The Right Laptop for Schoolwork and Play
The question of whether (and when) to buy your son or daughter a smartphone is fraught with concerns over responsibility, online safety, and much more. The same goes for buying a laptop, except for one very important difference: Many elementary and middle schools consider them essential educational tools, and equip classrooms with sets of laptops for their students to use in class. Other schools require parents to purchase laptops, offering a selection of recommended models. Their effectiveness at improving learning is up for debate, but the upshot is that your kid might need to use a laptop at school whether you like it or not. They'll almost certaintly want to use it at home, too, both for fun (messaging their friends, watching videos, and playing web games) as well as homework (looking up information and typing book reports).
Kids being kids, the list of factors to consider doesn't end there. Don't forget about parental controls, durable plastic, and water-resistant keyboards. At least you won't have to worry about the cost. Buying a kid-friendly laptop need not break the bank—all of our recommended models cost less than $500—and the even-better news is that just because they're cheap doesn't mean that they are slow or poorly made.
Our focus here is on younger kids. If your child is at the university level, check out our roundup of the best laptops for college students. And you'll find even more choices in our overall roundup of the best cheap laptops.
Which Operating System Is Best?
Before you begin to evaluate features, you'll start with the essential question that has plagued PC shoppers for decades: Which operating system should I choose? This is not the Mac vs. Windows debate of old, though, because new Apple laptops aren't available for less than $500. The least expensive Mac laptop, the MacBook Air, starts at $999, and it's overkill for an elementary or middle school student. If you're an Apple fan and want to raise your son or daughter to be one too, you're best off giving them a hand-me-down and buying a new MacBook or MacBook Pro for yourself.
Reused Macs aside, most parents will choose between Windows and Chrome OS, the operating system from Google. Chrome is a relative newcomer to powering PCs, but it has become immensely more useful this year thanks to the new ability to run apps from the Google Play store designed for Android smartphones and tablets. Microsoft Office also recently became available on most chromebooks via the Google Play store. If you've decided against buying a smartphone for your kids but they talk your ear off about wanting to play mobile games, buying a chromebook might be a good compromise.
Windows has also become more useful as an operating system for kid-oriented laptops thanks to the new Windows 10 S version, which is aimed at the education market and prevents apps from being installed unless they're available on the Microsoft Store, among other security enhancements. This means you've got the ability to block games and apps based on their content ratings (something you can also do with Google Play apps). When your son or daughter gets older and more responsible, you can easily upgrade to the full version of Windows 10 to remove these limitations.
If your child's school has specific software that only runs on Windows, your operating system choice will be decided for you. If not, you'll want to take a close look at Chrome, since many chromebooks include gimmicky but kid-friendly features like display lids that double as whiteboards.
Built for Backpacks and Abuse
Unique features like these are what transforms an ordinary cheap laptop into a school-friendly machine that kids won't outgrow or destroy in a few months. Arguably the most important is how rugged the case is. Several chromebooks and inexpensive Windows laptops have spill-resistant keyboards, which means that they should survive an ounce or so of water unscathed. It's much rarer to find entire laptops that are waterproof; the ones that are typically cost several thousand dollars. Likewise, it's relatively easy to find reinforced lids or cases made of rubber to help absorb drops from a few feet, but you won't find completely ruggedized machines at this price.
Portability is another key concern, especially for middle- and high-schoolers who walk to school with backpacks that are already laden with several heavy textbooks. Most laptops in this category with screen sizes from 11 to 13 inches weigh about 2.5 pounds. Go above 3 pounds and you're putting an unnecessarily heavy burden on your child's shoulders. Some laptops include carrying handles so kids can bring them from period to period without a backpack or a visit to their lockers.
Battery life is important, too, but it's no longer the limiting factor that rendered the laptops of a decade ago useless if they spent more than an hour or so away from a power outlet. Even the cheapest laptops now boast times of about 10 hours on PCMag's battery rundown test, thanks mostly to their power-sipping Intel processors. In the coming months, a new class of Windows laptops powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon processors will arrive on the market, promising even better battery life (in excess of 20 hours) and always-on capability. While the first models will likely be too expensive to give to a child, Snapdragon technology will eventually make a power cord forgotten at home much less of a problem for a kid who needs to deliver a presentation in seventh period.
