Laptop or iPad For Medical School? (Don’t Make this Mistake)[2021]

Choosing a laptop or iPad for medical school comes down to two things; workflow and budget. If you’re the type of student who loves taking handwritten notes and has some cash to spare? Go the iPad route. Want to keep your options open? Get a laptop.

Other things you’re going to want to consider are more comparable; battery life, processing power, disk space etc. But all are important to think about.

Here we take a bigger look at the question. We’ll discuss:

  • The pros and cons of both
  • What most med students might want from either device
  • The mistake I made choosing between the two

Let’s get started.

Laptop Or Tablet For Medical School?

The functionality of laptops and tablets, at least in 2021, are basically the same. Med students can pretty much do everything they need on either device. 

Choosing one over the other comes down to personal preference. Laptops edge tablets in terms of versatility. Tablets are better for note taking.

My Personal Opinion

If I had only one choice? I’d go for a laptop. But the truth is that I actually have both (so yeah, that’s an option too).

I bought a 2018 iPad and Apple Pencil in the summer of my second year in med school. And I upgraded from a 2012 Macbook Air (it died) to an ASUS Zenbook laptop earlier this year. Needless to say, the iPad doesn’t get used.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s an amazing device. The screen, the OS, the pencil; it all works seamlessly. The problem is it just doesn’t suit my workflow. A workflow that involves no notetaking whatsoever.

And almost 80% Anki…

Looking back, now $500 worse off, it does feel like a bit of a mistake. The iPad only really comes out when I’m travelling (not regularly) and want to read a book or watch a movie. Otherwise all work and study gets done on the laptop.

The things I find annoying about tablets?

  • It’s hard to work with spreadsheets (especially when trying to quickly copy and paste lines of text into cells and create something like this).
  • Transferring files can get annoying: especially when downloading PDF’s and videos from around the web and wanting to move them across different devices (complicated when on different ecosystems).
  • They’re just not efficient work machines: spending a lot of time working online in med school, I need access to custom software and things like Chrome extensions. Tablet OS systems are limited here.

Basically I share a lot of the same conclusions Ali Abdaal comes down to in this video comparing the Macbook (laptop) to the iPad (tablet)…

I also agree when he says an iPad can’t replace a laptop.

So what would I have done looking back? 

It comes down to two opinions. 

The sensible me? Would have forsaken a tablet altogether and invested the money into upgrading to a better laptop (assuming my Air would still have died).

The greedy me who wanted both devices? Probably have gone for a cheaper, yet just as functional (for my use-case at least), tablet. Something like the Samsung Galaxy Tab Lite series that I’ve seen some of my colleagues using.

That’s slick, high performing and does all the same stuff as an iPad. But is a lot cheaper.

I did spend a long time thinking about getting one of these before letting my Apple bias get the better of me…

A definite regret there.

What Do Medical Students Use Laptops or Tablets For?

One way of better answering the question, especially if you’re headed to med school, is to consider what you’d use either device for.

So here’s what we do most of the time:

  • Read ebooks and PDF documents: especially awesome ones like those listed on my recommendations page that’ll save you a ton of time
  • Note taking: happens more in the pre-clinical years (although, as mentioned, I abandoned the practice)
  • Watching multimedia: lecture videos, YouTube channels, playing with cool software apps that help us to better visualize things like anatomy etc
  • Making, reading or editing presentations: for classmates and professors – a common occurrence across all subjects!

As you’ll see none of these tasks actually require much in the way of hard processing power. Not unless you want to do things beyond work and study (like gaming, video editing etc). 

So both laptops and tablets are more than capable in this regard.

What Tablets or Laptops Do Most Med Students Commonly Recommend?

Obviously (for reasons I’ll later go into) the iPad gets a whole lot of love from the med student community. Just count the amount of YouTube videos you can see on the subject and pretty soon you’ll see why.

Besides that though, what else is often recommended in the various forums and Reddit subcommunities out there?

Based on research, three common alternatives to the usual Apple gear come up; the Microsoft Surface, the HP Spectre and the option of a Chromebook.

Although I haven’t used any of these devices myself, here’s what’s generally reported…

Microsoft Surface

Probably the second most popular choice after Apple among med students, the Surface acts as both tablet and laptop. You can work on it at home with a dock or take it on the move with a stylus. The screen quality and durability is solid (as evidenced by this YouTube commenting that he flipped one off a desk several times and yet it still survived)…

HP Spectre

Another tablet-laptop hybrid, the Spectre is a cheaper choice than both the Apple and Microsoft competitors. While it shares a lot of the same functionality, there are some questions asked about its durability.

