It’s back-to-school time, and you’re looking at buying a cheap laptop for your kid. You see an amazingly wide range at the store, with many entry-level models in the $200 to $300 range, step-up units for $400 to $600 and many more topping $1,000 and higher.
How slow is the $200 computer? Will it fall apart? What will spending more get you?
How to proceed? We’re here to help.
The Google Chromebook is a popular choice for parents looking to get their kid a computer without breaking the bank. Many Chromebooks indeed sell in the $200 range and are simply the most affordable computer you can buy.
And here comes the “but.”
The Chromebook is designed for the student to read, write, research on the Web, watch YouTube clips and listen to music. Period.
They work only with an online connection, have little or no hard drive nor access to many popular apps, only the ones offered in the Google Chrome store.
If there’s a mobile app, the Chromebook can run it.
You can’t download the full, desktop versions of Microsoft apps like Word, Excel and Powerpoint but the smaller Android version. They are free on devices with screens smaller than 10 inches and may charge your student a monthly subscription fee since most Chromebooks are larger. Full photo editing apps like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom or the popular video editing app Premiere won’t work with a Chromebook.
Without much storage space, if the student wanted to import some photos or video clips, they would need to upload them to a service like Google Drive ($1.99 monthly for 100 gigabytes)
Raj Nijjer of New York recently bought his 7th grade son Kabir a $200 Chromebook for two reasons. One, it was required by the school, and two, he didn’t want to share his computer with his son. “It was so cheap, why not?”
Gaming would be an issue on the Chromebook, since it’s a slower machine and not meant for games, but “he’s got the iPad and Xbox for games,” Nijjer says.
Chromebook is best for K-12, due to the restrictions. College students might get assigned working with software not available in the Chrome store. What to do?
Cheap Windows laptops
The pros are that you get a bargain and a computer that can run any software available to Microsoft Windows.
Cons are low battery life, weak power, compared to high-end laptops, plastic body parts and the likelihood that the laptop won’t last as long as others. What do you expect for a $300 computer?
Sherri L. Smith, the assistant managing editor for Laptop magazine, says cash-strapped parents can get a good working machine for between $350 to $800.
“This is something you want to last for four years,” she says. “With enough power to keep your student productive.”
She likes Chromebooks but notes that for a few hundred dollars more, you can get more power, storage room and access to any software.
Smith recommends a minimum of an i5 processing chip, 4 gigabytes of RAM and a 256 solid-state drive.
More expensive, faster Windows computers creep into the $800 to $1,000 range, and have better graphics to handle gaming and video editing. The HP Stream 11.6 is in the $225 range, has a weaker Intel Celeron processing chip, 4 GB of RAM and a small 64 GB hard drive.
And then there are Macs
And if you’re on a budget, you can forget about buying your kid an Apple computer. The entry-level MacBook Air starts at $1,099 with an i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage. And go up from there, to $1,799 for a top-of-the-line MacBook Pro.
If it’s any consolation, Apple Stores offer student and faculty discounts, which usually amount to around 10%.
Readers: have questions about buying a laptop? We’re here to help. Look for me on Twitter, where I’m @jeffersongraham