Bleg: Computer Alternative For Middle Schooler

Child #1 is in seventh grade. His school (my old school) gives a lot of homework and aggressively pushes writing. Good.

He has access to computers at home, but we think it would be helpful for him to have something he can use to work on assignments.

We're contemplating a Microsoft Surface. The original one is way down in price now that the new ones have come out. He doesn't need the latest and greatest apps. We're looking for something portable that he can use for word processing.

Thoughts? Recommendations?

Last 5 posts by Ken White

Comments

  1. JD says

    HP or Samsung Google Chromebook. Functioning laptop, file types intercompatible with MS Office, and it's only $250.

  2. Illy says

    Don't buy an MS surface, the reports on it are full of shoddy manufacturing. You'll have to replace it in months.

    If you can get hold of one of these (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OLPC_XO-1) I would reccomend it. Otherwise a Raspberry Pi (£25 plus shipping), mouse, keyboard and monitor will be cheap and effective.

    If he doesn't need fancy graphics, it'll be plenty. And it's likely to teach him good stuff about computers as well.

  3. matw2 says

    Personally I'd choose a Chromebook over a Surface/any tablet for document creation, even with the Surface's keyboard accessory.

  4. says

    The surface is nice, but I would let him try one first. I found for serious typing, you need to hook up an external keyboard and monitor, which sort-of defeats the purpose of a tablet. Casual typing on the Type Cover is no problem. Avoid the Touch Cover.

    That said, the Surface Pro (which I bought) is a great portable computer. The Surface RT has a compromised design that won't let you install desktop apps, so if you buy one, I hope Word is Good Enough for his school.

    If you buy one, be sure to upgrade it to 8.1 as soon as you buy it. It's problematic to upgrade once you load a bunch of software onto it.

  5. Golden Boy says

    It doesn't matter what you get him, the computer will be used primarily for wasting time and surfing the internet. There simply is no getting around that. I say embrace it and get the kid something that has a bit of power and nothing from the bottom of the barrel.

  6. Crusty the Ex-Clown says

    My two cents worth: touch screens not useful for extended writing. iPad doesn't allow two apps to open side-by-side; do other tablets? In general, apps seem inferior to DT/LT programs. Tablets best suited for browsing, entertainment, etc.

    My solution was buy inexpensive Asus net book and install Ubuntu. Much better for research/study, IMHO.

  7. Jim Salter says

    Obligatory "I'm an open source guy" post: if you're going to get him something blatantly proprietary, please expose him to different blatantly proprietary (and hopefully even not-proprietary) stuff on a reasonably concurrent basis.

    Microsoft may or may not still be a force to be reckoned with in the IT industry when your son is older. (They might not even still be around. Heresy, I know, but it happens.) Same goes for Apple. It would be a very good and beneficial thing for your son to be aware that user interfaces change, not all devices work together, and contemplation of advantages and disadvantages of platforms are necessary before committing to one or the other.

    (Basically, I'm recommending that you avoid indoctrinating him into any company's pigeonholes. It's not good for him.)

  8. ZK says

    Do laptops count as portable enough?

    You can get two serviceable Asus laptops for the price of a Surface. You'll not be playing anything more taxing that Civ4 on a lot of them, but they'll eat word processing for breakfast.

    And when one gets used as a frisbee, who cares? You've got another.

  9. Marconi Darwin says

    Surface sucks! Sucks big time, and is neither an iPad nor a laptop. Certainly not a useful 2 in 1.

    Google Chrome notebooks at around $300 if you are fine with non Microsoft Office suites or a Dell/HP/Toshiba/Thinkpad laptop for around $400 + $100 or so for Student edition of Office would be recommended.

  10. tim says

    Just buy him an iPad Mini and a bluetooth keyboard. There are many excellent and cheap word processing apps for it.

    (cue the irrational reactions with regards to Apple and its products)

  11. Abigail says

    I would second the Chrome notebooks. Another option if you'd like him to have a tablet is the Nexus. I have a 7 with a blue tooth keyboard and it goes everywhere with me. One nice feature is that it only has wifi so I don't to worry about data costs. It does mean I need to sync things before I leave home/work so I have whatever reading I need available for my commute. I've tied it occasionally to my phone but usually wifi is fine.

  12. Mike says

    I support a chromebook, mostly because they're so cheap that its not the worst thing in the world to destroy, that anything I write is immediately backed up, and that its regularly and seamlessly updated, so virii and other shenanigans are less of a concern.

  13. David says

    Chromebook. They come in under $300, pretty much anything off the shelf will have a more capable keyboard than anything you'll find attached to a (far more expensive) tablet, and they're harder to screw around on because Chrome isn't a gaming platform like Android, Windows or iOS.

  14. Chris says

    Personally, in my experience win8 is buggier than a beehive. I would suggest finding a used Windows 7 laptop, which has the advantage of being a full fledged OS and worse case scenario is used rather than new.

  15. Josh says

    Avoid Windows RT if at all possible. Windows 8 has it's problems, but at least is a full operating system.

    Tablets designed for primary touch screen use can be tedious to do real work on, and the keyboard that the Surface uses doesn't, in my opinion, provide enough tactile feedback to be satisfying for prolonged use.

    I agree with the people above about the Chromebooks. They are nicely priced, and when your kids break it, and they will break it, you won't feel too bad about it. And, since Google docs exist in "the cloud", you don't have to worry about him losing is work if something should happen to the hardware.

    If you want to get crazy with it later, you might be able to set up RDP on a home desktop and remote into it, if you need a PC experience.

  16. Jonathan says

    I got an original Surface RT. I wanted to get the Pro because it allows you to install legacy programs, but I couldn't afford it.

    After nearly a year of using it, I can say I'm glad I didn't get the Pro. 99.9% of my computer usage is in the Office suite (no power lifting in excel tho) and web browsing. As the Surface has a desktop-level browser, it fit all my needs.

    Nothing beats a real keyboard, but I've found the touch keyboard works great for anything from taking notes to banging out 3-500 words at a time. If you're going for marathon writing sessions, go with the type cover or get a laptop.

    I love my Surface and I am lusting after the Surface 2.

  17. Jonathan says

    Folks saying you should avoid RT should try out 8.1 if they haven't. It really makes a big difference, and I find it to be a joy to use.

  18. jo says

    If the main use case is word processing, I agree with above commenters that a cheap laptop or netbook is the best thing. Tablets are designed for media consumption and games and, though they can be used to do serious work, it's not what they're good for. The kind of cheap laptop or netbook is not so important since they all do word processing in interchangeable formats. That being said, and although it pains me to say it because I love linux so very much, a kid would be better off with a windows device because some of the content management systems that schools like, I'm thinking Blackboard, are essentially not linux compatible. They're probably Apple compatible, but there's really no reason to pay the Apple premium just for word processing and web stuff.

  19. Phe0n1x says

    I own a 1st Gen MS Surface. I love the thing except for the pen. There's no receptacle for it on the Surface. It simply connects to the power plugin. I've lost the stylus once, I imagine he'll lose it at some point too. However, it is a great device assuming he isn't going to play video games on it…it does like to get hot when you do.

