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 jasonlotito on

    The questioner, it seems, works on their computer. I’d always advice people that do real work on their computer (not just work while they happen to be on the computer) get one generic one for the family. You don’t want your work hindered because of problems with your computer caused by every day family usage.

    The important part is being honest with yourself. Are you using the computer to help you get work done, or do you need it to get work done. I’m a programmer. My wife is a graphic designer. We each need a computer to do our work.

  2. posted by Bird1128 on

    I echo the poster above. I have a friend who uses his computer for work (at home). His kids would watch videos and play games that were constantly infecting his computer with viruses making it impossible for him to work, whereas for the kids their ‘fun’ was merely curtailed. He got an inexpensive desktop for their use and kept his computer for work only purposes.

  3. posted by Dave on

    It might also be worth considering looking at netbooks for the kids. If they’re doing schoolwork (word processing, looking stuff up on wikipedia, etc) then even a basic netbook should be able to cover them for what they need. They could probably also watch youtube videos on them, but that’s about as much as they’d be capable of (small screen, low specs and lack of DVD reader make games and movies unlikely). In addition, unless you’re actually wanting to buy a new Macbook for yourself and can give your old one would go to your kids, you could buy a $300-$350 netbook for both of your kids and still be spending less than half what a new macbook would cost. Have a look at the Acer Aspire One (the one I’ve got) and HP Mini as examples of what you could get for that price range

  4. posted by John Galt on

    I am single, and live by myself. I have 2 computers (one for geared towards work, one towards entertainment), a laptop and a PS3. You can never have too many.

  5. posted by Amy on

    My husband and I both work at home on our computers and the kids have a desktop that they share. We were far too often unable to do our work between 3 and 6 pm when they needed to do homework. Junior high seems to be the age when they begin to need to regularly type two or three page writing assignments. Until they get quick at typing and better at writing, these take a LOT of time, at least in our house. And having a computer for them to just mess around on makes a lot of sense at this age as well, as a general aptitude for figuring out how to do things online is a very necessary skill. I cannot fathom sharing the computer now that we’ve gotten them their own. That said, you can probably get a desktop PC that would be more than sufficient for homework for under $500.

  6. posted by Wesley on

    I agree with the above posters I could get a non-expensive computer of some kind of the kids. Just some random cheap OEM Desktop would do the trick just fine I am sure. That is what my parents did. My dad had his work computer, he did his own taxes and ran a business of that computer so it was untouchable by us kids, and we had an old crappy Dell. Then when my dad got a new computer his old one became the family computer and I got the old crappy Dell in my room. It was probably 5 years old by that point, but I thought it was awesome.

  7. posted by souggy on

    The only issue with the hour-time limit is the older one will probably need much longer to do his or her essays at a high school level. I can’t really say much because my family is fairly centric around computers, as in the four of us have a desktop and a laptop each, when I was growing up.

  8. posted by Matt on

    As someone who works in a library, I’ll let you know it’s not so simple to “jump on a computer” especially for 45 minutes. My library has a 2 session, 30 minute each limit. If there is a line after your first 30 minute session, you must wait at the end for your other session. With school back in session, the evening hours are as busy as the daytime during the summer.

    Utilizing the library is a great idea but with budget cuts to staff and hours, more planning than assuming you can just jump on a computer is needed. I alo agree with the first comment who said a work computer should be kept separate from a family computer. Accidents happen, such as personal files being accidentally emailed or deleted.

  9. posted by OogieM on

    One or more computers per person would be my suggestion. Remember an iPad or iPod touch is a small computer, as is a smartphone, netbook and even a kindle.

    We’ve got 2 of us in our house, at this time I personally use 4 different main computers daily and a few more occasionally for specialized tasks. Total current actively working computer count in our house is closer to 20 or more. All are actively used and most are specialized or running specific SW that is incompatible with others (different revisions of operating systems, different processors etc. all used in testing) However, we both work in the computer field and the house is also our office.

    Using a library computer may be possible, if the library has one, but don’t count on that as an option esp. in rural areas. The few computers at our library are never available after school.

    I’d look at one of the iPads or a small netbook for each child as a minimum and then decide if additional computing resources are needed based on special SW requirements or special needs.

