Laptop alternatives for grade school kids

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.

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.


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.

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

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  • Yawn

    Guess we'll have to get this new persona of your kicked off too.
    William Farrel
  • Nice post James

    The only thing I'll say about the Chromebook, and this is based now on a few blog / twitter posts I've read, is that kids are really expecting to be able to touch the screen and have it do something.

    My other issue with Chromebooks, and please correct me if I'm wrong (I haven't used one) is that if the best office suite they have is Google Docs (a product I HAVE used quite a bit) then this is probably the worst of all the office suites I've tried. Don't get me wrong, it is one of the better browser based office suites so for its purpose, Google did a fantastic job with Google Docs but when compared to iWork on iPad or even better, Office on Surface, Google Docs is a very weak alternative to a native client office suite. Or am I wrong - does Chromebook support a better office suite than Google Docs?

    One thing to consider with the iPad is that any solution that doesn't attach the keyboard to the iPad is pretty much guaranteed to end up with a lost keyboard. So a folio option might be the best. Unfortunately, these tend to be extremely bulky and unwieldly. In this regard, the Surface or the Chromebook are better choices.

    Ultimately, I think the iPad is the worst choice for kids in school. It is the most fragile, the bulkiest and heaviest with a folio type keyboard / case, it is significantly more expensive than the Chromebook but iWork simply isn't anywhere near as good as Office so there isn't a single advantage to buying the iPad. The iPad is also very frustrating to use. If money is no issue and you want the best, the Surface RT is going to be it. It is by far the most mobile solution and it has Office which trounces iWork and Google Docs. But it is expensive, just like the iPad. If money is an issue, a Chromebook should do the job just fine as long as mobility and the worst office suite of the three options isn't a problem.

    Man, kids are lucky today to have all these fine options.
    • Agreed

      With my kids the only Office work they ever needed for school was to create simple Word docs, Excel spreadsheets, and light Powerpoint presentations. Using Google Docs it would handle this easily on the cheap.

      Forgot to mention that everything but the iPad will handle USB flash drives, which some schools use for sending files back and forth. Not so much anymore compared to the past, though.
    • The other thing to remember

      is that the Surface is not the only Windows RT or Windows 8 option. There are cheaper options, some that even have touch screens if that's important.
      Michael Kelly
      • Good point

        Being the owner of a Surface RT, it is natural that the Surface is what comes to mind when I think about Windows RT tablets. You are absolutely right though, there are other options out there and more coming.
  • Uhhhh

    Why does a grade school kid need a laptop or a tablet? 100's of millions went through grade school in the US without needing a laptop or tablet, so why is now something worthy of conversation regardless of the idiotic banter here from 007?
    • 100's of millions also went through their entire careers

      without needing a laptop or tablet. But in today's world we use them and rely on them, so they need to be a part of a child's basic education.
      Michael Kelly
      • Exactly

        I'm a freshman in High School and we are expected to type everything. In this day and age, kids need to learn that they will be expected to know how to use computers and need to have ready access to them. There is no reason why they should not be able to type everything. Even if families can not afford computers, children have ready access to libraries and other public places.
    • tools for learning

      whilst i agree .. these aren't essential tools for some learning, it would be a very sad state of affairs if our education system didn't equip our kids with skills in digital literacy.

      honestly, I would've thought anybody who knows how to get to, and participate in a discussion on zdnet would've agreed with this.

      still, i suppose there's always plenty of jobs in manufacturing, textiles and farming in the US .. oh .. wait ..
    • Homework

      My kids are in elementary school. They get homework everyday which requires them to log into their online accounts and do exercises (e.g. math, spelling games, typing games, online book discussion).
  • laptop for kids

    Children also need to be taught the importance of looking after valuable things, when adults aren't there to supervise.
    Of course there needs to be conversation, academia and general emotional nurturing. There also needs to be preparation for a world that is so totally different from that we experienced when we emerged into adulthood.
    Teaching children from an early age about computers / technology, internet safety, and generally being safe in a an interconnected world where dangers are even less easy to discern than in the physical world is an important job for parents, and one that should be tackled responsibly. visit this also :
  • kids laptop

    Even if much actual education doesn't take place here, I think having kids having access to technology and trying to play games on this and other things they'll try and do is a net win for the future. If they can merely learn to use this computer, they're learning a valuable skill in and of itself.