Which Computer?

Parent Q&A

  • Laptop or tablet for a first grader?

    (4 replies)

    My son will be starting first grade next year and I know they will start working on typing and basic computer skills in school.  We are considering getting him a laptop or notebook as we don't have a home computer (both I and my husband have our laptops we use for work so he won't be able to borrow and use).  He already has an old ipad and a new kindle fire he is sharing with his preschool-aged sibling so he likely does not need another device for apps and games as he uses the tablets for these, but not sure if tablets replace a laptop for everything and there is likely no replacing a laptop for learning to type and use a computer.  Any advice as to which laptop or notebook is good for a first grader and would work well for school and other educational uses?  Or will it be a waste as he will be too young to use a laptop independently and will continue to prefer the tablets anyway and we should wait another year or so?  Thanks.   

    I'd recommend a Chromebook.  They are cheap, don't store any data locally (so if it gets lost his stuff will all be in the cloud) and pretty much everything you need to do (document editing, web browsing, etc) is easier than on a PC laptop.  The one thing you can't really do is play serious video games - yet another advantage :)  ..  In high school my son was required to get one and bring it to class and most of their work is on-line.

    Does a first grader actually need a laptop? Usually they don't write "reports" until 3rd or 4th grade. Seems like it is important to practice writing/drawing by hand to develop fine motor coordination. I agree about the chromebook if you do get him one.

    A plug in Apple keyboard for the iPad has been better for my kid than a standard keyboard. Her smaller hands navigate the smaller board and keys. She has done her typing tutorial on it and it works fine. In the interest of keeping down the already overpopulated colony of tech drvices in our home, we opted to stick with what we already had and nobody has missed out on anything thus far.

Archived Q&A and Reviews



Do I need a new computer?

March 2009

I am wondering if I need a new computer. I bought my computer new in 2001. It is a Dell Dimension L1000R and it has Windows ME on it. I use AOL 7 (because the AOL support person I called when I used AOL 9.0 said it would work better with the other programs I had) and MIE 6 and still use dialup to connect to the internet. I am beginning to have problems all the time with it freezing when I go on and off eBay or Facebook and can't watch videos because they never load. I have always been reluctant to spend the money because I just don't know what I should get and worry that someone will sell me something I don't need because I am not particularly computer savvy, and frankly, I just don't have money to spend on a new computer. I am leery of always updating and buying the new version every time there is a new version of something, because then when does it ever stop? I am always getting messages that AOL caused an error in DLL 32 or something and I am wondering if it is just AOL, the incompatibility of different things installed on my computer or what? Does anyone have some simple or easy to understand advice? I feel like a sitting duck whenever I go into a computer store. Easy Target

Yeah, you need a new computer. I was in a similar dilemma a while back, hemming and hawing, and not wanting to drop the cash, and resenting that there were so many updates and whatnot. No, it doesn't stop: there will always be updates, and this is why you need a new computer: YOU have not changed, the world around you has changed. You don't need a new computer to do what you have always done; you need a new computer to continue to do what you have always done. Is it fair? No. But it is reality. Think of some old relative who still has a radioactive black and white TV: ''It works just fine,'' they insist. And they're right... they just can't watch DVDs on it, and they can't get cable on it. They didn't change, and it works just fine: it's just that the world passed them by. To make this really, really easy, go to dell.com (no, I don't work for them) and pick out the cheapest computer they offer. Whatever it is, new, it'll be better than what you have now. (And, btw, dial-up is not fast enough for videos -- get DSL or broadband or whatever it's called. Just NOT dial-up!) Not to scare you, but I felt intimidated by the store, too: in fact, I WAS taken advantage of (the salesman assured me that I could pick which language I wanted my system in... she was wrong, but I was desperate for a new computer, and didn't have the time to fight...) kevin

YES you do! if you feel awkward in stores, bring a friend. Or you could order online, like from dell or apple directly - and maybe calling a customer service phone # from your own home would feel more tolerable berkeleymom

Yes, I think you do need a new one. The basic ones have gotten LOTS cheaper. Go online to the Dell site and you can 'build' one to your specifications online, with no sales pressure. And get ride of AOL!

