11 killer computers

Boot up the holidays with one of these kid-friendly laptops and desktops.

By Christina Tynan-Wood

Fisher Price iXL

Fisher Price iXL

Now the younger set (pre-K through third grade) has a PDA of its own — and can learn plenty of readin' and writin' in the process. The iXL ($80) from Fisher Price teaches kids to form and recognize letters, lets them have fun editing photos, and plays music on a sturdy unit capable of withstanding not-so-gentle use.

Easy-to-play video games encourage kids to learn counting (by 1s, 2s, and 10s) and phonics (and, for new readers, there’s an interactive storybook). There are also art and music games to help them expand their creative side. Or transfer your own photos to the device, and let your child add the finishing touches. Another plus? The big mute button if it all gets too loud.

Bottom line: A digital entertainment system for young kids that boasts a touchscreen and many of the same features as Mom’s PDA.

Toshiba Satellite

Toshiba Satellite L635 for Kids

No need to waste any more time nagging your child to wash her hands before going near your laptop. Just sit her down in front of the Toshiba Satellite L635 for Kids ($582), and hand her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Designed expressly for kids, this cool, grip-textured (making it easier to hold and harder to drop) 4.8-pound laptop has a keyboard with a wipeable surface — so you don't have to fret about crumbs between the keys and sticky fingers leaving their mark. You don't have to worry about dirt from the World Wide Web getting into your kid's mind either because, in addition to games like Lego Batman, this Windows 7 laptop comes with Net Nanny already installed and configured. It has plenty of power and is a great size for 5- to 10-year-olds too. With a 13.3" display, the L635 is portable but big enough to play on. Plus, it sports a DVD drive for watching movies.

Bottom line: A rugged, wipeable laptop — with parental controls — designed for kids 5 to 10.

Gateway One

Gateway One ZX6900 series

Small kids need supervision when using a computer, which makes the family room or kitchen an ideal location for one. And the Gateway One ZX6900 ($1,020—$1,100) — a sleek, touchscreen, all-in-one system — will fit right in, look good, and keep clutter to a minimum. It will also add a new dimension of learning since your child has only to touch the screen to explore.

After you wipe off his fingerprints and put him to bed, you can use the Gateway One to dial up Netflix or Hulu and save a bundle on your cable bill. Or pop a movie in the combo Blu-ray/DVD drive and immerse yourself in its high-def audio with 5.1-channel surround sound. Sweet! Kids are unlikely to outgrow this machine, since it would make an older teen — or his parents — very happy as a bedroom entertainment system as well.

Bottom line: A touchscreen computer that will look and sound great in your family room.

Gateway SX Series

Gateway SX2840 series

Looking to get some serious bang for your buck? If you are upgrading a desktop you share with your kid, the Gateway SX2840-01 ($560) is an excellent value — with a fast Intel processor, nine USB ports for all of your gadgets, a multi-card reader (so you can pop the memory card out of the digital camera and in there to grab photos), and Windows 7.

The SX2840 even supports surround sound if you want to connect it to a big LCD monitor and speakers and let it double as an entertainment machine. And its small form factor will free up space in a corner of your kitchen or home office — it's one-third the size of a standard desktop.

Bottom line: A great performer for the price.

Zino HD

Dell Inspiron Zino HD

Set the colorful Dell Inspiron Zino HD (from $300) next to your big-screen TV — it has an HDMI port for that — and access a world of free (or cheaper than cable) movies and TV. Or turn a smaller LCD screen into a media-creation and entertainment center/homework station for your hardworking teen.

Choose your specs based on your needs and budget. But whatever you pick, this will be the first thing your graduate packs when he goes to college. He can change the way it looks to suit his new crib because the colors are not only slick but also interchangeable. And there is a lot of power packed into that pretty 8” x 8” box — from a massive hard drive to an AMD Athlon (or Phenom) processor and Windows 7.

Bottom line: Inexpensive, adorable, and ready to connect to your TV. What’s not to want?

