It looks like a regular school year isn’t in the cards, at least not in the U.S. You might be scrambling to get your children set up with a computer so they can connect with their teachers and classmates, and do their homework. Here are the best computers for that on a budget.
We’ve broken our recommendations down into three sections, with a product for each popular operating system (OS). Most school systems probably don’t have a particular OS preference. Many lean on web tools that make cheaper Chromebooks and iPads a viable option, but a few still rely on proprietary programs that only run on Windows. Be sure to check if your child’s school has any preferences or requisite OS-specific programs before making a purchase.
Since students mostly perform simple tasks, like video calls, research, or typing, they don’t need computers with the costly, high-end components many standard computers have. Chromebooks are definitely the sweet spot when it comes to functionality versus price. They offer full web browser powers at a much lower cost than Windows, although with much less powerful hardware. So, while they won’t be much help for live streaming, they’re perfect for school.
While there’s no such thing as a “budget” MacOS device, an iPad is your best bet if that’s the operating system you prefer. The newer iPads have impressive specs and hardware that rival laptops at the same price point.
Plus, they have touch screens, look great on video calls, and pack impressive hardware for the price. A recent update from Apple also means they now work well with external keyboards and mice. Some school districts have even integrated iOS apps into their management systems.
However, for the most flexible and capable option, and a back catalog of literally millions of applications, a Windows PC still can’t be beat.
A Chromebook is, hands down, the best option, especially if you’re on a budget. Its necessities-only design keeps out the flashy (and costly) hardware found in gaming PCs. Plus, it boots up quickly and is easy for students and teachers to use. Chromebooks ship with several handy Google apps preinstalled, including Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides, for creating a variety of documents. It also includes apps for video calls and music. Even Minecraft: Education is now available for Chromebook.
We recommend the HP 14-inch Touch-Screen Chromebook ($279). It has an Intel Celeron processor, an Intel HD 500 graphics card, 4 GB of RAM, and a 32 GB eMMC flash memory. It comes with a USB-C charger, but its lithium-ion battery lasts up to 10.75 hours on a single charge, which should be enough to get your child through a day of school.
The built-in camera makes easy work of video calls, and you’ll have peace of mind knowing incoming videos will look good on its 1366 x 768p HD touch screen. You can even connect extra devices, like a mouse, via its four USB ports. The Chromebook is super-easy to use—just sign in with your Google account and you’ll be able to access all of your Google Drive files and Chrome settings.
Windows computers have long been the standard in classrooms and homes, so, naturally, they’re a good fit for students as well. The familiar layout is easy to use, and the large icons and tiles in the start menu make it a cinch to find your favorite apps.
Windows laptops don’t have built-in productivity apps, like Chromebooks. However, you can still access options like Google Drive by logging in online or getting a Microsoft Office subscription.
The Lenovo IdeaPad 3 laptops are solid picks for anyone wanting a simple Windows device with an HD screen. The 14-inch model ($379.99) offers a 1920 x 1080p full HD screen, a 1 TB HDD, 8 GB of DDR4 RAM, and an impressive 2.6 GHz AMD 3rd Generation Ryzen 3 processor.
Its battery lasts seven hours on a single charge, and its three USB ports make it easy to connect peripherals, like a mouse or external hard drive. Plus, its front-facing camera shoots in 720p high definition, so everything will look good on a video call.
The 15-inch IdeaPad ($429.99) has a 1366 x 768p HD touch screen (so you lose a bit of screen real estate over the 13.5-inch model). The front-facing camera shoots in 720p HD for good looking video calls. It also has 8 GB of DDR4 RAM, a 1.2 GHz Intel 10th Generation Core i3 processor, and an impressive 256 GB SSD for super-fast storage. This laptop has multiple USB ports for external device connection, and its battery lasts for up to 7.5 hours.
As we mentioned above, there unfortunately isn’t an inexpensive Mac option. If it’s your favorite OS, though, you can mimic a more traditional setup. A new iPad with a practical case (instead of Apple’s costlier options) that has a built-in keyboard, trackpad, and kickstand could be the perfect alternative.
You could also go with a refurbished Mac Mini if you don’t mind buying a used device since Apple is so good at keeping its software current.
We recommend the latest Apple iPad with Wi-Fi ($329.99) with 32 GB of storage. Although the iPad’s 10.2-inch retina-display LED screen is smaller than those on the other two devices, it has the highest resolution (2160 x 1620p). Unsurprisingly, its 2.4 GHz A10 Fusion chip is also a sufficiently fast processor
The iPad is also perfect for making video calls and watching videos. Its 1.2 MP front-facing camera shoots video in 720p, while the rear-facing, 8 MP camera shoots video in 1080p full HD.
The iPad runs iPadOS and, of course, Siri is built-in for extra help. Its battery lasts for up to 10 hours per charge, which is enough to get your child through a day of schoolwork. The same as the Chromebook, the iPad comes with several handy applications that are ready to use, like FaceTime, Calendar, Notes, Videos, iBooks, and more.