Netbook Setup for Kids – Cost Effective & Secure Solution

I recently bought my son a netbook for his school work. These are small, cheap laptops with low powered processors, but are great for smaller hands doing web browsing, mathletics, reading eggs, and even word processing.

The only issue I had was that securing these devices can be more expensive than the device themselves and you can’t risk bringing viruses into your local network as they are more than likely to get into every machine in that connects to it.

To minimise the chance of problems I searched for cheap, appropriate solutions, and thought that I would share them with you.

One thing to note. Although these guidelines should secure your netbook, there is no such thing as complete security, and giving your kids a netbook makes it particularly vulnerable, due to their more trusting browsing habits. Never, ever do your internet banking on your kids computers.

I have written this assuming some knowledge of Windows, how to set up accounts, add and remove programs etc. If you are unsure of this, let me know and I will try to add additional help.

Your Kids Computer

Chances are your computer came installed with Windows XP and a whole load of trial programs, most of which are pretty much useless after a trial period (and often aren’t appropriate for this type of machine in the first place).

First thing to do is connect your computer to the internet and run Microsoft Update, making sure you don’t do anything much until this is completed. What this does is plugs up any security holes that are known and patched. It can take a while, and prepare for a few restarts along the way.

Second thing you need to do is create another user account that your kids will use. The reason you do this is so that you can restrict what this account can do, and hopefully therefore restrict what any malware can do with your computer if it get in. You should also put a password on the main account, but not your kids, so they don’t go into the wrong area by mistake.

The third thing to do is remove the junk programs. The type of trial programs you will find are: –

  • Microsoft Office
  • Norton Antivirus
  • …a whole lot more

Do this using the add and remove programs feature to declutter the computer. The new antivirus you are going to install also doesn’t like other antivirus being installed.

Antivirus

My choice for antivirus was Microsoft Security Essentials. This is a free program available from Microsoft. The reason I picked this was: –

  • It is free
  • It is light weight, so doesn’t bog a low powered machine down
  • It is relatively quick
  • The integration from Microsoft may help remove things that have got in to the machine

This product is not the best antivirus, but is probably the most appropriate for this class of device, and is free.

Download Microsoft Security Essentials from:

http://www.microsoft.com/Security_Essentials/

Web Browser

Windows is very much integrated with Microsofts Internet Explorer (IE) browser. However this is a browser with problems. Although IE8 is much improved, and has some nice security features, it is still very insecure compared to many of the alternatives. You can’t uninstall IE, as it is used in many other places. If you want to really reduce the risk with it, you can change the security zone to high (allowing Microsofts sites only to run scripting) however basic advice is it’s wise not to use it as your day to day browser.

Alternatives browsers include: –

Firefox (http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/firefox.html) – the second browser in terms of market share. Firefox is a browser with many great features, but can hog your computers resources in the latest version at least. One great feature of Firefox that make it your browser of choice is that it warns you when the Flash plugin (allows you to play many videos on the net) is out of date.

Safari (http://www.apple.com/safari/) – Apples browser for windows is fast and includes many features that IE and Firefox currently don’t. However, in Windows it has had some security issues itself, though it’s unlikely it has the market share for them to be widely exploited.

Chrome (http://www.google.com/chrome) – Googles browser is fast and includes the same features as Safari. It allows the best performance of Googles online apps and Google is probably going to patch security holes quicker than others. Disadvantage is that privacy could be a bit of a concern.

Note that any or all of these browsers can be used alongside IE as your main browser.

In all cases I would ensure you go into your browsers settings and disable use of 3rd party cookies. This prevents advertising companies, and others from adding cookies into your system, potentially tracking you round the net or worse.

Email

Chances are you computer came installed with Microsofts Outlook Express. My advice would be to not use this (unless you lock down IE). Instead use webmail, which is also portable across different devices. The most common services are: –

  • hotmail – Personally I’ve not used this, but is is renowned as being the worst of the big 3.
  • yahoomail – Yahoomail is okay but has some issues with security, and wants to charge you if you try to pull it into an email client.
  • gmail (https://mail.google.com) – the standout service. Gmail has the best spam filters in the industry, enforces a secure connection, allows you to sync email across accounts, allows push email to iPhones etc etc etc….and it’s free!

