Essential Factors to Consider when Buying a Computer for Teaching ESL Online
There are many online ESL companies, each with their own minimum system requirements, but most companies actually have very similar computer requirements to teach ESL online with them:
|Operating System||Processor (CPU)||Memory (RAM)|
|Windows 7 or above / macOS 10 or above||Intel i3 or higher||4GB or higher|
Remember that these are the typical minimum requirements. Your decision should be based on more than meeting the minimum. Let’s look at the various aspects that should form your decision.
Desktop vs Laptop Computers for Teaching ESL Online
Laptop computers are almost certainly the more popular device of the two, mainly because of their portability, but also because you can do just as much with a laptop computer as you could with a desktop. Yet, desktop computers continue to be a popular choice with online ESL teachers for several reasons. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each:
Desktop Computers: Pros
Desktop Computers: Cons
Laptop computers are more popular among online ESL teachers, because they offer much more convenience. They can be easily packed into a backpack or computer bag, and are extremely suitable for travel. However, this convenience comes at a higher price, as laptop computers are more expensive, and difficult to upgrade. Conversely, while desktop computers lack portability, they typically come with more powerful specs out of the box, and are easily upgradeable. When it’s time to upgrade the CPU or add more RAM, the cost of replacing the components will be significantly cheaper than buying a new computer. Consequently, the long-term cost of owning a desktop computer is much lower than a laptop, plus you can customize everything from the keyboard to the screen size to your heart’s desire.
We highly recommend buying a desktop computer over a laptop computer because of their higher affordability, both short and long-term, and because they usually provide for a better, more ergonomic user experience. That said, if you are a frequent traveler and need a portable device, then only a laptop computer will give you that as an online ESL teacher, as most online ESL companies are not currently able to deliver their teaching platforms over more portable devices such as tablets.
Windows vs Mac OS
The debate between Windows and Mac users goes on. Ultimately, choosing a Windows or Mac comes down to personal preference and budget (Macs typically cost more). Practically anything you can do on Windows, you can do on macOS, and vice versa, and that includes teaching ESL online. Most online ESL companies have designed their platforms and courseware to function on either OS.
Having said that, because of Apple’s more closed ecosystem, Windows based computers tend to offer more software options for functions like green screening, for example. As well, there are many more Windows users than Mac users, and that means any updates or functionality will likely come to Windows first.
Why We Don't Recommend Buying a Mac to Teach ESL Online
First of all, we want to be fully transparent: We are Mac users through and through. This article was written on a Mac, and we have taught ESL online with Macs. So, we clearly love Macs. But are Macs the best computers for teaching ESL online? Some other ESL websites say they are, but we have to politely disagree. As we have discussed earlier, choosing between Windows and Mac computers is a matter of personal preference, and if you really must own a Mac, then by all means, we aren’t here to stop you. Beyond personal preference, however, are some other considerations that disqualify Macs from being selected among our recommendations.
- Macs are typically (and significantly) more expensive than most Windows based computers with comparable specifications
- Macs are almost always not upgradeable. Once you buy a Mac, that’s pretty much what you have till your next computer purchase
- AppleCare+, which is Apple’s extended warranty program, is fairly expensive (as much as 10% of the price of the computer, or more). If you buy a Mac, you almost certainly need AppleCare+ to cover your computer for 3 years instead of the basic 1 year warranty included in the price of the Mac. $300 to repair or service a Mac is cheaper than buying a new one for around $2,000, but $300 is a good chunk of money to pay on top of an already high price tag for a Mac.
- When a Mac is out of warranty and needs repairs, you have to either take it to Apple or to a third party repair shop that can service Macs. Often a faulty Mac can’t be easily repaired because of the way Macs are made, so your only option might be to take it to Apple, and the cost of servicing an out-of-warranty Apple product often costs as much as buying a new one.
Apple makes sleek, sexy, trend-setting computers, and many Mac users continue to live by the mantra: Once you go Mac, you can’t go back. We just don’t think they’re a good fit for online ESL teachers in terms of their cost and your return on investment. After all, teaching ESL online is a freelance business, and we want to recommend you the best computers for online ESL teachers, from the perspective of performance, longevity, and cost-effectiveness. There’s no reason in our mind why you should be paying $2,000 or more for a computer to teach online ESL.
