Whether we want to admit it or not, school is right around the corner and with COVID-19 still having a stranglehold on our everyday lives, schools are being forced to make a decision on reopening or how-to. As our leaders figure the best course of action, we must face the reality that our children may spend part or all of the remainder of 2020 at home.
For many of us parents, this marks a change in spending habits. No longer will the bulk of our paychecks go to new clothing and haircuts for our children, but now we may have to consider what type of computer we purchase as a primary expense for distance learning if our school systems will not have the resources available to provide.
With that in mind, I wanted to share my best practices on how to shop for a computer during this pandemic. My hope is that this guide will serve to help those who are apprehensive about technology or don’t know what to buy.
The First Rule: There is No Dark Side
Try not to make this about price or brands. Doing so, only serves to hurt your pocketbook. For most of the kids, Intel vs AMD or Apple vs Windows doesn’t really matter. Reserve those talks for the fangirls and boys on Twitter or Reddit. It only serves to spend more money or gain unnecessary clout. And let’s be honest, that life should be behind us as parents.
Most of the public school systems will be utilizing some form of cloud-based software environment like Google Classroom, so the primary requirement should be having access to the internet using a browser and virtually all computers meet that requirement.
Your first big test is deciding if you want a Laptop or Desktop for your children. They both provide advantages where the other does not.
Laptops are great for mobility and can help with creative writing when the kids can travel freely with their devices. Most modern laptops have built-in microphones and cameras which are widely used in distant learning environments. Additionally, most computers have wireless interface cards to connect directly to your home router for the internet.
I’m going to loop in tablets in this category as well; although the fandom for these devices have died down considerably in recent years, they are still a great choice but may require additional accessories to operate such as a keyboard or mouse.
Today you can get a decent laptop at your local Walmart for under $500. Some priced as low as $220.
With mobile devices gaining in popularity, you may be asking why even consider a desktop. As I stated before, both options have benefits where the other does not. In the case of a Desktop computer, the flexibility is in the ability to upgrade your computer’s components in lieu of purchasing a new computer every few years.
Need an additional harddrive without having to carry one around, done. Need to increase the speed of the computer? Easy, add more RAM (random access memory) sticks to the open slots. The possibilities are endless.
Desktops are also considered workhorses and can do an excellent job of handling beefier applications than their mobile counterparts.
The Second Rules: Specs Rule All
When you shop for a new computer for your kids, besides price, the only true thing that matters is what is under the case. The components will determine the capabilities and performance of the computer. Most salespersons will focus on things that really don’t matter to the average computer buyer such as processor speed, screen size and the camera’s megapixels. The reason being is because these are the easiest features to sell to customers who are not familiar with computer components and their true value.
For the ease of your buying experience, you need to only focus on three key factors: Hard Drive, Memory (RAM) and Wireless Capabilities. Let’s dive in.
People may think I’m crazy for saying this but Hard Drives will give you the best performance boost and longevity to your computer if you know what you are looking for. Hard Drives are the devices that allow you to save your content when you power off your computer. Pictures, applications and documents are all stored on the Hard Drive when not in use. It is measured in Gigabytes (GB) or Terabytes (TB). Now I’m about to say something controversial, so hear me out.
Don’t worry about the size of the hard drive. Anything between 250GB and 750GB is acceptable for most households with less than 6 users. Consider higher amounts if your kids are into game streaming. Instead, I ask that you focus on the types of Hard Drives.
There are typically two types of Hard Drives that are widely available. The old fashion drives are called Hard Disk Drives or HDD for short. They use platters that resemble CDs. They are often cheaper but very sensitive to being dropped or having errors if the system is improperly shut down.
Hard Disk Drive
The other, and one that I recommend is called a solid state drive or SSD. Although these are typically more expensive than their HDD counterparts, the prices have come down significantly in the last year and are more affordable. The main advantage of these devices is that they read and write quicker to the drive improving overall performance. This should be your main focus when purchasing a computer.
Solid State Drive
After selecting a computer with the desired hard drive, your next focus should be on the Memory or Random Access Memory (RAM). RAM is different from the HD as it doesn’t focus on the storage of data at rest. It is primarily used to process applications that you open and are using in real time. It is measured in GB.
Modern computers typically come with 4GB which is more than enough for most households. If you can find a computer that has 4GB but is capable of utilizing 8GB or 16GB of RAM, I would strongly consider that as it gives you an option in the future to upgrade at a cheaper price. In the spec sheet, look for a section that says Maximum RAM Supported. Anything higher than 16GB is overkill. Don’t be tempted.
Last but not least, you want to make sure that your computers have Wi-Fi capabilities. Most come standard but it is still a good idea to check especially if your computer is going to be seated away from a wired connection. Not much to expand on here but if you see 802.11 b/g/n/ac, then you are good.
I purposely left pricing for last as I believe it is the least important attribute. You can find these recommended specs anywhere in the price range of $250 to $600 (or more), the key is looking for the specs you need then filtering by what you want to spend. I know it’s tempting but please do not shop solely based on price.
So what do you say? Let’s try this strategy out.
Shopping On Amazon
Let’s try shopping at Amazon.com for a laptop. Don’t worry clicking on the link will open another window where you can follow this guide, side by side. On the left hand side, you will have your filters.
Our ideal product will be based on finding a laptop computer with 4 or 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB (or more) SSD hard drive.
So let’s go ahead and select those options on the left. The screen may refresh after each button click if you are on a desktop. If you are on a mobile device, you may need to click the apply button to see the filtered options.
Typically, there are options available for Hard Drives but while I did this part of the tutorial, I did not see that option available. Scrolling through the list, I can immediately see that the filtered options primarily show SSD in the description. This gives me the impression that the modern computers are using this type of technology and phasing out HDD, which is good. Many also show Wi-Fi/WiFi included which was one of our criteria.
At this point we can pick a computer that we like or if you want to filter by price, feel free to do so at this point, just don’t go too cheap. $300 is a good starting point.
In this list, I found a 2020 HP 14-inch Laptop. It has all the initial specs we were looking for but let’s look a bit further to see what we are getting with this computer.
Further inspection of the laptop, we see that it does include WiFi card, Windows 10 Home operating system and this one is touch screen, which is great for younger kids.
One of the things I like about using Amazon, is that they also show similar products with a side by side comparison. Here immediately what catches my eye, is that there is a product that has the same memory size and is about $60 cheaper.
Computer speed is faster, bigger screen and cheaper. So if these are great attributes of the deal, why would I be hesitant to select this option?Remember rule #002, it’s all about the Specs.
The ASUS VivoBook only has 128 GB of Hard Drive space and is running a restricted version of Windows, in comparison to the more standardized version, Windows 10 Home.
This means if you want to download software to your computer, let’s say Turbo Tax, you may have a difficult time doing this if the app is not available in the Windows store. Kind of reminds me of the old Windows phone my wife absolutely loved. Ah, the Memories.
If you are not satisfied with the selection of computers on Amazon, here are the top three alternative vendors I recommend. Each of which has an intuitive filter section: