Best Computer for Children

A friend asked me, with a budget of $600, what type of computer(s) should she buy for used by her children. She has children aged from older elementary school down. This is actually a difficult decision because that budget is right in the middle of a whole range of possible choices. For her oldest, she has already done a lot of writing in MS Word, as well as use many educational websites for math and spelling drills. For the youngest, she is still at the playing stage. What computing devices are good?

Windows PC

First I want to rule out any Windows PC or laptop. Why? The budget certainly can buy the "deal of the month" from Staples or Microcenter or even costco -- whatever laptop or desktop they offer. Unless you are a Windows power user already, windows based computers are just too complicated to support. Apple's hardware certainly are more expensive on the surface, and never discounted by much, their products are really better -- easier to maintain. The last thing one needs at home is to constantly trying to fix software or hardware problem on the family computer.


For ourselves, our main kids computer is an old iMac that I bought from Apple refurb site a few years ago. I like the physical design of the iMac because it is a simple one piece design. Nothing to go under the desk, takes up little desk top space. Both of our kids use it for browsing, Scratch programming, and drawing when they were younger. Because we are a Mac household, I can easily share their screen and see what they are doing. It is cute that, for now, when they are doing something cool, they actually want me to share their screen to see what they are doing. I am sure that will change in a few years.

Best place to buy an iMac is either at the Apple refurb store. Especially older models are (relatively) deeply discounted. However the cheapest reburb iMac are usually still around $1000 or more, beyond the $600 budget.



iPad is an interesting alternative. Ignoring word processing for the moment, the iPad is the perfect children computing device. It has a lot of great educational apps as well as games. It is rugged (when placed inside a good case) enough for everyday use. It is portable for trips. Using a good stylus (I recommend the cosmonaut) it has great drawing apps, that can easily shared onto Facebook or email to grandma. Even for writing, first children today are actually used to or can quickly learn to use the virtual keyboard. Otherwise a Amazon generic branded bluetooth keyboard will turn the iPad into a good writing machine. It is actually good to not have too many formatting options, so that the writer can focus on writing. Another benefits of the iPad is that if you set it up to do iCloud backup, the documents are always automatically backed up.

(See iPad apps list at the end of this article.)

One small negative with the iPad though is that it is really designed as a single user device. There are no user login, and everyone can see everything on the iPad. So if it is used by multiple children to create media, they have to learn to share and make sure they do not mind accessing each other's documents.

The $600 budget certainly covers a baseline iPad -- either the latest model, or even the now two generation old iPad 2. I myself use an iPad 2 and find it more than adequate. A base model refurb iPad 2 goes for $319 these days. (Remember as of Nov 2012 the iPad line is really confusing, there is the iPad 2, the older new iPad, the the just announced new new iPad. i.e. there are two "new" iPad models, the "3rd generation iPad" is actually not the newest.)

Mac Mini

The Mac mini is an often overlooked choice. The cheapest new Mac mini is $599. It is basically an iMac without any peripherals. If you happen to have an unused USB keyboard, mouse, and monitor available, the Mac mini is a great choice. You can also buy a non Apple USB keyboard cheaper than the nice Apple one. You should try to find a monitor that has HDMI or DVI input and has 1920x1080 resolution to do the Mac justice. Therefore, depending on how much you want to spend on monitor, keyboard and mouse, a fully functioning Mac can be built around the mini for anything from $600 to about $1000.


I know this may sound a bit unconventional, but especially for younger kids I recommend getting an iPad instead of any laptops. Why?

  • It is cheaper than an iMac
  • There are a lot of good educational apps out there
  • It is maintenance free, hardware and software (setup iCloud backup, you will not loose data)
  • Support Drawing
  • and it is definitely a Fun device!

Just make sure the entire family learn to share, and make sure no private/personal document and contents are on it.


Useful Apps

These are the apps that I use myself

Can you use the iPhone as the only Family Camera?

If you have an iPhone 4S or 5, I'd say yes. The camera on the newer iPhone is really good. And as the cliche goes, the best camera is the one that is on you. The reasons to use a "real" camera instead of the iPhone would be:

  • better low light performance -- so that you can take pictures without flash indoor, in the evenings. The Cannon S90 and up can do that
  • lower shutter lack -- you can start taking the first picture quickly, and can continue to shoot instead of waiting for the camera to recover -- Really only DSLR can do this well

I own both the S90 which I pretty much stopped using. I own a high end DSLR, Nikon D7000 which I use when I need to take pictures at kids sports events indoor and out, or when I am actually planning to do some photo shooting sessions. Otherwise it is the iPhone!


