One of the most frequent questions that we are asked at Digital Adventures is, ‘how do I pick a computer for my child?’ so that they can build with technology on their own. This is an important question and one that is more appropriate for a comprehensive guide so that parents and students can have easy access to this reference going forward. There are many key considerations that parents should understand when making this important decision. We will highlight both performance characteristics as well as the specific applications that your child may use his or her computer for. In addition, it’s important that different computers will be a better fit for different students. There are some students who will prioritize gaming. While there are others who will prefer mobility. Our goal is to deconstruct the what and the why of the different considerations so that you can make the best decision for your child.
Key Computer Characteristics
Memory In general, the more memory a computer has the faster it is able to get things done. This is because computers generally work on the principle of storing, reading and accessing information. One of the big benefits to computers is that they can essentially remember everything that is stored on them. Some of this memory is stored in such a way that it can be accessed quickly. And, other information is placed into more of a long term storage type of memory. The amount of information the computer can store in the short term and long term memory is what helps determine how quickly the computer can do what the programs and applications are requesting. A helpful way to think about this is needing to know the names of those you are having a meeting with (short term storage) vs needing to know the names of those you went to high school with (long term storage). While you may occasionally need to reference a high school classmate during a work meeting, it is safe for the computer to store this information in long term storage and for the access to be slower.
Recommended Memory Range: 4GB-16GB RAM, 128GB-256GB Hard Drive
In a computer, the microprocessor is also called the central processing unit (CPU). Typically, this computation engine that powers a computers is fabricated onto a single chip. There are 3 key tasks that a microprocessor performs: (1) mathematical operations, (2) moving data from one memory location to another and (3) make decisions and move to a new set of instructions based on those decisions. Two of the most well-known companies that design, develop and produce microprocessors are Intel & AMD. The key performance characteristics of microprocessors are the speed, power consumption and graphics rendering. You will often see the specifications for a microprocessor listed in GHZ. This is a measure of how fast the microprocessor performs the 3 key tasks listed above. In general, Intel microprocessors are more expensive than similarly specification AMD microprocessors.
Recommended Microprocessor Speed: 2.3GHZ or higher
Operating System The operating system is what manages the software and hardware on the computer. The different applications and programs that run on a computer are competing for memory, storage & CPU resources. It’s up to the operating system to determine which request for resources is prioritized vs being placed in the queue for a later time. On occasion, this doesn’t quite work properly and the application you are attempting to use can crash. One of the main differences is the the Microsoft Operating System can be utilized on a variety of different hardware devices (Dell, HP, etc..) while the Apple Operating System can only be used on Apple hardware. Beyond the utility of the operating system, the support of the engineering and development community is ultimately essential to the success of an operating system. Both Microsoft and Apple are well-respected and regarded amongst developers. And, both have developed their own unique programming studios to facilitate programs and applications that can be utilized on their platforms.
Microsoft - This technology company is widely known for popularizing the graphic user interface (GUI) that was initially invented in the Xerox Palo Alto Research lab. This intuitive design has users open/close a series of ‘windows’ to access files. Microsoft went on to launch word processing (Word), computation (Excel), presentation ((Powerpoint) and browser (Explorer) software.
Apple - This technology company is considered vertically integrated which means that they produce both the hardware and the software for the device. Apple also has a large ecosystem of devices from the iPhone to the iPad that easily integrate with each other. Apple’s hardware knowledge has also led many to believe that their devices are less susceptible to viruses and crashing. Apple computers tend to be more expensive then their PC counterparts. However, there are many consumers who are passionate that Apple is a superior computing platform.
Recommended OS: Apple or Windows (personal preference based on other devices in home ecosystem)
Computer Form Factors Now that we have an understanding of the different components of a computer. There are also a variety of form factors that you can choose from.
Desktop - When considering computers, the desktop typically offers the most value. With a desktop, there is simply more space for the memory, storage and CPU. And since, the device runs on a power supply, battery power does not have to be included. As a result, device manufacturers do not have to figure out how to miniaturize the key components. The key tradeoff is that desktops are not mobile. If your child will need to use the device at both home and school, then a desktop computer will not be an option.
Laptop - A laptop is typically more expensive than a desktop because the manufacturer has to fit the computer essentials (memory, storage and CPU) into a smaller, lightweight form factor. As a result, there is more systems and design engineering involved. You also have to economize for power consumption because customers typically have an expectation for the battery to last a full day without needing a charge. On the other hand, this additional product development effort enables the device to be mobile which can be very convenient if your child will need their device at home and at school. If you child will be carrying their laptop to school everyday and to/from their extracurricular activities in addition to their schoolbooks, a lighter weight laptop can make a big difference and reduce the stress on their bodies.
