Best back-to-school computers

On the market for a computer for your child or teen? Check out our back-to-school lineup.

By Christina Tynan-Wood

Mac mini

Ages: Kindergarten and up

Young kids should really be supervised when using an Internet-connected computer, so a laptop they can squirrel away to a bedroom is not the best call. But who says an oversized home PC has to ugly up your family room? Enter the Mac mini (starting at $599), so tiny and cute you can tuck it just about anywhere — be it a corner of the kitchen so kids can surf while you cook or the family room, where it can serve as an entertainment system. Even the plug is small and cute. Measuring a mere 7.7” x 7.7” x 1.4” and looking more like a trivet than a computer, don't let its small size and sweet looks fool you. This is a powerful machine with an Intel i5 processor, 2 GB of memory, and a 500 GB hard drive — tech perks to make the whole family happy.

Bottom line: A family computer dressy enough for your living room without wreaking havoc on the college fund.

Acer All in One Z3

Ages: Kindergarten and up

Shhh, don't tell the kids. Sure, this might be a gift for your child, but the Acer All in One Z3 ($699.99) can also double as Mommy's little helper. Turn that wasted corner of your kitchen into a media communications hub by dropping this all-in-one Windows PC on the counter. Check email while the pasta water boils, then watch the pot and the kids’ progress on homework at the same time. Mercifully, the machine won’t drape wires and components all over your tidy kitchen. In fact, you can stash the wireless keyboard in a drawer and, using the touch-screen option, search for a cooking show or educational website. The 21.5” widescreen will ease nicely into many spaces. And the powerful Intel-run hard drive will make this a workhorse the kids — and you — can rely on.

Bottom line: Affordable? Check. Tidy? Yep. Touch screen? Can do. This sleek all-in-one desktop can turn a little corner of the kitchen or family room into a communication and entertainment hub.

Satellite L735D Kids’ PC

Ages: Elementary school and up

With its crayon color scheme, a smudge-resistant matte finish, and wipeable keyboard (so parents can cope with the aftermath of that candy-induced online gaming spree), the Satellite Kids' PC ($505.99) could easily be mistaken for a tech toy made just for young kids — and one they'll quickly outgrow at that. Not so. Just as no one really outgrows candy, it’s hard to be too old for a system with a usable-but-still-compact 13.3” screen, DVD drive, AMD E-Series processor, a sizeable hard drive, and built-in webcam. And since kids — even teens — tend to drop their packs (even when they have laptops in them), the hard drive has an impact sensor to protect data from (reasonable) falls.

Bottom line: A PC for the cartoon set that will take them through middle school — and beyond.

Sony Vaio E

Ages: Middle school and up

If style is currency for your middle or high schooler, the Sony Vaio E (starting at $449.99) is one natty laptop. You choose the color (there are many) and size (11.6”, 14”, or 15.5”) and Sony delivers a slick aluminum design with a diamond cut VAIO logo, backlit keyboard, and terrific graphics. It’s not short on substance either. It has the brains of a much nerdier machine, featuring no end of storage space and Windows 7 Home Premium. All those smarts are crammed into an elegant package that drops easily into a book bag but — when at home — is capable of powering a larger monitor and keyboard for serious work.

Bottom line: When style is as important as power, this machines delivers — and you get to customize the machine to fit your budget and student.

Samsung Series 7 Slate

Ages: High school and up

Your teen is begging for a tablet. But you think a laptop — with a full-on keyboard and software for writing those masterful essays— would be more practical. (Check out our tablet slide show if you think your student may be right.) Make a smart compromise with this slick slate from Samsung. It is a touch-screen tablet with an 11.6” screen (about the size of the iPad). But the Samsung Series 7 Slate ($1,099.99) runs on Windows so all the Microsoft Office programs your teen already uses for school will also run in their entirety (not as apps) on this. Like a tablet, this machine turns on instantly and is easy to tap while speeding through the day — and turns off and drops into a bag without pause. When it’s time to sit down and do some serious work, though, add the optional ($79.99) wireless Bluetooth keyboard, and you have a high-powered laptop. And when her homework is done, your child can connect to the TV with an HDMI port, pop in some headphones, and enjoy videos on the big screen.

Bottom line: Why compromise between fully functional laptop and touch screen tablet? If you can spare the cash, this device will give you both.

Dell Alienware M14x

Ages: High school and up

Got a good student who is also a game-addicted teenager? Since he's earned terrific grades and mowed the lawn whenever you asked, you're so proud of him that you want to get him something he really wants. This is it: a laptop that fulfills all his homework needs, but is also a go-to gadget for gaming. Sure, the Alienware M14x ($1,099) will be the perfect tech tool for writing papers, keeping track of assignments, and helping him cram for finals. But when the work is done and it's time to annihilate some aliens, this affordable, all-purpose system will not lag, crash, choke, hesitate, or disappoint. Oh, how his friends will burn with jealousy when he cracks this out at study group! You'll definitely get a hug — or two — for this one.

Bottom line: Want to make your strong student and serious gamer happy? Go straight for the e-ticket game machine.

Toshiba Satellite U840 UltraBook

Ages: High School and Up

What’s the difference between a laptop and an Ultrabook? Aside from the obvious price difference — often several hundred dollars — it boils down to two things: speed and size. Speed is always important with computers, but with Ultrabooks we aren’t only considering processing speed. This category of computer has eliminated the startup and shut down delay that maddens anyone who has ever tried to use a laptop in a situation where you have to be ready quickly and jump up to leave in a hurry. The Toshiba Satellite U840 UltraBook (starting at $749) starts up instantly, shuts down just as fast, has fabulous performance (thanks to an Intel Core processor), and is slim and light (starting at just 3.5 pounds) to go anywhere your student goes. If he puts all his textbooks on this instead of on paper, you will shave pounds from his backpack load — and likely save him the expense of a chiropractor down the line. And this Ultrabook is the bargain hunter’s choice, since many of them cost well over $1,000.

Bottom Line: This slim, powerful machine gets you into the latest trend in computer — UltraBooks — at an entry-level price.

Acer S5 Ultrabook

Ages: College bound

If you were my mom and you were crazy enough to ask me what computer I wanted to take to school, this is it. It's super-fast, with an i7 Intel Core processor. Start-up is instant — a couple of seconds and I’m cooking with gas! And even when it’s in sleep mode, it updates email and web pages for me. Why not? I don’t have time to waste! It’s small — 11 millimeters thin — and light — less than 3 pounds — so I can bring it everywhere, but the screen is big and beautiful enough — 13.3” — so I can watch a movie when I’m tired, or view each page of my masterpiece when I’m inspired. The downside of the Acer S5 Ultrabook — the retro price tag: $1,400. But, hey, if you’re buying...

Bottom line: This is the dream machine for those who live and die with a computer stuffed in their backpack.

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.