How to choose the best laptops for kids

As your kids get older, their tech needs move from tablet to laptop. Tech expert Derek Malcolm explains how to choose a laptop for your kid, and offers examples of the best ones.

Photo: iStockphoto

They grow up so fast, don’t they? One minute your little one is swiping through episodes of Luna Petunia on their iPad, but before you know it they’re using your laptop to research an assignment online, type up a paper or, when it’s playtime, destroy their friends in the latest MMORPG (if you have to ask, don’t).

As our kids transition from the final years of elementary school into the tween years of book reports, essays and even coding, many parents are considering the benefits of their kids having their own laptops. More powerful than tablets and able to run a wider range of common software, they’re portable enough to take to grandma’s house for the weekend or a friend’s house to work on that group presentation. But what are the best laptops for kids? And how do you choose between them? We’ve rounded up some of the best and put together a few buying tips to help you decide.

Size and weight
When deciding on the right screen size and weight device to get, kids younger than 12 should usually go for smaller and lighter laptops (screens in the 11 to 13-inch range and less than three pounds). Older kids can go a bit bigger (13 to 15 inches and up to four pounds).

Durability
Kids can be hard on, well, everything. While you may guard your own laptop with your life, your little one will be stuffing it in and out of their backpack, tossing it on tables, spilling things on it and who knows what else. If durability is a big concern, use your best judgement and go for something that’s marketed as sturdy—there are plenty of rugged designs available.

Operating system (OS)
Base your choice of OS on what your kids are going to be doing with their laptop, and it might not be a bad idea to ask their school if they have a recommended type. If they’re just going to be doing things like typing assignments, communicating and researching, Chromebooks are a really popular and inexpensive option. They run on Google’s Chrome OS, which is based on the Chrome browser with all the apps running in the cloud. These laptops are dead simple to use and come loaded with familiar Google programs like Docs, Maps, Hangouts and YouTube, and are pretty safe against viruses. For older kids who may be getting into programming, design or creative work, or who are into heavier gaming, a Windows or Mac laptop is probably where you should be spending your money.

Photo: iStockphoto
Is using a tablet to keep your kid occupied lazy parenting?
Best Chromebook laptops for kids

Dell Chromebook 3380
Starting at $378
If the name Dell wasn’t already on the top of your list of laptops to check out, it should be. The 3380 is a Chromebook with all the right boxes checked, but one of its most appealing is its ruggedness, with rubberized edges, spill-resistant keyboard, scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass screen and Drop Protection, in case your lil slugger decides to use it for batting practice. With collaboration in mind, the 3380’s unique 180-degree hinge lets kids lay it flat, making it easier for them to share content on its 13-inch touchscreen. And if your child’s school is one that integrates laptops in the classroom, the 3380 has something called the Dell Activity Light, a non-disruptive visual indicator on the back of the laptop’s screen that lets the teacher know they need assistance. Rounding out the 3380’s features is a 10-hour battery and a reasonable weight of just 3.54 lbs.

Lenovo Flex 11 Chromebook
Starting at $369
One of the newest offerings from Lenovo (makers of the popular grown-up ThinkPad laptops), the Flex 11 is so versatile that your kids might have more fun bending it into its four configurations than they will actually using it. A cool 360-degree hinge allows for traditional laptop and tablet modes, but also a neat “Tent” mode for tight spaces and a reverse-laptop “Watch” mode for optimum video viewing on its bright and clear 11.6” touchscreen. Chromebook really shines here, and not only does it have all the usual Google apps, but coming soon the Flex 11 will run Google Play Store apps, opening a whole world of additional options, such as Office 365 (great for familiarizing kids with programs like Word and Excel), and staples like Facebook and Netflix as well. Its touch pad is spill proof, and its drop resistance will withstand a fall from up to 2.4 feet (approximately the height of a lunchroom table…). Flex 11 also boasts a 10-hour battery and is super-svelte at just 2.9 lbs and 0.8” thick, making it easy to slip between textbooks and lunchboxes.

Best Mac and Windows laptops for kids

13” MacBook Air
Starting at $1,199
If your kids are starting to explore more advanced computing, such as coding, design or video creation—or maybe you’ve always been an Apple family and are most comfortable with Mac OS—then the MacBook Air is your best (and least costly) option, and a great investment the whole family can use. With powerful processing and memory capable of breezing young creative minds through Photoshop tutorials or video files synched up from iPhones, the MacBook air has one of the longest-lasting batteries around at up to 12 hours (with some sources clocking it at 16 hours). With a full version of Mac OS, your kids won’t be limited to Chrome’s suite of apps and can be free to learn. It’s also one of the thinnest (0.68”) and lightest (2.96 lbs), which means they won’t be whining about how heavy their backpack is. The base price of $1,199 will get you 128 gigabytes of storage, but for an extra $250 you can double that. If the price tag is still too much to swallow, check out Apple’s education discount pricing and offers, as well as their great refurbished section at the bottom of their website, where a little persistence can net you some great savings on certified refurbished computers and devices.

ASUS ZenBook UX 330UA
Starting at $1,049
Sure, there are cheaper Windows laptops out there (check out the awesome, and little-known Chuwi LapBook 14.1 if you’re on a tight budget), but the ASUS ZenBook has the specs to last your tween nearly to their college years. Like the MacBook Air, the power of this laptop’s 7th generation Intel Core i5 processor means it can handle any of the word processing, coding and design software your kids (and you) and throw at it. Plus, your gamer kids will be impressed with the UX 330UA’s insanely sharp 3200 x 1800 pixel (that’s a lot) display. This Windows 10 laptop can go all day with its 12-hour battery, and of course it’ll go easy on their little backs at just 2.6 pounds. All the connectivity options are here, too, including Bluetooth, the latest Wi-Fi technology and connections for HDMI, USB (3.0 and type C) and more.

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