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I come from a time when getting ready for school meant buying a couple of binders, some pencils and some new clothes you wouldn't be caught dead in. Transportation was a one-speed bicycle (no I didn't walk 10 miles in the snow, that was my grandfather), and high tech was a circular slide rule. My first calculator, from Radio Shack, cost more than some laptop computers do today (once you factor in inflation), and video games were game shows, like "the Price Is Right," that your parents watched.
Another option is E-Bay. As Rob correctly points out, there is a distinct difference between "want" and "need" when it comes to computing power. Last year's model may save you hundreds of $$ yet fit the bill perfectly.
My preference -- and all 3 kids now have one -- is a Panasonic Toughbook. New, they are way too expensive for my budget. Off-lease, on E-Bay, they were very affordable (< $600).
These are ruggedized machines that will laugh off damage that will totally destroy a Dell or Thinkpad. Some of these units have (literally) been shown to stop small calibre weapons fire!
My daughter's CF-47 (p3 450 MHz) survived 9th grade without a hiccup. Most of her friends and their laptops couldn't say the same.
Agreed. Older laptops were more rugged by design anyhow - and anyone who thinks you need more than a ~500MHz machine to run office and maybe a few shockwave or avi presentations is listening to the kid who actually wants to play Doom III, not do his homework.
For school purposes, a 500MHz machine from EBay is ideal; perhaps a home pc is a good xmas present, but really it can be shared amongst the entire family anyhow (most single-pc families have the pc in the front room - not quite taking pride of place away from the TV, but give it time. If nothing else, an internet connection you allow your younger kids to use *should* be where you can keep an eye on it; if your older kids really need some private time online, they can get a wireless card for their 500 MHz laptop :)