Find the Perfect PC for Your FamilyIt's not just about you anymore. What do you do when everyone from the tykes to the teens wants to get wired?
My wife and I always knew that at some point, our son would get his own computer. The day just happened to come sooner than we expected. When he was barely one and a half, he discovered the joys of playing with the mouse and pounding the keyboard on my home office computer. It was great fun to watch--until his playtime nearly sent every icon on my desktop to never-never land.
While it's rarely that dramatic, family computing has its own special concerns. It doesn't take long to discover that the technology needs of a 10-year-old are very different from a teenager's, and both are different from the adults'. Will one PC be enough for everyone in your family, or will you have to invest in a second machine? What kind of system does your toddler's software require?
Here are some helpful tips on what to consider before you turn your toddlers and teens into techies.
Different age groups have very different computing needs, which means, of course, different hardware needs. Let's start with the youngest group, children between the ages of two and eight.
People are often surprised when they see my son deftly maneuvering his mouse, but he's hardly the only tech tot out there. He learned his way around the computer by using some of the many applications designed for children. Plenty of companies, including Fisher-Price and The Learning Company, develop games that help teach toddlers colors, numbers, words, and letters; subjects for older kids include spelling, geography, and math.
The hardware requirements for educational software are usually fairly modest; in a random sample of more than 20 titles, I found that in all cases, a 300-MHz Pentium II with 128MB of RAM was more than enough for all of them. This makes it very inexpensive to have a separate PC for the youngsters; you have the option of getting a secondhand PC, or simply dusting off the one you've had sitting in the closet.
If you'd prefer a brand-new model, consider buying from a budget PC vendor like EMachines. The $449 T2824 probably has everything you need except for a monitor. It features a 2.53-GHz Intel Celeron D 325 processor, 256MB of system RAM, a 40GB hard drive, a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, an 8-in-1 memory card reader, and Windows XP Home edition. EMachines' least expensive monitor costs $110.
EMachines' Web site offers more details about the T2824.
Another good entry-level option is Dell's Dimension 2400. Configured with a 19-inch CRT monitor, a 2.66-GHz Pentium 4 processor, and both DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives, we got a price of $699. Plus, it includes a home-oriented software bundle.
Incidentally, the jury is still out on very young children using computers. Some experts think that using a mouse can enhance hand-eye coordination; others see benefits in educational software that allow children to explore shapes, colors, and sound. Others say computers (along with TV) help decrease attention span, and take away time from other developmental activities. Even if you agree with those in the former camp, it's generally recommended that children not spend too much time in front of the screen at the expense of other healthy activities. Also, keep an eye on their posture--ergonomic considerations that are important for adults are even more important for kids, whose bodies are still developing.
The In-Be-Tween Years
When your kids are between the ages of 9 and 12, also known as the tween years, the first thing you notice is that they seem to eat twice their body weight at each meal. The second thing you notice is that the computer they used to be happy with doesn't cut it anymore. Gone are the days of vocabulary exercises and the occasional low-key video game; now they want more-demanding 3D games, music, digital photography, digital video, and feature-rich Web sites. It's not all frivolous, either: As schools and teachers get more tech-savvy, it's becoming increasingly common for 10- and 11-year-olds to hit the Web for research; some schools even let kids make short films for projects.
Unless your kids are submitting films to Sundance, their computing needs shouldn't break your bankbook. You'll need to invest in a bigger hard drive, and it may be a good time to purchase a PC with a separate graphics board, instead of the integrated graphics found in many machines. For more information on the limitations of integrated graphics, read "Built-In Graphics Improve, But...."
EMachines' T2958 should meet your basic requirements. The $549 system (again, that price does not include a monitor) features a 2.66-GHz Intel Celeron D 330 processor, Windows XP Home Edition, 80GB hard drive, and both CD-RW and DVD drives. It also includes an 8-in-1 media card reader for quick downloading of digital photos. The T2958 lacks a FireWire port, needed for capturing video from most digital video cameras. A $59 ADSTech Pyro Basic DV add-in card not only solves this problem, but it also comes bundled with video-editing software that's more powerful than Windows' built-in Movie Maker.
