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What to consider before buying a computer

Whether you're buying your child her first laptop or replacing the dinosaur in the family room, consider these basic points.

By Marian Wilde

Before you pull out your credit card, you'll want to make some basic decisions.

Mac or PC?

Don't get your heart set on a Mac or a PC, until you find out what the primary platform is at your child's school. If, for example, your school uses PCs, buying a PC will make file sharing easier.

Gayle Berthiaume, an award-winning teacher and GreatSchools' technology consultant, also advises considering what projects you intend to do on the computer before making the platform decision.

"You want one that will be multi-purpose for everybody. If it's going to be used for game playing, that's different than if you're going to use it for production and making things. I think all the way through school, it's better to use the computer for more creative projects."

Each platform has its strong advocates. Graphic artists and other arts professionals have historically tended to prefer the more user-friendly Macs, while PCs are less expensive and more pervasive in the workplace. As a member of the Apple Learning Exchange, Berthiaume's preference isn't surprising. "If you're going to make presentations or do multimedia, or if you're going to make photo books, I would go with a Mac, not only because I love Macs but also because now, with MacBooks, they run either Mac OS or Windows."

Desktop or laptop?

The next issue to consider is screen size versus portability, as this is the basic trade-off when selecting a desktop or a laptop.

Says Berthiuame: "I personally prefer notebooks because you can take them wherever you want to." Others, however, prefer desktops because of the larger screen size and the more ergonomic screen position and keyboard design.

Internet access

What's a computer in today's world without access to the Internet? Now considered equally as important as the computer itself, Internet access is a critical part of the package, and not an insignificant one financially.

There are many types of Internet access, such as:

  • Dial-up. This is the slowest method of getting around on the Internet and also the cheapest. If you're going to go with dial-up you'll need to make sure your computer has the right kind of modem, usually 56K.
  • Broadband (DSL or cable). Make sure your computer has a Network card or USB port. Check with your local broadband provider for exactly what you'll need.
  • Satellite. Currently, satellite download speed is faster than dial-up, but slower than broadband. A satellite connection may be a good option if you live in rural area without cable or telephone lines.
  • Wireless. This service for laptop and handheld users allows access to the Internet wherever there's a Wi-Fi network. You'll need a Wi-Fi card that is compatible with your Wi-Fi Internet service.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