I do not know why you would need AOL of any version. You can check your email and browse the internet through another web browser like Firefox. If you are using IE 6, please upgrade to IE 7, but I encourage you to try Firefox. Older computers have less memory, which can make your computer slow. You can go to a site like crucial.com and download a program to scan your computer's memory and tell you how much you have and how much you can upgrade. If your computer has 256MB of RAM (memory) that is slow. Also, dial-up is going to hinder your online experience. If you do not have money for a new computer, obviously do not buy one. There are now computers available that are relatively inexpensive like netbooks which do not have a CD-ROM drive, but are very inexpensive ($350). I have one and am very happy with it. Please feel free to email me with any questions. mary

Dear ''Easy Target,'' It's hard to diagnose your technical difficulties without more information, but yes, the odds are very high that you need a new computer. The realistic lifespan of a computer is about 5yrs. Computers age out because (1) their parts age and become less effective, and (2) they can no longer keep up with changing technology in the rest of the world. It sounds like #2 is most likely your problem.

If you need a computer for your business or personal life, it's time to think about upgrading the computer AND your Internet connection. It's going to be nearly impossible to watch any streaming content (meaning videos) without a high-speed connection. I have the lowest-cost plan through AT right now and I pay $15 a month for Internet. And new desktop computers can be had for well under $500, and most companies offer installment plans. DON'T buy a used computer.

You raised two other issues in your post. One is feeling like you are not computer-savvy and are going to be taken advantage of in a computer store. My suggestion is to do your research online instead of going to a store. Poke around the websites of several computer manufacturers (e.g., Dell, HP) until the terminology starts to look familiar to you and is less intimidating. You can even try Googling ''novice computer buyer'' or a similar phrase and see if there are websites that will help hold your hand through learning the different parts and terminology of a computer. When you're ready to buy, you can order the whole thing online without having to walk into a store at all.

The other issue you raised is feeling like computer/software companies are taking advantage of consumers by constantly offering new versions of things. Let me tell you, you are not alone in this frustration! Even the most computer-savvy users and tech geeks are frustrated by this. From consumers' perspective, it's just a way for companies to make money. From companies' perspective, it's their way of constantly improving their technology and offering us better and better services. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. The best protection you have is to gradually increase your knowledge and computer skills (again, just by reading and Googling on the Internet) so that you are better able to tell legitimate ''new and improved'' upgrade claims from illegitimate ones. Good luck! Computer mama

You might or might not need a new computer - it depends a little on the specifications (i.e. can it run a newer operating system). But Windows ME is a truly horrible platform -- it crashes all the time and doesn't support many features newer systems do. If you have a budget to spend, you could buy a new computer. These days you can get a very nice new desktop machine for $700.

You could also try to get your current computer upgraded but often that involves expenses similar to just buying a new computer (licensing fees for Microsoft XP or Vista alone is pretty pricey).

Since you're a computer non-techie, it's probably best to get a new machine. There are many reputable local business who will sell you a machine without all the hype/sales pressure. In your case I think that's a better solution than going to a box store. And your best insurance against being over/under sold is to shop around.

Go to several stores, tell them your max budget to spend. Tell them what kinds of things you want to do with your computer. Get a written bid including full specs of what they will sell you. Make sure you get a price for all the software you need as well (Microsoft Office, photo editing, etc). Once you get several bids you should be able to make a decision as to which machine suits you. If you can't, you can go back to the stores and ask them to explain the differences. Those conversations should be pretty enlightening in terms of which sales person really wants to help you out (i.e. the cheapest price is not always the best deal).

Also please be sure to recycle your old computer when you get rid of it. Judiah

Some issues to consider: 1) You are probably more at risk from spyware and viruses than you are from computer salesman 2) You will probably never be able to stream videos using a dial-up connection to the internet 3) There will always be a better, faster, cheaper computer for sale just after you buy yours, so the trick is to buy a new one and then STOP LOOKING! :)

Yes, it can be daunting, but you are also paying money for a network connection that is positively prehistoric. For about the same money (or cheaper) you can get a DSL connection to the net which will allow you to watch movies to your heart's content.

There are plenty of resources out there to help you, and you don't even have to talk to a salesman to buy a computer.

