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What Kind of Computer Does Your Student Need?

By Chris Yust, Homeschool Programming, Inc.

Summer Shopping Season is Coming
As we roll into summer and begin looking ahead to the fall school year, many parents are thinking about purchasing some sort of computer for their students. Perhaps it’s time to upgrade the old family heirloom computer, or maybe your student is ready for their very first laptop. There are many options on the market today, and smaller portable devices seem to become more capable with each passing year. Which platform is best for your family? In this article we’ll outline three major choices: a desktop computer, a laptop, or a tablet.

The Traditional Desktop
Most of us started out on traditional desktop computers. This is your most powerful option. Desktop PCs have all the bells and whistles, including big hard drives, the latest CPUs, and large wide-screen monitors. This is the best choice if you do a lot of typing and prefer a full-size keyboard and mouse, or if you want to play the most demanding games or run the most intensive applications. Personally, I still prefer a desktop PC for most of my work.
Of course, desktops are not portable. In today’s mobile society, many people like to take their computers with them wherever they go.

This leads us to a more mobile option: the laptop. Students have been carrying around laptops as their primary computer platform for years. While typically less powerful than desktop computers, laptops still have enough power to handle the needs of most students. In addition, a good laptop doesn’t have to cost as much as a desktop computer. You can usually find a simple, fully-functional laptop for a few hundred dollars at your neighborhood big-box store. Of course, you could pay thousands for the most advanced systems, but those are rarely necessary for a typical student.

The biggest advantage laptops have to offer is portability, with most laptop systems weighing less than 8 pounds. This small size does have some drawbacks: in order to weigh less, you’ll find the monitor and keyboard are much smaller than those on a desktop computer. In addition, most laptops will include a touchpad, instead of a traditional mouse for navigating graphical programs.

There is one more drawback for laptop computers: they are far more breakable than desktop computers. This may not be a concern for older students, but you should be cautious with younger students! After all, how many times would you put a delicate glass vase worth hundreds of dollars in a youngster’s hands and ask them to stop running around the house?

Tablets are a rapidly improving option for many students. A tablet contains a large touch-sensitive screen but no physical keyboard, mouse or other complicated peripherals. Most tablets will connect to your home Wi-Fi network and allow you to surf the web, watch movies, read eBooks, and perform other lightweight tasks. If your student receives course instruction online, it’s possible they could complete entire courses directly from their tablet!

The two dominant kinds of tablets today are the iPad from Apple and the Android-based tablets from Samsung and other companies. Microsoft is also pushing into the market with Windows 8 tablets. Unfortunately, you typically can’t install and run the same sorts of software on a tablet as you can on a desktop or laptop. The embedded operating systems like iOS and Android are not the same as Mac OS X or Windows! For the most part you’ll be limited to using the applications that come with the device or those that you can purchase through the App Store or Google Play marketplaces.
Tablets are not necessarily for everyone! Tablets may not be well-suited to activities that require a decent amount of typing. Instead of a physical keyboard, a tablet only has a virtual or “soft” keyboard that appears on the screen when needed. While teens may seem to be “texting” savants able to rapidly pound out messages from a variety of small, odd input keys, you may not want to receive essays filled with “bff” and “lol”.

Which Computer is Best?
So what computer is best for your student? It really depends on your personal preference, needs, and budget. You may find yourself collecting computers of all types!
About the Author
Chris Yust from Homeschool Programming, Inc. is co-author of the KidCoder and TeenCoder programming curriculum for 4th-12th grade students. Find out more about computer programming for kids and teens at!

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