As an online teacher, your computer is your office and your classroom at the same time. Without a reliable and performant device, you won‘t be able to work effectively and deliver great lessons.
But which computer for online teaching should you buy? Laptop or desktop computer? How much should you invest and what technical accessories do you need?
In this buying guide, we’ll break down everything you need to know and recommend the 6 best computers for online teaching.
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- The Minimum System Requirements
- Best Laptop Computers for Online Teaching
- Best Desktop Computers for Online Teaching
- Laptop vs Desktop Computers for Online Teaching
- Windows vs Mac
- Technical Requirements of Computers for Online Teaching
- Other Factors to Consider when Buying a Computer for Teaching ESL Online
- Wrapping Up
The Minimum System Requirements
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. In recommending the best computers for online teaching, we need to first consider these basic requirements that are typical for the online ESL industry:
- Operating System: Windows 10/macOS 10.X
- Processor (CPU): Intel i5 or higher
- Memory (RAM): 8 GB 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.
Best Laptop Computers for Online Teaching
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 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.
HP 17.3 inches screen, 32 GB RAM
HP Laptop, 17.3 InchesCheck the price on Amazon
ASUS VivoBook, 15.6 InchesCheck the price on Amazon
Lenovo Thinkpad X1, 14 InchesCheck the price on Amazon
If you are looking for other options in different prices ranges, read our buying guide on laptops for teachers.
Best Desktop Computers for Online Teaching
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 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.
Lenovo ThinkCentreCheck the price on Amazon
HP Envy DesktopCheck the price on Amazon
HP Pavilion 27-inch All-in-One DesktopCheck the price on Amazon
Laptop vs Desktop Computers for Online Teaching
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 type:
- Portable and lightweight; ideal for travel
- Can run on both electricity and battery
- More energy efficient, typically use less electricity
- Doesn’t require any additional peripherals
- Usually pre-configured and ready-to-go
- More expensive than desktops
- Difficult, often not possible to upgrade
- Easier to break, difficult or expensive to repair
- Smaller screen size
- Much cheaper than laptops for similar specs
- More advanced processor options than laptops
- Easy to extend, upgrade, or customize
- Harder to break, easier to repair or replace components
- Larger screen size
- More practical for setting up ergonomic workspace
- Not portable, suitable only for use in fixed location
- Typically use more electricity than laptops
- No battery power, need external backup power during power outages
- Usually requires more time to set up, connect peripherals
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
Choosing between Windows and Mac is one that is largely down to personal preference and your budget (Macs typically cost more). Practically anything you can do on Windows, you can do on a Mac, and vice versa, and that includes teaching ESL online. Most online ESL companies have designed their platforms and courseware to function on either operating system.
Having said that, because of Apple’s more closed ecosystem, Windows based computers tend to offer more versatility. For example, there are more software choices available for functions such as green screening. As well, there are many more Windows users than Mac users, and that typically means any updates or functionality will likely come to Windows first.
Macs are Great, but Not the Best Computers for Online Teaching
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 using Macs. So, we clearly love Macs. But are Macs the best computers for online teaching ? Some other ESL websites may say so, 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.
Technical Requirements of Computers for Online Teaching
If you want to dig deeper into the technical specifications of computers, we have you covered. The following details will help you to shop the right computer for online teaching and to choose between the thousands of options.
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 form 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.
When deciding on a computer for online teaching, it is also important to consider how the computer’s graphics are processed. Most computers come with an integrated graphics card. This means the CPU and graphics processing unit (GPU) are built onto the same die, and share the computer’s RAM. Many computer manufacturers will also offer an option to upgrade to a dedicated graphics card, which has its own GPU, RAM, and fan.
While most online teachers will be fine with an integrated graphics card, it’s worth considering the upgrade to a dedicated graphics card if you plan to use a green screen or virtual background, or use video effects software such as ManyCam.
Aside from minimum processor requirements, most online ESL companies also have a minimum RAM requirement. While many companies state a minimum of 8GB 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 an 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 8 GB (and ideally 16 GB) 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.
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 an electrical outlet 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 emergencies 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 critical 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 inch or 16 inch 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. With the exception of Apple computers, which now only include 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.
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.
Not to worry though – our selection of the best computers for online teaching are all equipped with plenty of ports to meet your connectivity needs.
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 256 GB of disk space, but many laptops nowadays even ship with 1 TB 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 eventually.
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.
A decent desktop computer can be purchased for between $800 – $1,000 – plus optional costs for a display and other accessories. A similar featured laptop might cost $1,200 – $2,000.
The 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.
We know you want to know what’s the best computer for teaching ESL online. Unfortunately, there’s no perfect answer, and that’s a good thing because with all the options you have available, you can decide what’s right for you.
What we recommend is to base your decision on a set of criteria that must be met. 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 priority. We’re confident our choice of the best computers for online teaching will help you accomplish that with relative peace of mind.