The Right Laptop for Schoolwork and Play
The question of whether (and when) to buy your son or daughter a smartphone is fraught with concerns over responsibility, online safety, and much more. The same goes for buying a laptop, except for one very important difference: Many elementary and middle schools consider them essential educational tools, and equip classrooms with machines for their students. Other schools require parents to purchase laptops, offering a selection of recommended models.
Their effectiveness at improving learning is up for debate, but the upshot is that your kid might need to use a laptop at school whether you like it or not. They’ll almost certainly want to use it at home, too, both for fun (messaging their friends, watching videos, playing Fortnite) and homework (looking up information and typing book reports).
Kids being kids, the list of factors to consider doesn’t end there. Don’t forget about parental controls, durable plastic, and water-resistant keyboards. At least you won’t have to worry about the cost. Buying a kid-friendly laptop need not break the bank—all of our recommended models cost less than $600—and the even better news is that just because they’re inexpensive doesn’t mean that they are necessarily slow or poorly made.
Our focus here is on younger kids. If your child is at the university level, check out our roundup of the best laptops for college students. And you’ll find even more choices in our overall roundup of the best cheap laptops.
Which Operating System Is Best?
Before you begin to evaluate features, you’ll start with the essential question that has plagued PC shoppers for decades: Which operating system should I choose?
This is not the Mac vs. Windows debate of old. New Apple laptops aren’t available for less than $500—not even close. The least-expensive Mac laptop, the MacBook Air, starts around $1,100 and is still overkill for an elementary- or middle-school student. If you’re an Apple fan and want to raise your son or daughter to be one too, you’re best off giving them a hand-me-down and buying a new MacBook or MacBook Pro for yourself.
Reused Macs aside, most parents will choose between Windows 10 and Chrome OS, the operating system from Google. In addition to running web apps within the Chrome browser, Chrome OS can also run apps from the Google Play store designed for Android smartphones and tablets, including Microsoft Office. If you’ve decided against buying a smartphone for your kids but they talk your ear off about wanting to play mobile games, buying a Chromebook might be a good compromise.
Windows 10 has also become more useful as an operating system for kid-oriented laptops thanks to the Windows 10 S Mode, which is aimed at the education market and, among other security enhancements, prevents apps from being installed unless they’re available on the Microsoft Store. This means you’ve got the ability to block games and apps based on their content ratings (something you can also do with Google Play apps). When your son or daughter gets older and more responsible, you can easily upgrade to the full version of Windows 10 to remove these limitations.
If your child’s school has specific software that only runs on Windows, your operating system choice will be decided for you. If not, you’ll want to take a close look at Chrome OS, since many Chromebooks include gimmicky but kid-friendly features like display lids that double as whiteboards.
Built for Backpacks: Assessing Ruggedness
Unique features like these are what transforms an ordinary cheap laptop into a school-friendly machine that kids won’t outgrow or destroy in a few months. Arguably the most important is how rugged the case is.
A few Chromebooks and inexpensive Windows laptops have spill-resistant keyboards, which means that they should survive splashing with an ounce or so of water unscathed. It’s much rarer to find entire laptops that are waterproof; the ones that are (models like Panasonic’s Toughbook line or Dell’s Latitude Rugged Extremes) typically cost several thousand dollars and aren’t geared toward kids at all. Likewise, it’s relatively easy to find reinforced lids or cases made of rubber to help absorb drops from a few feet, but you just won’t find fully ruggedized machines anywhere close to this price range.
Portability is another key concern, especially for middle- and high-schoolers who walk to school with backpacks laden with heavy textbooks. Most laptops in this category with screen sizes from 11 inches to 13 inches weigh about 2.5 pounds. Go above 3 pounds, and you’re putting a real burden on your child’s shoulders. Some laptops include carrying handles so kids can bring them from period to period without a backpack or a visit to their lockers.
