Even though software is more important than hardware, buying a computer is still stressful and is not helped by conflicting advice and the catchpenny advertising that seems to pervade almost every publication and electrical store.
"Experts" in school frequently know of a small local dealer who can put together a machine; and governors have their own opinions. Outsiders frequently forget, or maybe have never realised, that computers are not in school curriculum areas to increase productivity but to improve, intensify and strengthen learning.
Nevertheless, decisions have to be made. Three primary schools have been considering some of the disparate current offers in the Multimedia PC range of computers (IBM and compatible, ie Windows machines) to see how approaches differ between providers. Are schools better off with "educational" suppliers, or would they do just as well in the high street or buying mail-order?
Harmans Water Junior School, in Bracknell, Berkshire, has 420 pupils. But when it merges with the infants later this year it will have nearly 900, making it one of the largest primary schools in the country. This prompted it to rethink its approach to technology.
In the past the school has bought Acorns, but information technology co-ordinator Liz Thomas and the governors decided to take the PC route. The machine they considered was from Research Machines. "The Window Box multimedia machines, with all the software installed, seem to offer us everything that we want," she says. "The way that the software is structured enables children to progress through it. Take it out of the box and off it will go."
Leasing was another consideration. "If we wanted to buy half a dozen machines that was the only way to do it," explains Ms Thomas. "In the future we might try networking machines and RM has a great deal of experience in that area. Snags? We haven't found any. The Window Box has worked well; the fact that RM understands education is a great help and the back-up services are excellent. " However, more experienced users of Window Box suggest it can be difficult to install new software.
The RM machines range from Pounds 1,399 to Pounds 1,699 (plus VAT and delivery). All have 486 processors with double-speed CD-Rom drives; hard discs range from 340 to 420 megabytes. The systems come with free training vouchers.
Roselands School in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire has been using PCs successfully for some time. Headteacher Jane Carson wanted some-thing cheaper than the school's existing computers. She tried one advertised in the national press under the Time logo and supplied by mail order.
"We use a great deal of IT; we want machines to work," she says. "This is one for an enthusiast, not a primary school mainly interested in using it to enhance learning. Initially it only worked in Dos and we had to set it up to work in Windows. On occasions we phoned for days on end. After four months, I still have not been able to use the CD-Rom drive. I sent them faxes but they ignored them. We eventually got through to someone who told us that there was no on-site help even if we paid for it. As a last resort I told them that the machine was the subject of a review. Even that did not work."
The software on the hard disc was the Lotus suite. There were two CDs: a compilation of shareware and an easy way of learning a foreign language. The machine uses a 66Mhz 486DX2 processor and has a 340-megabyte hard disc and double-speed CD-Rom drive. Price Pounds 1,099 (plus delivery and VAT).
St John's School in Islington looked at a Packard Bell machine. Classroom adviser Jim Dobell has used it most. "It is very powerful and good value for money," he says, "with a 528-megabyte hard disc, Pentium chip and high speed CD-Rom drive. And I like the design. Practically all the multimedia PCs I have seen have separate speakers and as a result there are trailing wires all over the place. With the Packard Bell the speakers are integral. It is a very neat machine."
He found that the accompanying software was not really suitable for a primary school. "We got the Microsoft Educational pack, Microsoft Works, Navigator, Sage Accounting, Lotus Organiser and nine various CD-Rom titles. A primary school would have a great deal of work to do to make the software suit key stages 1 and 2. But the machine itself is excellent."
The PC at St John's is one of Packard Bell's range of multimedia machines for the home market. The specifications range from a 486 with a 420-megabyte hard disc and dual-speed CD-Rom (Pounds 1,099 including VAT) to a Pentium 75 with a quadruple-speed CD-Rom, a gigabyte hard drive and inbuilt 28.8 modem (to access on-line systems like the Internet) and answerphone (Pounds 1,799 including VAT). The machines have a one-year warranty, including on-site service. Buyers have unlimited access to telephone technical support throughout the PC's lifetime.
These comparisons are in no way comprehensive, but they are fairly typical of the range of experiences. Suppliers like Research Machines, with years of experience in schools IT and a strong commitment, are a sound contender for supplying any school with Multimedia PCs. Their experience ought to give them an advantage in the burgeoning, education-oriented home market too.
A firm like Packard Bell produces machines which are, in hardware and price terms, superior to Research Machines'. If such firms (Compaq is another front-runner) can get tuned into the sort of software required by schools, their user-friendly, wire-free approach to computers could pose a serious threat to education's PC suppliers.
Buying from mail order and the high street can produce savings but only where the school is technically competent to set up the machines and install software .
* Research Machines New Mill House, 183 Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4SE. Tel 01235 826000.
* MJN Technology Granville House, Blackburn Road, Simonstone, Burnley BB12 7GT. Tel 01282 777555.
* Packard Bell UK Tel: 01753 831914. Packard Bell machines are available from Dixons, Currys and John Lewis.
If you are thinking of buying in the near future, look carefully at the machines' specifications and consider some of the questions below: * Is it value for money?
* Does it come with appropriate software?
* Are the sellers reliable?
* Do they understand education?
* Is there good, accessible telephone support?
* What does it consist of?
* What happens if the dealer goes out of business next month?
* Is there a leasing scheme and is it value for money?
* Is it possible to get the machine upgraded, repaired or components replaced?
* If you economise on support, does it exist within the school?
* Will the machine be supported by your local education authority or local information technology centre?
* How well does the machine harmonise with existing technology in the school?
* Will the machine run your existing software?