  10. posted by Gilka Nana on

    Get a PC, not a Mac! It’s much cheaper than shelling out $1,500 and your children can do everything they are already on your Mac.

  11. posted by Andrew on

    I would recommend a desktop computer, Nothing portable at all. It would force the kids to work only in one spot reducing non-work activities. plus large desktops are easier to repair, if needed.

    I would not rely on library computers, they could go down, not have the necessary software, viruses, privacy implications, etc etc. with your own computer you can control it better.

    It’s always a good idea of have multiple computers if your work depends on it. You can’t just write off days because your single computer went down!

  12. posted by Karen on

    Not all libraries have huge computer resources. Often there’s a wait, especially if you go to the library during peak hours (the evenings and weekends, which is when I imagine most schoolchildren and their parents can get to them).

    If they need to do ‘research’, introduce them to the encyclopedias, they have nice current editions at the library, and they are way more reliable and accurate than Wikipedia. It always pained me when I worked at a library to find a child frustrated at the computer, unable to find information, and I’d show them the encyclopedia and the child would say, “You mean I can find it in a BOOK?” Oy.

    We homeschool. My son is ten and has a computer, but that was mainly due to my husband’s desire for him to have a computer. We do most of his schoolwork the oldfashioned way; the computer is basically a toy for him. He is allowed one online game (it’s one we play as well, so we can get together sometimes and play as a family), and a few CD-Rom games. Eventually he’ll learn to type using the computer.

    My husband uses his laptop for his work. So i have a desktop computer, which I use to scan and store documents related to homeschooling, banking, and for networking with other homeschoolers in the area.

    So for a family of five, we have three computers. For us, it’s not clutter. For some, it may be.

  13. posted by Periwinkle on

    I’m 17 and my brother is 19. Our household is exceptional in the number of computers we have (in the room where I’m sitting, there’s 7, though not all of them work/are for general use – there’s a backup machine and my dad’s work-provided laptop, for instance) but I really don’t know how we could possibly manage on one computer.

    My father is a technical writer. He sometimes works from home, and he often works in the evenings on the computer.

    I’m a student. The secondary school I’ve just finished ran on a compressed day, which meant we finished at 2.20 but had more homework than schools who finished later. I loved it because it meant I could choose when I wanted to do my work, but it meant a computer at home was absolutely essential as I could (and often did) have several hours of work to do at home.

    My brother is at university, so it’s less of a problem now because he’s normally living away from home, but he has plenty of work to do. His uni has very short terms so during the holidays, he’s generally working a full day and he needs a computer for a lot of it.

    My mother is also a student and works freelance as well. She needs a computer for both.

    There’s no possible way we could have just one computer. Trying to work at school was impossible (very limited transport) and even when you’re there, the filters make it take ten times longer to actually work – no image search and sites get blocked at random (my school blocked their own website on multiple occasions). For 15 and under, the internet at the library is filtered to the same level so no dice there either.

    If there’s more than one person who has to actually WORK at a computer, then I’d say more than one is essential.

  14. posted by J on

    Sounds like a job for an iPad. They’re great for email, web, youtube, facebook — just the kind of thing a kid would love. Add Pages for $10 and you’ve got a portable word processing machine. (You may have to wait until November to print.)

    Occasionally, there may be task requiring the ‘real computer’, but those should be sparse enough that sharing the real computer shouldn’t be an issue.

  15. posted by gypsy packer on

    One computer definitely is not enough. How will your children do your homework if it fails?

    I’ve seen netbooks online and in sale flyers for as little as $99–extremely small screen. For the cost of a Mac, you also could get a couple of iPod Touches–one for each child–if they are not prone to lose, drop, or otherwise be done out of them. Podcasts on any schoolwork subject are plentiful, and reconditioned last-gen Touch prices on eBay and other sites are dropping with the introduction of the newest model.

    At any rate, you need a second computer, for a spare. You may want a reconditioned model–most factory reconditioned computers have warranties equivalent to new computers. Mothers have scarce funds, but this is a justifiable purchase.

  16. posted by Alexander on

    I grew up sharing one computer with my sister until she hit junior high school. After that it was one computer per person.

