Which laptop should we buy for our child?

Which laptop should we buy for our child?


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Which laptop should we buy for our child?” was written by Jack Schofield, for theguardian.com on Thursday 5th November 2015 09.31 UTC

We are thinking of getting our son a notebook or laptop for his ninth birthday. He will need software such as Word, PowerPoint and Excel, and in time he may get into internet coding. I also think it would be a good idea if he could dock it so he can use a separate mouse and keyboard.

We want to ensure it lasts him for a while but we can’t afford to spend lots of money. Kerry

As far as I can tell from my annual visit to BETT (formerly the British Educational Training and Technology Show), most schools now use consumer-grade Android/Apple tablets and Windows laptops. However, BETT 2015 showed a trend towards Windows 2-in-1 “detachables”, which is what I’d recommend.

A detachable (I made that up) is a Windows convertible where a touch-screen tablet plugs into a keyboard dock. Well known examples include the Asus T100TAF and all Microsoft Surfaces. Dual functionality means schools don’t have to buy separate tablets and laptops, while Windows App Studio makes it easy for teachers to create simple Windows 10 apps without coding.

The weak link in laptops is the hinge, and people can stress the hinge by lifting their laptop by the screen. Bad idea. In detachables, the screens are usually secured by strong magnets, and the hinges look much less fragile. Indeed, some detachable have no hinges – eg the Lenovo Miix 3 and the forthcoming Dell XPS 12 – but you can’t easily change the angle of the screen.

I’d therefore expect a detachable to last longer than a traditional laptop, or a convertible with a 360-degree hinge.

Windows 10 does not have as many tablet apps as Android, nor the quality of Apple iPad apps, but most areas are covered, and they’re essentially a free bonus. When there isn’t a Windows app, you can still use full strength (better than tablet-quality) web browsers and run millions of traditional Windows programs. Also, of course, there are several ways to run Android apps on Windows PCs, such as BlueStacks and AmiDuOS.

Laptops for kids

The entry-level laptop for kids is the HP Stream 11. This is quite robust for its low price (£169.97 to £199.99), but it doesn’t have a touch screen, and the screen isn’t detachable.

For the past few months, the red HP Pavilion X2 10-n055na has been my pick of the detachables at £249.99. It feels more solid than the old Asus T100TAF, has a better keyboard, and a decent screen. However, Asus has just launched the T100HA, which improves on the Pavilion X2 10, though the keyboard is slightly smaller.

The Asus T100HA is one of the first retail laptops to ship with Windows 10 preinstalled, and Windows 8.1 machines are now being cleared from the shops. PC World, for example, is selling the HP Pavilion X2 10 with Windows 8.1 for £199.97, so I won’t be surprised if a Windows 10 version appears soon.

I’ve previously ignored the Acer Switch 10 and 11 because they cost more – usually £300 to £350 – but the Switch 10E might be worth a look at £229.95. I’ve also ignored the Toshiba Satellite Click Mini, because I think the 8.9in screen is too small. But if the Windows magnification setting goes high enough, perhaps it’s not too small for a child. You may be able to compare both of these machines with an Asus T100HA in a John Lewis store, and John Lewis includes a two-year guarantee.

All of these entry-level two-in-ones have Atom-based processors and 2GB of main memory, with a 32GB eMMC Flash memory chip to provide storage. They would obviously be better with 4GB of memory and 64GB of storage, but such machines are harder to find, and cost more. The quick fix is to add an extra 32GB or more storage on a microSD card. If you buy a two-in-one with Windows 8.1 and upgrade it to Windows 10, add the card first: one of the 32GB machines I upgraded didn’t have enough free space to finish the installation.

I’m assuming that £250 is the most you would want to spend on a laptop for a child. If you want to spend less, look for a cut-price Lenovo Miix 3. Three months ago, I bought a new one for £150, but today I’d get a £250 Asus T100HA instead.

Keyboards and docks

Most laptops will work with a “universal” docking station, such as the Plugable UD-3900, but I don’t think you need one. Most laptops will let you plug in an external USB or Bluetooth keyboard without using a docking station. There are plenty of colourful keyboards designed specifically for kids, and numerous touch-typing tutorials.

However, the Asus T100HA has a new USB Type C port, so you will need a small adapter.

Setting up

I assume you are planning to be the system administrator for your son’s laptop, and give him his own child account. This lets you set time limits, block inappropriate websites, set age limits for games, and specify how much money (if any) he can spend online. You can control these settings remotely from account.microsoft.com/family.

Windows 8.1 and 10 will email you a weekly record of your son’s activities: how many hours he’s used his PC, the websites he’s visited, and how long he spent in his favourite apps. You don’t have to use this service – it is optional – but it’s turned on by default.

There are commercial alternatives such as Magic Desktop, but that’s really for younger kids.

You should log on to the laptop from time to time, using your administrator account, to check that everything is OK. Child accounts are pretty secure, and Windows 10 is updated automatically, but it’s a good idea to keep an eye on things, and run extra anti-virus checks.

Encourage your son to save documents, photos and other files to his Microsoft account’s free OneDrive online storage, and/or to the SD memory card. You can temporarily switch the card to your own PC to back it up and to add photos, favourite music files, YouTube videos and other content.

There are free versions of the Microsoft Office programs in OneDrive, and you can install some as free apps from the Windows Store. I don’t think it’s worth buying or installing the full desktop programs for a 9-year-old, unless you have subscribed to Office 365 Home. This provides the full Office suite for five people on PCs, Macs, tablets and smartphones, plus a terabyte of storage for each user, for £79.99 a year. Otherwise, LibreOffice is a free alternative.

You could also pre-install Minecraft as a program or an app, the Scratch programming environment – have a look at Getting Started with Scratch first – and Khan Academy. You can pin these and other programs to the taskbar, or put icons on the desktop, to make them easier to find.

Have you got another question for Jack? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com

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