The Best Kid-Friendly Netbooks for the Holidays
Yesterday we posted a piece on being a good tech parent -- a guide to raising more technologically responsible kids. Parents have a ton of decisions to make when it comes to technology in their family's lives, and a big one is when to give a kid her first laptop. Many parents opt to keep kids on the family computer for better monitoring. But giving children computers of their own and teaching them how to use and take care of them has many benefits. Don't forget, one of the first netbooks, the OLPC XO, was made by a company attempting to make low-cost computers for kids that would empower them and enrich their lives.
Netbooks make a good first computer for kids because they're small and inexpensive. Some are even made for pre-teen and educational markets. Which should you choose? That depends on the age of the kid or teen in question, your level of tech savvy, and how much you want to monitor.
Netbooks Made For Kids
Beth Blecherman of TechMamas says that the earliest you want to give children their own laptops is between 8 and 10 years old, depending on their maturity level. There have been several netbooks designed to appeal to kids this age that tend to have three major features in common: ruggedized or damage-proof hardware, kid-friendly software and/or operating system, and parental controls. These are best for kids up to 12 who are just learning about computers and are more likely to accidentally drop or spill things on them. Parents should always teach kids how to properly care for a laptop, but everyone has accidents! Here are some good choices:
Intel designed their Classmate PCs for the education market with an eye toward kids in emerging markets. Different distributors rebrand the netbooks in different regions -- in the US you're most likely to find CTL 2go Classmates. We've reviewed the 10-inch E10 and the 9-inch Convertible models and found them to be good netbooks, if not quite as attractive as the ones below. The rugged exterior and water-resistant keyboard and trackpad are a big plus. UPDATE: The E10 and Convertible both come with Intel's parental control and educational software (which you can learn more about here). $449 for the E10 and $499 for the Convertible.
This netbook is covered in slime, which should please your kid if she's a Nick fan or just really digs slime. Aside from this design, parents can also choose a SpongeBob or iCarly theme in Dell's Design Studio. Though it doesn't have a spill-proof keyboard, the Mini 10v does come with parental controls (provided by McAfee Family Security) and a kid-friendly interface with games and educational software. Starts at $329 at Dell Home.
Netpals come in two colors: Princess Pink and Magical Blue. Leaving aside the troublesome gendering going on with these designs, the Netpal has many features both parents and kids will love. The 9-inch netbooks come with either a 160GB hard drive or a 16GB solid state drive (which can better withstand drops) plus reinforced hardware and a spill-resistant keyboard. Looking quite a bit like an Eee PC 901, the smallish keyboard on the Netpal should suit tiny hands just fine. ASUS specifically notes that it's easy to set up, which should help parents who aren't very tech-savvy. Parental controls and a fun GUI made just for kids have you covered on the software side, too. We're particularly fond of the webcam lens in the shape of Mickey Mouse. MSRP is $349, but it's selling for less in several online stores.
Netbooks for Older Kids And Teens
We haven't run across any Twilight-themed netbooks so far, nor do we see much netbook marketing aimed specifically at tweens and teens. Perhaps companies figure by the time they outgrow something like the Netpal kids want the same computers adults do. Buying a "regular" netbook doesn't mean you'll have to completely give up damage protection or parental monitoring.
This netbook is designed for business users, but it's worth a look for the spill-resistant keyboard. Because it's built for business it's also built to withstand treatment at the hands of road warriors, thus it will likely do well with an older kid. No parental controls, obviously, but it does come with Corel Home Office so you won't have to buy a copy of MS Office for papers and projects if you don't want to. You can find it for around $400.
Dell is currently selling this system for just $184. Not many netbooks dip below the $200 mark, so this is a great deal for parents on a tight budget. For that price there are tradeoffs -- instead of Windows the A90 comes with Ubuntu Linux pre-loaded. Though adults often have a hard time dealing with Linux, kids who are learning and exploring may enjoy taking Ubuntu for a spin. They'll still be able to create Word documents, edit photos, and access the Internet with this OS. Another aspect that makes this more kid-friendly is the drive: it's solid state instead of a traditional spinning drive. That means no moving parts and less chance that a drop or bump will damage it. If you think 8GB won't be enough, you can upgrade to a 16GB drive for $50 more.
One of our favorite netbooks ever, the NB205 lasts over 9 hours, has a great keyboard, and a stylish look that will appeal to both boys and girls. It isn't rugged or spill-resistant, but Toshiba has a history of making solid, dependable machines. If your kid takes proper care of it, the NB205 could last her through high school. $400 or less (with Windows XP).
Your kid may be a bit older, but perhaps you'd still like to put restrictions on his computer use and web surfing. As we mentioned in the tech parenting piece, balancing trust with the need to keep your child safe isn't easy and you'll have to gauge how much to go in either direction based on your own comfort levels and your child's maturity. Here are a couple of tools you can load on netbooks that don't come with parental control or monitoring built-in.
This program offers multiple levels of control over your child's computer: Web site blocking, program controls, time limits, and usage logging/alerts. Plus you can install it on up to 3 computers if you've got more than one child or want to protect the family computer as well as their netbook. $49.95/year.
Despite the name, Net Nanny can be useful for keeping an eye on older kids. There's a wealth of blocking options and alerts, all of which you can control and adjust remotely for those times when your kid is online but not with you. There are even alerts for potential cyber bullies. $39.99/year for one computer, $59.99 for up to 3.
No matter which netbook and level of protection and monitoring you choose, take time to make sure your child understands how to take care for her new computer and how to stay safe with it. Fostering the right attitude toward technology early will help kids grow into responsible and savvy computer using young adults.