Writer: Mr. Robert Nathan Gregory, MSU Extension Service
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Parents who want to buy first-rate, back-to-school computers for their children on a midrange budget may want to keep their heads in “the cloud.”
Roberto Gallardo, an associate Extension professor with the Mississippi State University Extension Center for Technology Outreach, said speed and Wi-Fi capabilities should take priority over hard drive space, as more computer manufacturers are shifting to cloud-based computing, which relies on the internet for much of its digital storage capacity.
These computing systems provide applications that are stored at internet-accessible, third-party data centers and not on the devices themselves. Computers that rely on a web browser or a separate server to provide general purpose functions are referred to as “thin clients.”
“The most important need for student computers today is a Wi-Fi card that supports higher internet speeds,” Gallardo said. “There are laptops that come with 1-gigabyte wireless cards already installed. This is enough potential speed for students to do research and use browser-based applications that perform the same functions as Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint without having to purchase Microsoft Office Suite. A lot of computers also have basic packages that include programs that support Microsoft Office documents.”
Many schools issue laptops to students along with their books. However, if it is necessary to purchase a laptop, it is important to know that a first-grader has different computing needs than a high school senior.
“A computer for a younger child can be simpler -- most likely a tablet with an easy-to-use interface and buttons,” said Mariah Morgan, an assistant Extension professor with the MSU Extension Center for Technology Outreach. “A high school student will need a laptop that can carry over into college. Parents of juniors or seniors should look at computer requirement policies at community colleges or universities before buying. Many university departments have guides on the type of computer equipment that can be used.”
When purchasing a laptop just for a young child and not general family use, a lower end model in the $200-$300 range would suffice, Morgan said. But parents should keep in mind that it would need to be replaced in a couple of years.
“On a case by case basis, a refurbished model with a full warranty may also be an acceptable option,” she said. “Refurbished models are often deeply discounted. As the school year begins, many stores will offer discounts as well.”
Art Shirley, web communications manager with the MSU Office of Agricultural Communications, said a baseline for computer random access memory, or RAM, is 8 gigabytes. RAM allows computers to retrieve random information, so having more working memory gives computers the capability to retrieve that information more quickly.
“Operating systems have gotten so big that they tend to take up a lot of the RAM memory you need. Anything less than 8 gigabytes will likely cause the computer to run slowly,” Shirley said. “One thing to look at for younger children is something that is not going to frustrate them. They need a device that will be easy to navigate. There are a lot of parents who want to make sure it’s something they can access easily, as well, and install protections or blocks on depending on how old their kids are. Setting up a firewall can limit the amount of internet access of whoever is using it.”
An option for parents who already have a computer that will meet educational requirements is to set up multiple user accounts on the device.
“Look at what you need, and if your child’s primary need is using the internet and basic software that allows them to write papers or edit photos, you can get by with the midrange computer you already have,” Shirley said. “Invest in a backup hard drive or purchase cloud-based storage that can continuously back up your computer. That way, you can move your contents to another computer if the one you have breaks down.”
Some towns do not yet have the infrastructure to deliver adequate and affordable broadband connectivity to residential areas.
“If this is the case, look for free Wi-Fi hotspots in public buildings and restaurants, or check your wireless plan and look into getting a mobile hotspot through your carrier if your child is using a tablet,” Gallardo said. “The long-term solution boils down to broadband providers updating their infrastructure and increasing bandwidth in the towns they serve.”