From your message, I gleaned that you are using the computer mostly for facebook, ebay, some videos, some email, basically just general easy computer living. Right away you can scratch off all sorts of higher-end equipment. You don't need powerful video cards or surround sound video, you really don't.

I'd recommend looking at dell.com for an inspiron laptop. The basic model is a very cheap and powerful and is a fine computer that will do all you need it to do, probably. The particular model we bought is called the inspiron 1525. It does the job. Of course there are a million different computers out there and you can easily find one you like. For example, you could go into a computer store, find a model that you like, but not buy it. Then find the same model online for cheaper and have it delivered.

Just make sure you get some anti-virus and anti-spyware software. You don't even have to pay for that, either. We use AVG free and it protects us just fine - no monthly payments or anything. Don't Be Scared

DLL32! Ahh, those were the good ol' days...when I was always frustrated with my partially working computer. I too had Windows ME on a Dell.

Because I shared your experience, I disagree with the computer tech - the sooner you leave Windows ME behind, the better. For years, I dealt with friends' jeers at my bad system. I too am frustrated that we have to pay for upgrades that Microsoft built in by purposely issuing problematic products (nice business model - well, it obviously works for MS *grumble*). I also said I couldn't afford a new PC. In retrospect, I waited way too long.

Start fresh: dell.com (no salespeople) Get the base-priced laptop (Inspiron). Forget most of the upgrades - they're just fluff. Except for a RAM upgrade, which is necessary. *grumble* I paid $550 1.5 years ago, but I think prices have gone down.

But it's not just the new computer you need. Once you get it, avoid AOL and IE. They wreck computers! Download Firefox (free) and Firefox's NoScript add-on (free).

I have some extra PC advice, for free of course, if you wish to email me, but this post is a great start. I now have a computer that works well, after doing some research/experimentation.

I work in the high tech industry, and I have helped countless friends, relatives and neighbors figure out what to buy. Many people gave wonderful suggestions, but one aspect that is most often overlooked is why the computer needs to be a laptop.

If money is not a constraint, or you know for sure that you will use it in places on the go, laptops are great. From my experiences, most people buy a laptop because they like the small footprint on their otherwise cluttered desk, or the idea that they can use it around the house, or in front of the TV, or to watch movies in bed.

Laptops cost a whole lot more for the same computing power, or upgrade capability. They may offer some slight energy savings, but they are also more prone to getting dropped, and damaged, and also to being stolen very easily. In Berkeley we have spates of break-ins every now and then, and the reports we see almost always say the laptop was stolen (and wasn't locked, or password-protected).

If you buy a full-size computer and keep it under your desk, the only desk space needed is for the base of the monitor and a compact keyboard with built-in touchpad.

I cannot tell you how many of the people I have helped over the years were so enamored with the small form-factor of the laptop. but their budget dictated a far less capabable computer. Almost all of them, 2-3 years later wish they had spent less money to buy a full-size. They would have bought a lot more computer, for almost half of what they paid for a laptop. And almost all of them who thought they might occasionally need to take their laptop on the go, never had to, because where they went already had a computer they could use for their presentation, photographs, etc.

If money is tight, ask yourself if you REALLY need a laptop. (and if you have doubts, please ask the moderator for my email address). Nel

Best PC for kids?

Feb 2009

My oldest will start kindergarten in the fall. She has not had any real exposure to computers yet and I need to change that. I am not interested in the play computers. I want the real thing but have no savvy in this arena. I would like it to last for years to come without having to buy another one any time soon. A couple of questions: Which make/model do you suggest for kids and what learning software lines? She has 2 younger siblings (3 and 2) so I will want to get some software for them as well. Appreciate any and all suggestions. Not a tech savvy Mom

A kindergartener really does not ''need'' exposure to a computer, wait until she can read well enough to use the computer on her own, like around third grade. And although a computer can last for several years, its usefulness with new technology lasts about four years at the most. I am not anti-tech or anti-media at all, just cheap and lazy, and having little kids around my computer just seems like way more trouble than it is worth. Most schools want younger kids to use books and libraries the old-fashioned way, not computers until the kids are closer to middle school. -- a mom

I know you asked about PCs but if you want a computer that will last for years I highly recommend looking into getting a Mac. We got ours when our youngest was three. She is nine now and the computer is still going strong. None of our earlier computers survived more than three years. There is less software written for Macs than for PCs but the good stuff is written for both. The Apple store in Emeryville is a good place to go and try things out before you buy. Good Luck.