  20. Jonathan says

    "The kind of cheap laptop or netbook is not so important since they all do word processing in interchangeable formats. "

    I doubt that middle school teachers are highly sensitive to minor formatting issues, but it's worth noting that the formats are not, entirely, interchangeable. At least not wrt .doc and (worse) .docx – the unruly, indecipherable mess that is proprietary Word documents is well documented, and means that translating from .doc or .docx to another format (or the other way around) is not going to be flawless.

  21. says

    Apple ][e. Not only will he not waste his time surfing pr0n, but he might even learn to write 6502 machine code out of boredom.

    #passing_that_along_from_a_friend

  22. whheydt says

    I'll endorse the Pi, as well. For WP, you can run LibreOffice or AbiWord, which would be more than adequate for a student.

    You could use the Pi as the main "PC" or as a supplement for variety and to learn about different OSes and interfaces. You could also use the Pi for lessons in economy. Hit your local thrift stores to find a monitor for it (basically, any flat panel that has a DVI connector) and a company local to you–Monoprice–for the cables you'll want. I'd also suggest getting the power supply from Adafruit, as they have one specifically designed for the Pi.

    As for keyboards…if whatever you choose can take an external keyboard, look at Unicomp. They licensed the switch tech used in the original IBM PC keyboards, back when IBM was trying to match the "touch" of the Selectric typewriter. They aren't cheap, but they're a joy to type on. Vastly better that any of the newer key-switch techs out there.

  23. melK says

    Were you in Portland, I'd suggest FreeGeek (www.freegeek.com). Linux OS, not top of the line HW, but not expensive, either. Almost certainly a desktop, so it won't get lost or broken on the bus or at school.

  24. Resolute says

    I picked up a Surface RT when the price dropped. It is, as has been noted, a limited version of Windows 8. There is far less app support, but it does exactly what I wanted it to do. I like that it comes with Office, and I use it all the time to support some of my research activities.

    I find the touch keyboard attachment is not that bad for casual typing – far superior to on-screen typing – but it is still somewhat limited. I can type 100 wpm normally, so if I want to do some serious writing on it, I attach a USB or Bluetooth keyboard.

    But Golden Boy makes a good point. Whatever purpose you want the device to have, a kid in grade 7 is going to want all the games, fake fart sounds and other fun stuff that comes with the significantly more developed Android and Apple ecosystems.

  25. says

    If he has to do a lot of writing, it needs to have a real keyboard rather than a touch surface. As for the operating system, avoid Windows RT, but other than that, the most important OS requirement is network externalities: Regardless of whether it's Microsoft, Apple, or open-source Linux-ish, get him what his friends and/or teachers and/or family has. Sharing files, applications, and operating knowledge is going to be more useful and important than any particular operating system features.

  26. says

    A tablet's probably not suited for a lot of writing. You'd want something with a keyboard, a Chromebook or netbook or something along those lines. A large screen isn't critical since he probably won't be running a lot of applications at once. http://www.superbiiz.com/ still has netbooks and small laptops listed, and I've had good luck with Acer's Aspires. They come with Windows 7 Home, they can take Linux if you want.

  27. C. S. P. Schofield says

    If you get him something that runs UNIX or a UNIX variant (I've never done this, so I don't know details) he will miss out on 90% of all the viruses and such annoyances out there. A MAC would miss out on 99%, but you would have to put up with Apple. My Lady and I are used to them – we've been abroad with Apple since we did the shift key modification on her Apple II ourselves – but they aren't for everybody.

  28. Rick Wiltrout says

    First, figure out what he will need. I know you said word processing, but alot of schools are pushing kids to do video creation, editing, and presentations as part of the class work. So make a list of features and needs. After that go to your local Best buy or big computer chain store (Ohio has Microcenter) and try the units out.

  29. Fury says

    The 11" Macbook Air is small enough to be portable and has a very responsibe keyboard – just much easier to type on than my iPad. Apple sells them refurbished with the same one year warranty that you get with a new Air. The battery life of the Airs is very good – ~8 hours for the 11" model.

    And they are durable. I have had an Screech Owl crap on the case and a cat spray the display. Once things were wiped off and dried, the Air has worked great.

  30. En Passant says

    jo wrote Oct 28, 2013 @9:36 am:

    If the main use case is word processing, I agree with above commenters that a cheap laptop or netbook is the best thing.

    whheydt wrote Oct 28, 2013 @9:52 am:

    I'll endorse the Pi, as well. For WP, you can run LibreOffice or AbiWord, which would be more than adequate for a student.

    Agree in spades on the WP s/w. AbiWord is the cat's pajamas, it's open source, and it's free as in beer. The AbiWord user interface operates very much like Word. AbiWord can also read and write most popular WP file formats, including those of Micro$lop. You can also make a donation to the AbiWord project if you want.

    For h/w, I'm for any old used P4 laptop per jo above. They're cheap, and they'll all run AbiWord just fine.

  31. Patrick says

    Let's be honest, for a middle school student – for most students regardless of age, to be honest – Office is the option for writing, making spreadsheets, presentations, etc. Unless your teacher has a Mac or is somewhat technical, they're not going to want to deal with documents in iWorks or another format, and you're not going to want to deal with making sure you and your son know how to convert documents and make sure they meet the formatting requirements.

    A Surface tablet running Windows RT is the best option because it comes with a copy of Office – a Surface Pro doesn't include this.

    I have a Surface RT, and it works fine for Office and other everyday uses (Netflix, browsing, etc.) That said, I'd recommend you go with a Surface 2 because it's going to be faster and not become obsolete as quickly. Plus it has better battery life and a better design.

    Whether Windows RT will be around for a long time, or if it will get merged with Windows Phone, I don't know, but one way or another, you can expect that the Surface 2 will be supported for longer than the original RT. And the 200GB of space on SkyDrive you get is also quite nice!

  32. Jonathan says

    "I have had an Screech Owl crap on the case and a cat spray the display. Once things were wiped off and dried, the Air has worked great."

    I don't have a comment on this. Just wanted to quote you for effect.

  33. mcalex says

    I'll add to the chorus suggesting laptops over PC tablets. Laptops last all day while working. Tablets last hours while surfing. PJ over at groklaw was quite fond of her chromebook. Also, I'm not sure how Raspberry Pi suits the 'portable' spec. By itself it's portable, true, but you need a wifi adapter, monitor and keyboard to work with it and it wouldn't be fun carrying that lot 'round.Plus, what @Jim Salter said

  34. Resolute says

    Oh, and if you do get the Surface RT anyway, go 64GB. It's criminal how they get away with a $100 price increase for $5 in extra disk, but that 32GB will be reduced by the OS (so probably about 25GB usable), and it doesn't take much to burn through, even with the ability to use USB and micro-SD cards.

  35. says

    I would absolutely avoid the Surface. I've pretty much run the gamut as far as writing devices are concerned. Tablets, both iOS and Android, phones of all sorts, netbooks, desktop computers, laptops all of various flavors.

    Honestly it depends. Personally, if your household runs primarily Windows devices, I'd pick up an older (the plastic housing variety) MacBook for him. Couple of reasons there. First, a laptop is an excellent writing device, far and away better than any tablet. Second, it'll teach him to use another type of OS. If you use primarily Macs, any Windows laptop or netbook, for the same reasons. Linux is also an option. Naturally you'll have to make sure he knows how to make his documents compatible with the school's systems, but that shouldn't be too much of a hassle.