If you are already a Mac user, you can continue using your Mac to teach English online, so long as it meets the current system requirements. However, if you are just getting started, or if you are looking for a computer which you will use specifically for teaching ESL online, we recommend going with the more budget-friendly, better feature for dollar ratio, and broader range of options that WIndows has to offer.
Central Processing Unit (CPU)
Because technology evolves rapidly, it’s important to consider the lifespan of the computer you intend to buy. Online ESL companies will update their computer requirements and demand higher specs with time, so you want to think beyond the current requirements. Currently, most online ESL companies require an Intel i3 CPU or higher to teach on their platforms. While the latest Intel i3 processors will get you by, they don’t pack as much power as i5 / i7 / i9 CPUs. We recommend online ESL teachers buy a computer with at least an i5 CPU, and ideally an i7 CPU if you can afford it, to extend the lifespan of the computer for online ESL teaching.
While the CPU itself is an important factor, so is the number of cores that make up the CPU chipset. Modern computers are equipped with multicore CPU, enabling them to run multiple processes simultaneously without causing strain on the CPU. When buying a computer for teaching ESL online, we recommend choosing one with at least an Intel i5 quad core CPU.
Finally, confirm that the computer you buy has a dedicated graphics processing unit (GPU). The GPU takes care of heavy graphics processing so the main CPU does not have to be strained running processes and applications alongside graphics processing. Modern computers are equipped with dedicated GPUs to render images faster, and you will notice a significant difference in image and video loading with a GPU in place.
Aside from minimum processor requirements, most online ESL companies also have a minimum RAM requirement. While many companies state a minimum of 4GB RAM, you don’t want to skimp on RAM with the memory load operating systems and applications place on the computer. Why is RAM important? RAM is used as a temporary memory storage for running applications and processes. Whenever you run application or process, it loads resources for fast access into the computer’s RAM. All things being equal, the more RAM your computer has access to, the more resources it can retain in fast, temporary memory, and the faster it can run those processes. Although a lot of emphasis is placed on the CPU speed, it has to be said that computers low on RAM will run significantly slower, as the RAM availability largely determines how many current applications and processes can be run. When a computer runs low on RAM, it leans more on the computer’s hard drive, which is a more persistent, but much slower memory than RAM.
With current computing demands what they are, we recommend going with at least 8GB of RAM when buying a computer for teaching ESL online. The difference in speed and usability is noticeable between computers with less RAM vs more RAM.
Webcam and Audio
As an online ESL teacher, your video and audio quality are both important aspects of your work, and something online ESL companies will test during your onboarding process.
Most laptop computers and all-in-one desktop computers have a built-in webcam and microphone, but what you want to make sure is that your webcam is at least 720p, which is a baseline for high-definition (HD) video. You don’t need a super high-end webcam, as your students will only be able to see video quality up to the resolution of their own displays, so we don’t recommend something like a 4K resolution webcam, which is overkill.
Desktop computers typically don’t have built-in webcams, but may come with an external one. Many online ESL teachers actually prefer an external webcam as it can be easily positioned and moved around to your heart’s content. Indeed, some online ESL teachers using laptops also connect an external webcam for this reason.
For online ESL teaching, the computer’s microphone isn’t as important as the webcam, because currently, most online ESL companies require their teachers to wear headsets with boom mics. Online ESL companies tend to believe wearing a headset improves audio quality and noise reduction, but we believe it is more for aesthetic reasons – looking like a professional teacher – that companies insist on using headsets. See our post where we share the best headsets for online ESL teachers.
Other Factors to Consider when Buying a Computer for Teaching ESL Online
While your primary considerations for determining which computer to buy for teaching ESL online should be based on the performance specifications we have discussed, there are other aspects that may also be important to consider. Let’s have a look at these.
If you have decided to go with a laptop for teaching ESL online, then one crucial factor will be how many hours the computer can run on battery power. We don’t recommend you teach ESL online on a laptop battery for the obvious reason that your ability to teach will end when you run out of charge. In fact, most online ESL companies will expect you to have your computer plugged into electricity while teaching. So why then, is battery life important? In those moments, when the electricity goes out, your computer battery might save you. A computer with long battery life can literally get you through your online classes for the day, as long as you also have access to Internet while the electricity is out.