Battery life is important, too, but it’s no longer the limiting factor that rendered the laptops of a decade ago useless if they spent more than an hour or so away from a power outlet. Even some of the cheapest laptops now boast times of about 10 hours on PCMag’s battery rundown test, thanks mostly to their power-sipping Intel processors.
Up to Spec? The Key Parts to Look For
Speaking of presentations, the final consideration is how your kids will use the laptop, which in turn determines the processor, storage, and memory configurations you should select. Tasks such as taking notes, writing papers, or making PowerPoint slides require little more than the bare minimum, which means that an Intel Celeron or Pentium processor will suffice. (Intel Atom chips are lower-end than these and sluggish by any measure, though they may suffice for truly lightweight single-tasking.) The next step up is an Intel Core i3, which you should consider if your kid’s teachers regularly have them stream online educational videos. An Intel Core i5 or i7 is all but impossible to find on a laptop or Chromebook that costs about $300.
If you opt for a more powerful processor so your kids can stream videos, you might also want to consider a 2-in-1 convertible or detachable laptop, which can double as a tablet thanks to a hinge that rotates 360 degrees, or a screen that detaches completely from the keyboard base. Most hybrids and convertibles are more expensive than the price range we’ve discussed to this point, but you can find a few high-quality models for less than $500, in lines such as Microsoft’s Surface and Asus’ VivoBook. These are best for middle-school-age children or older, since these machines are by nature less durable than a conventional laptop.
As for memory and storage, a common configuration is 4GB of RAM and 64GB of flash memory. You’ll definitely want to consider bumping up the storage capacity to 128GB, since the operating system files on a Windows 10 PC can take up more than 20GB, leaving your kid with a paltry 40GB or so of built-in storage. The exception is if you choose a laptop that has a roomier but slower (and more easily breakable) spinning hard drive, or one with a built-in SD card reader. In the latter case, you could stick with the base configuration and ask your kids to store their bulkier files on SD cards if needed, which you can buy in 32GB capacities for about $20 each.
Time for Fun: What About Graphics and Games?
Just because you’re selecting from among relatively slow processors and limited memory capacities doesn’t mean that gaming is out of the question when your kid is done with his or her schoolwork. Some games are even educational. For instance, Microsoft has an education version of its immensely popular open-world construction game Minecraft. Students can use it to explore real-world history like the Oregon Trail, solving math problems as they begin to understand how long and challenging the trail was, researching fur-trading companies to learn about the economic concepts of monopolies and supply and demand, and more.
Minecraft and other similar games will run on Core i3 systems with as little as 2GB of RAM, but if your kid is looking forward to playing them, you’ll make the experience much more enjoyable by selecting a laptop with 6GB or 8GB. If your child is planning on doing more intense gaming, you’ll need to step up the power and the price to a full-fledged gaming laptop or desktop. You won’t find current-generation gaming laptops for less than $700; $750 to $800 is really the on-ramp for machines with game-worthy GeForce GTX dedicated graphics chips. (See our guide to budget gaming machines.)
Ready for Our Recommendations?
Giving your son or daughter a laptop endows them with a portal into the immensely powerful internet, even if the laptop itself may not be all that potent. It’s up to you (and your kids’ teachers) to make sure that tool isn’t harmful. Fortunately, both Chromebooks and Windows laptops have parental control features, and a laptop’s size relative to a smartphone makes it easier to both monitor activity and set ground rules like disallowing computer use after homework is finished.
Check out our top picks for laptops designed for school-age kids below. You can also check out our roundup of our favorite tablets for kids, as well as our top phones for kids.
Pros: Sharp-looking aluminum design for a budget machine. Excellent battery life. Touch display (as tested) looks great. Comfortable backlit keyboard. Big touchpad.
Cons: Processor could use a pick-me-up. Ho-hum speakers.
Bottom Line: Aluminum-clad and ready for all day off the plug, the Acer Chromebook 514 is a reasonably-priced standout on the premium Chromebook stage that’s right-priced for students and budget buyers.