    But, and I can't stress this enough, a tablet is very much a terrible device for writing purposes.

  36. Jonathan says

    It is fairly trivial to increase the Surface RT onboard storage by moving the recovery partition to a USB drive or something. Also, it features a microSD slot that can accept up to 64GB, and those are had pretty cheap.

  37. jackn says

    Don't do it!

    The longer you can delay a dedicated machine for him, the smarter and more productive he will be in the long run. Any device will quickly become a huge distraction from homework, research, and studying.

    For research and homework, have him use a 'public' household machine.

    if i could go back in time, I would not have got my son his own laptop in middle school.

  38. George William Herbert says

    Re the Surface…

    There is public information sufficient to determine that between four and six million units of the prior generation were written down / off by their net value (i.e., almost certainly thrown in an industrial chipper). The new ones seem more competent, but there is significant reason to believe the market Just Doesn't Like that product line, and that the value of the units (in terms of software, tools, learning being portable, etc) is low.

    It's not as bad as the Kin phones from the same vendor, but …

  39. Aaron says

    I go with the chorus of people recommending Chromebooks. They're cheap, lightweight, and last a long time on battery, and they'll word-process fine.

  40. Greg S says

    I haven't read all the comments, but here's what I'd do in a heart-beat.

    While a tablet and instant on is really nice, and it could work with a BT keyboard, it's still not a great solution. [If I were recommending a tablet, it would be a Nook HD+ 9" with a cheap BT keyboard. <$200 – rip Nook OS and install CM 10.2]

    But I'll go more mainstream, with a laptop.
    Thinkpad T510 from EBay for about $200-250. Win 7 – great physical machine. Solid performance. If it fails, you swap in a new disk, or for catastrophic fail – new machine. At $250, it's not going to break the bank. [I've used TPads for a couple of decades, and their business class machines [T/R/X] are pretty serious tanks. I've rarely seen anything fail other than hard-disks and the occasional back-light.]

    -Greg

  41. says

    In response to jackn —

    I got my first laptop in middle school. It was a huge boon to my productivity, and also to my knowledge of the world. Hence, I completely disagree, although I will admit that it, perhaps, depends on the child in question.

    Furthermore, 'distractions,' helped build my knowledge and world view beyond what was available to me through school and so forth. Getting my hands on my own copy of 'Civilization,' (think it was III?) for example, sparked an interest in history. Reading 'The Hobbit' in second grade was a 'distraction,' but it sparked an interest in reading beyond what was curriculum material. Video games, is another, etc., etc.

    Anyway, my point is, 'distraction' can be the best thing. Don't do the knee jerk parenting thing!

  42. says

    Long time reader, long time lurker… For personal use, I'm an open-source guy using a 4 year old Toshiba netbook at home. We haven't used anything besides Kubuntu or Google Docs/Drive for years. So that "disclaimer" aside…

    At the school where I'm the Dir. of IT, we've been moving to Google Drive because all the kids have the same "Apps" (Documents, Sheets or Slides) whether they are at school, at home or wherever. And they all save to MS formats; either via email or downloading. And Google Cloud print works great at school, but home might be a bit tricky. That might matter for how your son hands in homework. None of our teachers have said anything about problems with kids using Google Drive.

    But, to make a suggestion, its quite personal. Like Dashiell said, choose what's easy for you to integrate into your life. Also, check with your school for their suggestions/policies/direction. Are they going to give kids Google accounts or Skydrive accounts? Do they have a BYOD or AUP policy that is more then just who can connect to the wireless?

    Good luck.

  43. cdru says

    @allenboyles

    There's no chance you'll lose anything since it's all stored in the cloud,

    Yeah, because nothing every gets lost in the cloud.

  44. Justin says

    It depends on his needs.

    Personally, I've moved over to using google docs for most things now. It's convenient, my documents are always accessible anywhere I have internet, which is basically anywhere now. Seriously, I was watching netflix on Shasta. I was playing on Facebook camped in the winter back country at Lassen. We checked in on Facebook on top of Mt. Conness.

    So, if he's just writing reports, and doesn't need all of the crazy features of MS Word, google docs is awesome.

    If the above is true, then what you need is a web browser. In that case, everything has a web browser.

    Then it's preference.

    If he'll always have internet, and has to have MS Office products, or the power of a PC, you can remote desktop to the PC from an Android or IOS, or obviously a Surface.

    I do this all the time. I'm a computer engineer, so I write software a lot, and need a very powerful computer for the development I do. It's nice to not be tied to my desktop, but my laptop isn't powerful enough for dev work, so I remote desktop from my laptop to my desktop, I get the portability of my laptop with the power of my desktop.

    I did a lot of work from a park a few weeks ago using my cell phone as my internet connection, RDPed to my desktop at home.

    The nice thing about surface pro is it's ultimately just an x86 computer, so it will run all of the software you already know and love, and you can dock it when at home and use it as a full computer. Surface RT is ARM, so different software.

    You can get him an Android phone/tablet, and have him dock it at home with a mouse, and keyboard and real monitor. You can do that with Surface too. I don't know about the latest iPhone, older versions, from what I've seen, didn't have an HDMI port, but maybe it's out of that magic single connection Apple provides.

    For most people, I think a cell phone is sufficient computer. Especially if you dock it.

    I could go on and on about this.

    Forget linux/Unix, who wants the hassle? If you're really worried about viruses we can talk about virtualization. It's got a lot of neat advantages.

    I believe you can see my e-mail, feel free to e-mail me directly, I can tell you about my home setup that allows me to RDP to my desktop from anywhere, and still keep my network secure, or tell you more about virtualization. I don't check these comments very often.

  45. efemmeral says

    Chromebook.
    1. His work will be stored in the cloud.
    2. The damage from loss or theft will be mitigated by #1.
    3. His work can be accessed through Chrome from any PC.
    3. Online apps will meet his needs.
    4. He'l have a full keyboard for writing.
    5. The battery can last six hours.
    6. It's slim and lightweight.
    7. It's not sexy enough to be confused for a gaming device.

  46. jackn says

    @Justin

    You wrote

    Forget linux/Unix, who wants the hassle? If you're really worried about viruses we can talk about virtualization. It's got a lot of neat advantages

    don't you mean, consider Linux/unix to reduce the hassle.

  47. jackn says

    @Dashiell M. Barlow

    It all sounds good until the report card comes (and the gamer's attitude surfaces). I agree though, It depends on the kid.

  48. TM says

    If it's just word processing on the go, go with whatever device you can find that will give you long battery life and has (or can take) a real keyboard and can export the document either to something he can share with others or print to a printer. That said, if there is any thought that this will become a primary homework machine, including tasks beyond word processing, then you probably want something more than a tablet simply to allow compatibility with the expected workflow.

    My personal suggestion would be a cheap netbook w/ windows (make sure it exceeds the minimum system requirements) or a macbook / macbook air. The benefits are general compatibility, will run Office if they really need to (unlikely that the school has requirements that exceed the capabilities of all but the simplest of word processors, but may require specific formats for electronic submissions) and when things go wrong, you can pay someone to fix it for you if you or your son are not inclined to fix it yourself.

