Photo: Carmen Cheung
Back to school shopping can be fun: adorable outfits, colourful notebooks, and a coordinating backpack and pencil case for all those supplies. But as your little student gets older, your shopping list can change. Kids may need a laptop to access apps and software for digital and audio books, research and more. The choices, however, can be overwhelming, not to mention confusing (what is an SSD, anyway?). Here’s what parents need to know.
There are three main types of computers you’ll want to consider: Chromebook, Windows-based PC and Apple. Before deciding which to get, ask the teacher or principal if there are apps or software the child needs and confirm that they will run on the laptop.
“I’m surprised how many people skip this step,” says Avery Swartz, a Toronto-based tech consultant and expert, and parent to a 10-year-old daughter. It’s important, she says, because there are programs that might not work as well (or at all) on a Windows computer but will on Chromebook and vice versa. It could be a deal-breaking decision.
A Chromebook is usually a safe choice since the child might already be using one at school. Data is stored in the “cloud” (e.g. Google Drive) so kids can work on assignments from anywhere, and a single computer can be shared by multiple students. They tend to be the most affordable but they are also limited in functionality. While you can run Microsoft Office programs on a Chromebook, for example, the experience is not as robust as with a dedicated Windows computer. Also, if your child enjoys gaming, know that some popular games may not work on Chromebooks.
You can get a Windows-based PC for a decent price, too. And most come with popular Microsoft Office programs, like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, that might come in handy for projects. With a PC, kids can access a wide selection of software that might be needed for school, download games for downtime, and still access cloud services like Google Drive (with a Google account). Plus, parents can set up tons of parental controls and install anti-virus software. Windows-based computers range from entry-level and kid-friendly to premium workhorses. But Windows computers can be a bit more complex and feature-loaded, which means a bigger learning curve for younger kids.
Apple household? You’re probably leaning towards a MacBook, but even the entry-level model is expensive, not to mention delicate. They’re worth considering for older kids, particularly those entering high school. Macs have a certain prestige (which comes with a price) for their sleek design and simple and intuitive operation. They also seamlessly sync with other Apple devices, which makes it easy to share content across devices.
There are plenty of great computers for under $500 that will meet a school-aged child’s needs, and you shouldn’t have to spend more than $1,000 on the higher end of the scale. While it might be tempting to choose based solely on price, it’s also important to consider value for dollar, says Swartz. Spend a bit extra on a laptop that’s more durable; some devices have spill-resistant keyboards, drop-proof bodies and reinforced rubber edges.
A faster processor, comfortable keyboard, good battery life and robust parental controls are all features worth upgrading to. While you want something portable and lightweight, opt for a laptop with at least an 11 or 12-inch screen, and focus on the screen size itself, as some laptops might cite sizable dimensions but the actual screen portion is surrounded by a thick bezel.
You’ll also want the computer to work reliably (and securely) for streaming videos, accessing sites like Google Classroom and having Zoom calls with faraway grandparents. Having fewer interruptions or software and connectivity issues will be worth every extra buck.
So how do you know what to look for? Here’s a handy cheat sheet:
Refers to the computer’s memory. More RAM means the computer can keep up with data-intensive tasks without slowing down. Look for a device with at least 4GB RAM.
The size of the hard drive where documents, photos, apps, videos, etc. are stored. The more storage, the better. Stick with at least 64GB on a Windows or Mac device so kids can store more content locally. Even though all content is saved to the “cloud” on a Chromebook, you’ll still want one with at least 32GB, which should be enough for a child.
720p is the minimum to be considered “high resolution” but ideally, you’d want one that is 1080p to get a crisp and clear image, especially for videos. Widescreen (16:9) is preferred versus a square (4:3).
Along with having Bluetooth for wirelessly connecting accessories like a mouse or speakers, look for a microSD card slot (for inserting memory cards to transfer files), a 3.5mm headphone jack and a USB port. With the smaller USB-C format taking over, the larger USB-A ports (those annoying ones that only let you plug something in one way) are becoming less and less common. If you need one to connect a USB printer (not all homework is turned in digitally just yet!), you can always use an adapter if the laptop only has a USB-C port.
Refurbished computers that are inspected, repaired and reset to work like new can save you money and present the opportunity to grab a higher-end model than your budget might otherwise allow. Just make sure it’s a certified refurbished model, advises Swartz, to ensure that the manufacturer and/or retailer stands behind the work. These often also come with an extended warranty.
Hand-me-downs can be great for kids, but it’s a good idea to reset the computer and see if you can update the operating system, software and apps to keep it secure. “If the computer is older than your kid,” jokes Swartz, it’s a good sign you should look for something more recent.
Two-in-one convertible laptops are devices where the screen can fold all the way back and that also offer touchscreen capabilities to mimic a tablet. These models can be appealing, but a lot of children won’t bother to switch modes so it might not be worth the extra cost. What’s more, it can be distracting, tempting kids to focus more on leisure activities like gaming instead of homework.
Still, parents would be smart to strongly consider a laptop with a touchscreen. Younger kids who don’t know how to type on a keyboard can become easily frustrated, and a touchscreen is a great way to ease that transition. “And there are a lot of apps where you can use a stylus or even your finger to draw on the screen,” says Swartz, adding that math is much easier to do using a stylus or finger. Plus, there’s value in kids being able to continue to practice handwriting while still immersing themselves in the digital world. When it comes down to the decision between a Chromebook or PC, Swartz says a touchscreen could tip the scale for her.
A tablet can suffice for educational use but they aren’t ideal. Once you factor in the high cost along with the addition of a Bluetooth keyboard, they can end up being more expensive than a Chromebook or even an entry-level Windows-based PC.
But more important than cost is compatibility with software and apps. “It is technically possible to do things a child would need to do using a tablet,” says Swartz, “but it isn’t easy.” And because tablets work so beautifully for gaming, kids can get distracted by apps like Minecraft and Roblox.
Find the right balance between a cheap laptop that will cause more problems than it solves and overdoing it with more than the child needs in hopes that they’ll be able to use it years down the line. Your child will likely require multiple devices throughout their schooling as their needs change and computing technology evolves. So, opt for the best computer with the expectation that it will get them through the next three to four years.