Pros: Rugged enough for school use. Wacom stylus included. Two USB-C and two USB 3.0 ports. Two cameras. Snappy keyboard.
Cons: Small, low-res screen. Easy-to-lose stylus. Imperfect Android compatibility.
Bottom Line: The Acer Chromebook Spin 11 is an 11.6-inch convertible that offers keyboard, touch, and stylus input, runs Chrome OS and Android apps, and shrugs off knocks, drops, and water spills. It’s the best chromebook we’ve seen for kids.
Pros: Bargain-basement price for a large-screen Chromebook. Sleek, part-aluminum design. 1080p panel looks crisp. Comfortable keyboard and touchpad.
Cons: Glossy screen coat is a glare magnet. Mediocre battery life. No keyboard lighting. Poor audio output.
Bottom Line: With its sleek design and big 1080p touch screen, the 15.6-inch Asus Chromebook C523 is a unusual bargain: a budget-friendly big-screen Chromebook.
Pros: More than 11 hours of battery life. Rugged, spill-proof exterior. 2-in-1 convertible form factor. Support for Google for Education administration and features.
Cons: Low-resolution screen. No USB-C ports.
Bottom Line: The Dell Chromebook 3189 is a durable convertible laptop, with a long-lasting battery, a multimode hinge, and enough processing juice to help power online and classroom learning.
Pros: Aggressively priced. Sleek silver exterior. Thin and light. Crisp, bright 15-inch display. Full-size Ethernet and HDMI ports. Fingerprint reader. Excellent battery life. Decent power for everyday computing tasks.
Cons: Abundant bloatware. Mediocre build quality. Lacks touchscreen option. Imprecise touchpad.
Bottom Line: This revamped Acer Aspire 5 configuration is a welcome improvement over its predecessor, and a decent, if compromise-laden, choice for shoppers eyeing a big-screen laptop on a budget.
Pros: Low price. Chassis feels solid, despite mostly plastic build.
Cons: Modest-at-best performer. Inconsistent touchpad.
Bottom Line: The Acer Chromebook 11 won’t surprise you with speed, but its low price gets you a well-made chassis and enough just pep for everyday tasks.
Pros: Sleek aluminum looks. Excellent battery life. Operates in fanless silence. Surprisingly good audio.
Cons: Next-to-nil storage space. Limited performance. No keyboard backlighting. Lid flexes some.
Bottom Line: It doesn’t pack much local storage in our test configuration, but the Asus VivoBook Flip 14 is a long-running, sleek-looking, and sweet-sounding 14-inch convertible laptop.
Pros: Core m3 processor. Includes HDMI port. Touch screen. Attractive design.
Cons: No 5GHz Wi-Fi. Slow 5,400rpm hard drive. 1,366-by-768 resolution screen. Relatively short battery life.
Bottom Line: The Dell Inspiron 11 3000 Series 2-in-1 is a convertible-hybrid laptop that has a better processor and subsequently higher performance than rivals, but makes a few compromises to meet its relatively inexpensive price.
Pros: 4K screen available as an option. Impressive performance and battery life.
Cons: Big and heavy. Display could be brighter. No video-out port. No stylus. Base model lacks backlit keyboard.
Bottom Line: In the Yoga Chromebook C630, Lenovo adds a plus-size convertible with the unusual option for a 4K display to its Chrome OS laptop line. It’s speedy and packs a long-lasting battery, but it could be lighter and a bit cheaper.
Pros: Low-cost entry point to the Surface line. Build quality is high. Small, lightweight design. Good potential for education use.
Cons: Middling speed. Keyboard is cramped and costs extra. Narrow for on-lap use. No full-size USB ports.
Bottom Line: The well-built Surface Go is the least expensive route into Microsoft’s superb Surface tablet line, and the most portable option. Just know that frequent travelers will like it best, and the core processing power is on the light side.