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Ease of use and access? Why, it's child's play;Hands on

Apple Macs are famed for their ease of use, so what happens when you drop one in a nursery without technical support? Stephanie Northen finds out.

An application is what you fill out when you want a new job. Or so I thought until the iMac arrived in the nursery. Now I know it is what you fill out when you need some computer training.

Apple's recent baby, the iMac, is supposed to be the most user-friendly yet. But like all babies it actually prefers being in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing. Which wasn't Hazel, Kelly or myself.

Hazel and Kelly are experts with small humans, in this case a group of about eight three and four-year-olds in the pre-school room of the Animal House nursery in east London. As the iMac emerged from its box they ate their lunch and debated the relative merits of their diet. "I like sausages." "I don't." "I don't like the crunchy bits." (Crunchy bits...?) They appeared to pay little attention as the Bondi-blue machine was installed. This is not fancy computer-speak. I mean we put it on a shelf, next to the Epson colour printer (a Stylus Photo 750, apparently) that came with it. I now know that installation is something you also do to computer programs but I am still happier on the shelf.

With the aid of a colleague, the iMac, which was on loan from school supplier Xemplar Education, lived up to its reputation for ease of use and was running The Little Monster Goes To School CD-Rom within half-an-hour. We were amazed at how painless the process had been. The children were engrossed. Their parents were impressed to the extent that they volunteered to help pay for it.

And Deanna Gardner who runs the private day-nursery was delighted. Her toddler group was equipped with some old keyboards on which, poor souls, they gleefully played at being adults at work, but she felt that the older children could handle the real thing - "to get them ready for the millennium," as her deputy put it. She wasn't being ironic, though it seems that many computers aren't actually ready for Y2K (which I used to think was a make of zip).

However, bugs of millennium magnitude were clearly not going to bother our iMac. It was the humans that buzzed around it, pressing buttons - sorry, keys - at random that were its immediate concern. As the days progressed the computer became a regular part of the pre-school day and we learned to cope with the occasional problems.

Once Sebastian's mum saved our sanity. How? Because she knew the German for "quit" and fortunately turned up at the nursery before Hazel and Kelly acted out the meaning of the word. The Little Monster CD-Rom had flipped into German and no one could stop it. Over and over again the monster woke up, had his breakfast and misbehaved at school. It was only when Sebastian's mum pointed out that we were pressing the German for "More please" and not the button for "Give us a break" that we were all released.

Another time the printer broke. Hazel and Kelly had read the instructions and done all the obvious things, but still we couldn't get a print-out of the food that little Danny in the baby room wasn't allowed to eat. So we gave Danny some humble pie and phoned my "expert" colleague. A revelation. He turned the printer off, and turned it on again, held it upside-down and shook it. A piece of red pasta fell out and Danny's list appeared.

Despite our great progress, we occasionally gave up and treated the iMac like a garrulous parrot. If it wouldn't stop going on, Hazel and Kelly covered it up with half an old floral curtain. They were reluctant to actually pull the plug in case it meant doing complicated things like "loading programs" or going to "Chooser" when they turned it on again. So they were relieved, like all good nursery nurses, when they found they could send it to sleep. Except that sometimes it wouldn't co-operate. And that was when the curtain came in handy.

Now the iMac has been at the Animal House for a few months. The children love it. They have seen themselves on its screen - courtesy of a loaned PhotoPC700 digital camera from Epson. They can learn maths and paint pictures on it using CD-Roms such as Millie's Maths House by Edmark and Disney's Magic Artist, play music, and probably by now they are learning German on it. By the by they have also learned how to use - and share - the mouse.

They would consider the debate as to whether it is "good" for them to being using a computer so young to be simply bizarre - these machines are normal in the world they are entering. By the time YK2 and a bit comes round, one or two of them may even be filling in an application to become a computer scientist.

As for Hazel, Kelly and myself, I guess we did pretty well given that we lacked any technical support or training. The iMac is a sympathetic machine and allowed us to fiddle with it without crashing or breaking. If it had been a baby it would have bellowed at our clumsiness. As a computer it was extremely forgiving and we were able to do much more than we expected.

However, I reckon we'll master those icon bars properly when there's one labelled "shopping".

The equipment used with the Animal House iMac was: Epson PhotoPC 700 digital camera, pound;339.57 (exc VAT) Epson Stylus Photo 750, pound;169.36 (exc VAT). The printer was connected via the USB connector - Universal Serial Bus is the new standard for Macs and PCs.The camera did not have a USB connector so a Keyspan USB Twin Serial Adaptor,pound;69, (exc VAT) was used. This is a useful device for iMac owners who want to continue using their old Mac peripherals, but don't have the iMac's new-generation USB connections. Just load the Keyspan software in the iMac, plug in the adaptor and you can use any printer, camera or scanner supported by the Keyspan. The device allows two connections. You can check compatibility with the distributor, A M Micro which also markets other useful devices to increase the compatibility of your Mac or PC. Tel: 01392 426473.

Apple Xemplar now has a new range of higher-powered iMacs in a range of fruity colours: The basic model (350MHz), pound;632 (exc: VAT), in blueberry iMac DV with DVD drive (400MHz), pound;777 (exc: VAT) in tangerine,strawberry, blueberry, grape or limeDV Special Edition, pound;928 (exc: VAT), in graphitesee-through.

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