    The decision was more about family dynamics. First it was the privacy between siblings. We were able to personalize it. Second was we both needed access to the computer at the same time. It helped that we each had our own rooms too. Third was my parents made me care for the computer and used it to teach us personal responsibility.

    We didn’t have a “family” computer per say, but my parent share one computer for everything.

    Today I am recommend a multi-computer setup. This is usually a result of people purchasing a new machine and still have a perfectly good old(er) machine. Pass it down and have a backup just in case.

  17. posted by Judith on

    I’d get a used mac mini. The computer won’t get dragged through the house and you can set it up in a place where you can keep an eye on what they are doing.

    Also, as someone above mentioned, it would be easier to repair than a true laptop. Being on the Mac OS would prevent them from picking up most viruses and trojans while still letting them play games or watch YouTube when they are done with homework. A Windows-netbook is a good thing when you can take care of the OS-maintenance yourself, but having used both PC and Mac a lot I would prefer the Mac in this instance.

    I also wouldn’t give a netbook to my kids for reasons of ergonomics, in the long run it’ll be better for their backs if you set up a proper workplace.

  18. posted by Pat on

    As above, if you NEED your computer for work, spring for a new cheap system for the kids. Cheap PC is where it’s at; your kids will end up with better digital literacy if they’re familiar with multiple OSes anyway. Maybe even a cheap Linux box…

    Other option: I’ve had success lately declaring my desktop to be work-only, and moving all my non work time-wasting (browsing feeds, videos, facebook, etc.) to an ipad. Here’s a deal you could propose: “Kids: this computer is now work-only. Program use is monitored, youtube & facebbok are blocked, etc. If you agree, we will go buy an ipad (or two ipod touches, or a netbook or two) for socialization, fun, etc.”

    I don’t think there’s any preventing younguns from digital goofing off, but training them early to compartmentalize work vs. play will serve them well in a few years I think.

  19. posted by Virginia on

    I agree with the posts above – this house should have more than one computer in it.

    One thing not brought up is the tax implication. If the poster is self-employed she should have written the Mac off as a business expense when she got it. There are rules around that and she should have a separate computer to show a division between work and personal equipment. Either that or she needs to do calculations to show how much it’s used as personal vs business. Much cleaner to have business only device from an audit perspective.

  20. posted by Lisa on

    No one but me touches my computer. I don’t even like friends or houseguests to use it for anything more than maps/directions or checking their email.

    If something happens, I can’t work. I’m self employed and I have clients.

  21. posted by Adventure-Some Matthew on

    I agree with the above posters, that more than one computer is awfully convenient. However, I don’t agree that it’s necessarily needed.

    My wife grew up in a family of 5, and they had only one computer. The 3 kids had to share the computer to get their homework done. Of course, both of the parents worked out of the home and didn’t use the computer for work. Though it was sometimes inconvenient, they made it just fine with a single desktop.

    My wife and I are both college students, and we have a laptop each (left-overs from when we were single). We could make do with a single computer, though we would have to schedule use and possibly curtail our non-study activities.

    I agree that if you’re getting a computer for the kids, either get them a cheap one, or get yourself a nice one and they get the second-hand one.

  22. posted by Katy on

    This family may *need* more than one computer, but whether they need to dish out for an expensive Mac or whether they could get a PC (even a gently used one) is the question. Unless you’re children are doing graphic design homework or work that involves intense use of media, a PC will be just fine. It doesn’t even have to be a souped-up version either if the children primarily need it for word-processing and internet searches. If the submitter is worried about excess and expense, consider getting just what the kids need, not every bell and whistle. Besides, the ‘fancier’ the system, the more likely they will want to use it for general surfing and other things that can detract from their work time.

    That said, I also agree that perhaps it should be a desktop as well or just one additional laptop. I’m of the school of thought that children should NOT have TV’s and computers in their own rooms – it’s hard enough for parents to monitor the activities of this tech-savvy generation without having them behind closed doors. Plus those items in bedrooms have been shown to significantly cut into sleeping requirements. Keep out in the family living spaces. If your kids REALLY think they NEED a computer for school, they shouldn’t fight you too much on the rules and type of computer you get.

