Ian Carter test-drives the new quick-start Apple Performa, a Swiss-Army knife approach to multimedia.
If you have completely ignored the Apple Macintosh as a viable machine for education because it is too expensive, has limited education software and is not an industry standard then you should have a look at the latest models. The Performa 5200CD is the most striking of the new machines, with everything you need in one tilt-and-swivel case - no add-ons and cables trailing over your desk. A natural successor to the all-in-one design concept of the Mac Plus and Colour Classic, it has a large (15-inch) colour screen, keyboard and lots of processing speed (it has a 603 PowerPC chip) and a quad-speed CD-Rom drive.
Lifting it out of the packaging is a struggle, but then all you have to do is attach mouse to keyboard, keyboard to back of computer, plug into mains and press the start-up key on the keyboard. The stereo start-up chord introduces its multimedia capabilities and you are presented with a point-and-click system to choose a ready-loaded program, like ClarisWorks 2.
The whole process of getting the machine up and running takes no more than five minutes, and it's a lot easier than setting up a video recorder. Even if the hapless user accidentally deletes the whole hard disc, it can be restored from the included CD-Rom within a few minutes. This is as it should be; hardware, operating system and software working together to provide a seamless introduction to the technology, or, as one of my students put it, "a seriously cool machine".
The advantages of the all-in-one design become obvious when exploring its multimedia capabilities. The stereo speakers and microphone are built into the unit with no dangling cables, and the optional Nicam stereo TV tuner with Teletext and video-in cards slot neatly into a pull-out tray at the back. Thankfully there are two screws to secure the back panel, so little hands are prevented from dismantling the innards, unless they have a screw-driver, of course. The software for managing TV, Teletext, grabbing picture frames or making QuickTime movies is simplicity itself; movie editing software is included in the bundle. Teletext pages can be grabbed as pictures or editable text depending on whether they are pasted into a graphics or text application.
The Macintosh plug-and-play philosophy also extends to CDs - it is very rare to find a CD which fails to work immediately, contrary to experiences with PC CD-Roms which can be a nightmare to set up and run. The quad-speed CD-Rom drive is a joy to use, rejuvenating graphics-intensive CDs (children really appreciate the elimination of those frustrating periods clicking the mouse, waiting for something to happen).
With all this multimedia capability, displaying information to a class on a large screen or TV is essential. There is an optional adaptor which supports external monitors which mirrors what is on the built-in display. Another box, the Apple Presentation Kit, is necessary for display on a TV - so why isn't it available internally on a card? If a larger screen is required then it is worth considering the Performa 6200CD. (The Performa 6200 is essentialy the same machine but has a separate monitor and is about Pounds 100 less.)A thoughtful touch is the software control which disables the sound and screen controls.
Even without all the multimedia options, this is a fast, responsive machine, and the 5200CD Plus comes with a copious bundle of homeedutainment software with a face value greater than the price of the machine, well worth the extra Pounds 100. The optional Nicam stereo TV tuner and video-in card adds about Pounds 300 to the price. It is a mystery why Apple has not included the full version of HyperCard, its own multimedia authoring product, for education, especially now the new version (2.3) takes better advantage of the PowerPC. However, do take a look at the neglected Graphing Calculator program. This is a little gem for evaluating arithmetic and algebraic expressions, plotting graphs and solving simple equations.
This is a well-balanced machine incorporating all the best aspects of Apple technology. If the bundled software titles were rethought for the curriculum rather than the home this would be an unbeatable plug-and-play multimedia system.
* Performa 5200CD.
Apple Macintosh computer with PowerPC processor, 8 megabytes of memory, floppy-disc drive, quad-speed CD-Rom drive, 500-megabyte hard disc, loudspeakers and monitor, all built into one unit, with 18 CD-Roms, around Pounds 1,339 (Plus version also includes TV and video system and more software for about Pounds 1,549)
Available from Apple dealers and selected High Street outlets. Apple Computer, 16 Roundwood Avenue, Stockley Park, Uxbridge UB11 1BB