The question of whether (and when) to buy your son or daughter a smartphone is fraught with concerns about responsibility, online safety, and more. The same goes for buying a laptop, except for one very important difference: Many primary and secondary schools consider it an essential educational tool, and equip classrooms with machines for their students. Other schools require parents to purchase laptops, offering a selection of recommended models.
The result is that your child may need to use a laptop at school or at school whether he likes it or not, especially in these uncertain times that may necessitate distance learning. After all, they will almost certainly want to use that computer at home too, both for fun (texting their friends, watching videos, playing Fortnite) and homework (searching for information, typing book reports).
Children being children, the list of factors to consider does not end there. Don’t forget about the parental controls, durable plastic, and waterproof keyboard. At least you don’t have to worry about the cost. Buying a kid-friendly laptop doesn’t have to cost money—all the models we recommend cost less than $700, and most are under $500—and the even better news is that just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean it has to be slow or poorly made.
Our focus here is on young people. If your child is at university level, check out our roundup of the best laptops for college students. And you’ll find more options in our overall roundup of the best budget laptops. Also check out our top picks for the best Chromebooks for kids to learn more about Chrome OS issues and educational aspects, especially for the lower classes.
If your child is also of the age who might want to play PC games on the same machine they will use for schoolwork, that is another set of considerations. We’ll cover that in the section towards the end of this article, but be aware that gaming machines are more expensive than our other options here.
Which Operating System is Best?
Before you start evaluating features, you’ll start with an important question that has plagued PC buyers for decades: Which operating system should I choose?
This is not a Mac vs. Old Windows. New Apple laptops aren’t available for less than $500—not even close. The MacBook Air, Apple’s cheapest notebook, starts at $999 and is still too expensive for an elementary or high school student. If you’re an Apple fan and want to raise your son or daughter to be an Apple fan too, it’s a good idea to give them a hand and buy yourself a new MacBook or MacBook Pro.
Aside from a reused Mac, most parents will choose between Windows and Chrome OS, the operating system from Google. In addition to running web applications within the Chrome browser, Chrome OS can also run app from Google Play store designed for Android smartphones and tablets, including Microsoft Office. If you decide not to buy a smartphone for your kids but they are eavesdropping on your desire to play mobile games, buying a Chromebook might be a good compromise.
Windows 10 and Windows 11 have also become more useful for kid-oriented laptops thanks to S Mode, which is aimed at the education market and, among other security improvements, prevents apps from being installed unless available in the Microsoft Store. This means you have the ability to block games and apps based on their content rating (something you can also do with the Google Play app). As your son or daughter grows older and more responsible, you can easily upgrade to a full version of Windows to remove this limitation.
If your child’s school has special software that only runs on Windows, your choice of operating system will be determined for you. Otherwise, you should take a closer look at Chrome OS, as some Chromebooks include very kid-friendly features (like an easy-to-grip cover, or a screen cover that doubles as a whiteboard). Again, check out the Chromebook story for kids to find out more about the specs surrounding this OS.
Built for Backpacks: Assessing Ruggedness
Unique features like these are what turn an ordinary cheap laptop into a school-friendly machine that won’t be too bulky or crushed by kids in a few months. Arguably the most important is how rugged the case is.
Some inexpensive Chromebooks and Windows laptops have spill-resistant keyboards, meaning they should survive splashing water without injury. It’s much rarer to find an entire laptop that’s waterproof; rugged ones (models like Panasonic’s Toughbook line or Dell’s Latitude Rugged Extremes) usually cost a few thousand dollars and aren’t aimed at kids at all, but rather outdoor workers or shop floor professions. Likewise, it’s relatively easy to find a reinforced lid or case made of rubber to help absorb drips from a few feet, but you won’t find a completely sturdy machine anywhere near this price range.
Portability is another major concern, especially for middle and high school students who walk to school with backpacks laden with heavy textbooks. Most laptops in this category with screen sizes from 11 inches to 13 inches weigh around 2.5 pounds. Go above 3 pounds, and you really put a strain on your child’s shoulders.