Meanwhile, here are some pictures taken with my iPhone 4S:


Working on a School ProjectOur Annual Easter Egg ProjectLongfellow Bridge through Glass WindowSpanish Class ProjectScratch Day at MIT 2012School Project She learnt this project at the Waltham Industry MuseumStrawberry picking!Quick pic inside the minivan

iPhone as Family Camera, a set on Flickr.

Explain Acupuncture to an eight year old

I want to get some acupuncture treatment yesterday for my back.  G has been asking me about how it works so I took him with me. He watched Dr Mai examined my back, and then applied about ten needles in my back. On the way home, I started to explain meridians, and chi to him. Then he asked a couple of questions that made me realized there were some fundamental misconception: Remember all his experience in medicine are

  • taking over the counter western medicine like fever reducers
  • annual check ups by his pediatrician
  • vaccination via needles
  • and ok -- he did take a course of Chinese herbal medicine once

The misconception is that he thought the acupuncture needles were injecting medicine (like a western needle) into the body. Once I explained the needle is there to adjust (unblock or reduce) chi flow, his next logical question is how can the doctor tell where are the acupuncture points. I told him that ultimately is done by feel. Then he appreciates the difficulties. When I told him that Traditional Chinese Medicine is slowly getting lost because the difficulties in studying and practicing, he shared my concern.


Are we the only family who does not play video games?

Wii Logo

G just started soccer with the in town team and attended his first practice. Great group of kids. Wonderful coaches. He is going to really enjoy it. At the first practice, by mean of introduction, the coach asked everyone to introduce themselves -- what is your name, your grade, your school and what is your favorite video game?

Well, G is the only kid that answered "I don't have a favorite video game" which is technically correct. That is because we do not own any video game console, nor we really play video games on the computers. Ok we do play a few games on the iPad, but that's it.

We are obviously not technophobic. G program games. I just finished a class called "Game design for education" and started one called "Game for social change" at MIT. The right games are great for kids. Just not the generic video games.

Hint: Try Plague Inc. on the iPad. Review coming soon.

Who Approve Books?

This is the question of the day from G. Many mornings the first thing G does is to come up to me and ask me a question out of the blue. Today's question -- who decide what books to sell? I explained to him the traditional book business first. There are publishing houses, with editors screening authors and books for quality of content. "Grammar and spelling?" G asked? Yes but also whether the stories and contents are age appropriate, whether it is interesting that people would want o buy it.

I named a few publishers for him, and tell him to check the spine of some of the books in our library. Sometimes publishers are known for the type of books they sell. "A lot of your books are by Scholastics" I told G. Where as many of my computer books are by Wiley.

We also talked about the self publishing market. The good news is that anyone can publish a book now, print or electronic. The bad news is, quality varies. "Do you want to publish a book?" I asked him. "No, was just wondering" -- his typical answer.

Updated: The next morning, after his usual morning reading time, he showed me his book and pointed out the publisher's name on it. I guess this is still on him mind.


Birthday for an eight year old

G had a wonderful birthday. His sister spent a lot of time making him a lacrosse stick that is functional! M and I had to work to hide it from G before the birthday. M also made a daily quote paper chain for him, opening a link each day. When I commended her on all her hard work for her brother, she said "well it also fill some of my bored time". She really is a caring sister.

G is very sensible about presents. We talked a lot about what he would like, and he is happily rejecting things that are too expensive, or unnecessary. We settle on a micro crawler, a very sophisticated "toy". Most people would consider that more of an expensive hobby item. He was of course happy to receive it. We played with it a bit before bedtime. When I was heading to bed, he said "you are a good daddy". A few minutes later he found me and gave me a hug and thanked me for the present. I guess he really like it.

First Time Fishing

I do not like fishing. There, I said it. Therefore the kids have never been fishing. Luckily, one of their school friends invited them to a fishing play date. They went fishing right on the Charles river lagoon area in town. M fell into the river immediately because she did not realized the last steps were slippy. But she was a good sport and had a great time. I was not there. Otherwise I would have get her dried up instead of standing in the drizzle wearing wet clothes while fishing. But that's another story.

The best news is all the kids caught something. M's carp is particularly good sized. She was very proud.

Over Achieving Packer

Our suburban move is almost confirmed. This afternoon I started M and G off sorting and packing their toys. For little kids I know they are way better than most kids. I have subtly trained them in being organized and not keeping too much "stuff". Both went about their tasks. But of course after two hours M wondered off to do something else, and G kept going. He threw away a lot of old toys and nicknacks that he collected. At the end, he came over to me, smiled and said "over achiever?" I laughed and hugged him.