The question of whether (and when) to buy your son or daughter a smartphone is fraught with concerns over responsibility, online safety, and much more. The same goes for buying a laptop, except for one very important difference: Many elementary and middle schools consider them essential educational tools, and equip classrooms with machines for their students. Other schools require parents to purchase laptops, offering a selection of recommended models.
Their effectiveness at improving learning is up for debate, but the upshot is that your kid might need to use a laptop at school or for school whether you like it or not, especially in these uncertain times that may mandate distance learning. Regardless, they will almost certainly want to use it at home, too, both for fun (messaging their friends, watching videos, playing Fortnite) and homework (looking up information, typing book reports).
Kids being kids, the list of factors to consider doesn’t end there. Don’t forget about parental controls, durable plastic, and water-resistant keyboards. At least you won’t have to worry about the cost. Buying a kid-friendly laptop need not break the bank—all of our recommended models cost less than $700, and most are well under $500—and the even better news is that just because they’re inexpensive doesn’t mean that they are necessarily slow or poorly made.
Our focus here is on younger kids. If your child is at the university level, check out our roundup of the best laptops for college students. And you’ll find even more choices in our overall roundup of the best budget laptops. Also check our top picks for the best Chromebooks for kids for more on Chrome OS concerns and education aspects, especially for the lower grades.
Before you begin to evaluate features, you’ll start with the essential question that has plagued PC shoppers for decades: Which operating system should I choose?
This is not the Mac vs. Windows debate of old. New Apple laptops aren’t available for less than $500—not even close. The least-expensive Mac laptop, the MacBook Air, starts at $999 and is still overkill for an elementary- or middle-school student. If you’re an Apple fan and want to raise your son or daughter to be one too, you’re best off giving them a hand-me-down and buying a new MacBook or MacBook Pro for yourself.
Reused Macs aside, most parents will choose between Windows 10 and Chrome OS, the operating system from Google. In addition to running web apps within the Chrome browser, Chrome OS can also run apps from the Google Play store designed for Android smartphones and tablets, including Microsoft Office. If you’ve decided against buying a smartphone for your kids but they talk your ear off about wanting to play mobile games, buying a Chromebook might be a good compromise.
Windows 10 has also become more useful as an operating system for kid-oriented laptops thanks to the Windows 10 S Mode, which is aimed at the education market and, among other security enhancements, prevents apps from being installed unless they’re available on the Microsoft Store. This means you’ve got the ability to block games and apps based on their content ratings (something you can also do with Google Play apps). When your son or daughter gets older and more responsible, you can easily upgrade to the full version of Windows 10 to remove these limitations.
Chromebooks-for-kids story referenced earlier for more on the specifics around this OS.
Unique features like these are what transforms an ordinary cheap laptop into a school-friendly machine that kids won’t outgrow or destroy in a few months. Arguably the most important is how rugged the case is.
A few Chromebooks and inexpensive Windows laptops have spill-resistant keyboards, which means that they should survive splashing with an ounce or so of water unscathed. It’s much rarer to find entire laptops that are waterproof; the ones that are (models like Panasonic’s Toughbook line or Dell’s Latitude Rugged Extremes) typically cost several thousand dollars and aren’t geared toward kids at all, but rather workers in outdoors or shop-floor professions. Likewise, it’s relatively easy to find reinforced lids or cases made of rubber to help absorb drops from a few feet, but you just won’t find fully ruggedized machines anywhere close to this price range.
What Specs 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 configurations you should select. Tasks such as taking notes, writing papers, or making PowerPoint slides require little more than the bare minimum, which means that an Intel Celeron or Pentium processor will suffice; a few budget Chromebook models now also use AMD or MediaTek mobile processors. These collectively are the lowest performance tier in budget laptops.
The next step up is an Intel Core i3, which you should consider if your kid’s teachers regularly have them stream online educational videos. An Intel Core i5 or i7 is all but impossible to find on a laptop or Chromebook that costs about $300.
If you opt for a more powerful processor so your kids can stream videos, you might also want to consider a 2-in-1 convertible or detachable laptop, which can double as a tablet thanks to a hinge that rotates 360 degrees, or a screen that detaches completely from the keyboard base. Most hybrids and convertibles are more expensive than the price range we’ve discussed to this point, but you can find a few high-quality models for less than $500, in lines such as Microsoft’s Surface and Asus’ VivoBook. These are best for middle-school-age children or older, since these machines are by nature less durable than a conventional laptop.
Time for Fun: What About Graphics and Games?
Just because you’re selecting from among relatively slow processors and limited memory capacities doesn’t mean that gaming is out of the question when your kid is done with his or her schoolwork. Some games are, of course, even educational. For instance, Microsoft has an education version of its immensely popular open-world construction game Minecraft. Students can use it to explore real-world history like the Oregon Trail, solving math problems as they begin to understand how long and challenging the trail was, researching fur-trading companies to learn about the economic concepts of monopolies and supply and demand, and more.
gaming laptop or gaming desktop. You won’t find current-generation gaming laptops for less than $650; $750 to $800 is really the on-ramp for machines with game-worthy GeForce GTX dedicated graphics chips. (See our guide to budget gaming machines.)
Giving your son or daughter a laptop endows them with a portal into the immensely powerful internet, even if the laptop itself may not be all that potent. It’s up to you (and your kids’ teachers) to make sure that tool isn’t harmful. Fortunately, both Chromebooks and Windows laptops have parental control features, and a laptop’s size relative to a smartphone makes it easier to both monitor activity and set ground rules like disallowing computer use after homework is finished.