Office Suite

Netbooks were originally designed to run web based applications, and Office Suites are no exception. For low end word processing, spreadsheets and presentations, use Google Docs (https://docs.google.com) or Zoho’s huge range of web based applications (http://www.zoho.com/).

If you want something more powerful (and I’m not sure why you would on a netbook), but don’t want the expense of MS Office, try OpenOffice (http://www.openoffice.org). This is similar to MS Office, but free and open source, so in many ways tends to be more secure.

Backup/Recovery

There are many aspects to backup and recovery, but the ones I tend to use focus on the netbooks idea of a small, light weight, portable device that isn’t designed for heavy duty applications. As this is the case, there is actually very little need to create backups. If you are using Google Docs for example, you don’t save locally, but to Googles servers, so you have nothing on your machine to backup.

If you really have a need to backup, I would suggest using an offsite backup solution such as Jungle Disk (http://www.jungledisk.com/) or Carbonite (http://carbonite.com/). Both of these work in the background, are light weight, and just back things up without you really noticing. They are both paid solutions though.

More of interest for a netbook in many ways is recovery. Many netbooks provide a recovery system, but I know that in the Acer unit we have, this is not that good. A better recovery solution would be to use MS Windows Steady State (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/products/winfamily/sharedaccess/default.mspx). This allows you to roll back your windows installation to a previous known state. What makes this useful is that it will also delete any rubbish that has been acquired on the computer over time.

Steady state is a free tool available from Microsoft. I must admit I haven’t added it to my system yet, but will be doing very shortly. For what I have read, essentially it creates a mirror image of your installation and allows you to reset at any time.

Other Programs

I personally believe that netbooks should be kept as clean as possible, but I have installed some programs for web communications: –

Skype (http://www.skype.com) – Netbooks are great machines for video chat and Skype is the king here.

Drawing – I have installed the open source Tux paint (http://www.tuxpaint.org/)

iTunes – if you want to listen to music etc. Note that you can share another iTunes library so don’t actually have to keep your music on the netbook.

For Older Kids

If your kids are older than mine, there are other issues that you might want to think about. These include censorship and social media.

Censorship

Although I’m not a big fan of censorship (try keeping the computer out of the kids room works too) there are various ways of doing it that are unobtrusive and harder to get around than your standard government scheme!

For content filtering try OpenDNS (http://www.opendns.com/). DNS is the system the web uses for taking the name of the link you type into your browser, and translating that into the  address the website lives at (IP address). OpenDNS replaces your ISP’s DNS servers (often increasing speed into the bargain) but also allows you to filter objectionable words, create whitelists (allow only those sites) or blacklists sites of concern (ban sites). It is easy to set up both on a single machine, or you can put the settings into your router so all sites going through your router will be filtered, including yours!

Social Media

There are various social media sites, and which one your kids like will no doubt depend on which their friends are on. Things you need to know about social media are as follows: –

MySpace – still big in music, but a dying social media platform. Not likely your kids will want to go on here, but if they do, it is a closed system. This means it’s not searchable by Google and friends have to be approved.

Facebook – the big one! Facebook was a closed system. This used to mean it’s not searchable by Google and friends have to be approved. Note though that they have tried to open this up recently and the standard settings on a new account now mean that it is accessible from outside of Facebook (I believe). You will need to go into your privacy settings and make sure everything is appropriately closed off.

Twitter – twitter has the buzz at the moment with everyone using it including a lot of celebrities. It is totally open and searchable, so may not be a place you want your kids to lay their souls bare! I am http://twitter.com/funkygorilla by the way!

Foursquare – this is the new kid on the block, that will come on strong this year. Part game, part social network, part marketing machine. My prediction is that this will take off with a bang. For kids it is a closed system but it relies on ‘checking in’ at certain locations. This means your location becomes known, which may not be so great even for their friends.

Google Buzz – Googles first attempt at getting into the social space is both interesting and useful. You can post things both privately and publicly and Google do use it in search results, so it may not be the one for kids!

I hope this is helpful. If you come across any tools that you think are netbook appropriate, please post a comment and I’ll add it into the post.

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