Ask Unclutterer: Should my family have more than one computer?

Reader Angela submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I work from home with one laptop (a MacBook), which is all I need — until my two children (10 and 15) come home! Then, it’s a fight over who needs the computer. I am usually finished with work, but I may want to surf and check my email. The kids claim to have homework, but I seriously doubt their teachers are assigning videos from YouTube! Anyway, my question for you and the Unclutterer readers is, “How many computers do you think are normal for a family of three?” I am trying to buy less and save more, but I really want another Mac!

To answer your stated question about how many computers are normal for a family of three, the answer is one computer. The Kaiser Family Foundation (using data from the US Department of Commerce) reports that although 90 percent of children in 2009 have access to a computer at home, only 36 percent of children ages 8-18 have their own computers in their bedrooms. So, most children are using a shared family computer in their homes.

However, these facts are meaningless if you are interested in getting a second computer. Evaluate your situation, save the $1,500 for a new Mac, and then buy one if you decide it is what is best for you and your family. Remember, if an object has utility for you and your family, it’s not clutter.

Before buying a second computer, though, I’d like to recommend an experiment for you to conduct. Tell your children that you realize you all can’t use the computer at the same time when you’re at home and you’ve decided to alleviate this problem. Then, the next day after school, drive them to the public library. Synchronize your watches and tell your children they have 45 minutes to jump on the computers and complete their digital-necessary homework. After a week of spending 45 minutes each evening at the library, you’ll have a good idea as to if your children are using the computers for school work (or socializing) and if you really could benefit from a second home computer.

My guess is that your kids will either complain and whine and tell you that you’re a horrible mom, or they’ll actually appreciate their daily time at the library and enjoy having time on the computers to do their homework without having to share a machine. After years of teaching high school, I can say with absolute certainty that your children are not going to have a vague response — you will know if they need a second computer for school work.

Thank you, Angela, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

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83 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Should my family have more than one computer?”

  1. posted by Kathy on

    We have 3 in our family, we each have our own laptops and at one time each had a desktop. One of the desktops died and since my son mostly always uses his laptop, we are not replacing it.

    The mac mini is at the desk — for banking and has the cable internet modem hooked up to it. There is a PC with XP on it in the basement, mostly for certain dedicated software. That has the wireless printer hooked up to it.

    I use a macbook (4 years old). My son has an Asus– with 3 years service plan from BestBuy. DH has a 3 year old super gaming laptop (Toshiba) which is sadly slowed down. When he returns home (he travels for work) we plan to bring it to the PC Dr. to see if it can be revived and given new life with Windows 7– which seemed to really help dson’s computer. If not, I may hand down my macbook to him and purchase a new one. It has been the most reliable computer brand we have ever owned.

    If no refurbed macs are available (only to keep things simple in the world of computer maintenance since she already has a mac) then I would look for a PC. The kids can use Open Office on macs or get Pages (which is really easy to use and documents can be exported to Word or Pdf). I would probably look to a mac mini for the younger one and use the option of the 15 yr old working and earning a laptop to teach some life/responsibility skills. My son used a laptop at school from the time he was 15 for his papers as his English teacher refused to try and read his writing. We added it to his IEP. He is a tremendous writer — he was tested and writes at the level of a 24 year old college graduate. He is a fast typist as well.

  2. posted by carla on

    I have to agree with a lot of the other posters, both as the parent of teenagers and as a teacher.

    They need a computer. Forty-five minutes at a library isn’t going to cut it (and I’ve seen our local library…I couldn’t get work done there with both the distractions and older computer models) As others have also rightly said, don’t loan them your work computer unless you can afford down time. (which also makes me wonder, how often are you backing up your data?)

    One thing I disagree with is the idea of a netbook or an iPad. Both of those do not have full-size keyboards and that is where we learn to type. (okay the iPad could have a full keyboard, but that’s extra) Again, it wouldn’t be efficient and the homework would take longer.

    You could choose if they share or not, but considering the two teenagers in this house spend a fair amount of time doing homework, that would mean one of them is staying up late (oh, they do that anyway)

    Full disclosure: We have 7 computers in the house for 4 of us. I teach computers and my husband works IT.