09/24/2009:
"I've been researching netbook style computers with the intent to buy. Yesterday I read that the MSI Wind U123 models can boot in Windows, OS X, and Linus. There are lots of Wind models out there and I don't know if this is true for all. Also, I put my kids on computers at a very early age (about 3 years old) with programs like 'Read with Pooh', 'Math Blaster', 'Jump Start', etc. They didn't get internet until last year at ages 11 and 13. If they wanted the Internet, we went to the library. My younger child skipped his 6th grade math and went to Honors pre-algebra, and this year, he skipped 7th grade altogether. I believe that his interest in computer gaming with access to LOTS of educational and fun software has been key in his develeopment. Since my older child (a daughter) has a wireless laptop and can use it in her room, I have a problem. I wish it didn't have included wireless, but instead that I could pull out a card to limit her time on the internet. Neither of my kids! do Facebook or any of the usual social networking that you hear about. They are into Deviant Art and Rhunescape. Focus is all about drawing, fan fiction, or problem solving (even if you are fighting a giant bug or strategizing to get supplies for your character.) I'd like a better idea of how Gifted Kids use the internet to network versus those of lower IQ. "
06/16/2008:
"Maybe a worthwhile topic to touch upon would be how soon to introduce computer-use to children. It seems like we're plugging our children into the media-saturated, high-tech culture without nearly as much forethought as is necessary. We don't even seem to be giving them a chance to learn to thrive in the real world before they're already neck-deep in the inescapable cyber-world."
02/21/2008:
"With the feature that Apple computers have now that allow the user to boot in Windows or OS, I would highly recommend investing in the Apple computers. They are much more user friendly, sturdier, and cater more to educational software than the PC'c do."
09/7/2006:
"I am a student at a public high school and I am on my senior year. The best thing to do with computers is to build it yourself by ordering parts. Some might say that it is too complicated, which it isn't at all. It's like a puzzle that needs all the parts to fit together. Looking online for sources with information about computers and building/operating them is easy. There is tons of info about everything you will need to know on the internet. I even help people build there computers and I taught myself how to do this. The only manufactured computer I would ever buy would be an Apple computer. They are beautifully crafted and have the best operating system I have seen. If your child would like to have Windows XP and OSX on the Macintosh computer, they can."
08/18/2006:
"My wife shared this article with me since she is a teacher and we are in the market for a new computer. One issue which you did not bring up when talking about computer recycling is the need to wipe the hard drive clean. If this is not done, any information that was stored or input (contact info, personal info, financial and credit card info) can fall into the wrong hands and opens up the door for much trouble. There are a number of programs available which can accomplish this since simply deleting information with Add/Remove programs will not suffice in most cases. I cannot vouch for which one is best since I, we have not disposed of an old system yet. I just thought I'd add my thoughts and hopefully this will help someone from unitentionally getting into deep trouble."
08/18/2006:
"Great & on time as I computer shopping now. Clear explanations without a sales pitch are invaluable. Thank you."
08/17/2006:
"OK, I get it that Mac's still have a stigma against them about being a 'real' computer. The email I received about this article really made it out that a Mac was only good for graphic design. I feel the article was misrepresented, if not the Mac itself. It's a strong competitor these days and needs to be taken seriously. Apple just isn't for you iPod any more. "
08/16/2006:
"I am a 53yr old mother and grandmother who homeschools our almost nine year old granddaughter. Our other grandkids go to public school. We have six computers in our home and only three have internet capabilities. The one the 8 year old uses has many software educational and edutainment programs installed on it for her pleasure. She has been using a computer since she was 4. However, I have seen children in classrooms that have 1 to 3 computers in the classroom, get maybe an hour a week on the computer from a reading program the school uses which does not teach the child anything about the computers. I have classes go to a room called the computer lab that has up to 30 networked computers in it with a tech person to assist the classroom teacher and again the students do not get to learn much of anything. So when should a parent think about getting their child a computer? Visit your child's classroom and note how often in the course of a day children are using it, go to the la! b and check what they do in there, then ask your child what they would want to do with a computer. Then decide. As in the case of the Tennessee middle school girl, I would also suggest that if you are going to give this computer internet capabilities, until such time as you are totally comfortable with your child having this in their room away from your ability to see what they are doing, I suggest the computer be set up in a common room like the family room or a corner of the dining room. To the single mom from Michigan, I would say to check out your local church's. We have 2 in our tricity area that twice a year gives away refurbished computers to students on a first come-first serve basis. "
08/16/2006:
" As the VP of Technology for GreatSchools and a Mac user, I fully concur with the statement 'if your school uses PCs, buying a PC will make file sharing easier.' We have both Mac and Windows users in our offices and the Windows machines work seamlessly with our Windows 2003 Servers, whereas, we regularly have odd connectivity issues with our Macs and we're running the latest OS X and patches. While I agree that in general Macs work well in a heterogeneous environment, it still makes it easier to use whatever your school is using because when you run into problems there will be others that have likely run into the same problem. I know the issue of whether or not Macs are more expensive than PCs is a hotly debated topic but I still agree that PCs are in general less expensive. When you get into the medium to high-end space I agree that the gap closes but when you're shopping for sub $1000 machines then in my opinion you'll get more for your money with a PC. For example, the average Dell desktop we buy at GreatSchools.org with a 17' flat panel, 1GB of memory, and a 2.5Ghz processor costs us $700 (granted we wait for the sales). We have never spent less than $1300 for a Mac. Even if you were to get the slowest and least expensive Mac Mini (1.5Ghz Core Solo), by the time you add memory and a keyboard and mouse you're at $777 and you'll still need to buy a display for it. I'm a Mac user because I like their design aesthetic and as a software engineer I like that it's Unix under the hood, however, I still feel that I pay a premium to use a Mac."
08/16/2006:
"I am also a member of Apple Learning Exchange, and the Technical Coordinator for an elementary school in Prescott, AZ. You made a couple of statements - one in the brief leading up to the article - which are not quite correct. The first regards file sharing. I work at an all Macintosh school - 1 of 3 in our district. About the only problem sharing documents is when an older Windows user doesn't have the correct version to open documents - whether Windows OR Mac docs! The second statement regards cost. Over a period of six years, Total Cost of Ownership for the Macintosh was approximately 3/5s the TCO of the Windows machines. The first year we did a Return On Investment, the Macs were slightly higer in cost of actual machine. However, the Macs came with virtually ALL the software we needed, saving thousands of dollars in integrated suite-ware. Also, because AppleWorks includes a database (which the Mac version of Office does not) our students were doing database creation and ! management by the 4th grade. PLUS, the inclusion of iLife allowed us to explore photo manipulation, video production, and some exciting music venues. The greatest complaint among parents of kids going from our all Mac school to the all Windows middle schools has been the lack of furthering their kids' technology skills. Why? It's too expensive for the Windows schools to add those capabilities to the Win machines! By the 6th year, the Mac schools presented the LOWEST Cost of Ownership, with the HIGHEST overall Return on Investment. The greatest reason for this was the cost of updates, upgrades,virus protection and updating costs, and technical support necessary to keep Windows machines running. These expenses should (NEED) to be considered when purchasing a personal machine - it isn't any good if it doesn't work. I say this because I spend about 30 hours a week cleaning and 'delousing' Windows machines. I have yet to see a Mac on my bench for virus. Granted, this will change as the new Macs come out with Bootcamp. But Bootcamp also allows the Macintosh to serve as TWO computers for the price of one. By the way, I am also a full time student at University of Phoenix, working on my Bachelors in IT. I have used a Macintosh since day one. I have have had absolutely NO problems with file transfer. I have had absolutely NO issues with viruses (even when THEIR servers were down with issues). I have had to resort to Virtual PC for a couple of classes, and that has also gone quite smoothly. I am not going to say that every student should have a Macintosh - merely that the objections of cost and file shareing are not valid."
08/16/2006:
"I'm a single Mom with poor credit, and really need a home computer for my fourth grader and Kingergartner. I've no money to buy one. Is there a way to get a home pc for my children's education?"
08/15/2006:
"When do you feel a child needs a computer for the classroom. My child is 8 years old and very proficiant as she should be!? Please advise!"
08/15/2006:
"i'm a girl who just started middle school on friday. i want a computer in my room becaue when i'm doing homework on the computer, my brother always is annoying and makes noise. adults think kids are in chat rooms or myspace.com just giving away our info. we don't!!! or at lease i don't.. or my friends.. or anyone at my school!!! please forgive me for being rude, but it's true! if you have a kid starting middle school, get one. it doesn't have to be fancy, just a computer. sencerly, a middle school girl"
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