Dell XPS by OPI

Dell XPS 15 by OPI

She’s all that: Her shoes are the bomb, her hair is killer, and her skin and nails are perfection. She is smart, strong, and powerful. She’s your queen bee daughter, and this is her laptop — because not only does it match her favorite OPI nail polish, but it also comes with exactly the specs she wants. That OPI color (shown in “I’m Not Really a Waitress”) is just a finish on this Dell XPS 15 ($935), which in the high-definition, 15.6" LED widescreen base model sports an Intel i5 dual core processor, a 500-GB hard drive, and 4 GB of RAM. If she needs more brains or speed, though, it’s available for a price.

Bottom line: High fashion meets powerful computing in this art series laptop.

HP Split x2

Your student says she needs a laptop, but you wonder if a tablet will suffice. This two-in-one will. It’s a super-light laptop complete with the plugs most tablets don’t have: two USB ports for connecting tech extras (like cameras) and an HDMI port to plug in a big monitor for games and movies. It has every angle covered — from desk jockey to geek on the-move. And when tablet envy kicks in, just push a button to separate keyboard from screen: presto, you’ve got a tablet! And like the best tablets, this one has a front and back camera, touch screen, headphone jack, and (Windows) apps. But this tablet operates on Windows 8, so all that traditional software — including Photoshop, Outlook, and games — work, too. Nothing left at home for the sake of portability. In fact, as long as there’s a Wi-Fi connection handy, she’s got the whole wide world in her bag.

HP Split x2, $649.99

Lavender frost HP Mini 210

HP Mini 210 HD

Your daughter will love pulling the HP Mini 210 HD ($330), available in colors such as "lavender frost" (pictured) or "luminous rose," out of her backpack to write an assignment or find answers for a project. And this netbook won't fail her — or require her to tote a charger — because its nine-hour battery life will get her through the entire school day and entertain her on the bus. It has enough storage space to keep all of her homework and some photos, so it might help with the paper clutter around your house. And at less than three pounds, it won't add too much heft to her backpack. Runs Windows XP.

Bottom line: For the smart girl who likes to look good, this netbook will get her organized fast.

Amethyst Aspire One

Acer Aspire One

Not a fan of buying a new PC online, sight unseen? Throw this adorable purple netbook in your cart — the Acer Aspire One ($278) is sold exclusively at Walmart — and amp up your student's learning. It may be small, but it has 160 GB of storage space and a keyboard that’s comfortable even for adult hands and runs Windows 7.

It’s so portable your kid will always have it with her. And so cute you’ll want one too. At just over two and a half pounds, it weighs less than a math book but is much more interactive. If your older student already has a desktop, this would make a great portable second machine. And who can resist that amethyst color? Not us.

Bottom line: Powerful, portable, and purple — gotta have it!

Gateway NV series

Gateway NV59C series

When your child finishes researching and writing multimedia presentations on this 15” laptop, he can watch and listen to what he wants. In fact, his entertainment choices might be better than yours.

The Gateway NV59C09u ($800) boasts a Blu-ray drive for movies, high-def webcam for virtual gab fests over Skype, and a 2.13 GHz Intel Core i3-330m processor and 4 GB of RAM so he can do it all at the same time. It runs Windows 7 and has a 320-GB hard drive that will easily store his homework and film collection. Dedicated buttons give him instant access to his social networks. Comes in "silk silver."

Bottom line: This is a great time to be a teenager.

Dell XPS 15

Dell XPS 15

For many teens these days, it is so last millennium to watch TV on an actual TV. That's what makes the Dell XPS 15 ($849) the perfect twofer: a high-performing PC that doubles as a top-of-the-line TV. (Another plus? No more channel battles. While you're watching the news on the family big-screen TV, your teen can steal away to another corner of the house to watch his favorite show.)

This sleek, 15" PC is HDTV ready and loaded with high-definition video and sound features that make watching movies, TV, Hulu, or Netflix a delight. Skype-certified (with HD video streaming), it also makes a great gift for college students who want to keep in touch with Mom and Dad the modern way.

Bottom line: A high-end laptop (for a very reasonable price) that provides the most discerning teen with all of his academic and entertainment needs.

Christina Tynan-Wood has written for Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Science, PC World, PC Magazine, InfoWorld, and many others. She currently writes the "Family Tech" column in Family Circle and blogs at GeekGirlfriends.com.