Cheaper technology and stiff competition in the PC marketplace means prices are falling, which must be good news for schools. George Cole looks at the latest contenders fighting it out for your custom
Remember when a desktop PC left you with little change out of pound;1,000?
Well, today some companies are selling PCs for almost a third of that. These new lower-priced computers come in two main guises: legacy-free devices and network-ready PCs. Both are designed to run on school networks, and each costs much less than most desktop computers.
Compaq has launched the iPaq (right), designed for schools which mainly use their PCs for running mainstream software packages. It is also designed to be linked to a school network, intranet or to the Internet. Prices range from pound;315 (all prices exclude VAT) for a basic machine with 64Mb of memory, an Intel Celeron processor chip and 4Gb hard disk, to pound;480 for an iPaq with an Intel Pentium III processor, 128Mb of memory and an 8Gb hard disk. All iPaqs come with a keyboard and mouse as standard, but no monitor.
There are two types of iPaqs. Legacy-free machines cannot be upgraded and don't have standard PC serial or parallel ports for connecting to peripherals like printers and scanners. Instead they have Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports, now found on many new computer peripherals. There is also an expansion bay for a CD-Rom, DVD-Rom or second hard drive and this iPaq comes with Microsoft's Windows 2000 operating system only. "This iPaq is for a school that wants to be ready for the future, but we realise that not all schools will want to do this," says Jan Sweeting, Compaq's senior product marketing manager for PCs.
For this reason, Compaq has launched a Legacy Lite iPaq. This doesn't have PC expansion card slots either, but oes have standard PC ports (including USB), allowing schools to connect up their existing peripherals. It can also run Windows 95982000.
Another route could be to opt for a Network-Ready PC. RM has launched a pound;399 PC under this banner. It has an Intel Celeron processor, 32Mb of memory, a 4Gb hard drive, Ethernet network card, 3D graphics card, 14-inch monitor, keyboard, mouse and Windows 98 pre-installed. There is no CD-Rom drive because the PC is designed to run on a school network, with most programs and files being delivered from a central server. However, schools can upgrade to a 15 inch monitor for another pound;15, add an extra 32Mb of Ram for pound;30 and a CD-Rom drive for pound;30.
Viglen says its Incepta PC is aimed at the same market as Compaq's iPaq, although it has a much higher specification, can be upgraded and costs more than a basic iPaq. The Incepta offers an Intel Celeron processor, 32Mb of memory, 6.4Gb hard disk, 24x CD-Rom drive, Ethernet card, 15-inch monitor, keyboard, mouse and four USB ports. It supports Windows 98 and Windows 2000, and costs pound;559.
Viglen's answer to the RM's Network-ready PC is the Fast Track Contender Compact PC, which has an Intel Celeron processor, 32Mb of memory, 6.4Gb hard disk, a 14-inch monitor, keyboard, mouse and comes with Windows 98. It costs pound;445.
So how low can prices go? Ray Fleming, RM's secondary schools marketing manager, believes that the next low price-point will be pound;299, and some industry observers think these machines could arrive by summer. Lower-priced PCs represent good value, but schools should remember that they rely on organisations having networks that are powerful enough to support them - and these do not come cheap.