    That said, if your son is at all computer inclined or the sort of person who likes to tinker with their tools, the cheapest and most educational option might me a netbook or cheap laptop running some form of Linux. Most of the *buntu's are easy enough to install and set up that you shouldn't have to learn anything really new to get it going, and learning to go from "what my computer does natively" to "what the teacher wants or needs" is certainly a skill that can come in handy in the future when your son is a poor broke college student and the teacher really really wants him to be using Word Super Extended Plus Edition With Gold Teeth Extension for submissions, and your son isn't keen on shelling out the cash for it when nothing other than the format requires it.

    As a final note, for what it's worth, I do not recommend the chromebook/google docs/cloud solution. Aside from obvious privacy concerns (if that sort of thing bothers you) the whole "It's on the cloud, you can't lose it" thing basically boils down to trusting that Google (or whoever) find storing your stuff to be a sufficiently profitable endeavor to maintain it properly and not shut it down with minimal to no notice. Whenever you hear "in the cloud" substitute it for "on someone else's computer" and then decide if you still like the idea. Not to say cloud things don't have their benefit, but it is offloading the responsibility of storage and backup to a third party.

  49. Peyote Short says

    Your readers are a good source of advice. I agree with most of them.

    Just for fun, might want to visit a refurbished computer store in your area. Last time I visited mine, they had computers that in a previous life were medical imaging machines with huge memory and excellent graphics cards.

    Reading your first paragraph, I though you were going to compare child #1 with hypothetical child #2 who writes everything in longhand in composition notebooks and who become Neil Gaiman and now you know the rest of the story….

  50. Nicholas Weaver says

    Agree with the vote for a 11" Macbook Air. Its inexpensive by Apple standards and it is, 100%, a real computer with a real keyboard.

  51. MC says

    I would recommend the Asus Transformer. I have one that I used as my netbook replacement and it really gives me the best of both worlds. It runs android and has a dock with extra ports (USB, full SD card, etc) with a real netbook style keyboard/trackpad for actual typing with nice feedback, and the dock has an extra battery to give it extra life. Plus when I just want the tablet, I push a button and I'm set. Also, if Windows is a must they just released a new version running x86 Windows 8 for about 400 bucks with the dock included. Win/win tablet and netbook in one!

  52. Linsider says

    I think, inferring from you post, the requirements for this device are following:
    -be portable
    -have Windows
    -have a keyboard

    So I would recommend one of those:

    ASUS X102BA netbook – it has Windows 8, a x86 processor (meaning it's normal Windows, not Windows RT), touch screen, and, logically, it also has a keyboard. I would say it's perfect for school assignments.

    If you want a tablet, then ASUS Transformer T100 seems to be a nice choice… It has the same Windows as the netbook above and a detachable keyboard. Its battery life is also significantly better.

    Chromebooks, I think, are a good choice too, but they are somehow limited compared to other devices. But maybe that doesn't matter at all.

    As about alternative with Linux – Linux is cool, but I think for a child like this and assuming his parents aren't into IT-stuff, it's better to use Windows simply out of convenience.

  53. jackn says

    @Nicholas Weaver

    Agree with the vote for a 11" Macbook Air. Its inexpensive by Apple standards and it is, 100%, a real computer with a real keyboard.

    That's a toy computer.

    For some, apple standards aren't good enough.

  54. says

    I'd get him a less-than-brand-new netbook because if all he needs is a word processor, a LTBN netbook will do that fine and it has a proper keyboard.

    The other factor is that he will try to play video games on it, no matter what you say on the subject, and he will be thus motivated to learn about the machine and computers in general. Some may call that evil; I call it Inspired Parenting. Heh.

    And under no circumstances are you to learn the OS on his machine. He modifies or breaks it? He fixes it, and in time to hand in the assignment he was tasked with.

  55. Bob says

    My daughter is in 7th grade, and her school issued all 7th graders iPads with bluetooth keyboards for the school year, for writing, note taking and other purposes. So far she likes using it, and from a parent's perspective it does seem to help her productivity vis pencil and paper.

    She also has a Mac for more substantial writing assignments, but the iPad with keyboard is cheaper, more portable, and has a better battery life than a Mac or Windows notebook.

    There are a million different options that will be reasonable (PC, Mac, Chromebook, Surface, iPad, etc, etc), so I'd suggest either coordinating with what you use in your life or with what your school uses either in current or future grades. Both phones and computers are relevant, so if you use iPhones but Windows PCs then an iPad may still be the best choice since they share apps. If you use all Android get an Android tablet, all Windows get a Surface, etc.

    Good luck!

  56. Simon says

    I suspect that the responses here will leave you with a lot more questions than you started with. My two cents as an owner of a Surface RT is that a Surface RT would be a decent computer to start a kid with; it has a real copy of Office on it, so you don't have to worry about compatibility with Office docs they work on at school (if that's what they use there), and it's pretty sturdy hardware. The Surface RT is a bit on the slowish side compared to the Surface 2, so that may be a point to consider. Also, it doesn't have nearly the selection of apps that iOS or Android has, but in your case that might be a selling point (he won't go loading it up with tons of distracting crap). You *won't* be able to put normal Windows desktop apps on it either, so if that's something you want, the Surface isn't what you want. Battery life isn't as good as a number of other tablets in this price range either, though it's still good enough to get you through a day on a single charge.

    Windows 8 RT also has parental controls built into it, so you can restrict what your kid does with the tablet at a fairly granular level, like what times he is allowed to use it, what apps he's allowed to run, what websites he's allowed to visit, etc: http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows-8/set-pc-limits

    That all said, if you don't care about MS Office compatibility as much, then just about any tablet paired with a bluetooth keyboard will do an adequate job for basic word processing.

  57. Justin says

    Ken, take note, the Surface you linked uses a Tegra (ARM) processor. You won't be able to take your current desktop software and run it on that Surface, at least not easily.

    And, to respond to the concern about google losing your data stored in the cloud. You can install the google drive program on your computer and have all of your files synced locally. You can download your files, in various formats, and back them up.

    I'd put it at highly unlikely google will suddenly, and without warning stop supporting drive, and delete all user data. They'd at least give people warning that they were shutting the service down, but if you're REALLY concerned, you can buy a google business account for $100/yr and pay for your storage.

    But there are horror stories of google losing all of someone's data. So, backups are always a good idea, no matter how you're storing the data.

  58. says

    @cdru

    Yeah, because nothing every gets lost in the cloud.

    Good point. I probably should clarify that your data is only as safe as the company keeping it, and shouldn't be considered private at all.

    At least with google you could use google-cl to automatically pull your stuff down to local storage every once in a while. Although that hasn't been updated in ages, so I'm not sure if it'll stick around much longer.

  59. Q says

    My main comment is that before considering a Chromebook, make sure that he would have access to 'the cloud' at school. Schools can have all kinds of unique ideas about exactly how and what parts of the internet they want students to access from school grounds. Remember, if everything is on the cloud, you can't lose it, but you can only get to it if you have internet access.

    For the record, I'd go with a real laptop/netbook/whatever they're called. If you want him to write, he's going to need a real keyboard.

