The results are in -- three recent studies all suggest that while a kid with a computer in his room gets better grades, adding a television has the opposite effect. But it’s probably too late to do much about that. A Kaiser Foundation survey recently found that nearly 70 percent of kids 8-18 already have a TV in their room, about half have a video game or DVD/VCR and a third have computers—and they spend an average of 44 hours a week using them, often at the same time. The kids’ room, in short, has become a multimedia center, and just as in the living room, a plethora of digital devices exist to fulfill that function.
At the heart of it is the computer, and here parents face the perennial Macintosh vs. PC question. The Mac, of course, has the superior cool factor via its iPod cachet and also includes iLife software for photos, music and video creation. For small rooms the new one-piece flat-screen iMac G5 is both powerful and space-saving, although the larger CRT-based eMac, while bulkier, is a great value starting at $799. Both could also go on to dorm rooms, although a soon-to-be college student may prefer the portability of Apple’s iBooks, which start just under $1000. (For the college-bound, it’s worth checking to see if the college or university has any computer recommendations.) One Mac drawback: a narrower selection of the latest computer games.
The PC side offers, for starters, more selection and lower prices. Laptops in Compaq’s R4000 series start under $700 and offer an all-in-one solution at a low price. Desktops can cost even less: price leader eMachines has well-equipped desktop computers starting under $400. You’ll need to add a monitor, of course, but you should be able to find something from a brand like Gateway or Samsung for less than $150. Make sure you keep your eyes open when you shop: because of competition and constant new model introductions, you can almost always find significant discounts or rebates on both PC desktops and laptops that are still perfectly powerful enough for a student’s bedroom computer.
The PC world also offers an interesting alternative: the Media Center PC. Available from a variety of manufacturers, these desktops use Windows Media Center software to provide, besides all the normal computing functions, full control of music, photos and videos, including television. These PCs one-up the current Apple media capabilities by offering television reception and a built-in digital video recorder. Sony has recently started to feature Media Center PCs, like the VAIO 540J, and if you add a large monitor and surround sound speakers you’ve got a killer entertainment system as well as a desktop computer that includes a decent bundle of software. The Sony lists at $1149, but is sometimes discounted—and you can always figure that you’re also providing your kid with a television and stereo for the same price. (Unlike some other manufacturers Sony doesn’t include a remote control—so take a look at the amazing Gyration Media Center Remote that you can move in three dimensions to manipulate the cursor from across the room.)
Regardless of which kind of computer you buy, think about throwing in a copy of Broderbund’s classic CD “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.” Kids often invent their own high-speed hunt-and-peck technique that looks serviceable, but there’s no substitute for touch typing. And of course, whenever you put a computer in the kids’ room, you’re opening yourself to at least three problems: pornography, unwanted strangers, and viruses and spyware. ISPs often include parental controls and anti-virus in the access charge, the latest Macs have parental controls built-in, or you can get them ala carte from places like Earthlink, AOL and MSN. The industry-sponsored Website www.getnetwise.org is an excellent place to get more information on parental controls. And for a broader view of threats, the September 2004 Consumer Reports article “Protect Yourself Online,” available at consumerreports.org for a small fee, is well worth it. (MSNBC content is distributed by MSN. MSNBC itself is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)
Great deals on TVs
If you don’t solve the television issue with a Media Center PC, but the kid still gets a TV, you have several options. Tube-based color televisions are a great deal these days -- you can get 13” and 20” color sets for $100 or less from companies like Insignia or Daewoo. Moving up, for less than $150 you can get a top-quality Toshiba 13” set that includes either a built-in DVD (MD13P1/Q41) or a VCR (MV13Q41). (Combo sets are both space-saving and inexpensive, but of course if one part breaks, you may need to replace the whole thing.) Flat-panel sets are still too costly for the kids’ room, but a twist might be to add DVD to an existing set with a portable DVD player—something like the reasonably-priced Magnavox MDP820, with 8” screen. That way you’ll bet both DVD playback on the kids’ room TV and something to take on vacation.
As far as audio goes, if the computer is the primary source—via MP3s and CDs—then all you need is a great computer sound system. You’ll definitely want a three-piece set that includes a sub-woofer—those low notes make even low-priced speakers sound impressive. Computer-oriented companies like Creative Labs offer remarkably inexpensive 3-piece sets, such as their Inspire 2.1; you can also move up the food chain to better-known audio brands like Klipsch and Bose. Bose, which was making great-sounding small speakers long before computer audio came along, offers the Bose Companion 3 with a sophisticated control pad that includes a headphone jack (more on those all-important headphones later). At $250 it’s not cheap but since the computer means you don’t need to buy a separate sound system, there’s an opportunity here to pretend you’re saving money. Also on the audio front, if there’s already a boom-box or mini-stereo in the room, a relatively cheap way to upgrade is simply to add a small powered sub-woofer, like the Yamaha YST-SW215. Sub-woofers in this price range can often be found on sale for $100 or less, and they can transform a milk-toast audio system into a mean machine.
A few PCs, like the Viewsonic M2100, include an FM tuner, but for the most part if you want AM and FM, you’ll need to buy a separate radio. One thrifty option is to combine functions: for school-day mornings there is still no substitute for a clock radio. Take a look at the Philips AJ3980, which—as do many models—also includes a CD player. But this well-reviewed Philips distinguishes itself both by its relatively small size and its innovative orange touch screen controls. An alternative you might consider is a clock radio like the silver AT&T E2120, which lacks a CD player but adds a single-line cordless phone, providing yet more nightstand space saving.
Can we play games now?
When it comes to video game consoles, of course, parental units’ opinions count for less than zero: you will be clearly informed as to your child’s tastes re Xbox, PlayStation or GameCube. However, there is one way parents can express an opinion about video game usage. The Time-Scout monitor is a clever device that locks a power cord—from a video game, TV or computer—into a control box that is activated by a magnetic-stripe card. Parents put a given amount of minutes on the card and your kid can choose how to use them—but once the card is empty, there’s no more electricity forthcoming. There’s also a similar software-based system, called EyeTimer, which controls computer use and has add-ons to limit other media devices.
Finally, there’s one other must for your offspring’s media den: headphones. And the best way to encourage regular headphone use is to make sure they sound great and they’re easy to use. Go wireless, and make sure they’re radio wireless, rather than the more troublesome infrared models. Although Sony has some worthy models in the $60 and up range, for a little extra audiophile status, check out the light-weight Sennheiser 120s, which have excellent audio response and NiMH batteries for longer listening times. After all -- just when you’re getting to sleep, you don’t want those batteries running out.
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