  23. posted by Allen on

    note: An iMac would be MUCH cheaper then 1500!!! also, so would a mac mini.

    I think children having a laptop = bad idea.

  24. posted by Lose That Girl on

    I agree with the previous posters. If you livelihood involves the one computer, I would recommend having a 2nd for the kids to pound away on. Nothing worse than having a virus downloaded from an internet video game infect your 9-5 computer. Sometimes the extra clutter of a desktop is money (and time!) well spent.

  25. posted by Michelle on

    As parents who work on computers at home and at work, we want our kids (10 & 13) to be computer-savvy (and so do their teachers), so we view them having access to their own machines (or one to share at least) as a legitimate and practical family need. Luckily, we have kept our old desktops and laptops running, so they basically get passed down as we upgrade. We keep a good watch on their internet activity, but my kids understand the basic idea of “no cussin’ or booty shakin'” self-censorship, which they see employed by example with us.

    Personally I would not prefer the library because I don’t have the control there that I do at home. But every family has their own ways of helping their kids become independent; this is just ours.

  26. posted by Chris Caton on

    This is going to sound a little strange, but I’d be very hesitant to try to “limit” computer use by your children to solely that which is necessary for homework. Ignoring for the moment that a computer is a substantially better source of entertainment than a television, you need to consider the sort of skill set your children will be expected to have in the future to function as normal adults. Time spent “wasted” on a computer engaging in idle activities is better understood as valuable time becoming familiar with a vital business and social tool.

    If your kids have the demand for the machine, I’d supply them with one. And I’d consider getting them a cheap PC rather than handing down your Apple; the PC is more functional and less friendly, which will definitely force some problem-solving on them.

  27. posted by Keter on

    It only makes sense to have a backup computer. From the moment I could first afford it, I have had at least two computers, typically a desktop computer and a laptop. I now have 6 computers, two emergency backups which are stored away and ready to go in case of failure, two primary computers with redundant backups including one in cyberspace, one netbook, and an old laptop to back up the netbook. And YES, there has been a time that everything BUT the netbook was down, and only the netbook and laptop are safe to use during a thunderstorm because it is completely wireless. This is for two people.

    For two children, I would agree that buying each of them a netbook is completely the way to go. But you still should have a second computer for your own use, because one of these days your system will fail, and you don’t want to go through the drama and potential business loss that will result if you are entirely dependent on one computer.

  28. posted by David Engel on

    I think everyone is making great points. My family of 5 has 2 computers: my laptop and the family’s desktop. My wife infrequently uses the computer, and the kids are starting to use it for homework. I like to keep my computer separate because a) they want to have a lot of games on the computer that I don’t want slowing down my system, and b) I prefer Linux, and my wife/kids prefer Windows (yes, I’m a failed Linux advocate).

    I’d agree with the note about recommending a desktop over a laptop, but I think that’s more appropriate for younger children. My thoughts are less damage prone, easier to replace components versus the whole thing (think drinks and keyboards, for instance), and I’ve seen a tendency for laptops to be used in front of TVs, which is not ideal for homework. But I think 10 and 15 are old enough to be more careful. Hopefully.

    I may be reading something into the last line – ” … I really want another Mac!” It sounds like you want to get a new computer and let the kids inherit yours. I applaud the recycling behind this.

    But I’d offer this caution from my experience. I got my oldest two thumb drives so they could move their homework back and forth between the computer and the computer labs at school, and their school is using Windows computers (XP, I believe). You’ll want to make sure that if you don’t have the same applications, you can at least come close, like having for Microsoft Office (my son was doing PowerPoints in 6th grade – on OpenOffice Impress).

    The other thought is that if the 15 year old is planning on going to college, many schools want them to have a laptop when they go, so it might not really be a bad idea to get one now if you think they’d wouldn’t want to just replace it in three years with a newer model.

  29. posted by Rae on

    You can get a good Mac for the kids for less than $500 if you shop. I know because I have one for sale (NO, I am not trying to sell it through this comment, just trying to make a point!).