Many computer manufacturers claim battery life of 12 or more hours, but battery life will depend on your use, your workspace climate, and your overall laptop maintenance. As an online ESL teacher, you will be streaming video, audio, and courseware, all of which can be power intensive. Thus, the longer the computer can run on battery, the better. However, since most online ESL teachers will be plugged in during lessons, extremely long battery life isn’t essential.
If you have decided on a desktop computer, then you might want to think about purchasing a universal power supply (UPS) for emergency situations when the power goes out. This can provide temporary power as well as protect your computer from electrical surges.
Whether you decide to buy a laptop or desktop computer, one important factor in terms of your user experience is the screen size. The trend of lighter, slimmer, and smaller laptops is great for students and business people on the go, but for the online ESL teacher, screen real estate is important, because as you teach a lesson, you want to be able to see the courseware and your students easily and comfortably on the screen. A small screen size will have you squinting and moving around windows to fit everything in, and neither you, nor your eyes, will be too pleased with the experience.
If you decide to go with a laptop, we recommend going no less than a 13″ screen. A 13″ screen is still large enough to feel comfortable and fit everything in while teaching ESL online, and compact enough to make owning a laptop worthwhile. We would recommend spending a little more and going with a 15″ or 16″ screen laptop, which gives you more screen space and comfort, though it will be a bit larger and heavier to carry. Alternatively, you can buy a larger sized external display which you can connect to your laptop while teaching online ESL in your regular workspace. With an external display, you can go with any size screen within your budget and comfort zone, plus you get the added benefit of having two screens to work with. Anyone using two screens can attest how much more enjoyable working is, with your online ESL teaching platform on the larger display and your lesson plan and notes on the smaller display.
If you opt for a desktop computer, your main goal is not portability, so owning a larger screen is give you the ideal experience while teaching ESL online. There really is no point owning a desktop with a 13″ screen, so we recommend at least a 17″ screen to make working on the computer a pleasure.
Computer manufacturers like Apple are on a mission to reduce the number of ports included in laptop computers, and the debate rages on about whether this is a good or bad move. Most online ESL teachers using laptop computers will not need umpteen ports, since most of what you need is built-in. Still, there are some ports which are important to have, and with the exception of Apple, which has gone the way of complete USB Type C and Bluetooth for connectivity and data transfer, most computer manufacturers still include ports such as USB A, HDMI, and SD Card slots.
If you have decided on a desktop computer, you will be in port heaven, and you can upgrade your device to include any additional ports you need. If, on the other hand, your heart is intent on using a laptop, you need to check which ports are included and which ones you need. Don’t worry too much though – it’s easy enough to get a port hub or dongle you can connect to your laptop, adding all the ports you need.
The market trend is moving in the direction Apple has already adopted, albeit with more ports.
You may need ports to connect the following:
As the combination of WiFi, Bluetooth, and USB-C enables you to practically connect any external device today, you really don’t need to spend too much time worrying about ports, unless you already own peripherals which need to be connected with cables.
Solid State Drive (SSD)
As people increasingly work and store data in the cloud, local storage size becomes less of a concern for the average user. Additionally, most manufacturers include hard disks which are adequate in storage capacity for most users. The main exceptions are users who create and edit videos, music or do intensive graphics editing, and gamers. If you fall into one of these categories, you probably need larger storage on your computer.
Most entry-level computers include at least 256GB of disk space, but many laptops nowadays even ship with 1TB built-in storage, which is more than adequate for the typical online ESL teacher. Of course, you can easily add external hard disks to the mix if you prefer to store data locally or have a local backup.
What is important to consider is the type of hard disk that comes with your laptop or desktop computer. Modern computers ship with various types of built-in storage, but you want to make sure you go with a Solid State Drive (SSD). SSD drives are read and write data much faster than other types of drives, and they have a typically longer lifespan.