  60. ShelbyC says

    Hopefully he hasn't seen the South Park where Cartman throws a tantrum when his mom won't get him and iPad.

  61. AlphaCentauri says

    Our kids had enough weight to carry around with textbooks; we had two desktops at home so they could both work, and they brought assignments back and forth on thumbdrives. They got laptops of their own to go off to college with, but they tended to brick them pretty quickly. They were used to more power and overtaxed the abilities of their laptops. I haven't heard either express regrets that they didn't have to rely on a laptop any earlier in their educations, but I hear lots of complaints about the laptops (and there have been more laptops than kids, due to theft).

  62. Nicholas Weaver says

    Jackn: I so enjoy your pointless Apple bashing. A+ for style.

    Unfortunately, you get a D for actual facts.

    The PC makers have a problem, they are in a death-spiral-race-to-the-bottom cheapening. As a consequence, it shows, as each maker tries to cut just one more corner than the competition, or add just one more monetization bloatware app.

    It used to be (back when IBM was still in the PC business), that you could buy a Thinkpad and get good build quality. Now its completely absent in the PC world.

    Only Apple, with the luxury of not having to compete on price in a mostly commodity market, has the ability to make sure to build to a good quality specification. If I needed a Windows laptop for work, it would be a Mac laptop with Windows installed onto it.

  63. C. S. P. Schofield says

    Non-Apple computers are better for people who want to be able to get at the guts of the code. Apple makes this harder than necessary. But 90%+ of all viruses released onto the internet are designed to target Windows machines, and of the remaining 10% or so, most are targeted at Unix of one kind or another.

    Yes, Apple computers are comparatively more expensive. They also last longer, and they don't run Windows (if you REALLY need Windows there are emulators). Since every Windows version I have ever had to deal with was buggy as hell, this is no trivial issue.

    But I'm not a techie. My Lady was one, before her health problems went critical, but if she wasn't working at the machine-code or high-level meta-programming levels, she preferred Macs, since they were so little bother.

    Most of the world uses Windows. That is not a trivial consideration. But there are also good reasons to use Macs, and if writing is what this computer needs to be for, a Mac would serve well.

  64. xtmar says

    @Nicholas Weaver

    Best computer I ever had was a 2010 Panasonic Toughbook CF-31 (CF-30?) running XP at the end of it's lifecycle. Infinite battery life, low system demands, high perfomance, screen relatively visible outside, and the computer itself was basically indestructible, thought it weighed to match.

    Also, in my (limited) experience, Apple laptops that don't open all the way (180deg) often get damaged just above the hinge point, which isn't usually fatal, but is a pain.

  65. Jim March says

    You want an older but still decent "business class" laptop as opposed to "consumer grade". You then run Linux on it to wake it the heck up.

    I recently spent $140 on a used Dell Lattitude E6400. It has a 1440×900 screen of 14.1", a great typist-grade keyboard and excellent durability. I then bumped the memory from 2gigs to 4gigs and added a 500gig hard disk out of parts I already had; if bought new figure another $120. I then put Ubuntu Linux on it of the "Kubuntu" flavor – highly recommended.

    (Technically, no, not exactly…because Linux is free, it doesn't care what motherboard/computer it's loaded onto…so I just yanked the 500gig drive I had in a laptop that died the previous day and plopped it into the Dell and everything just worked – same programs and data I had before.)

    One key thing: you want to use the Google Chrome web browser with it. Why? Because the only way to get the latest and greatest Flash Player for Linux is inside Chrome – Adobe has stopped all other Linux flash development.

    Ubuntu or Kubuntu will come with LibreOffice, the good modern clone of the MS "Office" series.

    Another great old durable-as-hell "business class" laptop is the IBM Thinkpad T61, available at similar prices. You want a "Core 2 Duo" class CPU and at least 4gigs RAM and it will haul butt…oh, and get one that has an NVidia video card in it instead of Intel. Linux runs much, much faster than any flavor of Windows, and the ability to transfer it from one laptop to another with two screws is just awesome.

  66. Bryan says

    First, check with your school system as to what they have for requirements or recommendations.

    We're not going to be using any solutions that involve me learning any computer languages.

    You can handle legalize, fear not. Computer languages are just more strict and have an even smaller set of words and valid sentence structures.

    On tablets. Either a good Android or iPad with an Apple Bluetooth Keyboard. Get a good padded slip cover to allow it to be carried inside a book bag.

    For nearly all note taking away from home I now use my tablet with a bluetooth keyboard. I have a couple older 10" Android tablets, and a bluetooth Logitech keyboard made for tablets. It works OK as a general keyboard, but physically is way to light for general use. I wouldn't want to write a book on it, but notes in class or at a meeting are fine. The Apple bluetooth keyboard is much much better, and I know some have used it with Androids. Get as much FLASH memory and RAM memory as you can afford to future proof it. I'm half and half on it having a memory card slot, but it must have USB host capabilities. Audio out via headphones is nice, but not needed. On the other hand, video out and the ability to play 1080P videos is really nice to have.

    Personally I'd suggest a netbook, or smaller laptop, but don't shell out for an ultra thin one unless it is highly ruggedized. Even then I'd think a cheaper netbook, and a cool mountain bike would be a better deal.

  67. Bob Brown says

    I agree with Greg S. Get a used T-series Thinkpad with Windows 7. Even though you buy this for writing, some "learn about computers" will take place, and that's good. If it's going to happen, might just as well be on the kind of computer (operating system, really) he's likely to use later.

    You will need a new battery for the used Thinkpad, so $50-80 for that. For WP, start with Libre Office (free.) If that doesn't cut it, either now or later, you can always spend $$$ on "real" MS Office. Before you buy Office 365, be sure you understand what you're getting. (Write if you want an ear full. And, you should probably be careful about buying anything that will not run "real" MS Office.)

    No matter what you get, buy an external USB drive for $100. Get one with bundled backup software. You will still have to hear the sad story of lost data, but only once. (Do not buy anything that cannot be backed up to a USB drive.)

    You will need to network-ify your home printer. (Do not buy anything that cannot print to a networked printer.)

    For software, check places like academicsuperstore.com.

    Have fun!

  68. MCB says

    Ken,

    I just purchased an HP Chromebook 11. I'm using it to post this. I am very picky about what I buy. The Chromebook 11 is a little low on CPU power but it is high on portability and, most importantly, has a very very nice screen. It should be perfect for word processing with google docs, which will be familiar to any word user. The keyboard is leagues ahead of what I have experienced with the surface tablet. For a lightweight word processing machine I don't know how you could do better.

    Also, because of google's limited OS, I don't know how you could find a device that is more secure. It will be next to impossible for someone to compromise your son's computer. Unless he does what I just did and enables developer mode (but, it will be very obvious if he does that).

  69. gbasden says

    I've been using the original Surface for about a year now, and I quite like it. My wife essentially stole it from me after about a month because of the portability and usefulness.

    Assuming that Office 2013 is acceptable for schoolwork, I think it would make a great student machine. The Type cover is definitely superior to the touch cover, but both are usable. I've written up multi-page documents with no issues. If needed, the machine can be hooked up to an external monitor and keyboard/mouse. Additionally, there is an SD card socket for additional storage.

