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Computers for teachers

Computers for Teachers, the DfEE scheme that offers teachers working in schools in England a 50 per cent subsidy of up to pound;500 (subject to tax) on purchase, has persuaded 3,700 teachers to buy a home computer within two-and-a-half weeks of its launch.

This level of uptake, which the DfEE claims is growing apace, suggests that the pound;20 million set aside to fund the scheme could run out in as little as six months - the original estimate at the launch in January was three years.

This month sees the first major upgrade of the Computers for Teachers' website at which gives a list of approved models and suppliers as well as details of how to buy them and apply for the subsidy. Now may be a good time to consider buying a computer.

Teachers have complained that better deals are available from manufacturers who sell direct, even allowing for the subsidy: the revised prices and models are the DfEE's answer. When comparing prices, teachers need to allow around pound;75 for the cost of an hour-long home tutorial, which is a standard feature of all approved packages.

In fact, the general trend in approved models is towards better specified machines, although one of the pitfalls of the scheme remains: there are still plenty of suppliers offering machines running with out-of-date 400 MHz processors and a mean 64 MGb of working memory or RAM on measly 15-inch monitors. This keeps the price down, but is the computer equivalent of buying the cheapest car. Look for suppliers which offer upgrades on standard specifications.

For example, Gateway's GP7-600E runs at a healthy 600MHz but you may want to upgrade the working memory from the current 64MGb to 128MGb. This pushes the price up by around pound;100 to pound;899 but gives you a better quality machine. Research Machines is one of the few suppliers to have dropped lower specified machines altogether. The small printneeds to be checked, too: for example, Gateway offers free phone technical support while Research Machines charges 50p per minute.

There are different software packages to consider as well. All but one supplier is offering Microsoft Windows-based computers, but not all include the top-of-the-range Office 2000 Professional (Student version) package of Word, Excel, Outlook, Publisher, Small Business Customer Manager, Access and PowerPoint. It would be annoying to buy a computer and then discover you only have a cut-down version of a spreadsheet that doesn't allow you to do what you wanted to with your machine. Finally, remember the same rules about avoiding under-specified models applies equally to printers, scanners and digital cameras.

Will teachers who have just bought a home computer find they need to upgrade or buy afresh in a year or two?

Probably not, especially if they have chosen the most powerful, up-to-date specification they can afford. The computer industry thrives on the idea that technical innovation means ever-shorter product cycles. Hewlett Packard famously boasts that 70 per cent of its product range at any one time is new. But "new" can mean an existing printer bundled with software that lets you print out banners celebrating the Sydney Olympics. Innovation in computers has as much to do with marketing as technical advantage.

It is perfectly possible, for example, to miss out a whole generation of software upgrades. I still use Microsoft Windows 95 on my personal computer, and decided some time ago to miss out on Windows 98 because the benefits it offered did not outweigh the hassle of upgrading. Finally, note that suppliers are obliged to offer prices under the DfEE scheme that are equal to or below their normal prices. And the scheme's competitive nature will ensure that suppliers continue to improve the deals.

Debbie Davies

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