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The future-proof machine;Shop Window;Computers

Hugh John looks at how to avoid buying a system that's already had its chips

When it comes to choosing hardware and software for the home, there is a well established process. First, choose the appropriate software, then pick the operating system that works best with that software. Finally, choose the appropriate hardware.

It sounds simple and, for home buyers, it often is. Education, however, has its own considerations. Are the machines going to be "stand-alones" or part of a network? What are the advantages of a network? Would you rather upgrade 10 standalone machines or one network server? Can different kinds of computers - Windows, Apple, Acorn - be truly complementary? Despite these questions, however, first principles still apply for standalone computers: software first, then hardware.

RM marketing manager Ray Fleming offers this salient advice to would-be buyers. First, he says, ask what learning experiences you want to give your pupils. A school using multimedia will have different requirements from one specialising in desktop publishing or Internet access.

Look for products in the high or middle price ranges. Essentially, "you get what you pay for" and bargains are rarely what they seem. Mr Fleming expresses it more bluntly: "They're cheap because they're old, end-of-line technology."

At a time when the demands of CD-Rom and multimedia technology are driving hardware specifications ever upwards, it's surely the grandest of follies to buy computers hardly adequate for today's software. And when buying, identify what components can't be upgraded. Installing extra RAM (random access memory) in a machine is a relatively cheap exercise. Replacing a motherboard is not.

Take a look at your supplier. What support does the dealer provide? Not all of the firms selling ICT equipment into education are of the same standard. The after-sales support that companies such as RM and Xemplar offer is based on a wide knowledge of the education world. Similarly, their telephone support lines are often staffed by people who have worked in education.

Future-proofing - anticipating computer industry trends and buying accordingly - is more of an art than a science, but it is possible to anticipate medium- term developments. The slew of '98 encyclopaedias and reference CDs released over Christmas demanded fast processors, large hard-disk capacity and a minimum of 16Mb of RAM. Windows 98, set for release later this year, will be more RAM hungry than Windows 95, and is expected to need a minimum of 32Mbs to run at its best.

Two years into the next millennium - if the Government achieves its aim - all Britain's schools will be connected to the Internet. School ITC co-ordinators are moving away from dial-up connections to faster, and often cheaper, ISDN fixed-rate charges.

RM, makers of the acclaimed "classroom ready" Window Box computer, has recently introduced SchoolShare. This enables a cluster of Window Boxes to be connected to a printer or even the Internet via an ISDN line and a router (obviating the need for separate billing accounts or modems). All new RM Window Boxes now include an Ethernet (network) card as standard. RM says primary education is following secondary into networking. The good news for schools staying with dial-up Internet connections is that faster modems have dropped in price.

Computer buyers should look at three technical areas: RAM, hard disk space and processor speed. A machine with anything less than 32Mbs of RAM will struggle with much of today's multimedia. With RAM currently so cheap, it makes sense to buy as much as you can afford. Installing extra will not seem extravagant in six months' time.

Similarly, large hard drives have become much more affordable. Four years ago an average user would have found a 200Mb hard drive perfectly adequate. Today, that drive would barely hold the Windows 95 or Macintosh OS8 operating systems. Contemporary hard drives are measured in gigabytes (Gbs) and the minimum capacity for stand alone is 4Gbs.

The latest PCs run Pentium II MMX chips at speeds of up to 300MHz. The "entry level" MMX processor is 166MHz but it would be sensible to look at models with speeds in excess of 200MHz. It is worth noting, however, that the MHz rating is not always a water-tight guide to processor speed. One processor rated at 200MHz could be significantly faster than another "clocked" at the same speed.

There are other important considerations. Will the computer withstand the rigours of school? Does the keyboard have a comfortable feel? Is the school using portables and, if so, will the carry-bags protect them from the inevitable buffeting?

Infra-red connectivity, now far more common (see page 34), would seem to be a technology designed for school life. The latest generation of palmtops have it, as do portable computers, some digital cameras and some printers. Transmitting data between machines without plugging and unplugging cables is sure to prolong their life.

Finally, the most fundamental maxim of computer purchasing is that the moment the machine leaves its box, it depreciates. The real value and investment, of course, is to be found in the enrichment of their students' education.

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