Buying a cheap personal student laptop

Theoretically, all freshmen will be getting a laptop checked out from the district in the spring of 2020. The following year all students are supposed to be checked out a machine. SPS timelines tend to slip, so these dates are not written in stone.

The Seattle Public Schools district does have relatively rich computer resources available for students. At West Seattle High School we have 3ish computer labs and 7 computer carts containing a class set of laptops. In general, your student will have access to these computers quite often.

That said, there are some issues with our computer resources that may lead you to consider buying your child a cheap-o laptop that they can bring every day. That means $175 to $350. You might also consider buying a USB mouse your student can carry around.

If you are rich and your student doesn’t break things, feel free to have them bring their $3,200 MacBook Pro every day.

It doesn’t much matter what machine you buy, and anything I might recommend will be out of date so quickly that it is pointless to recommend anything specific on this page. Just go to your favorite vendors or a reputable general-purpose tech website and read the reviews. That said,


I would suggest that you look for the following things:

A USB mouse. Something as basic as the Logitech Wireless Mouse M185 for $12 would be handy to carry around. There is a fully functional $7 Logitec wired mouse that works great too, but wires in students backpack are terrifying. Having a mouse is useful though, since trying to get used to an unfamiliar trackpad just makes life unpleasant.

A good monitor. Some quite cheap laptops ($175-300) have a good-looking 1920×1080 (full HD) resolution monitors. Looking at a decent monitor makes a big difference when viewing art or slideshows. Also a lot of web-based applications take up so much screen space with top and side navigation that having a biggish monitor is just handy for getting work done.

A couple of USB ports, at least one of which should be USB-C. You’ll need at least one for a mouse and probably another for a USB drive. A card reader port is also handy, but not necessary.

At least 4 gigabytes of internal RAM (memory) is the one thing I would recommend splurging on. Even a Chromebook (which I strongly recommend) does a lot better with 4 gigs of ram.

Keyboard quality is a matter of personal preference, but it matters to me. Read the reviews.


Things that don’t much matter:

Almost all laptops now come with a “Solid State Drive” instead of the old “Hard Drive”. That is a good thing.

“Solid State Drive” storage capacity don’t much matter, particularly on a Chromebook. Just save everything on the web at a site like Google Drive or OneDrive. Youtube, Spotify, etc. will play all the music your student needs and those services use streaming as opposed to being stored on the machine. Basic web-based storage is free.

Touch-screens just get dirty. Mice are precise.

The particular chipset of the machine rarely matters. Most everything is going to be web-browser-based one a cheap-o machine, and basically any chipset will run that.

An operating system of any particular type matters not at all. Most everything done for school will be done on web-based applications (Google Drive, OneDrive, Schoology, etc.). A Windows based machine, a Chromebook, or an Apple made machine will all work fine.


Additional information:

The difficulties we just will have given the large size and complexity of offering computers to as many students as possible:

The district machines are relatively slow and have mediocre monitors. We would be wasting taxpayer dollars if that were not true.

Any laptop we offer will not have a mouse. Trackpads invariably vary from machine to machine. Having one’s own mouse or a trackpad one is used to makes a huge difference.

The district machines are designed to protect all students, no matter who logs in, from everything. This means that they are generically configured and often block basic things that have to be un-blocked each time a student logs on (pop-open tabs, videos, etc.). Having one’s own machine means one can work just as one likes without little distractions.

Updates are pushed out centrally and install on the laptops only when someone turns them on. This often means that the machines are randomly slow as every one of them installs software over our network at the same time. Having one’s own machine would avoid this.

A few students forget to logout every period, and this makes a few random machines slow each period until that is cleared.

We do what we can, but if you have a student who isn’t going to lose or break a cheap-o laptop too often, having them bring one would be handy. They can take notes, type up homework, check grades, etc. They also won’t have to use your computer at home. For $175-350 that can be accomplished.

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