Laptop alternatives for grade school kids

Summary:With the gift giving season rapidly approaching, some parents are looking at tablets for their grade schoolers. With a little planning getting the right tablet can replace laptops for kids in school.

The holiday gift giving season is upon us and the popularity of tablets makes them a hot gift requested by kids. Parents are beginning to look at gift ideas for their kids, and forearmed with the right information a tablet purchase can eliminate the need for laptops in many cases.

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I am receiving email every day from parents wanting to know if the tablet their kid wants as a gift can be used for schoolwork. The crafty kids are using that as a selling point to parents when making the case for that new tablet under the tree this holiday season. The parents reaching out to me want to know if that tablet can indeed be used for schoolwork in place of a traditional laptop. The answer is most likely.

To be used for schoolwork kids will almost certainly need a keyboard to turn the tablet into a laptop replacement. There are plenty of those to choose from, and most of them are not expensive. If you are thinking of getting a tablet for your kids there are some good choices to consider.

iPad

I get frequently asked if an iPad with a keyboard is a good choice for kids to do schoolwork. It most certainly is if you approach it properly to keep the kids safe online and understand what is needed to make it work.

iPad 2
iPad 2

The iPad is not the cheapest tablet out there but if price is a concern don't forget the older iPad 2. It's not the latest and greatest iPad but at $399 it is just as capable as the newest models and will do everything the more expensive models will do. Couple it with a good keyboard/case and your kid will be doing schoolwork with ease, while also having a capable tablet.

The iPad cannot run Microsoft Office apps which are commonly used by schools, but there are several apps that can read/write simple Word, Excel, and Powerpoint documents. My experience with my own kids demonstrates that the simple documents most grade schoolers need to work with are easily handled by these apps.

Microsoft Surface RT

This year there is a totally new tablet available that is a good choice for kids. The Surface with a keyboard cover by Microsoft starting at $599 is a solid choice for schoolwork while also serving as a decent tablet for other uses. While the Surface may not be a complete solution for me professionally yet, it is defintely capable for doing schoolwork for grade schoolers.

Laptop thumb
Surface RT with keyboard cover

What makes the Surface compelling in such scenarios is that it is a stripped down version of Windows that is impervious to viruses and malware. Parents are all too familiar with how kids are malware magnets on Windows laptops but that is not a concern with the Surface RT.

It also includes a full version of Microsoft Office that will handle all of the demands of school systems. The Surface can handle the requirements of schools with the included software, no additional outlay needed.

Android tablets, Nexus, Samsung

There are some good Android tablets that are cheaper than the Surface and the iPad that should be considered. They are good tablets that with a keyboard can handle schoolwork like the others. The Nexus 10 is available from Google for $399 and is a solid choice for kids.

There are also Android tablets that have an optional laptop dock that turn the tablet into a capable laptop. The most popular model is the Asus Transformer line, and while more expensive than most tablets with a simple keyboard/case they are perfect for kids doing schoolwork.

Asus Transformer with dock
Asus Transformer tablet with laptop dock

 

Nexus 10
Nexus 10

These tablets do not run Microsoft Office (like the iPad) but there are apps that can easily work with Office documents as required by schools. Kids can create/edit Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and Powerpoint presentation with relative ease with no worries about compatibility with the school.

Chromebook, cheap laptop replacement

Parents looking at laptops instead of tablets should pay attention to the new Google Chromebooks recently released. These are full laptops that run the Chrome OS instead of Windows and they are good alternatives to conventional (and more expensive) laptops.

See also:

Acer has a new Chromebook for $199 and Samsung another for $249. Either of these Chromebooks are fine laptops for kids that should handle all schoolwork needs on a budget.

jk-chromebook-300x286
Samsung Chromebook

Like all but the Surface tablet covered in this article the Chromebooks do not run Microsoft Office. They do come with Google Drive which like tablets handles basic Office documents just fine. They also run the Chrome web browser which in my experience is a more complete browser than that on the iPad for online work.

Protect your kids and your wallet

No matter what laptop alternative you choose it is important to protect your kids online. It is also critical to protect your wallet as most of these tablets and laptop replacements require an account that when paired with a credit card allows online purchases (apps) with just a click.

If you get a tablet or Chromebook for your kids, set them up an email and app store account that is separate from your own. Don't let them just one-click to buy stuff on your own account. They will promise not to do so but it's almost guaranteed that if kids can buy stuff online they will do so at least once. You'll find out when the bill comes and it won't be a pleasant surprise.

If you do have your kids' tablet on your own account, do not under any circumstances give them the password. They will try sneaky ways to get it from you based on my experience with my own kids, but you must not give them the password. You must maintain complete control over your account and purchases made through it, no exeptions.

While a tablet with keyboard or a Chromebook is not the solution for everyone, if your kids are asking for a tablet or new laptop they are worth considering. They are cost effective, more secure online than Windows laptops, and they can fill two roles: cool tablet and school laptop.

See related:

Topics: Education, Android, iPad, Laptops, Tablets

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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