I just read your helpful article about laptops for children from November 2015. My eight-year-old is badgering us for a laptop. He has had a tablet for a few years, plays Minecraft and Lego games, and watches YouTube videos. I am worried that getting him a laptop will just feed an obsession with games and gamers. I would like him to learn more about computers and was thinking about getting a Raspberry Pi instead. Am I being a mean parent by not getting him a laptop or PC like many of his peers? If I go down this route, do you have any laptop recommendations for this year? Gareth
Obsessive PC gamers usually know far more about computers than professional users. In their quest for performance, they learn about multi-threading, over-clocking, pixel-shading and software optimisation techniques, as well as things like memory, disk drive, keyboard and mouse speeds. As a result, they are much more likely to build their own machines. However, this rarely applies to children as young as your son.
Otherwise, itâs hard for parents to withstand peer pressure. If all his friends have laptops, or tablets, or games consoles, or fidget spinners, then the kid who doesnât is bound to feel left out. Shared experiences drive schoolyard conversations and also provide bragging rights for those with better skills or just superior equipment.
This is where the Raspberry Pi idea falls down. If his school uses Raspberry Pi or similar machines, or BBC Micro:bits, then you might have a chance with one of those. If heâs the only kid who uses one for miles around, youâre asking him to put a lot of effort into something with no shared experiences or social rewards. Thatâs unlikely to work. Youâll have to invest a lot of your own time into working and learning alongside him. That is to say, the shared experiences and social rewards will have to come from you, not from his friends.
Buy a Raspberry Pi Official Desktop Starter Kit (Â£48.99) and see if you can involve your son in its shared development. You could build a desktop PC, a Kodi (XBMC) media centre, a NAS, or one of many other projects published online. How about a multi-room music player?
One or two successful projects could give your son some ideas for things heâd like to do for himself. If that happens, problem solved. If it doesnât, at least youâll both have learned something.
Desktop or laptop?
Kids generally get cheap laptops that are, ergonomically, bad for their health. Could you invest in a family desktop instead?
If you buy a desktop PC, you can get much better performance and far better peripherals â screen, keyboard, mouse etc â for a reasonable cost. You can use it as a file and media server, a shared movie player and catch-up TV device, and a multi-user games system. Your son would get his own (supervised) account on a shared system.
If he is keen on Minecraft, you can install a fast graphics card that will deliver far better performance than a cheap laptop. He will have no problem running the full edition with access to all the mods, rather than a tablet or pocket edition.
With the desktop PC shared in a family space, you will be able to see what heâs doing and help him when necessary. This is much better than letting young children use their own laptops in their own rooms.
Rather than a boring beige or black box, you could even get a gaming desktop that looks the part. Examples include the Zoostorm Quest A8 (Â£399.99 from Argos), the Asus ROG G20BM (Â£499.97 from Laptops Direct), PC Specialistâs Vortex Core II (Â£649.99 from Currys PC World) and Lenovoâs Y710 Cube (Â£799.98 from Currys PC World). They should fill an eight-year-old with awe.
Even better, involve your son in building your own desktop PC by selecting components from PC Part Picker, or use one of the siteâs published guides, such as this Â£500 Budget VR Gaming Build. Youâll get the educational value of assembling a Raspberry Pi with a dramatically better end result that should last for many years.
Talk to your son about what kinds of laptops his friends have, and how he plans to use it. For your purposes, the key choice is screen size. Should you go for an 11.6in or a 15.6in screen or something inbetween?
The âtraditionalâ cheap family laptop has a 15.6in screen, but isnât very portable and has limited battery life. Laptops designed for children and schools now tend to have 11.6in touch screens. They are extremely portable, and most have decent battery life.
Nowadays, laptops with 11.6in touch screens usually double as tablets. In many cases, the keyboard is detachable, in the style made popular by Asus Transformers. In other cases, the keyboard has a 360-degree hinge so that it can be folded out of the way, in a style made popular by Lenovoâs Yoga range.
My family has bought both types and it seems to be a personal choice. Detachables avoid the common problem with kids and consumer-grade computers: broken hinges. However, some detachables have very thin keyboards that are not very good for touch-typing, and learning to touch-type should be a prime directive for any eight to 10-year-old.
The other problem with cheap 11.6in laptops is that most of them have low specifications, typically 2GB of memory and 32GB of eMMC storage. I own a couple of these, and one of them already needs an external hard drive to upgrade Windows 10. In general, I recommend paying a bit more for 4GB of memory and 64GB of storage.
The low-end detachable market has not changed much in the past two years, but I assume models like the Asus Transformer Book T101HA (Â£159.97) and the red HP x2 10 (Â£249.99) are on the way out. My pick from this bunch is the Lenovo Miix 310 for Â£149 at John Lewis, because it has the best keyboard. (Argos also has a Lenovo Miix 320 at Â£199.99.) Although I donât like the 2GB/32GB specification, I bought a Miix 3 two years ago for Â£150 and it has worked well. Today, Iâd go for a Miix 310 with the 4GB/64GB spec, but itâs much more expensive at Â£269.99.
The Linx 1020 â which I have not used â has been popular with Ask Jack readers, and is terrific value at Â£136.95.
Linx has now brought out a 12V64 version with 4GB of memory and 64GB of storage. Unfortunately, this seems to retail at Â£299.99 (with a bundled 64GB SD card), and it has had a mixed reception on Amazon. I have one on loan now: it seems well made, and again, itâs working well. It could be worth a go at Â£214.95.
For a more conventional laptop, the 14in Acer Swift 1 is very good value. It includes 4GB of memory and 64GB of storage for Â£249.99 or, better still, 128GB for Â£279.99. This model does not have a touchscreen, but it does have a quad-core Intel Pentium N3710 processor. This is much faster than the dual-core Celeron N3060 commonly found in cheap laptops such as the HP Stream 14, or the even slower AMD E1 processor. Itâs also a bit faster than the quad-core Intel Atom x5-Z8350 used in cheap detachables like the Miix 310.
You can get much faster processors in laptops with 15.6in screens. Shop around for versions of the Lenovo V110 with a Core i3-6006U or Core i5-6200U processor. You can buy them for as little as Â£339.89 with a 500GB hard drive, and Â£369.99 with a 128GB SSD. The V110 is aimed at businesses, not children, but it should last longer, and it would be pretty good for Minecraft.
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