  3. posted by Nicole on

    Ha! I’m a teacher who has assigned YouTube videos as homework! (They are posted/embedded on our class website though!) As far as computers go… My husband and I own 6! And I can say we use all but one on a constant basis! My very old (2001) Sony laptop, my “old” (2004) iBook, our “old” (2006) iMac, my “new” (2008) MacBook, his (2009) MacBook Pro, and his new PC for his business. I also have a desktop in my classroom that I use because I cannot connect my laptop to the internet at school. :P Whew! So.. do you kids want one of my computers?
    Seriously though, thank you for your commitment to getting your children access to technology! I have high school students who are computer illiterate and I’m worried about their ability to enter college and the workforce. You don’t have to spend $1500 on a new Mac for your kids. Why not buy them a basic desktop PC for a few hundred? They can do their homework and surf the web a little. :) Good luck!

  4. posted by Biblovore on

    Our two-person household has six computers, three of which are laptops (I have two, one personal and one work-issued).

    There are a lot of terrific comments in this thread. One point I’d emphasize is that playing around on a computer can really help build useful skills for later life. My partner is an amazingly good and largely self-taught programmer, who was hired for his first professional programming job at age 15 and has been in demand ever since. His skill level and hireability would be nowhere near as high had he not had exploratory access to computers while growing up.

  5. posted by Ann on

    well, my 3 year old already knows how to type, get online and access his favorites….so i think a second computer is going to be a requirement in this house sooner rather than later!! Ditto on everyone above who mentioned a desk top vs lap-top for the kiddos. Our house has a “no screens in bedrooms policy” (including the master) so we will probably just incorporate it into the living room near our current computer. I am curious how much of my kids school stuff will be on the computer in 12 years when they are in highschool. hopefully, paper will be mostly obsolete by then!
    I use my computer for work on the weekends and evenings (call only, no regular paperwork!) and the one time it crashed I about cried. Once the kids start actually surfing there is no way I am letting the near my machine with my work stuff on it!

  6. posted by Beverly D on

    You know what I am struck by, coming from a severely disadvantaged background, is how casually we discuss spending even $3-400. How do educators expect poor kids, on food stamps and Medicaid, to have personal computers of any brand? You’ve already mentioned how difficult it is to get any computer time in a library, and how in rural areas (where many poor people live) computers are limited anyway. Just thinking out loud here.

  7. posted by GayleRN on

    I would recommend a desktop for the kids at this point because a laptop is too portable, and likely to be lost or stolen. The high school student will need a laptop of his own for college, but wait until you have some idea of the college’s requirements. You don’t want to buy a Mac if they require a PC or vice versa.

    The fact that your work is on the computer and that it has become an issue to you to have more access makes it desirable to you, nevermind the kids.

  8. posted by Sarah on

    If the poster is a Mac user she obviously wants another Mac. This is not a Mac vs PC question. I have bought new Macs and also used. There are a lot of inexpensive Mac options so going to PC is not really the issue. As a Mac user I wanted to put in my 2 cents! For example, I have a new iMac desktop that I love and spent about $1000. For kids I agree with a desktop so they can’t bring it in their rooms and you can monitor them. I also bought a used Emac for $100 on crags list that I brought to my classroom (I’m a teacher). You can do Mac inexpensively (used or Mac mini new) so that is not really the point of the question. I would agree to buy an inexpensive or used Mac desktop for the kids and keep your nice newer Mac for yourself :)

  9. posted by Marjory Thrash on

    As a college instructor and parent, my 2 cents worth:
    1) Mac or PC, either works. College students are preferring laptops of either, simply so they can bring to class. We are finding the really small netbooks don’t carry enough horsepower to work well for a full day’s work – not enough memory, can’t hold enough programs. Students tell me “more memory, more processor speed, reliable internet” are the keys – they do not bother with getting speakers or extra drives.
    2) Student edition of MSOffice or Open Office (MSOffice works much better with Blackboard, D2L and other hybrid/online course software programs, but Open Office can be tweaked to work too) – Open Office is free and Linux friendly. I will not accept materials produced in Works and don’t have it on any of my computers. Every campus I know or have heard about prefers Office, OpenOffice to WordPerfect, although it’s possible to find older versions of WordPerfect on some computers. Personally, I let MSWord translate anything not in that format.
    3) There must be access to a printer. B&W works fine for 99% of work. If a student really, truly needs color, take the stick drive to an outside resource such as Kinko or OfficeDepot – fresh inks, better printers, quick turnaround. I never, ever specify color in my assignments.
    4) If you/child are doing research, then have a phone conversation with a local college English instructor or librarian. It’s very possible the institution or the state has free access into massive free databases such as EBSCOHost – you need only log into the college website, then into the college library site, then put in the access code for free range. Here in Mississippi, residents and students K-college have access to the entire EBSCOHost database range, accessing free e-books, encyclopedias, dictionaries, and thousands of newspapers, journals, magazines, and government publications. The databases are even organized by appropriate level – elementary, high school, college. My students can do virtually all their research at home – free.