For more information, see EMachines' Web site.
The EMachines T2958 will provide more than enough computing power for research, and it will import video just fine. But editing video is a much more strenuous task, and may be tedious on that machine. Still, the T2958 will suffice unless editing video becomes a common task.
If your budding movie director is ambitious, consider moving up to the Dell Dimension 4600, a PC World
Best Buy. Configured with a 2.8-GHz Pentium 4 processor, 80GB hard drive, DVD-ROM and DVD+RW drives, 17-inch CRT monitor, and NVidia GeForce FX 5200 graphics card, we got a price of $908. You'll still have to add a FireWire port.
Dell's Dimension 4600 page has more information about customizing these systems.
When your kids are between the ages of 13 and 18, it may seem as if they are going out of their way to give you a coronary. So don't be surprised when your 15-year-old absolutely has to have a top-of-the-line computer system that costs more than a year's car payments...all to play the latest Tom Clancy action game.
Some companies, like Alienware, specialize in creating high-end systems for gamers (complete with stylized cases that look like escapees from science-fiction movies). Many of today's computer games, such as Splinter Cell, Rainbow Six, and Half-Life, resemble movies more than they resemble older games like Tetris. The catch is that they gobble up graphics processing power faster than your teenager eats fast food--and as games become more demanding, so will your young video warrior.
There is an upside: The same qualities that make a great gaming machine also make a great multimedia machine. For example, the Alienware Aurora Extreme, with its heart-stopping starting price of $2984, is equally at home with extreme gaming or creating complex video effects and DVDs. That price includes an AMD Athlon 64 FX-53 processor, 120GB hard drive, and a DVD/CD-RW drive. That price can go much higher--the configuration that recently landed on PC World''s Top 15 Desktops chart was priced at $4619.
See Alienware's Aurora Extreme page for more information on available configurations.
But don't take out a second mortgage just yet. If you scale back even just a bit, you can keep both your wallet and your teenager happy. Alienware's Area-51 desktop offers the same space-age looks and is geared toward gaming. For a more affordable $1564, the Area-51 includes a 3.4-GHz Intel Pentium 4 Extreme processor, 80GB hard drive, and DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive. You can even let your teen choose the case color.
Again, Alienware's site offers information about how to design an Area-51 system.
Of course, teenagers may actually use their computer for schoolwork. For more tips, check out "The Perfect Student PC."
How Many PCs Do You Need?
You may also need to ask yourself how many computers you need. In some cases, a single household PC can accommodate everyone's needs. If each person only needs to use the computer a few hours a week, for instance, it should be fairly easy to work out a schedule so that everyone gets the time they need.
The single-PC home has several benefits. First, it's a lot easier on your bank account. Second, it automatically affords you a certain amount of control over your kids' computing behavior--if they have to share their computer time with three or more family members, it can be easier to limit their online time.
And, if the computer is placed in a central location, it makes it harder for your children to explore the Internet's seedier areas. If you're not sure you can keep tabs on your kids' surfing habits, consider investing in Internet-filtering software or other monitoring software, such as Solid Oak Software's Cybersitter.
For more tips on keeping your children safe online, see "Should Parents Become Big Brother?"
On the other hand, sometimes buying more than one PCs is the best solution. If one computer is used for critical work, such as in a home office, it's in everybody's best interest to get at least one additional PC. You can easily network multiple PCs to share Internet and printer access--see "How to Build a Safe, Secure Network."
Don't forget that you'll need antivirus, firewall and anti-spyware software for each computer as well. See "Bigger Threats, Better Defense" to find out how to protect yourself.
Whether you opt for single or multiple PCs, there are a few configuration issues to take into account. Unless your family is really organized, it's a good idea to set up separate user accounts for each person on a shared PC--that way, you minimize the chance of someone accidentally erasing someone else's term paper. On computers running Windows XP, you can also adjust the user settings to prevent your kids from installing software without your permission.