A PC for Jr.?

Does a child need his or her own computer? That's a question facing many parents today. Just a few years ago, even the most high-tech of families had only one personal computer at home. But today, the family PC is one very busy machine. It's a workstation, a communication tool, a game console and increasingly, a regular part of schoolwork. That's leading many families to consider purchasing a desktop expressly for their child's use. But making a smart tech purchase for your child isn't always an easy task. Here's a quick parent's guide to buying a PC for JR:

How do I know my child is ready for his or her own computer? When your child is regularly doing schoolwork that calls for a computer, it's a good time to start thinking of his or her own PC. That's often in mid- to late-elementary school. But even then, if games are still your child's main computer interest, the time may not be right. "If a child is primarily interested in games, it's cheaper and easier to purchase a video game system like the PlayStation 2," says Eileen Mullin, founder of New York City-based GenuineClass, which offers technology education classes for kids and families. My cousin/colleague/neighbor is going to buy a new computer. Should I take this old one and upgrade it for my child? No. That may seem like an economical solution, but experts say it's just a recipe for a headache. "Do-it-yourself upgrades simply don't work," says Ellen Wolock, managing editor of Children's Software and New Media Revue, an online publication based in Flemington, N.J. "We know many people who have tried it and all it did was put off the inevitable trip to the store to buy a computer. A lot of times when you try to upgrade yourself, you end up losing a lot of your work. It's not worth the trouble."

Where should I shop? Start your shopping process online. That will give you a good picture of what's available in your price range. Some good sites to visit are www.buy.com and www.newegg.com. When making the purchase, pick an established retailer — either on or offline. You want to be sure that you can count on post-purchase support. An independent store or niche Internet site may have a great deal, but will they be there for you when your child can't get his program to load? Go with someone you've heard of. How much should I spend? You can buy a very functional computer for less than $1,000 these days. A color printer can run about $100. You might want to tack on some extra memory — that can cost about $70. You can probably pass on some of the extras — such as a DVD player. But the older your children, the more gadgetry they're likely to want. "Once kids hit the pre-teen years, they may become more interested in advanced games and digital media like music. Look for features like CD-RW drives ("CD burners"), and advanced graphics cards like the nVidia geForce series. Older kids are also more likely to want — or demand! — a fast broadband connection through DSL or a cable modem," says Mullin.

Mac or PC? Does it matter? For an older child, such as a teenager who is using the machine for schoolwork, either platform is fine. For a younger child still focused on games and other entertainment software, a PC may make more sense. There are still almost twice as many titles available for PC users than for Mac users. Don't worry if your school system uses a different platform in the classroom. Unlike most adults, kids are able to toggle back and forth between different kinds of computer systems without much trouble.

Where should the child's PC reside? Most experts agree that if possible, a child's computer should be located in a common area — a family room or living room, even the kitchen. That way you can spot any objectionable games, content or behavior right away. Also, it makes sense to be close by to help out. Although they are very comfortable with technology at a young age, many kids still run into glitches they can't solve alone.