    Or you can decide your current Mac is ready to be replaced, give that one to the kids, and treat yourself to a brand new one. πŸ˜€

    Going with a PC for the kids makes no sense–you’ll have to deal with crashes and viruses and whatnot.

  30. posted by chacha1 on

    The library experiment idea is certainly very uncluttered! I would talk to the kids’ school(s) first, though, to find out just how much homework they are likely to have in the coming year and how helpful a computer would be. If it’s a useful tool (as I expect it would be) and would help them succeed in school, and it’s affordable, it’s kind of a no-brainer.

    I would get a netbook for the 10-yr-old and an inexpensive proper laptop for the 15-yr-old. I wouldn’t recommend Apple products simply because of the extra expense (for no added functionality) and thus higher replacement cost when, inevitably, one of the machines is damaged.

    I would then set rules for use. E.g., only in the family room or den; only before dinner; and with strict browser controls. I’m not in favor of kids having unlimited access to YouTube or any social-media sites. They don’t have the judgement yet, but you don’t want to spend all your time policing their use.

  31. posted by mary b on

    Like most of the other posters I think having a second computer is the way to go. It is so much easier for everyone when you are not quibbling over computer time, or worrying if your children are messing up your computer.
    A reasonable priced desktop pc should be adequate. Don’t let the virus paranoia cause you to spend beyond your budget. And be sure to teach them what they should or should not be downloading.

    Between me, my husband and 2 boys ( ages 6 & 11) we currently use 2 desktops, 2 laptops and a netbook running Linux, plus the oldest has an ipod touch. Sounds like a lot, but my husband and I use a laptop and netbook respectively for work on the road. The boys share a desktop right now.
    With each having access to either the ipod touch or netbook, there is always something available for “fun” if the other is on the desktop working.

  32. posted by Jesse on

    Like many posters, I think if you use the computer for serious work purposes, you want to avoid letting children have free reign on it. Get a generic house computer.

    My house is a flurry of computers. I personally have 3. One husky desktop for analysis and games, one netbook for on-the-go things, and a laptop that’s connected to the television (for netflix and the like). And my wife has 2 of her own as well. And that’s not to mention the smart phones.

    If I had kids, I’d probably get them netbooks. They’re relatively cheap (read: easily replaceable) and very portable.

  33. posted by Jude on

    There are four people in my family. We have 4 computers. I use mine for work, so sharing it was always a problem. The family with more computers is a happier family (and only one of them is relatively new). The older your kids become, the more important it is for each person to have a computer.

  34. posted by Anne on

    I can’t imagine only having one computer in the house! My husband and I are self-employed and each have our own laptops. Our high school aged son is currently using a hand-me-down laptop that is old technology but gets him by. Both kids share a desktop for games and fun and sometimes schoolwork but they absolutely cannot use Mom and Dad’s computers! I completely agree with the posters here who have said that a work computer should be protected.

    I like the idea of testing how much the kids need the computer by using the library, but agree that you may or may not be able to find available machines. Maybe you could use the school library to test? That would probably only work if they stay open past school hours which I think our high school does.

    Our son wants an upgrade on the laptop. We have told him that we won’t buy him one. He is now diligently working to raise his own funds to buy his own laptop with the specs that he wants for games and music. I think it’s a great incentive for him and that he can be very proud of himself when he accomplishes that. I’m also certain he will take extra care in keeping it safe. All good things for him to learn!

    Good luck!

  35. posted by Arie Boomsma on

    Computers are not a luxury item any-more. In this day and age a computer somewhat of a basic necessity. That doesn’t mean kids should spend all of their time on social networking sites or playing games, but you have to realise that a lot of interpersonal communication is supported via the internet.

    Look at this site itself, for instance. It is only made possible by the fact that internet is ubiquitous. In ‘the days of olde’ this would be a magazine at best.

    For old geezers (like myself) a computer might seem unnecessary. But you would not think a telephone a luxury, nor a washing machine, for example.

    Kids these days grow up in a world where computers, and more important the internet, is taken for granted. So, give them access to this medium.

    So, for me, the only right answer to the question of how many computers, is “one each”.

    My household has four people in it (kids are 7 and 13) and we have five computers. One each, and one for work-related stuff that I like to keep separate. I unclutter with the best of them, but this is not clutter. IMHO.

