Sue’s eight-year-old daughter wants a laptop for school projects. Will a new laptop costing £200 or an old MacBook do the job?
The key question is: what software does your daughter need in order to do projects at home? Can you get a copy? Some educational software only runs on one platform, and there is not much point in buying a laptop that doesn’t run it.
In general, I expect most children create projects in Microsoft Office – which is free for educational use – or Google’s free online equivalent Google Docs, Sheets and Slides. Microsoft’s OneNote is particularly popular in schools.
If that’s the case, your child should be able to do everything online. In other words, she can log on with a Microsoft account and then create and save all her files in the online OneDrive, or log on with a Google account and create and save files in the online Google Drive. (Remember to back them up to a USB thumb-drive or SD card.)
And if she can do everything in a browser, it doesn’t much matter which type of system she uses. It can be a Windows or Linux laptop or desktop, a MacBook or a Chromebook.
There is some advantage to using a familiar system, so you could find out what your daughter uses in school, and buy the same type of device. Most British schools use Windows laptops, and some use Chromebooks. Windows laptops are more capable and more versatile, but they require much more management, in terms of installing updates and cleaning up storage space.
Chromebooks can do most of the things young children – and some adults – need, but there are drawbacks. For example, some eight-year-olds are getting into Minecraft. There are versions that run on a wide variety of systems, but modern Chromebooks are limited to running the Android version of Minecraft from the Play Store.
Most new Chromebooks are capable of running Android apps, but older machines may not be.
If you have a 2013 MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, then it should still be capable of doing the things young children – and most adults – need. Apple fitted machines with fourth- and fifth-generation Core i5 chips in 2013. If your MacBook has an Intel Core i5-4258U or similar processor, it will be faster than most of the cheap Windows laptops sold today. It will also have a better keyboard and screen.
To find out what kind of MacBook you have, go to the Apple menu and select About this Mac. Select the serial number in the popup box, copy it (Cmd+C), and paste it (Cmd+V) into Apple’s “Check Coverage” page. EveryMac.com is also an invaluable source of details about all types of Mac.
If your free MacBook has an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor, it’s well worth using. If it has Intel’s older Core 2 Duo chip, you could sell it on eBay or a similar site. It could make a significant difference to your budget. Of course, you should remove any personal data first, if whoever gave it you didn’t do this already. (They should have.)
You were probably warned against buying a Windows laptop with only 2GB of memory and 32GB of storage. If so, I echo that advice. These cheap, minimum-spec devices work quite well for casual use as netbooks where you do everything online. However, sooner or later you will run out of storage space and need to plug in an external hard drive to do Windows updates.
In my view, 4GB of memory is the minimum sensible specification for both Windows laptops and Chromebooks, and 64GB of storage is the minimum for Windows laptops. (If I’m buying, I go for 8GB and at least 128GB.)
When it comes to picking a processor, go for the highest PassMark score you can afford. PassMark is a fairly crude measuring stick, but everyone understands that a Core i5-8500, which scores 11,947, is a lot faster than an Intel Atom x5-Z8350, which scores just 1,270.
In general, I try to avoid anything with a PassMark score lower than 2,000. An Intel Pentium N4200 squeaks in at 2,011. You can manage with less, but faster is always better.
Screen size is more a matter of personal choice. Mainstream laptops usually have 15.6in screens and are fine for use around the house. More portable laptops tend to have screens between 10in and 14in, with 11.6in and 14in being popular compromises.
With Black Friday coming up, you may be able to pick up a bargain. I have not done an exhaustive search, but some models I would have mentioned are already out of stock, or have now increased in price.
The best budget laptop I can find at the moment is the 14in Lenovo Ideapad 120S, which costs £149.98 at eBuyer.com. This has 4GB of memory, 64GB of storage, and the previously mentioned Pentium N4200 processor. A search for 81A5007KUK finds that Lenovo is selling this machine for £279.99.
If you decide to go for a cheap Chromebook, I like the Asus C301SA, which eBuyer is selling for £195.28 but might be out of stock. This has 4GB of memory, 32GB of storage, and an Intel Celeron N3160 processor, PassMark 1,675. Searching for C301SA-FC032 finds it for £194.97 at Laptops Direct and £237.88 on Amazon.co.uk.
Be careful. Similarly-priced Chromebooks are more commonly fitted with Celeron N3060 processors, but this chip is significantly slower: PassMark 983.
Prices vary, of course, but you should be able to find the right sort of spec on your budget. And if you miss Black Friday, prices are often cheaper in the December/January sales.
Whichever system you buy, you should be the administrator while your daughter should have a limited Child account. This enables you to control what she does, and in Windows, makes her more secure.
Microsoft provides instructions on setting up a Child account, though Windows Central’s version has screen shots that make it easier to follow.
Apple has instructions on how to set up an Apple ID for your child, while Macworld.co.uk does it with screenshots and safety tips.
There are also third-party parental control programs for Windows and MacOS, including free ones. You can use these with standard (not administrator) accounts instead of child accounts.
For Chromebooks, see Google’s Sign your child in on their Chromebook, using an account created with Family Link.
Google says the information it collects “won’t be used to personalise ads for children under 13 (or the applicable age in your country)”. In most European countries, children have to be 16+ to have their own Google account, but the UK defaults to the US age, which is 13+.
This may be more complicated if you comply with data protection regulations, which weren’t around when I last set up child accounts. Back then, I didn’t use real names or ages either.
1 What’s The Best Sub £200 Laptop For A Child? Photos