The Best For a Big Screen and Playful Color Choices
Asus VivoBook S15 (S533)
The Best For Digital Art Projects
Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 5 14
The Best For Older Kids Comfortable With Chrome OS
Acer Chromebook 514
The Best For Classroom Augmented Reality, Digital Sketching
Lenovo Chromebook Duet
The Best For Schoolwork on the Go
Microsoft Surface Go 2
The Best For Getting Into Gaming on a Big Screen
Acer Nitro 5 (2019)
The Best For Around-the-House Streaming
HP Chromebook 15 (2019)
The Best For Style-Minded High Schoolers
Dell Inspiron 13 5000 (5391)
The Best For Word Processing in Chrome OS
HP Chromebook x360 12b
The Best For Very Tight Budgets
Lenovo Chromebook 3 (11-Inch)
Pros: Great value for feature set
Snappy performance for the price
Stylish, slim design with multiple color options
Long battery life
Strong port selection and useful extras (fingerprint reader, microSD slot)
Cons: One component configuration only
Bottom Line: The Asus VivoBook S15 is not only an excellent value for the price, but an excellent laptop all around. We found lots to love about this sleek, affordable notebook for everyday users.
Pros: Robust computing performance
Soft-touch, durable chassis
Screen supports touch input
Webcam privacy shutter
Two USB Type-A ports
Cons: Relatively heavy for a 14-inch ultraportable
Dim 250-nit display
Bottom Line: Thanks to a brand-new AMD Ryzen processor, Lenovo’s IdeaPad Flex 5 14 offers an extraordinary blend of performance and value for money, making it one of the best popularly priced 2-in-1 convertibles we’ve tested.
Pros: Sharp-looking aluminum design for a budget machine.
Excellent battery life.
Touch display (as tested) looks great.
Comfortable backlit keyboard.
Cons: Processor could use a pick-me-up.
Bottom Line: Aluminum-clad and ready for all day off the plug, the Acer Chromebook 514 is a reasonably-priced standout on the premium Chromebook stage that’s right-priced for students and budget buyers.
Pros: Solid 1080p gaming and a giant display at a low price.
Room for storage expansion.
Cons: Lackluster screen.
No SD card slot or Thunderbolt 3 port.
Bottom Line: For less than $900, this 17.3-inch version of Acer’s Nitro 5 bargain gaming rig plays top games at top quality settings at close to 60fps.
Its screen is merely adequate, but the laptop as a whole is a great value.
Pros: Sleek solid-metal chassis. Big, bright display. More-than-adequate audio. Core i3 CPU delivers strong performance for a Chromebook. Roomy, responsive keyboard with number pad.
Cons: Too-short battery life.
Bottom Line: With its big screen but modest battery life, HP’s Chromebook 15 is a snappy model that’s best suited as a stay-at-home entertainment system.
Pros: Low price includes keyboard
Handy tablet gestures and Android phone integration
Good battery life
Cons: Tepid performance
Only one USB port and no headphone jack
No memory card slot
Bottom Line: Budget-strapped consumers and students with light computing needs will be captivated by Lenovo’s Chromebook Duet, a detachable 2-in-1 that tops better-known 2-in-1 tablets on value.
Pros: Thin, light design with excellent build quality
Nifty built-in kickstand
Impressive audio volume
Face-recognition camera with 1080p quality
Fanless, silent operation
Cons: Keyboard cover not included
Pricey once kitted up with accessories and ideal components
Bottom Line: The markedly improved Microsoft Surface Go 2 offers better computing performance, a larger display, and longer battery life than the original, making it a solid work-from-home (and idle-time) companion among Windows tablets.
Pros: Smart partial aluminum construction.
Skinny display bezels help create a modern, compact look.
Solid application performance.
Has both USB-A and USB-C ports.
Cons: No more than 256GB of SSD storage available.
Display on the dull side.
Bottom Line: With its stylish, mostly aluminum design and peppy everyday performance, the Dell Inspiron 13 5000 offers solid-enough ultraportable value. We’d just like a sunnier screen and roomier storage options.
Pros: Appealingly petite convertible design.
Welcoming 3:2 aspect-ratio touch screen.
Good battery life.
Convenient ports and optional stylus.
Cons: A tad pricey given the CPU and screen size.
Marginal processing performance and skimpy storage.
Bottom Line: HP’s Chromebook x360 12b is a handsome compact convertible that falls short of excellence due to a murky screen and leisurely CPU.
Pros: Under-$200 price
Light carry weight
Decent build quality and keyboard for the money
Built-in SD card reader
Long battery life
Cons: Low-quality, low-res screen with big bezels
Cramped 32GB of storage
Bottom Line: If you’ve got less than $200 to spend on a laptop for a child or as a secondary machine, Lenovo’s Chromebook 3 is an acceptable option, though its small, low-quality display leaves much to be desired.
Tom is PCMag’s San Francisco-based news reporter. He got his start in technology journalism by reviewing the latest hard drives, keyboards, and much more for PCMag’s sister site, Computer Shopper. As a freelancer, he’s written on topics as diverse as Borneo’s rain forests, Middle Eastern airlines, and big data’s role in presidential elections. A graduate of Middlebury College, Tom also has a master’s journalism degree from New York University. Follow him on Twitter @branttom. See Full Bio