  36. posted by Nicole on

    It seems the necessary number of computers varies per family. In our house, both my husband and myself depend on our computers for work. My husband is a programmer by profession, and has no fewer than three computers in our house that he uses for his ‘experiments’ during his leisure time. I use my laptop for work. These are off limits to the kids. So, we have a shared family computer for our two girls. That makes five computers for a family of four. Yes, it sounds excessive, but it works for us, and I’ve never considered them ‘clutter’.

  37. posted by Kirstine Vergara on

    Yes. We have 3 computers in our house: 1 for my web designer husband, 1 for my sister who is addicted to online gaming, and 1 for me. There was a time when we just had 1 computer and we were always fighting. So again, the answer is yes! πŸ™‚

  38. posted by henave on

    I cannot imagine only having one computer. My husband is a programmer and has 2 laptops, I have a laptop, my 7th grader has a small laptop and we have a family computer available for my 4th grader.

    My 7th grader comes home with homework that is written as a website with a password and the problems he needs to do. He rarely ever watches TV- he uses his laptop (located in our dining room which is open to the kitchen) for reading, random research, writing stories, publishing a blog and developing his own website. I limit the surfing time, but he can write as much as he wants.

    Our library is almost always packed as far as computer usage goes.

  39. posted by Thomas on

    For children’s purposes, a Mac would be excessive, unnecessary, and wastefully expensive. Your children will be perfectly happy with a Windows PC, be it an ultraportable or a desktop.
    I also have ethical issues with Apple. 11 people commit suicide at the factory of Foxonn, which is a major parts supplier for them. One also died of exhaustion after a 36 hour shift. Does your Mac contain parts that man built?

  40. posted by Thomas on

    *34 hour shift.

  41. posted by Ms. D. on

    I am a teacher, and I DO assign youtube videos to be watched by my math students. The videos I choose are well-done and catchy, and the students love using technology to learn.

  42. posted by Mike on

    I think every kid should have their own computer. However, it doesn’t need to be a $1500 Mac. Just get each of them a netbook. Just make sure it has a decent keyboard and screen (preferably with higher resolution than 1024×600). Personally, I like some of the Acer netbooks with full size keyboards. You should be able to get something decent for about $300-400.

  43. posted by Jay on

    My wife and I have 2 kids ages 3 and 6. We have a PC-based laptop that is primarily for my wife and me and a hand-me-down Apple laptop (thanks, Grandpa!) that is primarily for the kids. The children use the computer to watch DVDs, play games, surf the internet, etc.

    There have been several comments about whether a laptop or desktop is best, and the choice is, obviously, personal. I STRONGLY believe that a laptop is best for the kids because it is small and portable. It takes up less room than a desktop; it is less clutter. A laptop can be taken from room to room, allowing the kids to surf the internet in the same room as my wife or me, wherever that may be. Instead of us going to the desktop to monitor usage, the laptop can come to us. Also, the computer can go on vacation/trips with us, giving us instant games, DVD player, and library.

    Before falling back on that argument about how much easier a desktop is to upgrade or repair than a laptop, ask yourself how often you have upgraded or repaired your computer.

  44. posted by Leslie on

    I wouldn’t necessarily assume the YouTube videos aren’t for an assignment. A lot of teachers are using multimedia in their teaching these days and YouTube has a lot of valuable educational stuff on it in addition to people’s funny cat videos.

    And I have to echo what Matt said about library computers. You can’t ever count on being able to jump on at a moment’s notice, and most libraries have time limits on usage to ensure that everyone gets a fair shot.

    My husband and I each have our own computer, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. If we have kids, I expect we will have to get another one. Ideally I think they should be able to share one until at least high school, but I expect that will depend on how the nature of homework changes in the future.

  45. posted by Jenny on

    I would say that the children should have their own computer to share. That way they don’t accidentally break the work computer. I bought my first computer at age 16 (I’m thirty now.) Sharing my dad’s with him and my younger brother was becoming a pain. My parents made me a deal that summer… I had a job and was working close to full time and they would match any money saved a a computer, dollar for dollar. I probably ended up working 50+ hours a week after the deal went into place. It was the best money I ever spent. (My parents think it was a pretty good deal as well πŸ™‚ If the 15 year old is working/babysitting that might be an idea. You can adjust the amount of the match depending upon their income level. It would also be good practice for them to figure out what they needed vs. all the bells and whistles.