  10. posted by Annie on

    Okay, I went to comment here and realized I was writing a small book. :) Just posted my comment as a post on my site referring to this original post instead!

    Summary: Computers replace too many devices, and families should have a 1:1 computer to person ratio IMHO. My reasoning and rant is in the post as it was waay too long to post here. Peace!

  11. posted by Robin on

    The suggestion to get an ipad has to be the most ridiculous in this thread, bested only by the suggestions for an itouch.

    The primary need for the second computer is schoolwork. The primary use of an ipad is goofing off. It’s exactly what you DON’T want to encourage on this second computer! Kids need a machine with a real keyboard to type reports and essays. Plus, an ipad would be worthless in two years when the battery fails, and you cannot print.

    Students should also be learning programing in school and they need a full computer for this. When I was 15 (1993) I was taking AP Computer Science and needed access to a PC and multiple compilers.

    Additionally her kids need to be well-versed in PCs, not just Macs. Macs are used a great deal in education, art, and publishing, but the majority of the business & engineering world uses PCs.

    The reasonable options are an inexpensive desktop, laptop, or netbook. Right now on is a $500 desktop that would be vastly more appropriate than an ipad, for the same price.

    Sure, a netbook has a smaller keyboard but you can still touch type on it which is what’s important. You can always add a $5 USB keyboard if you want one that’s full size.

    In addition to the suggestions of the openoffice software students can also use the free google docs for most of their wordprocessing & spreadsheet needs.

  12. posted by Robin on

    I got so riled up at the notion of an ipad I forgot my initial thought:

    I believe you’ve misinterpreted the results of the Kaiser study.

    “The Kaiser Family Foundation (using data from the US Department of Commerce) reports that although 90 percent of children in 2009 have access to a computer at home, only 36 percent of children ages 8-18 have their own computers in their bedrooms. So, most children are using a shared family computer in their homes.”

    That means kids don’t have computers in their bedrooms, not that they don’t have computers. I would have no problem with my seven year old having her own computer, but she would not be allowed to have it in her bedroom. Kids’ computers should be used in a shared space so parents can keep an eye on content.

  13. posted by Sharon on

    I have 2 teenagers and they absolutely need their own computers for schoolwork. It would be as silly as having them take turns sharing one pen. Part of uncluttenring is simplifying. There is nothing “uncluttered” about having to worry whether you’ll have enough time on the computer to finish your English essay because brother also needs the computer for his biology lab. You wouldn’t expect 2 adults with separate home businesses to share a computer — why expect 2 teenagers to do so when school is their job?

    I love my iPad but I agree, it’s not the solution. An iPad is for consuming media, not writing reports and the like. Really dumb idea.

  14. posted by Rachelskirts on

    We have seven computers in a family of four, but each of them serves a purpose. And in my case, growing up with extensive access to computers (under the tutelage of a computer programmer father) has really helped me as a young adult to get things done at school and at work with more efficiency. I’m also the go-to person at the office for anyone with computer-related questions.

    Obviously, each scenario is unique — as is the case with all clutter situations — so you really do need to consider how much would be gained by having a second computer versus how much physical space (and time) would be lost. In my family, what we’ve gained from the extra computers has definitely been worthwhile.

  15. posted by Squash on

    I build a new cheap Windows PC for the family every year (computers and parts are an educational tax deduction here) and keep the old ones. I no longer use my 5 year old laptop for work so the children use that too. We have a bunch of old computers that all work well enough for school purposes, and play older games, etc.

    If I still used my own computer for work, I would still keep it work-only, and not let the children use it. Once my 5-year-old spilled a cup of water into the keyboard while watching me work. If it was a desktop this would have only meant a $10 keyboard. As it was, my work computer was out of action for a month (thankfully it was still under warranty and the manufacturer fixed it for free!)

    Don’t feel like it is a clutter to have a desk with a few computers on in the corner of a room or study. They WILL get used and it doesn’t have to cost the world to build up over time.

