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What Kind of Computer Do I Get My Kid?

By June 4, 2018Technology

Right now my son has The Peach Salsa Computer, and it’s going to die. It’s time to start computer shopping for middle school. But with a birthday around the corner, I’d like to kill two birds with one stone–get him something that looks like a gift but is really for school.

The Peach Salsa Computer was a gift from my former editor after I dumped peach salsa into my Macbook Pro.

I was carrying the salsa when my phone rang. Who uses phones for calls these days? The bowl fell directly on the keyboard. Upside-down.

I saved the computer–I turned it off, dripped out the liquid, dried it for several days, then removed the keys and used tweezers to pick out each onion string one by one before reassembly. Victory!

“I was looking for a good home for this computer anyway–a kid or person in need,” my editor said. It was a 2009 Macbook that had some good life left in it. “If your laptop’s not dead, give it to your son.” 

And so I did.

But the Peach Salsa Computer has served long and well. It’s time for it to go to that great hard drive in the sky.

But computer shopping for kids–it’s no joke. I’m seeing dollar signs rack up before my eyes…

 

Should I get my kid a computer?

The answer–probably yes.

Most schools don’t have enough technology for kids, and it really is an advantage for them to have their own–it’s set up the way they want, they’re familiar with the flow, they take care of it better, and they don’t lose time going to labs or waiting for “their turn.”

Shared technology in classes does not work. I’ve lived this. It was impossible to schedule the lab–one teacher had it all the time. It reminded me of the college computer lab when I’d have a paper due last minute and that row of future engineers was playing computer games all night so no one could write their papers.

But that was 1990. And we still behave that way.

When laptop carts came onto the scene I thought it would be better, but it wasn’t. We got a few rolling carts to share between several classrooms.  Teachers still have to arm wrestle for access or cut their lessons short “to be fair.”

It doesn’t work.

Individual tech access isn’t a luxury anymore. Higher-level jobs require tech fluency–whether it’s a customer-service job using technology, a research job, or someone using social media to interact with customers in real time, using and having tech is expected. Technology is in our daily flow.

The very same adults taking away tech in schools couldn’t survive if I said, “Let me take your phone for a day.”

Or worse–“Here’s one laptop for you all to share. Make it work.”

Can you imagine an entire team of teachers trying to enter grades on one department terminal, or administrators saying, “I scheduled the laptop today, I have to finish writing my evaluations. You do yours tomorrow.”

Nobody in an office shares a pencil. No kid should have to share technology when it’s so affordable. When schools don’t provide these things, we, as parents and communities, might have to step in.But that doesn’t mean we have to go broke.

And your kid probably wants a computer for many of the same reasons as mine– YouTube, social media, and Fortnight.

How do you know the best technology to get–for productivity–at a price you can afford?

What do I get my kid?

Tech shopping can be stressful for many parents. Kids want top of the line. Your bank account doesn’t. But you don’t want to buy something that doesn’t work or will be obsolete by the time you set it up.

How do you choose?

You’ve got a few basic categories to consider. Each has different advantages. You’ll want to think about portability, durability, flexibility, and price.

Do you need anything to be customized? Do you need specific software like Adobe Photoshop or movie editors? Is your child responsible or just learning to care for technology? Knowing the answers to this before you let your student drag you computer shopping will help you guide the decision and set good limits.

Let’s run through the advantages, disadvantages, and costs of some of the major brands, styles, and types of technology you might choose: 

  1. A desktop–either personal or family/shared.
  2. A laptop
  3. A mobile device
  4. A Chromebook/web-access device.

Desktops

There are a couple of advantages of desktops. First, they tend to be more affordable and powerful than laptops. You can put them somewhere public so you can spy on what your kid’s doing at all times.

“It’s not time for YouTube, it’s time for math.” 

“What if I’m watching math on YouTube?”

You’ve always got to be vigilant.

Disadvantages to a desktop–they can’t travel.  And if you have a family desktop,  scheduling can be difficult as more schools assign work online.

Laptops

Most kids, especially as they get older, will get more use out of a laptop. High school students throw them in their backpack and bring them out in class as they would a pen, and by college, a laptop is the only option.

But here’s the next question: Mac or PC?  I’ve had both. Here’s the rundown:

Mac vs PC?

Macs are much more expensive, but you can shop the Apple Education store at a discount and a certified refurbished Mac comes with a 10-15% savings. There is also a “clearance” section with brand new older models at a discount. Older models are not a bad thing. Apple is notorious for cutting out features many of us want. So, if you’re panicking because you need the USB port instead of USB-C, you still might be able to get a laptop with one.