I suggest that you wait on this purchase as long as possible. Your children will likely have plenty of exposure to computers through their school and IMHO the longer you wait to have one at home the better. They will not need it for homework until about middle school and you will be amazed at how fast they pick it all up. You might also want to see what kind of computer they use at school although most kids can easily move between Macs and PCs.

On a philosophical note, my boys (10,13,16) are all good students, athletes, voracious readers and yet the majority of arguments we have are over computer time. So many folks believe that in order to compete in our high tech world, the more and earlier exposure our kids have the better off they will be. We have developed a weird way of easing our children in to the world - we won't let them walk to the corner market yet we encourage them to sit in front of machine with access to all kinds of stuff - much unfiltered and of questionable content.

You have many years of computer issues ahead of you - no need to start early! Sorry about the lecture

Email-only machines

Feb 2003

I'd appreciate hearing from anyone who has email-only service on a machine such as Earthlink's Mail Station. My 80+ mother does not want a computer, but she is keen to have email. I've looked at the Mail Station website, and the screen seems really small. Is there any other type of hardware/email service out there? Thanks. L

My parents have been very happy using Web-tv. It is a box that hooks up to their tv, allowing them email and web access. It dials in through their phone line, and they use a keyboard pad for typing. It seems fairly straight-forward, and is fairly inexpensive for equipment and email access. Barbara

If you want to see the MailStation machines in person, I believe I saw them at OfficeMax in Alameda recently. I think they're a great option for non-computer-literate folks. Jennie

My mother also did not want a computer, but wanted email, so my siblings and I got her a WebTV -- this is a keyboard that you can hook into your phone line, and you use your TV as the monitor. My mom loves it -- you can use it either for email, or for web-surfing. Personally, I've used it when visiting her and find it really really sloooooooowwwww for web-surfing, but not too bad for email. Seems like a perfect solution for the computer-phobic who still want email. Unfortunately, since I'm not the one who ordered it, I can't give you the specifics on that, but I imagine you can get that info on the Web. -- glad my mom is finally online

You'll probably hear this from 100's of others, but I'd strongly recommend a cheap computer rather than a email machine. The price differential is a few $100 (if that). The computer keyboard and screen are vastly superior, even if all you do is email. And, she wouldn't be limited. She might actually find things on the internet that would interest her (family tree research?), and might come to appreciate the benefits of word processing over a typewriter. If you want, email me & I'll be happy to put you and/or her in touch with my 82+ mom, who has gotten amazingly computer/internet hep since we bought her a entry-level Dell. Norm

My parents (in their 70's) wanted to get on the Web, and finally got Web TV. Probably a little more service than they need, and they certainly don't use it that much, but they can send and retrieve emails. It runs through their existing TV, and they got the software free from a garage sale (so I don't know how much it costs, but I don't think it is overly expensive). They also got a keyboard free (very cheap new, too). I think the monthly service is around $20. It seems like a neat idea for older persons who did not grow up with computers, but who did grow up with TV's and understand how they work. Plus, you don't have to invest in a computer this way. anon

Looking for a used computer

Dawn 9/99
I am looking for an inexpensive, possibly used -- but good-- computer set-up for my dad for his birthday Sept. 21. He needs it basically for writing, email and internet access. Does anyone know of a reputable outlet for used computers?

John 9/99
Try Resource Recyclers in The City. They have a web site: http://www.lworld.com Their stuff is cheap, albeit sometimes old.

You might want to drop by the Used Computer Store on Shattuck and Channing in Berkeley. I was also given the following ref. in a previous parents msg: Macsource (409) 775-7703. (July 1999)

From: Marco (7/98)

I've had great success with Domino Computer on Beach St. in Emeryville (in Computer Currents, they're listed under DNet). Their prices are competitive. They're not the absolute cheapest for hardware, but they stand behind there work. Their service is fantastic. I've often walked out paying nothing when other places would have charged for labor or restocking. In the end, they've ended up being cheaper for me than the stores which appear to be cheaper in advertisements. I recommend them without reservation.