  70. Rob says

    Sitting in my home office, using my spare desktop while my primary is updating itself, I am going to encourage you to have your son learn to use pen and paper to draft essays, and the home desktop for the final draft. I think that there is a lot to be said for writing drafts by hand, learning how to revise and organize thoughts before applying pen to paper.
    But if you really want hardware, I'd look at a chromebook on the lower end of the price range with Google Docs and a Lenovo 11s Yoga at the $700 range with LibreOffice. Lenovo's Yoga(s) are a pretty solid piece of hardware with windows 8.1, where they can be used as a tablet or small laptop. Windows 8.1 gets a lot of grief, but it is a pretty good operating system that transitions between a touch screen interface and a conventional windows desktop. The Yoga feels solid.
    Oh, and the surface (both the pro and RT) are very solid pieces of hardware. I'd avoid the RT because of the limited software which is unlikely to change. The pro is a windows 8.1 machine and will run anything that runs on windows. I have run across a couple of reviews that mention dropping a surface and not suffering any damage, I'd recommend not dropping it to start.
    First recommendation is to avoid a portable for a few years, learn to use pen and paper. Second would be a used laptop, lots of choices here (use ebay for a new battery). Third would be a chromebook,inexpensive to start with, will probably need to be replaced in 3 years or so. Fourth is a Lenovo Yoga laptop, nicely built, lasts the longest, costs the most.

  71. Palimpsest says

    I would think a laptop works better than a tablet for writing.
    However it's worth checking with the school if they have or are planning to get some programs that assume some particular brand of computer like windows or apple mac. At the very least, the teacher may have some preferred format to get documents in.

  72. gbasden says

    One other advantage of the Surface RT or Surface 2 over Android or iOS is the ability to connect directly to a printer. Pretty much any major printer can be hooked directly up to the USB port and the Surface recognizes it and has drivers. That has saved my bacon on a few occasions.

  73. Dragonmum says

    Ken, keep in mind one thing. If it is portable, he will break it . My younger son has bricked 3 (2 laptops and a netbook) and is is now limited to the home desktop and his smart phone.

    Tablets are hard to type on and too easy to turn into toys with multiple apps. They break. Many of them don't have HDMI or USB or sd card ports. (except my Toshiba Thrive. I like swimming upstream) They aren't a good investment for a 7th grader.

    I like the desktop in a public area idea, but sometimes you must go portable. Make it used, cheap,(he'll break it) & with a full-sized keyboard. Have it run win 7 ( that's what's in the "real" world) plus aggressive antivirus/spy/malware. Set him up on a user acct. If you aren't tech-savy, have a techy debug it weekly. I disagree with getting him a system not run by your other devices, but if you do Apple, you are committing yourself to more expense and more breakage. Trust me. My daughter is Apple-fied and my boys are PCs. Guess who's had to replace more laptops/ipads/iphones???

    Set up the parental controls. He will attempt to probably circumvent them. He will get up at night and search out porn. Will be a learning opportunity to teach how porn exploits women and leads to unrealistic expectations plus a a wonderful chance to have him learn to debug and de-virus a computer; "bad" sites are contagious.

    I also never let my kids take a computer into their bedrooms. Even on laptops, work happened in public spaces. Mean Dragonmum.

    Make sure you have enough memory/space for various freeware, open-source programs like OpenOffice and gimp, which will save you $ and him from the MSWord/Office/adobe monopoly. If typing gets difficult, get him dragon voice interface, so he can get his ideas down quickly and then shape his paper/book report/project from there.

    Back up everything. Remember, he will break it.

  74. Developer X says

    I really suggest something like the ASUS 1015E. You can get one for between 200 and 300 dollars, it's fairly durable and it also won't be the end of the world if it gets lost or damaged since its pretty cheap.

    Further, since it come with Ubuntu pre-installed and isn't powerful enough to run crazy new games he will have to learn a little more about computers (unlike Chrome OS, which will pretty much lock out everything but a web browser).

    He should have no trouble doing his schoolwork with Libre Office or Google Docs.

    I suggest reading the following just as food for thought: http://www.linuxtoday.com/infrastructure/i-raised-my-kids-on-the-command-line-and-they-love-it.html

    When you give kids iOS touch-screen devices and fancy app-based devices you are teaching them to be consumerist computer dependants, unable to understand or evaluate the risks or methods of technological function, let alone to create.

  75. dmather says

    For extensive word processing, my suggestion would be that you go with something that could support using a descent size keyboard. Yes the Surface can have a keyboard and it’s some what usable, but not very comfortable for extensive word processing (as is the case with many of the keyboards for tablets.) I just went through this process, looking for a tablet for my wife after her laptop died, my requirements were; USB port, microSD slot and Bluetooth capability. The USB port was so I could attach external storage and optical drives, the micoSD slot was so she could compliment the external storage (this allowed us to buy a cheaper tablet with less internal storage) and the Bluetooth capability was to allow a full size keyboard (and a mouse) to be used. Due to a closeout price at a local Stables, we chose an Acer Iconia W3, I had my smart phone with me and read all the negative review but I was using the demo machine while reading the reviews and I didn’t agree with many of the reviews, so we got it. I’m not recommending this machine, just letting you know why it was chosen, my wife wanted to use it for very similar reasons (or reason) that you state.
    Edit: It also has an HDMI port, I didn't care, but I guess some folks do.

  76. TM says

    @Rob

    Sitting in my home office, using my spare desktop while my primary is updating itself, I am going to encourage you to have your son learn to use pen and paper to draft essays, and the home desktop for the final draft. I think that there is a lot to be said for writing drafts by hand, learning how to revise and organize thoughts before applying pen to paper.

    Depends on the person. I always had both horrible penmanship, slow penmanship and would develop cramps from writing long form by hand. All of these combined to ensure that I was never any good at writing a paper until I could get in front of a keyboard. Even something as basic as a typewriter improved my writing tremendously simply by being a way of getting thoughts on to paper as fast as my brain could go (prior to learning to type, I would dictate my drafts to someone else just so that I could keep up with the thought train in my head).

    While the basics of learning to organize your thoughts are good things to learn, the tool with which you record and begin that process doesn't matter. It is no more helpful to write your drafts with pen and paper as opposed to a computer than it would be to write your drafts with quill, inkwell and parchment as opposed to a bic and a sheet of looseleaf. Technology marches on, and unless typing poses an active impediment to the writing process, it's best that the student use whichever tool allows them to write most naturally.

  77. wgering says

    I would agree with others who have mentioned a MacBook Air (budget permitting). I'll add that it would be very useful to set it up with BootCamp, as many schools use Windows-specific software.

    I've never used a Chromebook, but if it's possible to turn one into a Hackintosh, that would be good too.

    And for home computing, give him just enough garbage to build a semi-functional desktop. Bonus points for CRT monitors and cracked WinXP (or older) OS discs. Best way to learn.

  78. dmather says

    Correction to my post above: the microSD slot was so that the internal storage could be complimented.

  79. John Cleveland says

    @wgering

    Better solution for home: Give the kid an Ubuntu disk. No one needs to learn Windows anymore because very few companies use it at scale anymore. Unix is easier to learn than NT anyways.

  80. Anony Mouse says

    A Mead notebook and a package of Bics? With the money you save, you can also throw in a pocket dictionary.

