As usual, since I have too much time on my hands, I not only tell them what kind of computer they should get, but I also offer to help set it up in exchange for baked goods. I know I should up my tech support rates, but I am a sucker for pie and snickerdoodles.
Normally I would lean toward recommending a Mac (ease of use, rock solid reliability), but, sadly, Apple does not make a machine for under $1000 these days. That is more than any 12-year-old deserves. The best option for an upper elementary to middle school child I have found is a 12-inch netbook. Many of these computers should not even be called netbooks since they have considerable horsepower and come with plenty of features. They just happen to have a 12-inch screen and no optical drive. Asus, Acer, and several other companies make good machines for around $300.
How about setting them up? I have three steps for setting up a home machine that earn me my snickerdoodles:
1. Clear off all the junk. Most computers today come out of the box loaded down with all kinds of things: games, backup utilities, antivirus, and other stuff that is usually either useless or redundant. Why uninstall the included antivirus and backup utility? Windows 7 already has a solid restore option built in. Also, as soon as the trial version of your antivirus expires, you will have to install a free option anyway (like the fantastic Microsoft Security Essentials).
2. Install needed programs. I could go on and on about the individual programs that work best for new computers. But I won’t. Instead, just go the Lifehacker Essential Software page and run their downloader. Even if you are not getting a new machine, this is a great site to check out: a company called Ninite created a service that allows you to pick the best free software on the market from a list just like a menu. Run the installer and everything gets put on all at once! It turns what is normally hours of installations into single, 20-minute install. Need to update? Run the installer again and it makes sure you have the latest version of everything.
3. Back up. For most machines, you would need half a dozen DVDs to backup your system and create a restore disk. Save yourself some time and buy an external hard drive to back up your drive. Treat a computer like a house; have an emergency plan and create a kit of backups and disks to get your files off and restore your machine. My only wish? That Microsoft would let you easily make a restore disk on a thumb drive and not a CD. It would make restoring a netbook a lot easier. Apple has already done this, giving people their restore disk in the form of a thumb drive.
Another thing: You might want to install a remote access program like join.me so that if your little brother/cousin/nephew/grandma needs help, you can see what is on their screens and walk them through any problems they might have.
As for me helping you? Pecan pie is my favorite.