If you’re thinking about buying a new computer for your child in the January sales, the chances are that a laptop is at top of the list.
An Android tablet like the Tesco Hudl may be cheaper, but it won’t be much use for schoolwork – and the same applies to a smartphone.
But with so many different laptops to choose from, how do you decide which one is the best for your child’s education? Do you want a big hard disk, or is more memory important? Is Windows 8 the right way forward, or should you plump for an Apple MacBook?
For answers to these and many other questions, read on.
Step 1: Talk to the school
Of course you might not be considering buying a laptop specifically to support your child’s educational progress, but it makes sense to have a chat with a teacher or IT head.
Ask what kinds of technology the school itself uses and how best to complement it at home with your own purchase.
Don’t consider their advice as absolute. What the school fancies and what’s a good buy can be two different things – but it’s a good starting point.
Step 2: Talk to your child
Obviously if your child is a toddler then asking them what they want from a laptop is likely to result in a raspberry followed by giggles, but do discuss the matter with older kids.
If they already have an Apple iPhone or iPad, for example, then there could be good practical reasons to buy a MacBook rather than a Windows PC, say.
And let’s face it: kids are often more clued-up than are their elders, so your offspring might be a convenient source of good advice when it comes to computing.
Step 3: Decide the platform
By ‘platform’ we mean the operating system software that makes the computer ready to do useful stuff. For many years the question of a laptop’s operating system was barely a concern – it was pretty much Windows all the way.
However, that’s certainly changed in recent times, with Apple’s huge success with portable devices like the iPad and iPhone make Macs a practical and sensible choice for many.
But the cheapest Mac laptops are more expensive than Windows laptops, so they may not be the best choice for younger children.
Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system got off to a rocky start, but the free Windows 8.1 update fixed many of its more pressing problems.
Windows remains the most popular platform for productivity programs, such as Microsoft Office, but the same or similar applications are generally available for Macs.
Step 4: Don’t fret (too much) about specs
You could spend a long while deliberating over countless specifications, or ‘specs’. But we’ll make it easy for you: don’t worry too much because even cheaper Windows PCs and Macs are suitable for everyday tasks.
If you want a simple checklist, aim for a laptop with an Intel Core i3, i5 or i7 processor (think 'good', 'better' and 'best'), 4GB of memory (also called RAM) and 500GB of storage space. Hard disk drive (HDD) storage is cheaper but solid-state drives (SSDs) are much faster.
If you have to compromise for budgetary reasons, choose less hard disk space (it’s cheap and relatively straightforward to add more storage later, but replacing a laptop processor is generally impractical).
Step 5: Don’t get touchy
While Windows 8 is designed with touchscreen computers in mind, don’t be fooled into thinking this is a necessary specification for a laptop.
While it’s certainly a little easier to navigate Windows 8 with a touchscreen, the operating system can be used with a keyboard and mouse (or touchpad, which almost all laptops have built in) – and just as well for the most part.
So, for example, if your budget means choosing between a laptop with a touchscreen or a similar model that lacks a touchscreen but has a faster processor and more memory, we’d say hands off the touchscreen.
Apple doesn’t currently sell touchscreen MacBooks, so there’s nothing to consider here.
Step 6: Consider size, weight and battery life
While specifications do need a little consideration, don’t overlook practical matters.
For instance, cheap laptops tend to be bigger and bulkier than more expensive models. That’s fine if the laptop is destined to sit at home but less so if your child is expected to lug the thing to school in their satchel on a daily basis.
Then, battery life. Cheaper laptops might keep going for three or four hours if you’re lucky. Meanwhile, today’s best laptops can keep going for 10 or more hours on a single charge – handy for long car journeys, for example.
Unless you’re Loadsamoney, the answer is compromise: you might choose to forgo some technical specifications (see Step 4) for a lighter load, or accept that bulk is likely to buy better performance at a lower price.