  81. Aaron W says

    +1 on the Chromebook recommendation. Go with the new Acer C270 — it's got much better battery life and performance than the HP 11, which has a better screen but won't last through a school day without being plugged in.

    The Surface is a good choice if you want to give your child a soul-crushing device that looks like an iPad but can't actually do anything.

  82. Kathryn says

    I heartily support the notion of getting something with a real keyboard. I love my tablet, but it is a media consumption device not a productivity device. If the purpose of the device is to write, a real keyboard is pretty much a necessity.

    I have a soft spot for Chromebooks, as long as the school allows that sort of access and you're comfortable with Google having access to all your kids homework. (Google pretty much owns my soul, I back up from the cloud to my owned media every few months, but I don't create high value stuff outside of work to begin with)

  83. Erik H. says

    Don't get a tablet. Instead, get a small laptop and a version of MS Word. (Why Word? because it's the most common word processor by an enormous margin, and your kids may as well learn to use it.)

    Touch screens are relatively useless, especially for writing. It's hard to beat a well sharpened pencil for details; it's hard to beat paper as a writing surface.

    So: buy a cheap laptop. An NOS version is fine if he's only going to run MS Office. Don't "stretch" to buy up. You can always get him another one in a few years, by which point the money will buy much more.

  84. Shane says

    My wife has a surface RT. It has replaced her PC. It works well for the things that she does. She plays D&D with me and uses the free Excel spreadsheet up to modify and update here character. She uses bluetooth from her phone to watch Netflix. Generally she loves the mobility of it if only just around the house. Having the office suite is a bonus. The only thing that she didn't like was the keyboard. She hated the touch so I just bought her the "typing" keyboard. I also have a programmer friend that uses the full version, but she needs to install for real programs associated with her programming. She likes her Pro a lot and uses it all of the time. It is kinda surreal sitting in a mall converted to office space, leveling characters.

    The surface is much maligned, and I don't understand why. Windows 8 on a PC sux ass, but on the Surface it works well and intuitively. Granted you won't get the big apple logo to show everyone how smart you are but you will get a tablet that works and works well.

    EDIT:

    Also if there is Microsoft Store near where you live you can go there if you have questions about apps. or whatever. They WILL answer your questions and they won't charge you. They aren't pretty but they are friendly. To me that is a bonus.

  85. Eric W says

    I got a surface shortly after it came out, and I find it performs wonderfully for taking notes and relatively quick writing. I don't even mind the touch cover, although I would still recommend the type cover. It's light, it's slick, and a real USB port is a godsend.

  86. MCB says

    "+1 on the Chromebook recommendation. Go with the new Acer C270 — it's got much better battery life and performance than the HP 11, which has a better screen but won't last through a school day without being plugged in."

    This is the other option I was looking at. It really comes down to performance v. better screen and somewhat smaller package. In my view most of what I do, and most of what I think one does when doing word processing, is really reading. Reading things on a computer does not take much CPU. However, a nice screen makes a huge difference in my experience.

    The internals of the HP 11 are very marginal, though I have found them to be sufficient.

  87. jackn2 says

    @Nicholas Weaver
    I also enjoyed your meaningless retort. Heres something for your simple 'branded mind' to ponder

    Value = quality / cost

    Now, who determines quality in the equation above? Its you. If your desired qualities include 'Being an apple," then that is the best value for you. For others, their desired qualities may be more practical and not an image thing. For these people; hopefully, you can see, the value of apple is very low compared to other options.

  88. Jaime says

    I work in a public school. We just deployed HUNDREDS of chromebooks. I wish to assure you that they are a very viable tool IF you want to use online resources. For example, we have students doing extensive writing in Google Drive.

    My two cents: Ask three or more of his teachers how they accept homework. Then ask their IT dept. what tools the school supports and if that is expected to change in the next 2 or 3 years. (Predictions more than 3 years off in IT are pure speculation.)

    If they will accept things like Google Drive, PDF files, etc. then look into the Acer C720 ($200) or HP Chromebook 14 ($300). If they only accept Apple's iWork / Pages files, go with a Mac. If they only accept Word files and the school's IT dept. (yes, you really should ask them) says that is highly unlikely to change, get a low cost Windows 7 or 8 laptop in the $300-$500 range. Make sure it has at least 4GB of RAM, if you can help it. Windows requires more RAM to do the same things vs. Mac, iPad, Android, or Linux.

    Final note: The Surface is trying to be all things to all people. That makes it sub-optimal at all of those things. If you want to encourage and support writing, you MUST have a GOOD keyboard. Not just any keyboard, but a good one. And, in my humble opinion, a keyboard that is separate from the device (e.g. bluetooth keyboards and tables) are going to cause enough subtle problems that they'll discourage writing. When you're "in the zone" and your keyboard stops talking to the computer (e.g. dead battery or some kind of bluetooth issue), you'll lose your train of thought. It increases that sense of "friction" just enough to cause a student to have to fight to get back into "the zone" and they might not get back there.

    Whatever you decide, I wish you luck. Its good to see parents who care about the details for their kids at school.

  89. Matt says

    unless you require the windows OS to be accessible to your kids, I'd pretty strongly suggest the 2013 nexus or the new nexus 10 when it comes out in a few days.

  90. Jon says

    @troutwaxer : Slight problem with the pengpod — you can't actually buy one. All models are either "sold out" or "crowdfunding". Good concept, nonstarter in practice.

  91. Ron Larson says

    I agree about getting him a Google Chromebook. He is a kid. He is going to loose or break it soon enough. And if the purpose is writing, then he is going to need a keyboard. Tablets are essentially consumption devices, not creation devices. Yes, a tablet can be used for creation, but it isn't the best tool for the job.

  92. leslie says

    Ken: I got my kids the Acer 11.6 inch netbook. It is perfect for school work and fun stuff too. Light weight, but sturdy. At the Acer website it's $299. No No to Windows 8. Bad juju. Go for Windows 7.

  93. Aaron says

    So, not having to really read _any_ of the previous comments, I'll put out the idea of getting him a Baytrail tablet when they come out. Next generation version of the Atom, supposed to be reasonably powerful for general computing while still giving an pretty much all day battery life. Still should get a keyboard (either dock or Bluetooth) for any serious typing, but otherwise Win8 works reasonably well with the on screen keyboard. Plus it can run basically any x86 applications.

    Personally, I'm waiting until the next Lenovo Thinkpad Baytrail tablet comes out. I got the original one, and with the Wacom pen that slides into the edge it works amazing. I have an accurate, pressure sensitive pointer that I can use naturally when holding it as a tablet and even has a button to do a right-click. Plus you can do drawing & such, and the Win8 on screen keyboard does a pretty good job with handwriting recognition!

  94. Erwin says

    The only problem with the chromebook is that your wife may find it handy enough that she refuses to boot her windows laptop and that you may end up stealing the second one. Don't laugh. Happened to me. Seriously, for everything I do on laptops – perfect machine.