All refurbished computers come with a one-year guarantee, and you can (and should!) buy the Apple Care to extend that to three.

The beauty of the Mac is this:

  1. It comes with all the software you’ll need. Mac has a word processor, spreadsheet program, slide program, and video and music software. However, for school, chances are your kid’s using the Google suite anyway, which is all online. Mac’s software might not be a consideration.
  2. They don’t die. As evidenced by the Peach Salsa Computer–it’s hard to kill a Mac without a flood or sledge hammer.
  3. They don’t get viruses as often. While security and protection are still issues, you won’t be removing trojan horses, worms, and other malware that’s a daily thing in the PC world.
  4. Mac products are interoperable. They just work. If you have more than one Apple device, laptop, or an iPhone, they sync.
  5. They have excellent and simple parental controls.

PCs have advantages, too: 

  1. They’re much more affordable. You can get an equivalently powered PC for about a third of the cost of a mac.
  2. Gamers like PCs. The options available for graphics cards, speed, and compatibility make PCs the only option for hard-core gamers.
  3. You can go to any department store and get a PC. Macs are sold at the Apple Store and you generally have to wait in a line that makes the Department of Motor Vehicles seem efficient.

Mobile devices

Studies show most people default to their phones–everyone from Millennials down will pick up a phone to complete a task before going to a laptop. In many tech-developing nations, people don’t even buy laptops anymore, they leapfrog right into phones.

Yet schools often ban phones.

If your child’s school has a good Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy like my son’s, you may want to consider getting your child a phone. 

Many family data plans are now unlimited, and there are several affordable smartphones if budget is a concern. There used to be a big argument between Android and iPhone–the difference is minimal these days.

In fact, you’ll get a lot more phone for your dollar with Android devices, and since most smartphones have a similar feel and only minor usability and feature differences, any smartphone will do for educational use. Your student can probably accomplish 90% of what needs to be done in class on the phone–Students can research, dictate, and edit in the Google apps.

They might not even need an activated phone–an old phone with no SIM card can’t make calls, but it can access wifi and allow students to use educational apps and games like Kahoot or access Google Classroom. IPads and tablets will function the same.

Kids with phones might be scary for some parents–we’ll discuss ways to monitor (and even restrict) phone usage in another article. I set up the rules for digital safety right away, including “yes/no” sites, an “ask first” policy and the big one–I maintain the passwords. Any violation of the phone rules, and that phone disappears. No questions asked.

Chromebooks

One of my favorite “what to get a kid” categories–Chromebooks. I love them.

If you have a student who needs to bring a computer back and forth from home to school, or a younger student who is just learning how to take care of his or her technology, you may want to consider a Chromebook. A decent Chromebook costs about one tenth of a Mac laptop, and it’ll get the job done.

Chromebooks used to be extremely limited in their use case, but they’re getting more and more capabilities. They were invented to be wifi terminals–access points to the Google online apps and the internet as more of what we do is online instead of software on our computers.

Some Chromebooks now have limited storage–enough to take some screenshots and store a few documents. Some even run coding programs if your child is interested in learning to code.

If your child’s school has wifi and is using Google Apps for Education, this is really all you need.

And if it breaks or it gets left on the bus, you won’t cry as much as you would with a Mac or gaming PC.

Final thoughts

Your decision to buy your child a new computer or device is a big one, and has the potential to be expensive. It’s almost a right of passage. And since more and more schools are beginning to allow students to bring their own, there will come a time when your child will begin to ask for technology.

Steer clear of the “everyone else has…” and don’t cave to temptation to buy the Cadillac of all tech. When my son shows me he’s the next Gates or Spielberg, I’ll get the computer that does what he needs.

Be clear about what it will be used for. Get that or one step better–tech outdates itself quickly. You want something that will last without investing price of a car in a sixth-grader’s computer.

After you’ve made the selection do this: spend the extra few dollars on a shell, case, protector, or padded backpack.

In my experience, this doubles the life of any technology I own–and for kids, it’s more critical.

Finally, don’t be afraid to take the tech away. Kids work differently than I did. They’re used to multitasking, group chat, collaboration, having several tabs open, and sometimes misusing time.

Technology is not only a tool, but a privilege.

“But in my day, we had pencils,” I tell him. “And books. And paper.”

“Your life must have been awful!” he says often.

I tell him I’m more than happy for him to see what my life was like before the internet was invented. Then, I follow through.

And that usually gets him back on track using his technology for what I intended–school. And a little bit of fun–when he’s done with his math.