Apple Everywhere

Low-End Macs: The Perfect Computers for Kids

- 2011.09.06 - Tip Jar

Ask Engadget recently featured a question by a reader who wanted to know what other readers thought was the "best desktop OS for kids." I didn't respond to that question, since I'm not a parent, but I have had some experience with children and computers (including my own childhood).

My findings?

A low-end Mac might be the perfect kids computer.

The Days of Yore

Back in the hoary days of my youth (the 1990s), I was not taught how to use a Macintosh computer. I was taught how to use a Windows PC running Windows 3.1, and my elementary school teachers would probably have preferred to leave it at that. After all, with Windows having a majority share of the market by that point, I would go into the working world fully prepared if I knew how to operate Windows.

Power Mac G3 All-in-One
Power Mac G3 All-in-One

Well, from my point of view as a 7-year-old, Windows was boring. Worse yet, it couldn't do anything fun! I must have done something to earn me some time on the school library's brand new Power Mac G3 All-in-One (running some version of Mac OS 8), which I found infinitely more enjoyable to use.

I knew how to work Windows, but that proved to be a problem - I ended up damaging the system files of not one but two PCs within a few years, all because I wanted them to do things that should have been simple but ended up being decidedly otherwise. Things like playing X-Plane 5, for example, which our old 1999 Compaq Presario couldn't do without decent drivers for its SiS 530 video chipset (the first Windows 98 install was mostly ruined by that experiment...).

Clamshell iBook
Clamshell iBook

I also knew how to operate a Mac, which proved much more fruitful. I didn't know where the system files were (and the way they were designed makes it much more difficult to totally ruin a Mac by deleting a few system files), and I didn't have to mess with them anyway, since most of the driver updates and whatnot were automated. My Clamshell iBook G3 was able to run X-Plane 5 right out of its shipping box.

Nowadays, I can operate any version of Windows from 3.1 to 7, any version of Mac OS from 7.0.1 to 10.7, and several Linux distributions, not to mention iOS. I'd say most of my computing ability stems from my ability to explore the classic Mac OS without worrying about destroying anything.

Prodigies

Most of my brothers and sisters have also learned how to use Windows, but not nearly as much as I have. They barely know how to install applications or where to find documents, but they know how to run their PC games and fire up Google Chrome. On the other hand, they have a firm grasp on the Mac OS in both its classic and OS X versions. (The exception is my 19-year-old brother Cainon, who absolutely adores Fedora Linux.)

PowerBook 180
PowerBook 180

My sister Ashley (15) has my hot-rodded Clamshell iBook and can switch from OS 9 to OS X 10.4 Tiger when most people her age don't even know how to dual-boot Windows. My brother Cavin (14) feels equally at home with the PowerBook 180 (System 7.1) and the family iMac G4 (Mac OS X Tiger).

Even my sister Alaura (9) can quickly comprehend how to find applications and run them in Mac OS X. She especially enjoys the old Jumpstart educational games.

The Hardware

Okay, a new Mac might not be the thing to give a kid - but neither is a new PC, if you'd like to see it survive for more than a few weeks. Thing is, kids don't need new computers. The new is based on the old, and if you give them the opportunity to learn how software improves and progresses over time, it will open their minds to new possibilities, new ways of thinking and learning. I believe that our current educational system of only teaching the new is fundamentally flawed - it only shows kids how to live in the present moment and doesn't give them the crucial adaptability that is so lacking in our modern society.

That said, I'd feel perfectly fine giving a kid an SSD-equipped Clamshell iBook to mess around on. It's almost impossible to break it without resorting to extreme violence (or spilling something on it), and with a little instruction, he might actually start to enjoy the quirks of the old Mac OSes and start to explore. Once he's a little more mature, move him up to a G4 with Tiger or OS X 10.5 Leopard, and he'll immediately recognize the old interface and may start to explore the new features.

Original G3 iMac
Original G3 iMac

If he's the type that would destroy a laptop, give him a never-say-die iMac G3 - they're dirt cheap but can serve as great learning tools.

In Short

Old Macs can be the perfect computers for kids - both their hardware and software is dependable and solid, and they will learn to gradually expand and explore new things. Isn't that all we've wanted children to learn from computers? LEM

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Austin Leeds is a Mac and iPad user - and a college student in Iowa.

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