    I wouldn’t recommend getting an Ipad. I would think that the functionality for school work might be limited and you could get a full size laptop with a 300 GB hard drive for the same price.

    I live along and have my old desktop as backup in addition to my laptop. My parents have a computer each – Dad has a laptop and my has a desktop. They find it keeps the peace since they will frequently need to both be on the computer and the same time.

  46. posted by Phalynn on

    I am a single mom with two kids – everyone has their own Mac. There are VERY few things I splurge on – but the payoff is my kids have amazing PC skills and have a leg up on their classmates. And my sanity? Intact!

  47. posted by Another Deb on

    Looks like the support here is for more computers than the “average” per household if you have school-age kids.I agree. MY husband and I don’t have kids and we have 5 computers in use around the house right now.

    As a teacher, I would also ask, PLEASE keep your printer working!! I have no funds for ink and paper and absolutely no time to try to open an e-mail and print a file of your child’s work. Most of the time the student forgets to add their name to the paper and expects that I would do that as well. While I’m at it, I have to staple multiple pages together and mail back a confirmation that the file did open. Oh, and grade the work!

  48. posted by klutzgrrl on

    I’d go for a good quality refurb secondhand mac each, or if they are only doing basic word processing and internet, a netbook (a netbook won’t have enough power if they want to do photo processing or gaming).

    My kids have just started highschool and have a good quality computer each. Son enjoys gaming, and daughter does a lot of video and media stuff. These days kids conduct most of their social life on Facebook. That’ll possibly change as things do, but we’ve discussed internet safety and I keep an eye on them.

    We share a lot of stuff (only one television, so have to negotiate program-watching) but computers need to be your own. We have them set up how we want. And sometimes we do collaborative gaming together, too.

    Computer literacy is critical. Encourage them to try things out. Keep their data backed up to disk and have a good antivirus.

  49. posted by alikat on

    I think it’s really reasonable for there to be more than one computer in a house, especially with kids that need homework.

    A PC would probably work just fine for them and you can get some really good deals on desktops and laptops — although a desktop to share might be better.

    Computers aren’t luxuries but really needed, especially when homework needs to be researched or papers need to be typed and also with all the communicating kids do online now.

    I also want to add that I’ve seen the “use your local library for computer access” in quite a few PF and frugal blogs. Some people even advocate getting rid of home internet access and just using a library computer.

    This is incredible unhelpful advice for a variety of reasons mentioned above.

    I live in a decent sized city (appx 200,000 people) and due to budget cuts there are certain days when only the main branch is open. There are always waiting lines for computer access, either for the internet or for the computers set aside for offline work. I’ve overheard people having to wait nearly 2 hours just to be able to use a computer for 30 minutes.

  50. posted by Maureen on

    I was working on my computer the other day when my son’s 8 year old friend asked if he could have a turn. I reacted as if he had asked to borrow my underwear. He obviously comes from a one computer household.

  51. 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.

  52. 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.

  53. 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. πŸ˜› 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. πŸ™‚ Good luck!

  54. 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.

  55. 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!

  56. 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.

  57. 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.

  58. 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 πŸ™‚

  59. 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.

  60. posted by Annie on

    Okay, I went to comment here and realized I was writing a small book. πŸ™‚ 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!

  61. 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.

  62. 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.

  63. 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.

  64. 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.

  65. 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.

  66. 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.


  67. 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!

  68. 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.

  69. posted by richard on

    good interesting example of a teacher using youtube

  70. 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 πŸ˜‰

  71. 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.

  72. 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.

  73. 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.

  74. 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.

  75. 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

    πŸ˜‰ The anti-virus and Microsoft Office licensing is a bear. πŸ˜€

    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.

  76. 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…

  77. 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.

  78. 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.

  79. 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.))

  80. 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.

  81. 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.

  82. 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!

  83. 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. πŸ™‚

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