7 top computers for the holidays

Time to get your child a computer? Our tech expert shares her favorites for kids and teens.

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, 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. Measuring a mere 7” x 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 Z1

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 Z1 ($429) 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, with the touch-screen option, you can stash the keyboard in a drawer and using the touch-screen option, search for a cooking show or educational website. The 20” 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 ($497.99) 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 Y

Ages: Middle school and up

If style is currency for your middle schooler, the Sony Vaio Y($499) is an ultraportable netbook that'll help complete your tween or teen's look. You can even have your child's name or favorite quote engraved on the case to make it all hers. 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, small (11.6” display) package that drops easily into a book bag but — when at home — is capable of powering a larger monitor and keyboard for serious work. In fact, a tiny netbook like this could be handy for Mom and Dad, too, to keep track of how much TV time your tween's been logging.

Bottom line
: When style is as important as power, this machines delivers — though you pay a premium for its elegance.

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 for writing those masterful essays — would be more practical. Make a smart compromise with this slick slate from Samsung. It is a slick touch-screen tablet with an 11.6” screen (about the size of the iPad). But the Samsung Series 7 Slate($1,099) 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) wireless Bluetooth keyboard, and you have a high-powered laptop. Watch out, though: Your child can connect it to the TV with an HDMI port, pop in some headphones, and enjoy videos on the big screen. She may only claim to be studying.

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

Alienware M14x

Ages: High school and up

Got a good student who is also a game-addicted teenager? Since he's pulled his weight, earned terrific grades, and mowed the lawn whenever you asked — now you're so proud of him, 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 for this one.

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

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.