Jack Kenny looks at a selection of PCs designed to simplify the surfer's life
There are many good reasons to buy a machine specially set up for the Internet. You will miss out on those times spent on helplines listening to the third movement of the Four Seasons for the fifth time as your telephone bill rockets. You probably will not wake up in the middle of the night wondering if you should have a put a "T" in the modem string of gobbledygook that can be crucial to connection. You may even be able to lift the machine out of the box, connect it all up and get straight on the World Wide Web.
You should not expect these machines and the accompanying documentation to explain everything. If they can get you into this new world without traumatising you, then well and good. If they can get you in there and still leave you with the urge to explore and experiment, then even better.
The Internet is changing all the time. It is a world completely unlike any other in computing. You will not be able to learn it and then rest on that knowledge for the next couple of years. The cliche that things change every few days is correct. You need to know which of these machines will help you to change with it.
The RM Internet Window Box has a good pedigree. The original Window Box has been acclaimed over the years but configuring a machine for the Internet must have tested RM's technicians. Anyone can sell a machine with all the right boxes, but it takes understanding and skill to create a system and instructions that will work and go on working. A great deal of thought has gone into trying to guess not only what the user will want in the first few days, but in the next few months.
The new machine is based on the Junior Window Box. There is help and software for those who want to download files, write their own Web pages and wish to upload their pages on to the RM server. There is also a subscription for a year to RM's Internet for Learning service and all the curriculum software that is on the normal Window Box, plus Microsoft Office.
The Internet software is Internet Explorer. Filtering out unwanted sites is done by RM. I particularly liked the inclusion of PKZIP. I know that sounds like "techie" nonsense, but you will need it to open up the compressed files you encounter on the Net. Graphics can be dealt with by Paintshop Pro. The modem even has voice capability so you can use it as an answerphone. This is a quality system that has been designed with intelligence and insight into what teachers need.
"You get what you pay for", is the reply when you consider a keenly priced machine. In the case of MJN you get more than that. The machine is the least expensive and extremely well-specified. The software that is loaded is not tailored to education and is based on Lotus Smart Suite, but there is also designDTP software and 10 CD-Roms. The specification rivals any of the others. I took it out of the box and it worked first time but it does not come with a subscription to an Internet service provider. You do get the "free" offers from CompuServe and America Online. Microsoft's Internet Explorer is installed. For an Internet novice this is not the easiest machine in the world to use, but for someone who knows the Internet, or feels confident, it is worth considering.
The ICL Fujitsu Internet Partner was easy to set up. The manual looks rather daunting, but isn't. All the steps are clearly delineated. The software that is included shares much with other ICL Partner machines. ClarisWorks is the basic program and the ClarisWorks templates are included. Some of the them are useful but many of the secondary ones were poor when they were first issued and they have certainly not improved with age. One bright spot is that HyperStudio is on the machine. This multimedia authoring program is one of the best and would be an excellent piece of software for bringing together some of the material that will be down-loaded, enabling information handling of the highest order.
Catflap is a program that enables you to set a security level for the machine. You can give students complete freedom or you can confine them severely. It is entirely up to you and very easy to do. There is an easy-to-use program to set up your account with ICL Net. A novice could handle this with ease.
Another bright spot is the inclusion of Cyber Patrol. This is filtering software to help you restrict access and block Web sites that are felt to be inappropriate: the teacher can decide the level of restriction. The software also enables teachers to decide how individuals or groups will use the Internet based on their age and enthusiasms. There is a Cybernot, a listing of undesirable areas, that can be updated on-line each week. There is also a Cyberyes, a list of appropriate materials. The program is easy to use and, providing you keep passwords secure, will be difficult to tamper with.
The Internet software that is used is Netscape Navigator. Home Page Helper is a page that can be stored on the computer and not on the Internet. When you have completed it, it will be the first page to come up when the Internet is started. You can also include links to other sites on the page.
Opus is better known in further and higher education. The machine comes with Microsoft Office software and a trial version of CompuServe, to give you access to the World Wide Web, the Internet and to e-mail. The specification is good and the machine works well. Like the MJN machine, you will be on your own setting up the account with an ISP (Internet Service Provider) and a Net novice might find that difficult. The software that is on the machine, Microsoft Office, is the same as the RM machine but, of course, is not configured for ease of use in schools.
What to buy out of these? The RM Internet Window Box is formidable: easy to set up, well-provisioned with good software. It has the ease of use that primary teachers have come to expect of the Window Box. There are training vouchers, access to one of the best support services in the UK and it puts you straight in to one of the best Internet service providers for education, RM's own Internet for Learning.
Those who worry about children accessing unsuitable material have access to an Internet service that is filtered, so that most material will not get through.
So which should you buy? The answer - as ever - depends upon what you want from a PC. If you are reasonably confident, then the MJN machine is worth considering. The installed software is not as good as the RM machine but it does have a good specification. You will be on your own setting up the machine to work with an Internet provider. There is no filtering software.
The ICL Internet Partner has many attractive features. It is a pity that some of the software is not better, but the inclusion of Catflap and Cyber Patrol is a plus. Cyber Patrol at least puts the onus for filtering out unwanted material on to the school or the home. One black spot was that I hit a snag with the machine. I was promised help, but this did not materialise - not a good omen.
The Opus is attractive and comes with a printer. At Pounds 1,299 it cannot be ignored, especially by those who feel confident that they can handle the twists and turns of setting up an Internet link.
RM INTERNET WINDOW BOX. Multimedia PC, Pentium 200 chip with 2 megabytes of memory, 1.6 gigabyte hard disc and 16-speed CD-Rom, 33.6 modem. Pounds 1,999. RM plc: 01235 826868
MJN INTERNETPC. Multimedia PC, P166 chip, 32-megaram memory, 2.1 gig drive, internal 33.6 faxdatavoice modem, 16-speed CD-Rom drive. Pounds 999 (or, with Intel MMX 166 chip, Pounds 1,099).MJN: 01282 770044.
ICL FUJITSU INTERNET PARTNER. Multimedia PC, Pentium 133 MHzchip, 16 megabyte memory, 1.275gigabyte hard disc, internal 33.6Sportster modem. Pounds 1, 499 ex VAT. ICL: 0800 252674.
OPUS. Multimedia PC, 166 MMX chip with 32-megaram memory, 2 gigabyte hard disc, 12-speed CD-Rom, 16-bit soundcard, 2 megabyte CD graphics card, 33. 6 internal modem. Pounds 1,299. Opus Technology: 01293 821555.