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Tech Tips for Moms and Dads, Part 1: What Kind of Computer Should I Buy My Child?

In this series, tech expert and dad Tim Warner answers perplexing questions about how to handle modern technology that affects your kids. Part 1 focuses on the computer types and operating systems that provide the best options for school-aged children.
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Buying your child a computer, regardless of whether that child is 5 or 15, can lead to a number of complicated questions:

  • What can I do to keep my child safe when he or she is online?
  • How can I monitor what my child does on the computer?
  • When–not if—my child breaks the computer, how can I get it fixed as cost-effectively as possible?

No need for panic. Allow me to take you by the figurative hand and teach you the main points to keep in mind to maximize (a) your child's satisfaction with the computer, (b) the device's budgetary impact, and (c) everybody's learning curve. Let's begin!

Desktop or Laptop?

Based on my experience as an IT professional and a parent, I suggest that you buy your child a laptop computer rather than a stationary desktop model. It's a mistaken assumption to think that you need a big ol' clunky desktop computer to give your child a fitting educational workstation.

Your goal is to strike a balance between the "everything but the kitchen sink" features of a desktop-replacement laptop, and the barebones functionality of an ultraportable. Figure 1 shows the difference visually.

Figure 1 Desktop replacement laptop (top) and ultraportable computer (bottom). Image credit: Shutterstock.

No matter what you do, don't buy a Chromebook. Several friends of mine thought they'd save a few dollars by buying their kids this budget model, but Chromebooks aren't really laptops in the conventional sense; they rely on the Internet for just about everything, including the operating system. If you choose a Chromebook, you'll definitely run into compatibility problems with much of the popular educational and recreational software (Minecraft, for example).

Don't get me wrong—Chromebooks are great for certain (adult) populations who need a highly specialized device. Likewise, some parents may consider a so-called "rugged" laptop in order to minimize spill and drop damage. Don't let advertisements and marketing fluff fool you—you'll pay a lot more for a rugged laptop, with limited functionality to boot. Rugged laptops (one of which is shown in Figure 2) are intended for construction workers, police, and so forth—not smiling, happy kids.

Figure 2 Rugged laptop. Waterproof and practically indestructible, but not particularly user-friendly. Image credit: Shutterstock.

So what kind of laptop should you buy? Here are a few models (in alphabetical order) that are highly rated as well as known to be child-friendly:

In my research, the price range for new, child-friendly laptops ranged from $300 to $900.

Finally, laptops are cool because you can purchase services like LoJack for Laptops (shown in Figure 3) that geolocate the device. Given how tightly most kids cleave to their computers, rest assured that if you can locate the laptop on a map, your child is probably standing or sitting right next to the device.

Figure 3 Laptop geolocation services like LoJack help you find a lost laptop (and possibly see where your child is) at any moment.

The Importance of Touch

Most technology nowadays relies on touch gestures. My five-year-old daughter, for instance, can touch-navigate her way around her iPad like an absolute pro.

To give your kids machines that use touch gestures, I suggest that choosing a laptop with a touch-capable display. Get, this, though: Buy a USB external mouse as well! I feel strongly that kids should learn to "touch type" as well as developing manual dexterity with the mouse. A touchscreen is awesome, but for maximum educational impact it should work alongside a physical pointing device.

Windows or OS X?

You may have noticed that most of the laptops I've recommended so far were based on Microsoft Windows. I suggested avoiding Chromebooks (and the Chrome OS) because they're much too limited for most kids' needs.

Likewise, please avoid Android-based devices because (a) they tend to be underpowered, with super-small displays; and (b) Android isn't the most user-friendly or compatible operating system for a kid, in my opinion.

That leaves Windows and OS X. Sigh...this is a tough one. In my home, we have computers based on both Windows and OS X, and we're very happy. If I had to go one way or the other, though, I'd recommend Windows over OS X for the following reasons:

  • Because Apple makes its own hardware, you have limited choice: the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro—that's it. By contrast, Windows-based laptops offer practically unlimited flexibility.
  • Although Apple has a decent market share in K-12 education, you should be able to find a Windows version of any educational software your child needs.
  • In almost all cases, the hardware and accessories for Windows laptops are much less expensive than for OS X laptops.

One great trend in software nowadays is for vendors to host their applications in the cloud (see Figure 4), giving customers access via web browser. This change means that we see fewer "Windows-only" or "OS X-only" software problems.

Figure 4 Thanks to cloud services like Google Apps, you may not have to pay for a lot of locally installed software.

I think the preponderance of cloud-based apps explains why Google Chromebooks are rapidly gaining a foothold in the K-12 educational market. Don't be fooled, though: Just because a Chromebook can handle Google Apps, that doesn't mean it can display multimedia educational content or play Minecraft.

New or Used?

Although you'll almost undoubtedly pay more for a new laptop as opposed to a used one, the chief advantage can be summed up in two words: manufacturer's warranty.

For example, for $249 above the purchase price, you can add the AppleCare Protection Plan to your MacBook Pro or MacBook Air. If your child drops his or her MacBook and breaks the screen, simply take the computer to your nearest Apple Store, and they'll replace the entire unit for you, free of charge. You can't beat that!

If you decide to go with a used computer, perform due diligence in your research to find out whether the unit is still under warranty; and, if so, whether the warranty can be transferred to you.

What About Specs?

Readers who already possess some tech savvy may think, "Tim, all this advice is well and good. But specifically, how much RAM should I look for in a child-friendly laptop? How much hard disk storage?"

In my professional and personal experience, many kids nowadays do most of their schoolwork online by using cloud-based productivity software such as Google Apps or Microsoft Office 365. Cloud-based apps require a decent Internet connection, but in general this use case is not resource-intensive at all in terms of processor, RAM, and disk storage.

If your child will use the computer to play games, system specifications become a bit more important. Graphical games (and some educational software, for that matter) require at least a mid-range graphics card to ensure good performance.

If your child's laptop meets at least the following system requirements, you're good to go for most use cases:

  • Intel Core ix processor
  • 4GB RAM (bare minimum; 8GB is better)
  • 500GB or greater hard drive (solid state preferred due to its ability to withstand being dropped)
  • Wired and wireless network connections
  • Upgraded graphics card (look for laptops with Intel HD Graphics 4000 or 5500 series)

If you're really concerned about the laptop having sufficient graphics capabilities, add the keywords gaming laptop to your Internet research.

Unless your child needs super high-fidelity audio, most laptop integrated sound cards work fine. I'm a musician, and I can rarely tell the difference between integrated laptop audio and the fancy built-in audio processors.

Final Thoughts

Your child's teachers may have specific guidelines on what kind of computer the child needs; in this case, the decision is largely out of your hands. Likewise, some schools actually distribute laptops to all students and take care of the device configuration and maintenance. This is a big relief for parents whose child "accidentally" drops the laptop and shatters the screen!

I'll discuss parental control/monitoring software much more in a future installment of this series, but I'll leave you with some popular references to investigate in the meantime:

Happy computing to you and yours!

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