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How to Pick the Right Back-to-School Computer for Your Kid

Dan Tynan

It’s August, and that means one thing: Your kids are mourning the end of summer, while you’re secretly counting the minutes until they’re out of your hair so you can reclaim your house and your sanity.

How to Pick the Right Back-to-School Computer for Your Kid

(Thinkstock)

Before you can foist your little darlings upon the educational system, however, you’ll need to outfit them with the right gear. These days, back-to-school shopping is about more than just keeping your kids’ backpacks stocked with pencils, notebooks, and Trapper Keepers; they might also need things like iPads, Kindles, or Chromebooks.

If your kids are lucky enough to live in one of the roughly 20 percent of districts that have implemented a one-to-one computing program, they probably have access to a school-supplied computer — one they might even be able to use at home. Otherwise, though, you’re on the hook for virtually all their digital needs.

RELATED: Back-to-School Shopping List: 7 Must-Have Accessories

The kind of devices you get will depend a lot on your kids’ ages and their relative maturity, notes Ingrid Simone, a senior editor at Common Sense Media. Should you pass your old tablet down to your kindergartner? Buy your third-grader an inexpensive Chromebook? Get your middle-schooler a Kindle? How long can you put off buying your teenager a smartphone? (Answer: not long enough.)

Here’s my device advice for kids from toddlers to teens.

The early years
To a late preschooler or kindergartner, using a tablet is as natural as fingerpainting, which is why it’s typically the first computer the little nubbins will call their own. You have two options: Hand down an old iPad or other tablet you’re no longer using (and hope they don’t destroy it in the first five minutes), or buy a new one built specifically for shorties, like the Fuhu Nabi 2, Kurio 7S, or School Zone’s Little Scholar.

Fuhu Nabi 2

The Fuhu Nabi 2.

At prices starting around $150, these 7-inch Android-based tabs tend to be significantly cheaper than anything with an Apple logo on it. They’re typically ruggedized, so you’re less likely to have an expensive oops moment when your kid treats it like a Frisbee. These tabs come preloaded with a kid-friendly interface and software of varying educational value, as well as parental controls that limit the apps your children can run, the sites they can visit, and the amount of time they spend doing those things.

But sometimes these limitations can be a little too limiting, notes Avi Greengart, a consumer products analyst for Current Analysis.

“Most of these kid-centric tabs have their own app stores, which may not offer some apps you actually want your kids to use,” he says. Or they may not let your kids view movies or other shows you’ve already purchased from iTunes or the Play store, he adds.

Another problem is more social. Common Sense Media’s Simone says her children, ages 8 and 11, wouldn’t be caught dead using one of those kiddie tablets. Why? Because all their friends have iPads or Android devices.

Here a good alternative would be Amazon’s 7-inch Kindle Fire HD ($139). This Android-based device is both an ebook reader and a fully powered tablet; Amazon’s FreeTime mode offers basic parental controls, along with thousands of kid-friendly apps, books, and videos, for prices starting at $5 a month. Once the kids are older, you can turn off FreeTime so they can use the Fire as a standard tablet well into their teens.

It’s elementary
If you’ve got kids of multiple ages, consider getting a touchscreen-based all-in-one PC the whole family can use, like the HP Pavilion 21z ($630) or Acer Aspire Z3 ($700). Those machines offer the simplicity of a tablet for the young ones, but add more powerful software and a keyboard for creating projects and typing reports. Having the kids’ PC in the family room also makes it easier to make sure they’re really doing homework and not just glued to YouTube. You will, however, have to play referee when all your kids want to use the machine at the same time.

RELATED: Keep Your Kids Safe from the Big Bad Web, No Matter Their Age

As your child approaches middle-school age, she’s likely to want her own machine. Here’s where Chromebooks like the Asus C200 or Samsung Chromebook 2 make a lot of sense. One reason is cost: You can get one starting around $200. Because they run the Chrome OS, use a browser as the interface, and store most of their software and data in the cloud, Chromebooks are easy to use and virtually hassle- and virus-free.

Samsung Chromebook 2

The Samsung Chromebook 2.

If your kids’ school is one of the thousands that use Google Docs for Education, then getting a Chromebook is a no-brainer, because they’re already using most of the Chrome apps and services. Just make sure you have a reliable Internet connection and a home WiFi network to take advantage of them.

RELATED: Why Your Kid’s Next Laptop — but Not Yours — Should Be a Chromebook

The middle (school) ages
By the time they hit middle school, most kids are already carrying phones, and roughly half of those are smartphones. This is not necessarily a bad thing. A smartphone can be an excellent back-to-school device — even if your kids refuse to admit it. They can use it to record lectures, jot notes, set reminders when projects are due, take snapshots of a teacher’s chalkboard scrawls, and much more. Whether their teachers will actually allow them to use their phones in class, however, will vary wildly, admits Dr. Chester Goad, an administrator at Tennessee Tech University and a former high school teacher, whose son is in eighth grade and carries his iPhone everywhere.

RELATED: When Should You Buy Your Child a Smartphone?

Progressive teachers have learned how to incorporate smartphones into their lessons — for example, allowing students who are too shy to speak in class to participate in discussions on social media or via dedicated classroom software like Top Hat Monocle, he adds.

“Teachers have to remember that they’re dealing with digital natives, and this is how they operate,” Goad says. “They need to get on board with that and figure out how to integrate this technology into their curriculum.”

Virgin Mobile phones

(Virgin Mobile)

Parents can keep costs relatively low by going with a WiFi-based smartphone from a company like Republic Wireless or Scratch Wireless, which use free wireless networks to make VoIP calls when possible. But these phones work best when you make calls from only a handful of locations — like home and school. When WiFi is unavailable, they default to prepaid cellular plans. Virgin Mobile also just announced a passel of supercheap prepaid phone options aimed at teens (and the parents who pay their bills).

RELATED: I Spent a Week with the Republic Wireless WiFi Phone Network

High school and beyond
Once your kids hit high school, that aging family computer or Chromebook may not cut it any more. Your teens may not just be listening to music and watching videos on their computers; they may also be creating and editing them, mastering Photoshop, learning how to code, or doing other things that require more powerful hardware and software. A laptop like Dell’s Inspiron 15 5000 series ($700+) or Apple’s MacBook Air ($900+) that balances portability and performance is your best option.  

Before you whip out the credit card, though, check with the school district. Some high schools and many colleges have very specific requirements for hardware they will allow on campus, mostly based on their ability to provide tech support.

As you are no doubt painfully aware, shopping for school isn’t cheap. Parents lay out more than $650 per kid each year for school-related goods, according to a recent survey by RetailMeNot. So you want to make sure you choose the gear that’s right for each of your kids.

That survey also asked parents if they were eagerly looking forward to the beginning of the school year. More than nine out of 10 said yes. So take heart in the fact that you’re hardly alone.

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.