Laptop for a child
June 12, 2006 1:17 AM   Subscribe

Portable computer for a child: I'm trying to find out if anyone is currently manufacturing a robust and light portable computer for a seven year old to use at school.

My niece is seven and has some fine motor control difficulties which makes it very difficult to form letters or numbers. She has been dictating her homework and is also beginning to type on the family desktop, but it would be really useful if we could find a small light computer for her to take to school.

Some years ago (perhaps a decade or more), I remember a friend who had a Mac laptop designed for children - a very robust little machine in a hard green plastic shell. It was designed to survive a fall from desk or chair height.

But when I googled "child's computer" or anything like it, I only seem to find "learn to spell" or "learn to add" machines. They are just toys, preprogrammed with one or two activities.

Basically, I'm looking to see if there is anything like that old Mac, only if it had a floppy drive or USB connection (as opposed to infrared), that would be better. It does not need to be smart - she is currently using notepad to write stories or to answer equations typed in for her. Something with a notepad or word processor function is essential. But also light and robust enough for an active and not always careful little girl to carry to school and back.

I imagine that if these sorts of things still exist, they may be too expensive or heavy. But I thought I would ask here just in case. Thank you.
posted by jb to Computers & Internet (15 answers total)
You are thinking of the first generation of the Apple iBook. It had a few colors: lime, graphite, indigo, orange, and blueberry. You could look for clamshell iBooks on eBay.

They'll handily run Mac OS 9, Internet Explorer 5.2.3 and Microsoft Office 2001. All models have USB and some will support AirPort to do 802.11b wireless networking. The clamshell comes with a strong handle that folds out from the case.
posted by Mr. Six at 1:25 AM on June 12, 2006

Actually, you're thinking of the neat-o Apple eMate. I wish I could get one today that had USB ports. And for about $20. If wishes were fishes...
posted by terceiro at 1:37 AM on June 12, 2006

You might consider the Alphasmart Neo as a modern equivalent to the eMate. They run about $250, however. Ebay has some older, cheaper alternatives.
posted by terceiro at 1:50 AM on June 12, 2006

I'm not up on the newest models, but what about a pda with a keyboard?
posted by jvilter at 4:06 AM on June 12, 2006

I'm inclined to suggest going with a first generation iBook, or possibly the first non-clamshell iBook. You might want to spec out your options and costs of a replacement hard drive, just in case. If I were buying a device that old (particularly a laptop), I'd always be suspicious about how much more life the hard drive has left....
posted by kimota at 5:03 AM on June 12, 2006

Alphasmart also makes the "Dana" and "Dana Wireless." I'd look into them as well.

Alphasmart's products are pretty rugged -- they're carried by journalists (ostensibly, no proof of this on my part) and others. They're made to be out in the world, not in some office.
posted by zpousman at 5:45 AM on June 12, 2006

3rd or 4th the AlphaSmart idea -- the public school system I attended issued them to kids with writing difficulties, I think. At least, there were several special-needs kids at my highschool that used them, wherever they got them. That particular model was a flat slab with a keyboard and a 2-line, 20-character LCD display, and it "output" text by direct connection to a keyboard port, but it certainly worked.
posted by Alterscape at 6:09 AM on June 12, 2006

My two children both had difficulty writing and used alphasmarts for a year. The alphasmarts worked very well. Spellcheck can be turned off and on, so the teachers were comfortable letting the children use the device for assessments. We bought several extra USB cables so that the boys could easily print out their work. Their schoolwork and their attitudes improved dramatically. It was robust enough for two 11 year old boys, even when they occasionally dropped it.

One of my boys "grew out" of the desire to rely upon the alphasmart and decided to improve his handwriting so that he did not need the alphasmart. I credit the alphasmart for supporting him as he transitioned from a "problem student" to a great student.
posted by aliksd at 6:10 AM on June 12, 2006

Upon reading the further comments, I'd probably change my recommendation to the AlphaSmart product. A full-fledged laptop for a 7 year-old is probably overkill and could be a support nightmare. I've only seen one of the AlphaSmarts (it appeared to be an eMate without the Apple logo), and I'm thinking it's the right feature set for the age. Good luck!
posted by kimota at 6:31 AM on June 12, 2006

Ooh, the alphasmart is nice. I've been using my eMate for this sort of thing, but it's a bit ungainly.
posted by dmd at 6:31 AM on June 12, 2006

The first generation iBooks are completely unsuitable: I find them too heavy to lug around for any length of time, and I'm a 28 year old bloke!
posted by jack_mo at 8:32 AM on June 12, 2006

I'll nth Alphasmart -- I've got a Dana. Light, durable, perfect for simple word processing.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:09 AM on June 12, 2006

Alphasmart! Alphasmart! Alphasmart! My two sons (now 16 and 11) have had AS3000s for a couple of years...the older one carries his everywhere. I have a Neo, which has variable screen resolution and costs about $250...much better memory, internal software and a better keyboard than the older models. 3 AA batteries last literally hundreds of hours, and the included manager software makes sending and receiving files from PC or Mac a breeze. All you need is a USB cable (included), though it works through infrared as well.

I would avoid the Alphasmart Dana for your daughter, though of course many adults like it. It's really a Palm device with a large screen and keyboard. Battery life isn't anywhere near the Neo or AS3000 and it's somewhat more expensive.

These devices are used by a lot of writers, much as the old Tandy Model 100 was decades ago. They are simple, rugged and utterly reliable, and Alphasmarts are used in about half the school districts nationwide. There's an active discussion group over on Flickr you can look into.
posted by lhauser at 1:13 PM on June 12, 2006

Thank you so much - I need to look into these suggestions. Actually, our budget is not so tight - more like under $1000 CND. I just knew that many of the toughest notebooks were more like $2000-3000.
posted by jb at 4:00 AM on June 13, 2006

It was an eMate that I was thinking of -- and the AlphaSmart products look amazing, thank you. This is exactly what I was looking for. Heck, I might even get myself one of the more full featured models for notetaking, if they can run spreadsheets.
posted by jb at 4:09 AM on June 13, 2006

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