Battery life matters, too, but that’s no longer the limiting factor that rendered laptops a decade ago useless if they spent more than a few hours away from a power outlet. Even some of the cheapest laptops now boast around 10 hours on the PCMag battery test, thanks in large part to the power-draining Intel processors.
What Specifications Should My Child’s Laptop Have?
The final consideration is how your kids will use the laptop, which in turn determines the processor, storage, and memory configuration you should choose. Tasks such as taking notes, writing handouts, or creating PowerPoint slides require less than the minimum amount, meaning an Intel Celeron or Pentium processor will suffice; some budget Chromebook models now also use AMD or MediaTek mobile processors. These are collectively the lowest performance levels in a budget laptop. (An exception to that: AMD’s Ryzen C series chips, a much fresher AMD processor built specifically for Chromebooks.)
The next step is the Intel Core i3, which you should consider if your child’s teacher regularly asks them to stream educational videos online. An Intel Core i5 or i7 is almost impossible to find on a laptop or Chromebook that costs around $300.
If you’re opting for a more powerful processor so your kids can stream video, you might also want to consider a convertible or detachable 2-in-1 laptop, which can double as a tablet thanks to a hinge that rotates 360 degrees, or a screen that flips over. completely detached from the keyboard base. Most hybrids and convertibles are more expensive than the price ranges we’ve discussed so far, but you can find some high-quality models for less than $500. This is best for kids of middle school age or older, as these machines are inherently less durable than conventional laptops.
As for memory and storage, the common minimum configuration is 4GB RAM and 64GB flash memory. The amount (memory) was previously sufficient in budget Chromebooks but minimal on Windows machines; 8GB is really the best base for anything running Windows. You’ll definitely want to consider increasing the storage capacity to 128GB, as operating system files on a Windows PC can take up more than 20GB, leaving your child with a tiny 40GB of internal storage.
The exception is if you choose a laptop that has a roomier but slower spinning hard drive (and is more fragile), or one that has a built-in SD card reader. (However, hard drives have almost disappeared from Chromebooks, except for some older models.) In the latter case, you can stick with the basic configuration and ask your kids to store larger files on the SD card if needed, which you can buy at Capacity. 32GB for about $20 each.
Time for Fun: What About Graphics and Games?
Just because you choose between a relatively slow processor and limited memory capacity doesn’t mean that playing games is impossible while your child is finishing his schoolwork. Some games, of course, are even educational. For example, Microsoft has an educational version of the very popular open world construction game Minecraft. Students can use it to explore real-world history like the Oregon Trail, solve math problems as they begin to understand how long and challenging the trail can be, research fur trading companies to learn the economic concepts of monopoly and supply and demand, and more.
Minecraft and other similar games will run on a Core i3 system with just 4GB of RAM, but if your kid wants to play it, you’ll make the experience that much more enjoyable by choosing a laptop with 8GB. If your child is planning to play more intense games, you should upgrade the power and price to a full-fledged gaming laptop or gaming desktop. This is a laptop with a dedicated graphics chip, which will be named GeForce GTX, GeForce RTX, or Radeon RX.
You won’t find a current generation of gaming laptops for less than $700. However, $750 to $800 is really on-ramp for machines with a decent GeForce or Radeon dedicated graphics chip for gaming, and prices go up quickly from there as you add features and power. However, most kids will settle for a budget model under $1,000. (See our guide to budget gaming machines.)
So, Which Laptop Should I Buy for My Child?
Giving your son or daughter a laptop gives them a very powerful portal to the internet, even if the laptop itself may not be the most powerful you can buy. It’s up to you (and your children’s teacher) to make sure the tool is harmless. Fortunately, Chromebooks and Windows laptops feature parental controls, and the size of laptops relative to smartphones makes it easy to monitor activity and set ground rules like banning computer use after homework is done.
Check out our top picks for laptops designed for school-age kids below. You can also check out our roundup of our favorite tablets for kids, as well as our best phones for kids.