You wouldn’t think the keyboard is something you need to pay close attention to, but the constant push from manufacturers to go slimmer, smaller and more elegant has also impacted keyboards. Don’t get us wrong – we like lean and clean, too. But when it comes to the keyboard, you need to think about how slimmer and smaller affects your usability. The distance from the unpressed key to fully pressed key is commonly referred to as key travel. Longer key travel seems to be preferred by most users when typing on a keyboard. In 2019, Apple ditched its butterfly mechanism keyboard which had a low key travel due to unpopularity among its users, replacing it with a new mechanism allowing more durability and longer key travel.
We don’t all have infinite budgets for spending on computers and technology, and online ESL teachers especially get into this work to make money rather than to spend it all on a computer, right? Price plays a role in our decision to buy a computer for online ESL teaching. Many online ESL teachers look at price simply as a dollar amount to spend:
My budget is $800.
And then look for a computer that fits in that price range. However, we think it’s important to think about your computer budget from a longer term perspective. You may have $800 to spend now, and buy a computer you will need to upgrade in one or two years. That’s $400 – $800 per year. On the other hand, you could invest in a computer that costs $1,200 – $1,500, which can carry you for 3 – 5 years. That’s about $300 per year. From this perspective, you can see how spending more upfront can end up being cheaper in the long run.
If you are limited to a specific budget, we really believe you should be considering a desktop computer and avoid the urge of forking out cash for a laptop. Laptops are great for many. reasons, but desktops really are cost-efficient, and you can literally upgrade a desktop for years to come, costing you only the price of upgrading the components you need. Laptops are ideal for frequent travelers, but they do come at a higher price, even if they are ‘affordable’, because you will get less for the money you spend, and then you’ll need to upgrade the laptop by replacing it with a new one.
If you are considering a dollar amount to spend for a computer you will use to teach ESL online, there really is no answer to this question. You will need to think about what else you plan to use the computer for, and whether you really need a separate computer for teaching and one for your other computing needs. We think you only need one, but everyone has a point of view.
What we can say is this: a decent desktop computer can be purchased for between $800 – $1,000, whereas a similar featured laptop might cost $1,200 – $2,000. So, the only recommendation we have here is to think about your budget, your purpose for buying a computer aside from teaching ESL online, and whether you really need a laptop computer, or if a desktop computer will do.
Recommended Laptop Computers for Teaching ESL Online
All of these laptop computers are suitable for online ESL teachers, and have been selected based on the various factors we have covered in this post. All of the laptop computers fit within the $1,000 – $2,000 price range. The life of the computer will depend on your personal usage, but with proper usage and care, each should provide 3 or more years of mileage.
Recommended Desktop Computers for Teaching ESL Online
Because desktop computers are upgradeable and customizable, it’s a little more difficult to give straightforward recommendations on desktops for online ESL teachers. On the flip side, you can in fact build your own desktop from scratch if you know how (it isn’t very difficult). But, we understand that you’re not here to learn how to build or upgrade your own computer. Rather, you’re probably looking for the right computer to buy so you can get started with teaching online ESL immediately.
So, our recommended desktop computers are based on all of the factors we have covered in this article, and these desktop computers will be ready to go with the specifications you need. All of these are priced under $1,000 and are upgradeable.
Keep in mind that you will need to purchase a computer display separately, at an additional cost.
We know you want to know what’s the best computer for teacher ESL online. Unfortunately, there’s no perfect answer, and that’s a good thing, because with all of the options you have available, you can make a decision that’s right for you. What we recommend is to base your decision on a set of criteria that must be met, and that’s why we have provided a detailed overview of what we believe are important factors to choosing a computer for teaching ESL online. The laptop and desktop computers we recommend are based on these factors, so choosing one of these options should be a safe route if you’re struggling to decide on your own.
Remember that technology evolves rapidly, and you’re going to struggle to keep up with the latest and greatest. But we want to assure you that owning the latest and greatest isn’t necessary, and it’s often wiser to choose a computer that will provide both stability and longevity rather than merely offering the newest features and specifications.
Ultimately, you’re investing in a computer for teaching ESL online because you want to earn money, and that should be your first priority. We’re confident the computers we recommend will help you accomplish that with relative peace of mind.