Tablet - While tablets do have many of the same characteristics as laptops and desktops, these devices were more designed for entertainment applications versus computing. In addition, the lack of a full-sized keyboard on these devices limits their ability to truly develop one of the fundamental skills of technology development - typing. Over the next several years, the innovation within the miniaturization of microprocessors and memory will continue to have these devices gain traction as a viable format for many basic computing functions. However, while we are awaiting this product development, it is best to select either a desktop or laptop for your child.
Recommended Form Factor: Desktop or Laptop
Internet/Email -With a browser for Microsoft (Explorer), Google (Chrome) or Apple (Safari), your child can access the world wide web. Internet browsers are lightweight enough to run on mobile phones without too much additional processing. Other popular features like email are server-based which means that they require a very minimal amount of computing resources. However, in recent years, one of the key behavioral characteristics of internet browsing is the use of multiple tabs. As the number of tabs increases, a greater load is placed on computing resources. If you have seen your child utilize multiple tabs in their current usage of the internet, it would be wise to make sure that the computer you select has enough computing resources to manage the load.
Gaming - In addition to constructive applications like research, design and programming, there is also a desire to utilize these powerful devices for gaming. In fact, e-sports is one of the fastest growing activities for kids. Most gaming applications are very resource heavy requiring high quality video cards, large memory, and powerful CPU’s. Because of the high load that gaming applications require, there is also a need to provide keep these machines cool during usage. As you can imagine from the form factor discussion above, a desktop will have more capacity to not only house the larger computing resources but also more efficient cooling fans and systems.
Coding & Programming - Many of the popular hardware and software platforms (Lego Robotics, Construct & Unity) that teach coding and engineering design are lightweight. While they don’t necessarily run on devices, these platforms don’t require a ton of computing resources to run. And since they have integrated both the compilation and execution into the same program, you don’t have to run additional steps to see if your project works. As they move on to text-based programming like Python or Ruby on Rails, the editor and compiler won’t require lots of additional computing load until they are building more complicated projects.
Design - Similar to the coding and engineering design applications, designed based programs like iMovie and Photoshop do not require a ton of computing resources to execute. For graphic design work like image modification or creating giphy-style animations, most computers will be just fine. From a resources standpoint, movie-making tends to require more memory resources to save the final product. So, while iMovie can run on your Apple device, you need to make sure that there is enough memory to save your child’s library of visual creations. If your child prefers to work with iMovie, then you will be limited with a PC as Apple does not offer a Windows-based version of this software.
Photos - One of the most popular applications for kids is taking and sharing photos with their friends. While this is simply the digital version of the Polaroid camera from years ago, there is no doubt that young people want to keep up with and track of their photos. Depending on which device was used to take the picture, most computers that are available for sell will have more than any storage capacity for their pictures.
3D Modeling - Another web-based resource that is popular with kids is 3D modeling. Most programs that offer this functionality are lightweight and can be accessed via the web. The files that provide the instructions to the 3D printer are also fairly small especially for the model sizes that your child will ultimately print. So, you will not be limited in any way with their ability to 3D model.
Cryptocurrency Mining - Although home based cryptocurrency mining is no longer as profitable as it once was. Having your child utilize their computer so that they can learning about this emerging technology is something that there can be a ton of utility gained even if they aren’t able to earn their college tuition through mining. Similar to gaming, cryptocurrency mining is extremely resource intensive and will require heavy computing resources to solve the complicated mathematical equations to verify the transactions. In addition, depending on the type of cryptocurrency that they plan to mine, different graphic cards are required. Due to the tremendous popularity, there can be extremely long lead times on these components. Another key consideration, is that cryptocurrency mining is very power hungry and will likely spike your home energy bills. Mining also generates a lot of heat, so you will need to keep the computer cool so it doesn’t overheat. If your child has an interest in this, it may make more sense to setup a separate cryptocurrency mining rig that is completely dedicated to this specific application.
- Given their ability to communicate with anyone that has an internet connection. It is important that their computer security is given top priority. We’ve provided a 3 part guide entitled ‘Keeping Your Kids Safe Online’ - Part 1
, Part 2
and Part 3
that will assist parents in taking the right precautions to with make sure that your child is safe when using their computer.
It is key to understand that there will be tradeoffs between the computer you ultimately choose for your child. This guide is intended to give you the key considerations from a build with technology standpoint. In the Digital Adventures learning studios, we use iMac’s to take advantage of some of the software programs that are utilized on these devices. However, we also utilize Parallels so that we can take advantage of the Windows operating system for some of our video game design curriculum. And since we do not need devices that excel at gaming, this computing environment has worked well for us.