Cheaper Than Chips – Tech to Help You Get Essays Done

We’ve all been there – Either a laptop or desktop isn’t affordable, or yours ‘explodes’ right as your warranty or care plan dies or there’s that awkward moment when you stagger in after a night out and knock over that glass of water you planned on having all over your keyboard. Maybe it’s not that – maybe your kit is just getting old and unusable for those essays you need to write, maybe you missed the boat on that special offer for Microsoft Office or your dream of a new Macbook Pro you planned to buy with your student loan  was quashed when you realised you still  have rent/bills/insurance to pay, food/alcohol/clothes to buy and potentially a reading list of books you’ll only need once to pick up.

Despite being almost ubiquitous these days, computers aren’t cheap and neither is software. Depending on your course, sometimes one person’s most useful tool is wasted on others that know what they’re doing or prefer alternative methods of organising their information.

For those that are cash strapped, here’s a few ideas that allow you to write your documents, run your calculations and do your basic research without resorting to crazy expenses.

Always Look on the Light Side of Life

Whilst this (debated) lyric may be shadowed by its more famous former line in the Monty Python song, so is a world of alternatives to the more famous offerings by Apple and Microsoft. Whilst many people like trends and there are many that fear to stray the path of the familiar, there are many hidden gems that may be able to save you money rather than just going by a well known brand name.

Some computers that often come up cheaper include Google’s Chromebook, a used computer found online (to which you may only need to buy a new harddrive) or even taking the hobbyist route of a Raspberry Pi (which can now even be expanded to desktop computer or laptop configurations). Both of these come out much cheaper than the average computer, but also don’t traditionally run Windows or MacOS right off the bat (check out the tutorials on “dual booting” from Techgirl88 in the links on the right if you want to make that happen though), but instead offer their own breed of operating systems to allow you to achieve the same thing in writing papers, doing research and updating your social life (as well as streaming music or video).

Whilst I can’t really put a bias on your choice – much of the editing of this blog is done on a Raspberry Pi 3 when I’m at home, whilst my laptop also runs on a free operating system for mobile use).


Keep Your Options (and your mind) Open

If you feel like you need to sell your old CD/DVD/Blu-Ray collection just so you can write essays, you’ll be glad to know there’s much more to life than solely Word, Excel and PowerPoint (that said, if you’re a qualifying school, you may be able to get it free).

There are many free options that are compatible with these programs in addition to Pages, Numbers and Keynote on Mac.

For desktop based suites you could try the similar programs OpenOffice and LibreOffice that offer direct alternatives named Writer, Calc and Impress in addition to a whole host of other programs for different tasks. For the Online ones there’s Google’s Drive suite that includes Docs, Sheets and Slides or if you crave for the familiar, there’s basic editing functions in Word, Excel and PowerPoint online. Finally, for simple notation such as Lecture notes on your phone, tablet or laptop – Evernote is a good auto-saving cloud based solution for rapid taking and saving of notes (especially if you forget to charge either one and it dies part way through) with the option to pay a small amount to upgrade your storage space or number of active devices as you see fit.

For more exciting and interactive presentations, Microsoft Sway is available as a light alternative to PowerPoint for free to those on tablets/phone or Windows 10 devices. There’s also cloud based tools such as Prezi Next, and Haiku Deck – all of whom offer their own unique ways of presenting with free tiers readily available to the cash strapped student or lecturer.

For those the brave with an existing or handed down computer, or those whom didn’t fancy attempting to buy Windows 10 now the free offer has expired or to shell out for a Macbook to write essays on (Multimedia students, I understand your conundrum), it’s worth considering the 3rd family of operating systems. Whilst Linux looks a little scary to some, getting the right version can save you some serious money and with there being thousands of choices, if you don’t like the version you use, simply back up your files and install a new one. If you choose to go down this route, the systems I can recommend heavily are UberStudent (designed for Educational use), Linux Mint (for those that preferred the Windows XP/7 look), Peppermint OS (what I currently use on laptop – useful for cloud based apps and is more colourful than Mint), elementary OS (for those that prefer the MacOS layout), Ubuntu (the iPhone of the distros) or Zorin OS (designed with beginners in mind) – of course you can choose for yourself here and tweak the results as much or as little as you need to get your perfect choice!

Don’t Buy If You Don’t Need

The other simple option is if you won’t miss it and don’t particularly need your own machine, don’t forget your Student Union and University or even local library often have computers available too. These are often preloaded with tools allowing you to research and reference easily. Unfortunately printing or extended time often won’t come for free, but if it’s possible for you to email your work somewhere or store it on a free cloud storage site, you can often find a workaround to this.


Depending on your specific needs, there’s plenty of options out there to the cash strapped student. Being in a place of research, don’t be afraid to try something different rather than judging a book for it’s cover. You might just surprise yourself and save yourself enough to buy a celebratory pint afterwards!



