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Tips on Buying a Computer for Your Child

If you're a parent who's thinking about buying a computer, you can rest assured that the process isn't rocket science. It's not even computer science. Whether your child is a youngster, 'tweener, or teenager, this quick guide will help you make an informed purchase — and help you make sure the computer is put to good, and appropriate, use once it's in your home.

Young children

According to Jorian Clarke, founder and CEO of KidsCom.com and KidsComJr., the classic error parents make with this age group is "buying the latest and greatest machine."

Kids in the 3– to 9–year–old age range, says Clarke, don't need a top–of–line machine — and they certainly don't need a laptop. They'll primarily be using CD–ROM software that demands little memory or hard drive space.

Mark Guzdial, an Associate Professor of Computing at Georgia Tech who likes his six–year–old daughter to see "herself as a producer of media, not just a consumer", says she "thinks recording herself and writing her own music to a CD is the coolest thing in the world."

Instead of buying as much memory as possible, then, consider looking for such peripherals as a built–in DVD drive (for watching movies) and CD–RW drive (for burning CDs).

Don't forget: Young children should be chaperoned while surfing the Internet. Also, the likelihood of accidents and spills involving this age group is high, say Jorian Clarke (and spills, of course, can cause irreparable damage to the computer's keyboard or CPU). In addition to buying a basic desktop computer, then, you might not want to keep your finances and important documents on the same machine. For this reason, many Americans now have "multi–computer" homes.

'Tweens and teenagers

First, consider what kind of computer your child is using at school. Purchasing the same computer (or at least a similar one) will enable children to complete their homework more quickly and to reinforce what they've learned at school.

If your child uses a computer for Word processing, email, or for the Internet, then a basic or mid–range desktop computer will suit their needs just fine.

Kids in this age group who play complex CD–ROM or online video games, on the other hand, will probably need at least a 64MB video card (for exact specifications, check the back of box on the kind of software your child would like to play). They'll also need a CRT (instead of an LCD) computer monitor with good to great resolution (from 1920x1440 pixels to 2048x1536 pixels, for instance), and a decent–sized screen (19 inches or more).

Don't forget: Most 'tween and teens will consider a CD burner (CD–RW drive) a must–have. You can either buy a computer with a burner that's built–in, or you can buy one separately that connects to a computer's 3.5" drive bay, USB, parallel or FireWire port. Also, if your teenager is a junior or senior in high school, you might want to consider buying a laptop.

Children heading off to college

Some colleges require incoming students to purchase a laptop, and it's not surprising why. Students can carry them to class and use them to take notes or exams and, at some schools, to access a free, wireless Internet on campus. (Note: Requires wireless Internet service on campus. If the laptop does not come with an Airport card or a wireless PC card (NIC), then one will have to be purchased separately.)

As Jorian Clarke is quick to point out, however, the "convergence game" is becoming more of an issue for college kids. In other words, as handhelds and cell phones are being collapsed into one device that also can perform Word processing, some "super wired" students may prefer using a handheld and a portable, foldout keyboard to take notes in class. In their dorm room, then, they can work on a conventional desktop computer.

If you do purchase a desktop computer for a college student, keep in mind that they'll likely spend several hours looking at a computer monitor. While often a bit more expensive, an LCD monitor (standard on laptops), reduces eyestrain and emits less radiation.

Don't forget: Most kids will want a DVD/CD–RW drive, which will let them watch DVD movies and burn their own CDs. You can add a DVD–R drive, which will let them make their own CDs and DVDs.

Usage tips and what to remember when buying for any age group

  • Put the computer in a common room (such as a den or the family room), where you can make sure your kids aren't stumbling across or visiting lurid Web sites.
  • A related strategy is to create a folder of favorite (e.g. approved) Web sites. This way, your kids will go directly to this folder, rather than surfing or typing in the Internet address field.
  • Buy software (such as Net Nanny) that will block access to objectionable Internet sites.
  • Since broadband Internet access (DSL, cable, satellite) allows for faster online research and can ultimately reduce the number of hours a child spends sitting in front of a computer, Jorian Clarke recommends "buying a mid–price computer and using those extra dollars for better Internet access." Or, she says, you can put those extra dollars into other tech tools (a digital camera, scanner, CD burning drive, or DVD burning drive), all of which can stretch and flex your child's creativity. (Click here to see thirdy–party broadband Internet access offered through Staples.)


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