once I got into the class and things got going, I settled in and truly enjoyed this learning experience.

Unlike the last time I was in school when all of my notes were taken in long-hand and reports were done on typewriters, this time I had all kinds of digital tools at my disposal — and I can say from experience that it completely changed the way I learned this time around.

First of all, I had my smartphone with me and downloaded two scientific calculators, should I have needed them in the class. I also had at my disposal an iPad Mini, which proved invaluable when I needed to quickly search a term or person the teacher was talking about. And the one thing that I used the most was my MacBook Air, which served as my primary tool for taking notes.

Interestingly, when I was planning for this class, I had assumed I would just use my 9.7-inch iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard to take notes because of its long lasting battery. Many times I have gone to meetings or on short trips and all I used was this iPad/keyboard combo. The only problem with this is that the smaller screen and 85% keyboard sometimes makes it difficult to take notes and quickly modify or look up things simultaneously if needed. So after Apple introduced the new MacBook Air with Intel’s Haswell chip in it and reviews started showing it had battery life well beyond 12 hours, or in this case, more than an entire school day, I bought one of the 13-inch models and made it my primary device for intensive note taking.

The fact that I did not have to plug in and charge my laptop anytime during the day was quite freeing. It especially turned out to be a smart move because Oxford traces its roots to the 1500s and many of the buildings on the current campus date back to that time. That means that the classrooms did not have many places to plug in a battery charger; to do so, I would have had to go to small student lounges where others were competing for the few power outlets available to charge their laptops. Thankfully, the school did have Wi-Fi.

The short battery life of current laptops has always been a challenge to students who head off to school in the morning and want to have a portable computer with them all day for notes and research. Our current research has shown that college students, especially, have opted to use a tablet/keyboard combo in class for notes, leaving their laptops in the dorm to use for doing research and writing reports. The key reason for this is the long battery life with tablets versus short battery life in current laptops.

While Apple has already put Intel’s Haswell processor in the MacBook Air, other laptops coming out shortly will also include this new lower-voltage chip that sports longer battery life. While I doubt that any Windows-based laptops will get the extreme battery life Apple gets out of its thin and light MacBook Air, almost all Haswell-based laptops should be able to get a good 8-10 hours of battery life when they hit the market next month.

Going forward, the new battlefront for laptop competition will be battery life. All vendors will come out with thinner and lighter models, but the real engineering feats will be in the way they deal with the integration of Intel’s Haswell chips into thin designs that also call for smaller batteries. This means that the vendors must also tweak their versions of Windows to maximize battery life in the same way Apple did with OS X in order to give the Haswell-based MacBook Air such exceptional battery life. You will also see Haswell versions of what are called two-in-ones: laptops that work as a full laptop, but the screen pops off to become a tablet on its own.

What this means for back-to-school buying is that if a student needs a laptop for class or taking notes or research, the smart move is to buy either Apple’s MacBook Air or one of the many new Haswell-based Windows laptops or two-in-ones coming out as early as September. They will be thinner and lighter than current laptops and, more importantly, have all-school-day battery life. From personal experience as a recent student, I can tell you that a light laptop with all day battery life makes learning much easier, and having a bigger screen and keyboard for note-taking really impacts the quality of the learning experience itself.

On a side note, many people I talk to about going to Oxford ask me what program I attended. It is a summer continuing education program through an offering call the Oxford Experience.

It takes place at the historic Christ Church College in Oxford and runs for six weeks each summer. Each week they offer about a dozen week-long courses ranging from classes on history, architecture, archaeology, music, medicine, philosophy, literature and many others. You get to stay on the campus and eat in their famous dining hall (Harry Potter’s dining hall was patterned after this hall) and attend classes each morning throughout the week. Afternoons are free to explore Oxford and the surrounding countryside. It was a great experience and one that I will remember fondly for the rest of my life. Here is a link to next year’s classes being offered through the Oxford Experience.

Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every Monday on TIME Tech.

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