Up to Spec
Speaking of presentations, the final consideration is how your kids will use the laptop, which in turn determines the processor, storage, and memory configurations you should select. Tasks such as taking notes, writing papers, or making PowerPoint slides require little more than the bare minimum, which means that an Intel Atom, Celeron, or Pentium processor will suffice. The next step up is an Intel Core i3, which you should consider if your kid's teachers regularly have them stream online educational videos. An Intel Core i5 or i7 is all but impossible to find on a laptop or chromebook that costs about $300.
If you opt for a more powerful processor so your kids can stream videos, you might also want to consider a 2-in-1 convertible or detachable laptop, which can double as a tablet thanks to a hinge that rotates 360 degrees, or a screen that detaches completely from the keyboard base. Most hybrids and convertibles are more expensive, around the $1,000 mark, but you can find a few high-quality models for less than $500. These are best for middle-school-age children or older, since they're by nature more easily breakable than a conventional laptop.
As for memory and storage, a common configuration is 4GB of RAM and a 64GB flash drive. You'll definitely want to consider bumping the storage capacity up to 128GB, since the operating system files on a Windows PC can take up more than 20GB, leaving your kid with a paltry 40GB or so of built-in storage. The exception is if you choose a laptop that has a roomier but slower (and more easily breakable) spinning hard drive, or one with a built-in SD card reader. In the latter case, you could stick with the base configuration and ask your kids to store their bulkier files on an SD card if needed, which can be had in 32GB capacities for about $20 each.
Time for Fun
Just because you're selecting from among relatively slow processors and limited memory capacities doesn't mean that gaming is out of the question when your kid is done with his or her schoolwork. Some games are even educational. For instance, last year Microsoft released an education version of its immensely popular open-world survival game Minecraft. Students can use it to explore real-world history like the Oregon Trail, solving math problems as they begin to understand how long and challenging the trail was, researching fur trading companies to learn about economic concepts of monopolies and supply and demand, and more. Minecraft and other similair games will run on Core i3 systems with as little as 2GB of RAM, but if your kid is looking forward to playing them, you'll make the experience much more enjoyable by selecting a laptop with 6GB or 8GB.
Power and Responsibility
Giving your son or daughter a laptop endows them with a portal into the immensely powerful internet, even if the laptop itself isn't immensely powerful. It's up to you (and your kids' teachers) to make sure that tool isn't harmful. Fortunately, both chromebooks and Windows laptops have parental control features, and a laptop's size relative to a smartphone makes it easier to both monitor activity as well as set ground rules like disallowing computer use after homework is finished. Check out a few of our top picks for laptops designed for school-aged kids below.
Real Life. Real News. Real Voices
Help us tell more of the stories that matterBecome a founding member
Bottom Line: The Asus Chromebook Flip (C302CA-DHM4) might be more expensive than the average chromebook, but its rich selection of features makes it well worth the extra money.
Bottom Line: How much laptop can you get for $329? Acer's Swift 1 is a surprisingly strong answer, a little short on storage but with a slim build and a 1080p IPS display.
Bottom Line: The Asus Transformer Mini T102HA is an excellent, though modest, small tablet that's handy to have around when you really need Windows rather than Android or iOS.
Bottom Line: With a low price and long battery life, the Lenovo IdeaPad Miix 320 is a very well-integrated detachable hybrid that serves equally well as a laptop and a tablet.
Bottom Line: The Windows 10 S-powered Asus VivoBook W202 is a rugged budget ultraportable notebook that packs enough power for the classroom, as long as you can overlook the stodgy design.
Bottom Line: The Dell Chromebook 3189 is a durable convertible laptop, with a long-lasting battery, a multimode hinge, and enough processing juice to help power online and classroom learning.
Bottom Line: The Lenovo Flex 11 Chromebook is a well-equipped and semi-rugged convertible-hybrid laptop that offers just enough features to make it a strong bargain over other budget laptops.
Bottom Line: The Dell Inspiron 11 3000 Series 2-in-1 is a convertible-hybrid laptop that has a better processor and subsequently higher performance than rivals, but makes a few compromises to meet its re…
Bottom Line: Your kids will jump for joy—or at least jump up and down on—CTL's super-sturdy chromebook, designed to survive hard knocks and whiteboard scribbles while delivering first-class p…
Bottom Line: Lenovo's petite IdeaPad 120S is a budget ultraportable that offers good-for-the-cost performance, but you can find better screens and keyboards by stepping up to the next highest class.
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe