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Plug and play comes of age

Selling computers with all their software pre-installed is a hit with schools. Now the competition is hotting up.

Each year, another company casts envious eyes on the market that RM has seized in primary schools with its Window Box "turnkey" computers for education - machines that come preconfigured and pre-loaded with relevant educational software.

This year it is the turn of Yorkshire International Thomson Multimedia (YITM) and its subsidiary, Semerc, which has extended its focus beyond software to supplying hardware too.

Making comparisons is difficult in the computer world but, nevertheless, here are three of the cheapest contenders.

RM's Window Box Compact has a 1.2 gigabyte hard drive, and costs Pounds 999. YITM's Standard has a 1.7 gigabyte hard drive for Pounds 899. However, the cheapest is the MJN 166 with a 4.3 gigabyte hard drive for a mere Pounds 649. All three use the Pentium P166 chip and have 16 megabytes of memory.

These details do not tell the full story. Picking a machine is difficult. The main thing to look for is value for money and that does not necessarily mean going for the cheapest product. All the companies have a range of machines and programs. The extent of support, the quality and the curriculum coverage of the bundled software, the warranties and the training on offer differ substantially.

Buyers will want to be sure there is a good software management system to keep junior hackers or incompetent users from inflicting damage. They will also want to ensure the machine is up to date to guard against early obsolescence. Consideration should be given to how any system will fit in with the school's existing set up, and how easily it can access the Internet.

RM has led the way in primary school turnkey solutions with Window Box. Schools not only get a PC with curriculum software and technical support, but they also get locally delivered training on how to use the product in the classroom. These machines are the benchmark. The philosophy for some time has been that the machine uses adapted Microsoft programs: for instance, the word processor is a version of Word.

The RM Window Box Compact is the latest addition to the range, created specifically for primary schools, and is a scaled-down version of the full RM Window Box.

The newest challenger comes from the Semerc-YITM stable. The hardware comes from Centreprise and the software bundles are structured to correspond with key stages 1, 2 and 3. The management software is Front End, from Semerc, and all the software is custom made. There is no Microsoft software apart from Windows 95. The machines all have Pentium chips, though their power reflects the price paid.

These computers are keenly priced, and some of the range have innovative additions such as Simply Speaking Gold, a speech recognition program, or entry-level video conferencing. They come with a plethora of curriculum software and ways of controlling access.

Xemplar's machines - Macintosh and Acorn RiscOS - have a good history. The RiscOS machines are seen as the curriculum workhorses, the Macs innovative and creative, and the choice of schools in the United States. RiscOS computers have been commonly found in British primary schools.

Xemplar, a new entrant to the market, offers the Junior Toolbox range on an Apple Power Mac 4400200, which has a 1.6 gigabyte hard disc, CD-Rom drive, 32 megabyte of memory and costs Pounds 1,399. It comes with a 15-in monitor, operates on Mac OS8 and includes software for creating Internet pages.

The system's management software is in two parts: At Ease protects the system and its contents from accidental or deliberate damage, while Portfolio Builder allows teachers to manage pupils and assess their contributions. The system represents good value for money and an Acorn version is expected "soon", as is a Macintosh Infant Toolbox.

BETT Connections

MJN stand 670

RM stands 131,132,215,SN22

Semerc YITM stand SN1, SN42

Xemplar stands 241, 440, SN9

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