Chromebook

Chromebooks act as something as a go-between on tablets and laptops. They have similar functionality (portable and lightweight) but are usually less powerful.

The one big factor they have going for them? They’re cheap.

But perhaps they lack the functionality of some of the other options.

My only intention here is to highlight some of the most common mentioned devices for students in med school. You’ll want to do your own research about these things if you think they could be a good fit for you!

Should I Get An iPad For Medical School?

Having already shared my personal opinion on tablets vs laptops in med school (the iPad in particular), it’s important to be as objective as possible.

Should you get an iPad for medical school? Here are some good reasons why:

  • You’re already using the Apple ecosystem: (you’ve bought and use Apps on an iPhone and Macbook).
  • You’re a massive fan of handwriting notes: the Pencil and iPad combo is the best tablet writing experience here no debate – perfect for annotating lecture slides, class notes etc. Curiously, there’s also some scientific evidence that handwriting is better than laptop typing when it comes to studying too.
  • You want a powerful appliance that can do almost everything: as long as you also buy the separate accessories; keyboard, pencil, tablet protector etc.

And an iPad is also great in terms of portability too. Meaning you could carry it around on hospital rotations with you easily enough. 

That’s something that’s a little more tricky with a laptop – especially if they’re heavy.

On top of these reasons for choosing a laptop over an iPad though, there are also other potential negatives.

So here are some reasons why you maybe shouldn’t:

  • Price: the iPad is a serious investment. Money is a big reason why medical school is so stressful. Is it worth it?
  • Efficiency: it’s a little more difficult to switch between apps, run different software programs and produce work fast than it is on a laptop. Not much slower but marginally.
  • External peripherals: wiring an iPad up to a USB-monitor or printer, as it lacks ports, isn’t an option. Definitely something to consider if you ever need a bigger screen to work with or the odd thing to print.
  • Apps: having an iPad limits you to the apps that Apple approves. Windows laptops or Android tablets give you much more freedom here. The apps are often cheaper to purchase on these platforms too.

That last one is especially relevant in terms of Anki (one of my staple tools for studying medicine more effectively). The iOS app for Anki is the only paid version of it across any device (it’s free on Windows and Android). 

It’s also, due to cumbersome functionality, much more difficult to edit and make flashcards on Anki using the mobile version. 

In fact it’s for this reason I told a good med school friend of mine to really think twice in terms of opting for an iPad over a laptop. 

Such is the power of the flashcard…

Which iPad Is Best for Medical Students?

If you’re still thinking an iPad would fit your use-case best in med school then you’ll want to consider a few extra things.

Some key questions:

  • How much hard disk space are you going to need? (Without a laptop you’re going to want to go as big as possible)
  • What size screen is best? (Large screens are less portable but probably more practical to do work on)

The last one is more important still if you like to pull up different apps (like a book and a note taking app) and use them side by side.

There’s also the issue of price. The 9.7 inch iPad is cheaper than the 10.5 iPad Pro but both are compatible with the Apple pencil. Is the added functionality of the Pro really going to make that much of a difference?

Having bought the iPad (and not the Pro) I didn’t think so at first. But then the frustrations of having more limited space really does annoy me when I think about it…

Most med students who’ve gone down the iPad only route (if your budget permits), tend to say go big (space and size) and go Pro

iPad or Macbook for Medical School?

I’ve already spent a lot of time arguing the case for laptops over tablets. Still believing that’s the case, I’d go for a Macbook over an iPad. They’re more powerful, not that much less portable and open up options for you to do more things than simply just study.

The other question I’d ask is; is digital note taking (what most med students would choose to use an iPad for) really that necessary? 

Pen and paper can get the job done. And you’d still have an amazing laptop to use.

In fact the only reason I’d ever get a tablet over a Macbook is if I wanted to become an expert anatomist. Only then would it make sense, being able to take it into a cadaver lab and use it as a study aid or as a quick reference tool for 3D anatomy apps. 

That’s when a powerful high-res portable touch screen (like that of the iPad) could really make a difference.

Final Thoughts

As the owner of both an iPad and a laptop in med school it’s the latter that gets the most love. My workflow, method of study and the things I do outside med school make it more valuable to me than a tablet.

But of course no one med student is the same…

Just because a laptop works better for me doesn’t mean it’s right for you!

Image Credit: @designmesk at Unsplash