Lectures & Seminars

Undoubtedly you’ve noticed since you’ve joined student life,  College and University teaching is on a whole different level compared to your school classes. For starters,  they’re usually much longer and,  particularly in the case of lectures feel something akin to  going to a cinema rather than a lesson (only less exciting and with no overpriced popcorn).  Now,  some people are cut out for lectures and can happily take in and write notes on the swarm of information thrown at you on the slides and spoken by your teacher. Others struggle to understand it or lose focus around the 45+ minute mark (the rough single track attention span of studying young adults).  Either way, if you’re struggling to get it all in and you’re afraid of having no reference when asked question in the seminar, here’s a few tips to keep you both to the lectures themselves and surviving the endless drone).

Keep Hydrated

Let’s be honest, you’re going to be in there a while and whilst your coffee/tea/energy drink might keep you awake and alert, you’ll get thirsty and the caffeine does only work for a finite amount of time. Water will help fuel your system whilst you’re in there and whilst it might not feel like it at first, it will help to keep you hydrated, which in turn will help to keep your focus (why do you think Athletes live by the stuff?). Bottles of water are usually the best bet as these are allowed in most lecture spaces. Make sure you have a lid on though or when you accidentally knock it (which it possible if you’re scrawling notes at speed) you’ll give your notes and the person in front of you an unwanted shower! – even if they probably could do with one!

Pens and Pencils

Even in this day and age it’s worth keeping these close at hand so you can get everything down. If you’re a technology user, it’s worth keeping at least one pen about as you’ll need one to sign in to prove you’ve been there (unless your campus has upgraded to the new badge/fob scanners). They’re also useful just in case your battery goes flat and you need to quickly transfer to a lo-fi solution. If you’re still an old school writer, take at least two – that way if you do lend one to a friend or peer (which if you don’t know them that well there’s a small chance you might never see again), you still have something to write with and it’s great as a back up for other emergencies too (e.g: Pen running out or pencil lead snapping and you forget to bring a sharpener).

Use Evernote or OneNote to Remember & Annotate Stuff

If you’re a laptop or device user, you might find typing notes an easier and more readable method. However there’s only so much help that Text Wrangler, Word or Writer can do to help with note taking at speed. Microsoft’s OneNote really shines here and comes bundled with the most basic versions of Microsoft Office (Home & Student). The notebooks will allow you to write anywhere on the page and bring in tables, bullet or numbered lists and images as quick as a few key taps or dragging and dropping. Best of all, this is automatically saved as you type, so you’ll never miss a word. OneNote is available on a huge number of platforms allowing you to synchronise your notebook through Office 365 (which online is free for students and teachers with an academic email address) or as a Notebook file through a network drive or OneDrive. The Program is available on Windows and Mac computers, on iOS (phone and tablet versions) and watchOS, Andorid (phone and tablet versions)/Android Wear, Chromebook and online through If you’re not an office user, never fear! Evernote is a free service (With a premium upgrade that’s 75% off for students,  for more features) on  that allows you to take a similar approach. Admittedly the “type anywhere” feature isn’t part of their notes, but you can import many things natively and everything else will be included as an attachment. The main selling point to Evernote (like many programs and apps these days) is that it backs up to the cloud (known internally as “Syncing”). This can be done periodically or on demand by pressing any of the large Sync buttons in the program or device apps and once completed can be accessed on any session you run on another device – which can range from PC or Mac programs, iOS, Android apps or the Web based version at

Can’t Keep Up? Record It

It’s worth getting permission for this one first. If you’re struggling to take in the talk first time around or you can’t keep up with writing notes, see if you’re allowed to record the lecture for playback later on. There are many options for this from inexpensive dictaphone style recorders to more high end capsule or externally connectable portable recorders. If you’re on a shoestring budget and have a smartphone or tablet handy that can pick up the lecturer or PA system, use that. I will be covering recorders like these in a later post on the sister site WAVE Media but if you’re already struggling and need one in the next couple of weeks try the phrase “portable recorder” on sites like Amazon or eBay or your local music/electronics shops.

Get the Slides

Much like obtaining the voice, if there’s some important data that you want from the lecture (that you can’t find from their references), ask nicely if you can get a copy of the lecture slides. You might have thumbnail versions on a hand out, but having a printed or digital copy will always help, particularly with visual learners that may have associated a particular part of the lecture with a particular slide. If you were lucky like I was in my later uni years, they may have already uploaded the slides (or plan to) to your respective virtual learning environment or LMS (e.g: Blackboard, Moodle, Sakai etc) so you can download them when you’re next in the library or on your computer.   I hope these few tips may help you out in the many years of being talked at and – on the rare occasion – talking back to your lecturer and your classmates.   For those of you that already have a few lectures and seminars under your belt, what methods do you use to retain the information? Feel free to leave a comment in the box below. Thanks for reading and class dismissed!   Mike