  16. posted by Hudson Joe on

    As an professional working in the computer business for over 30 years now I would say your children should have their own computer. Your work needs to be isolated from the kind of site teens and tweens tend to visit. While your kids could go for a few days without the use of an entertainment computer; I am sure you could not go for days without your work computer. No matter what remember use strong passwords, avoid unknown websites, watch for phising email and have MULTIPLE BACKUPS including at least one off site (read what happened to Francis Ford Coppola )

    Do your children need more than one computer only you can answer that.


  17. posted by Beth on

    YES YES YES!!!! Do not let your little darlings use a computer that you have designated for “big people” work.

    I just tried to install a financial management program on a client’s laptop last week. I knew I was in trouble when the backspace key was completely missing. After a 10 minute or so boot-up, the program failed to install twice. Probably had nothing to do with all the free fishing games, screensavers and chats that her kids had downloaded.

    I told her to go out and get a new computer – just for work – and pass this one along to the kiddies!

  18. posted by WilliamB on

    There’s a logical flaw in your statement that since only 38% have computers in their own rooms, therefore most kids use a shared computer. They could also have their own computers in shared space – which is a lot more sociable and allows for more unobtrusive parental supervision.

    Another option for Angela is a Mac Mini for each kid. A Mac Mini is $400-600, then you need keyboard/mouse/monitor but these can be gotten cheap.

    Also, computers do NOT have to be hooked into the internet and the kids can’t surf the internet on a stand-alone. Angela can see what homework requires online access and what homework requires a computer. If the child needs only to download an assignment, Angela can download it then sneakernet it to the youngster’s computer.

  19. posted by richard on

    good interesting example of a teacher using youtube

  20. posted by Lea on

    “how many computers are normal for a family of three? the answer is one computer”

    So, I shouldn’t mention the 8 computers for the 5 of us that I counted without even trying?

    Probably more around here, and I know there are parts for more all over the place (why *yes* I do follow the “Workspace of the Week” articles avidly ;)

  21. posted by timgray on

    My answer is Two. My home actually has 7 but I’m a strange case. I personally need 4 computers for my self. 1 laptop for work, 1 laptop for my Automotive and electronics, 2 very high power desktops for video editing/Photography business.

    The kids have their own, you have your own. (My wife has her own) but the Kids PC is not a laptop, but a desktop in the kitchen or other main public living space with the monitor facing out to where anyone walking by can easily see it. Never Give a kid a computer in the bedroom or a laptop. They can hide what they are doing and Laptops are easily broken.

    Kids also tend to click on everything, so their computer will be chock full of viruses and trojan horses. you NEVER want your banking and tax information on their pc, and you NEVER want to use their computer for anything, treat it as a virus infected trap. Dont get the kids a expensive machine, they get a cheap mac mini, or small nettop PC.

    Also never EVER let the kids use your pc. last thing you need is the kids wanting a new HelloKitty wallpaper and having all your financial info sent to russia.

  22. posted by Anita on

    I’d also say that having a work computer and a family computer is the way to go, with rules around the use of the family computer. And I agree with making the family computer a desktop and a PC: you can get a more than decent one for less than half the price of a new MacBook.

  23. posted by Mletta on

    I don’t know about other libraries, but in NYC, depending on which branch library you are at, you simply cannot waltz in whenever you want and have access to a computer.

    Some branches require advance reservations and they are not available when you would want them. Others have a first-come, first-served deal and often there are lines.
    (I have never, and I mean never, been in any branch, at any time of day, when there was an empty computer.)

    So this “test” just wouldn’t work for a lot of people in big cities.

    We work from home (home office setup); we would NEVER share a computer with a kid for any reason whatsoever.
    We spend a huge amount of time monitoring and keeping our computers clean. Because of workloads, there is simply no way to have only one computer for two working adults.

    All of our friends who have tried to have just one computer for work at home and family use have had disasters. And they ended up having to buy not ONE new computer, but TWO. Why? Because their kids and all their crazy downloads and site access had managed to get viruses and such on their computer (despite all sorts of protective software)and they wasted time and $$ in vain to clean the machines. Kids of any age, if they are going to have a computer, should have their own.

    And it should be low-end, easily replaced $-wise, etc.

    Also, if they’re not old enough to learn how to maintain the computer (run protective software, get the right updates, etc.), then maybe they shouldn’t be on a computer at all.

