Choosing a computer is a little like choosing a video recorder. They all do pretty much the same things, and some have extra features, but the jargon can make the process bewildering - even if you have some knowledge of the subject.
1 The first big decision concerns the operating system. Most computers run on Microsoft's Windows system, so if your school only has Windows computers, it makes good sense to choose one as well. However, many schools have used Apple machines for years and the highly successful iMac is well worth considering. It is well-priced but powerful, and is portable and attractive. They are also easy to use - Windows was originally little more than a copy of Apple's operating system.
2 The next decision - desktop or laptop - is potentially just as difficult. A desktop model will give you more for less, as well as a full-sized keyboard and monitor, but it is stuck at home. A laptop (or notebook as they are often called) can be used anywhere, but will be more expensive.
3 Now the real fun starts: choosing a supplier - high street shop, superstore, specialist outlet or mail-order firm - and brand. The main risk is ensuring that whoever sells the machine is still trading to honour the warranty. Well-known names are usually safer bets.
4 How much should you spend? This depends on what you want your computer to do. Prices have dropped considerably in the past few months - you can get a decent machine for as little as pound;600 - but if you want some of the extras be prepared to pay closer to pound;1,000. For that amount, machines will do everything most users would want and more. It may be better value to buy a package that includes accessories such as a printer, scanner or digital camera.
5 Higher numbers mean better with computers: "366 Mhz" is the processor's speed (233 Mhz is about the minimum to look for). "4 GB" describes how much information the hard drive can hold (3 gigabytes is reasonable). The other important figure is the RAM (random access memory): 32 MB (megabytes) is the minimum, but aim for more. Windows 98 alone will use up a fair chunk of the RAM before you open anything else. To access the Internet and use e-mail, you will need a modem - "56k" is the current standard. Finally, ask what software the machine comes with. Ensuring there is a telephone helpline (charged at local call rates) if you have problems is also a good idea.
If you want more advice, computer magazines can help, although most are aimed at experienced users. However, titles such as ComputerActive try to eliminate much of the jargon. The Parents Information Network (PIN), which is joining our Learnfree service, produces a pack called Buying a Computer and Printer (pound;14.99 from 0870 6040 231), which includes a buyer's checklist and recommended minimum specifications.
Once you have your shiny new computer, do not expect to be a masterful user overnight. It's a case of practice makes perfect. Experiment - it's virtually impossible to do any damage to the machine. And remember, the best way to learn may not come from reading the manual, but getting your kids to show you how it's done.