    –Erwin

  95. OngChotwI says

    I spent time during middle school going to the local college and learning programming languages.. (BASIC and Fortran). Had a job and spent a year's wages on an Apple II+ as a Freshman in '81. Loved programming.. learning 6502 assembly language (wrote my own assembly code to search for my character's name on the disk.. and figured out to bring the dead back to life.) Queue the "learning to program teaches you important lessons in logic, testing assumptions, etc." mantra.. I'd wholeheartedly agree with Clark's option for a virus free, internet free Apple //e to create homework on.

    But then.. I've worked in a school environment, and know that sometimes the teachers in the middle school want the documents turned in .. in electronic form. An Apple //e's 160?k 5.25" floppies are NOT an option.. and calling up a BBS to transfer a file from the //e and download it onto a modern machine is probably a deal killer. I've experienced "netbooks" with their tiny keyboards and tiny screens that annoyed me. (they kept falling off desks and a few got broke).

    I'd go for a cheap Win7 desktop, keyboard, monitor for my middle school relatives. If it has to be portable – I've had the best luck with the business class Dell notebooks (the Latitude line was a joy to use in large deployments) in the PC realm. I picked up a MacBook Pro a couple years ago to recover a client's Mac data, and have been impressed with it, although opting for Parallels with Windows or Bootcamp seems the way to open up all the options. (Local teachers loved video editing on the Macs, for example).

    Oh.. and I'd make my child/relative/etc EARN the device, so it's theirs, and gets treated with respect.

  96. says

    Microsoft? Seriously? You would support anti-consumer, anti-standard, anti-competition, anti-capitalism outlaws? The tens of billions of your tax dollars going to those incompetent, back-stabbing, big brother enabling assholes isn't enough?

    (BTW, each of the above adjectives describing Microsoft or Microsoft's behavior can be justified and supported by court documents still available via Groklaw's collection).

  97. says

    Resolute:

    I implied nothing. I asserted that which is provable.

    You obviously have never read any of the documents in the linked collection. Please provide evidence of any other modern era company employing equivalent anti-competitive, anti-standard, anti-consumer strategies and tactics which Microsoft has and continues to use. This exercise requires you to first educate yourself regarding Microsoft's history. Come back to me when you've done so and we'll talk. You can break it down by continent, if that makes it easier.

  98. Resolute says

    I am aware of Microsoft's history. I am also aware that the entire group are beating each other over the head in anti-competitive, anti-consumer patent litigation. Apple has a long history of price gouging, most recently with the eBook fix that it is about to get slapped down for. Google has the least-bad track record, but mostly because it is the youngest of the three, yet is still facing antitrust grief in numerous jurisdictions – even if it narrowly avoided such a suit in the US.

    The simple truth is, you're dealing with 'evil' no matter which way you go.

  99. says


    I am aware of Microsoft's history.

    And yet your comments reveal the opposite is true.


    I am also aware that the entire group are beating each other over the head in anti-competitive, anti-consumer patent litigation.

    No.

    The late Steve Jobs set Apple on the path of "thermonuclear war" against Android, reminiscent of Apple's look-and-feel lawsuit against Microsoft when Windows went GUI. Not his finest idea, in my opinion. This is why Apple is now the most litigious patent troll. It's not helping their image among consumers, but it is only peripherally "anti-consumer". It is anti-competitive only insofar as all patents are thus.


    Apple has a long history of price gouging, most recently with the eBook fix that it is about to get slapped down for.

    You confuse fixing and gouging. You can't price gouge unless you control an essential commodity.

    Apple has always charged what I consider to be outrageous prices, but I'm not their target customer. In spite of their litigious nature and their overpriced devices, Apple has a reputation — deserved or not, I couldn't say — for outstanding customer satisfaction and attention to detail.

    This is part of what makes your previous comment silly on its face: Apple has no monopoly (other than questionable patents) and no way to force consumers to use their products and yet they have a loyal (fanatical) base.


    Google has the least-bad track record, but mostly because it is the youngest of the three, yet is still facing antitrust grief in numerous jurisdictions – even if it narrowly avoided such a suit in the US.

    All of the anti-trust complaints filed against Google have come from Microsoft proxies. There is no Google monopoly. You are one mouse click away from avoiding dealing with Google.

    On the other hand, there are still millions of U.S. tax dollars spent every day attempting to translate old, incompatible Microsoft data formats into the latest ones just to preserve public records held in trust by various levels of government. The main purposes of the proliferation of these data formats were to create a barrier to entry for would-be competitors and to make it too expensive to convert to standard, open formats. Samba, openoffice.org, LibreOffice and the EC antitrust lawsuit have pried the cage door open somewhat in recent years.


    The simple truth is, you're dealing with 'evil' no matter which way you go.

    That depends on your definition of evil. Ask the Finns about Nokia and Microsoft. Or just read the histories of each company you mentioned, as revealed by findings of facts in court cases they've lost.
    You can ignore purchased news articles and just stick to facts.

  100. kayfox says

    You might not see this because its all the way down here, but Ive honestly found the AlphaSmart to be good for writing, like the TRS-80 model 101 of lore, its a small computer that does little except let you write text. Unlike the TRS-80, it was manufactured in vast quantities and has largely been abandoned by schools, but you can pick some up for cheap and they work well, a week on a set of AA batteries.

    It works well for writing with me because it only does that, no browser, no distractions, just you and what your writing.

    Now, it looks retro, at least the beige colored ones do, so it might not be that good of an idea for schoolchildren…

  101. EricE says

    I'd vote for a used iPad – the new iPad Airs and Minis are out and many will be upgrading and selling their old gear. Throw in a case with a bluetooth keyboard and you have a very capable computer. I no longer carry my laptop with me to meetings, just my Retina iPad with the Logitech Solar Keyboard Folio case and OmniOutliner (I love OmniOutliner!). I originally bought the Solar Folio case strictly because of the feel of it's keyboard. I like it more than my MacBook Pro keyboard and just about any keyboard I have used on PC laptops recently. I considered the solar charging more of a gimmick – until after about six months I realized I hadn't had to ever think about charging the keyboard like I had to with other bluetooth keyboards. Now I wouldn't consider a non-solar BT keyboard.

  102. Rob says

    Avoid any Windows distribution after Win7 at all costs. Chromebooks are nice, simple, and cheap. Presumably a college laptop is in his future, so simple and cheap is a Good Thing. Alternatively, an EeePC running Ubuntu or Linux Mint is simple and cheap.

  103. Erich says

    If it's not too late, I'd pass on the Chromebook. Google has a nasty habit of dropping support for products. It's bad enough for web apps, but your Chromebook could turn into a brick. As others have commented, PCs are a commodity product and there's a race to the bottom that tends to affect quality.

    I agree with those who recommend a refurbished 11" Macbook Air. The screen's small, but for word processing it's fine. Pages is free on new machines and I think $20 for older machines. Just make sure you don't get one with only 64GB storage.

  104. Pevinsghost says

    The Surface RT, while worse than useless to a techie like me, is great for a student since it comes with office. It's arguably better security wise since it can't run any malicious programs written for older versions of Windows too.

    Whatever you pick, a good bluetooth keyboard is a must. You and your child may switch devices a dozen times over the next few years, or stick with whatever you get now, but that keyboard will keep working regardless.

    For the keyboard, shopping from a site like Amazon with a good return policy, but better prices than brick and mortar is a good idea too. It can be a difference of half the price of the device, sometimes more.