A PC is for life

19th December 1997 at 00:00
Is this the year you take the plunge and buy a PC only to see the price of the machine you buy plummet after Christmas? Or did you buy one last year and now you want to pep up a relationship which has lapsed into mutual boredom and misunderstanding? Only pets cause more friction in the home - but a PC is for life and not just for Christmas. Perhaps you need some "peripherals" to spice up the relationship.

If you are still contemplating PC purchase there are two possible approaches: wait until the price comes right down and use this as an excuse for never getting started; or get stuck in and face the fact that whatever machine you buy will be out of date within three months. The best approach is to buy a machine a little behind the bleeding edge and enjoy good cash savings.

The personal computer known as the Windows Multimedia PC (based on the Pentium chip) has become the standard in and out of school, although Apple Macs and Acorn Risc PCs still enjoy popularity. Various speeds of the Pentium chip are available, from P120 upwards and the key point here is that, for most uses, the P120 is fast enough. The new Pentium MMX chip has some video and sound enhancements but is really just the computer equivalent of go-faster stripes.

If you really want to own a budget machine why not build your own or buy one partially assembled? Combined Precision Components (CPC), a large and reputable mail-order electronics company, is currently selling a P133 computer without monitor for #163;319. A monitor, CD-Rom and sound-card would add #163;170 to the total cost, giving you a finished Multimedia PC for #163;489 (a saving of around #163;500). Tax breaks for teachers buying their own machine may be around the corner, so keep any receipts for a possible retrospective claim.

From here on in, the human service "call out" will cost more than the computer part, so 1998 should be the year you learn how to change a floppy disc-drive yourself - un-plug the old, plug in the new. CPC also publishes a useful book Build Your Own Pentium PC for #163;14.99.

If your Multimedia PC, Apple Mac or Acorn Risc PC is already in place why not take a balanced sensory approach this Christmas and treat hand, eye, head and heart in equal measure from a range of peripheral devices.

Help is at hand beside the keyboard for those suffering from "mouse finger". Microsoft has developed an IntelliMouse system that allows you to scroll text on screen automatically at adjustable speeds by clicking a central wheel on the mouse. This means you can sit back and relax with a drink in both hands as you surf the Web. It really is just the thing for interminable Web pages and it's also available as a trackerball (a large, inverted stationary mouse) for those with limited desk space.

This year digital still images became affordable and a range of digital cameras are now available. You can feed your computer a diet of visual images from cameras like the Canon PowerShot 600, still top in terms of image quality, to the newly-launched Sony Mavica camera that records images on to a standard floppy disc for transfer straight to your PC. The Casio QV300 with its built-in display screen is also a strong contender, allowing images to be shown on television or computer. Digital cameras are now turning images into ephemeral items as people start to take, view and delete. Perhaps in 20 years' time you'll be hunting in the loft for the floppy with the shots of Margate when the kids were young.

Digital still cameras could eventually have their day too, however. Certainly, 1998 will be the year of digital movie cameras. JVC has produced a digital stormtrooper in the form of the GR-DVX. The camera is the size of a paperback but records brilliant quality video to a mini digital video cassette. The camera has all sorts of facilities, including a 100-times digital zoom and CD-quality stereo sound. It even has a snapshot facility to record stills with sound annotation. Amazingly, you can zoom into the images on playback, ideal for a key teaching point. A docking station allows stills to be transferred to a computer and software allows you to edit the video from the computer desktop.

The kit doesn't come cheap, however: the package costs #163;1,799. At the moment JVC has the field to itself, but Canon and others will enter the market next year.

The computer equivalent to the second car is the handheld PC, and many schools have already seen the curriculum potential of the Acorn PocketBook computer (based on the Psion Series A). Psion and Phillips both have new offerings. The Psion 3c, now slightly outdated by its younger cousin, the Series 5, still offers good value at #163;299. A large range of software is available and the Scrabble game is still raved over more than a year after its release. You can even buy a Global Positioning satellite plug-in to tell you exactly where you are when you wake up on New Year's Day.

The Psion Series 5 sets a new standard with an excellent keyboard - the best I've ever seen on a palmtop - and stylus input (although it works equally well with a fingernail). As well as the basic tools such as word processor and diary, it also includes a number of useful utilities such as clip art and route finding.

The Phillips Velo 1 handheld PC is a svelte piece of hardware - no bigger than a mobile phone in a smart suede-feel case. It comes complete with built-in modem, a touch-sensitive screen and a cut-down version of Windows known as Windows CE, and this includes special versions of Word, Excel and Internet Explorer. A docking station is supplied to provide fast links to any other computer. The only let-down is the small size of the oval keys on the qwerty keyboard, which make it difficult to type quickly.

Having video telephone calls via your home PC via the Internet could really take off next year, so why not start this Christmas? Buy two Connectix cameras - small unobtrusive eyeball-like devices which act as a video camera plugged straight into your PC. Plug one into your machine and send the other to a relative overseas. Then download Net Meeting software from the Microsoft Web site. On Christmas morning call them up via the World Wide Web and talk to and see each other - all for the price of a local phone call.

Oh, and make sure you're wearing the cardigan aunt Clare sent you - or she'll see that you're lying. Happy Christmas.

CPC (P133 computer amp; Build Your PC Book), 01172 654455; Microsoft IntelliMouse and IntelliMouse Trackball, both approx #163;59.99 including VAT, from all major stockists; Sony Mavica MVC-FT5, #163;383 excluding VAT, with MVC-FD7 Zoom, #163;511, excluding VAT, from major stockists; Canon PowerShot 600, around #163;699 excluding VAT, all major stockists; Casio QV300, #163;499 excluding VAT, all major stockists; Connectix QuickCam, PC World and major stockists, around #163;70 black and white, #163;130 colour

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