  24. posted by Rue on

    If her public libraries are like any of the ones in the city I grew up in – all the computers are taken no matter what time you get there. To ever get one, you have to sign up for a slot in advance.

    I personally would get a second computer for the kids to share. That way she still has one to do what she needs and/or wants to do, and the kids are still able to do what they need to do. They should be allowed to divide the time on their own computer between themselves (mom intervening only if they can’t work it out). To save money she could simply get them a cheap netbook – it’ll get the job done but she won’t have to shell out as much as she would for a “real” laptop.

  25. posted by TheAntiChick on

    So I suppose the following for a family of 4 is right out??

    Desktops (incl. server): 4
    Laptops: 3
    Netbooks: 3

    ;) The anti-virus and Microsoft Office licensing is a bear. :D

    To be fair, I’m a computer geek and I work from home quite a bit and have some side business. So 1 of the desktops is a family server, and 1 is a Linux box for learning. The 13yo and I have desktops and netbooks, my husb has a HUGE laptop (not conducive for carrying around) and a netbook for taking to school.

    But we’re pretty odd all the way around.

    As for the original poster, I’d join the chorus saying to recommend one more low-end PC (desktop), and look at adding a netbook or laptop when the one child gets into high school and needs the computer constantly.

  26. posted by gypsy packer on

    @Beverly-Many thanks for the reminder on low-income families. I put off purchasing a computer for years, not because of the initial cost (tax refund would purchase it) but because of the issues of expensive ongoing repairs, vandalism by neighbors (already an issue with electronic typewriters and word processors) and theft.
    These issues caused me to recommend the iPod Touch, which can be carried in a pocket and kept away from burglars and vandals. The omission of education in programming skills was a generational lapse–apologies from the Old Lady.
    Of course, app programming is a huge wage-earner for IT students…

  27. posted by Wendy on

    Create a sign up sheet for the kids so they learn to share. Computers can be like pianos, you don’t have a piano for every child in the family who takes lessons.

  28. posted by Robin on

    The odds of an ipod touch getting lost or stolen are hugely higher than a laptop or desktop, plus an ipod isn’t sufficient for schoolwork.

  29. posted by zaci1 on

    i’d say 1 computer for every person aged 5+. Either laptop or desktop if it’s their primary one. No cell phones, pads, readers, w/e. Netbooks, maybe, but they suck for picture editing work (which can be very usefull for some school projects). Its not expensive anymore people, so why the fuss – if you look around a bit i’m sure everyone could find an older machine for free even..

    ((and may i suggest Linux, since its, well, free, even if they mess everything up, like, daily? And no, Windows is not faster, prettier, less buggy, better all around, paying itself off with time, w/e. There is ONE thing it is better at than other OS’s – computer games. Macs are a luxury/trendy, like e.g. designer shoes. I personally don’t consider them worth the price, but it is really a personal choice.))

  30. posted by Jen on

    We’re a family of 4 and have 2 desktops, 1 laptop, 1 netbook, and 2 smartphones. The two adults have a laptop and a desktop. The 11 year old has a netbook, and the 8 year old has a desktop. I tend to think this is the norm (if not below) for a “middle class” family this day and age. I know the 8 year old has been on his computer for extra math work. The 11 year old has been on the desktop for some work that wasn’t finished in school. Don’t get me started with docx conversions–we’re an Open Office household. Shoot, my office doesn’t even use Office 97, so I don’t see why they’re teaching it in 6th grade. Sad that our schools are up to date and our workplaces aren’t.

  31. posted by Robin on

    Jen, I’ve found that google docs does a great job of converting docx. I use office 2k and was unable to open 2007 documents. I can upload them to google docs and then save as something 2k compatible.

  32. posted by laimo on

    How bout this. 14 yr old guy. set up entire digital household. Sorted out remaining pc and 2 laptops followed. See somethimes kids set up the digi home for parents. Clever. And I censor them. King of dig house ! And yes I do homework on laptop. Although only 3 pcs per 4, it’s a start!

  33. posted by Amy on

    I am loving this thread. Ask a bunch of tech-savvy blog readers how many computers a household should have, and see how high the numbers go! I imagine the answer to this question would vary a ton depending on context (i.e., asking people on the street rather than folks on an online forum).

    If you asked me, I’d say you should have enough computers that you aren’t quite sure how many computers you have, you have to look up at the ceiling and visualize your house room by room and count ‘em up on your fingers. :)

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