Image: Sony Y Series laptop
Sony
The 11.6-inch, 3.32-pound Sony Y Series is a good value at $499.99; it's also available in just silver for those who don't fancy pink.
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updated 8/23/2011 7:57:02 AM ET 2011-08-23T11:57:02

When someone asks me what computer they should buy for their child, it’s not a simple answer. Age, activities, whether the child will be carrying the laptop outside the house and budget all factor into my recommendations. There are some basic guidelines, though, that can help you narrow your choices.

Middle school
Most middle-school-age children don’t need to bring their own laptop to school every day, so you’ll find the best value in a 15-16-inch model. Opt for either an Intel Core i3 or AMD dual-core E Series processor with integrated graphics, both of which are capable of running mainstream programs, like the Microsoft Office suite and photo editing programs.

Battery life tends to run between four and six hours and the laptops weigh more than 5 pounds. So these laptops are certainly portable, but meant to be used at the kitchen table under supervision, not toted to school. Good choices in this category are the HP Pavilion g6x ($449 on hp.com) and the Dell Insiprion 15R ($499 on Dell.com).

High school and college
If your child is going to be carrying the laptop to class, portability will be a key factor in making your purchase decision. Look for an 11 to 14-inch model with a carrying weight of under 5 pounds.

If your child is running programs like Microsoft Word and doing some photo editing, an Intel Core i3 or AMD dual-core E Series processor with integrated graphics will suffice. The 11.6-inch, 3.32-pound Sony Y Series is a good value at $499.99 on SonyStyle.com, as is the 11.6-inch, 3.46-pound HP Pavilion dm1z ($399.99 on hp.com)

Upgrading to a faster processor, such as an Intel Core i5, and discreet graphics (not Intel graphics) will help ensure that your purchase will last longer, as new software comes out that increases its minimum requirements.  The 3.8-pound, 13.3-inch Sony S Series laptop ($899.99 on SonyStyle.com) is a good choice here, as well as the 4.5-pound, 14-inch HP Pavilion dm4x ($774.99 on hp.com)

Gamers and content creators
Kids who like to play graphically intense games or edit video require greater graphics processing power than the average laptop can deliver. Look for an Intel Core i7 processor, discreet graphics with 1GB of RAM and 6GB of system RAM.

The top-of-the-line gaming laptops are more transportable than portable, so you’ll want to get the right combination of portability and power. A couple that strike the right balance are the 14-inch, 6.45-pound Alienware M14x ($1,499 on Dell.com) and 15-inch, 5.6-pound Apple MacBook Pro ($2,399 on Apple.com when configured with AMD Radeon HD 6750M graphics with 1GB of RAM  and 8GB of system RAM).

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