Getting the right add-ons for your needs
Buying a PC is only half of your worries. It may well be running the latest software nice and smoothly, but a PC is no use by itself if you want to email information, print something out, or perhaps scan some documents or pictures. Like all things to do with IT, however, nothing's quite as simple as you'd hope, so follow our guide to choosing the right kind of peripherals.
First things first: there are plenty of bundles out there, and by that we mean PCs which are sold complete with a free printer, scanner and sometimes even a digital camera. While these bundles look like fantastic value from the outside, the fact is that the peripherals are far from the best around. Many are discontinued or end-of-line models, which are looking dated compared to today's even budget-priced offerings. Then there's the fact that you might not even want them in the first place. While a bundle will be the cheapest way to get hold of basic peripherals, we'd advise you to avoid them and buy the specific models that you actually want, as and when you need them.
There was a time that if any peripheral were considered compulsory, it'd be a printer. Today, however, most people get their information from one PC to another by electronic means, and there's that small matter of getting on the Internet. Yes, the ubiquitous peripheral today is some means of communications and for most people that means a conventional telephone line connected to a modem.
Modems have long been standard fittings in most PCs, with the fastest 56K models only costing around pound;30. There's nothing to choose between them, so at that price you might as well have one fitted and enjoy the option of making dialup connections. Note that Apple Macs have built-in 56K modems.
There are much faster ways to communicate than using a modem. It's very simple to set up a network based on Ethernet technology, that allows PCs to share files, printers and even high-speed Internet connections like ADSL. You'll need an Ethernet connector on each PC, and these are either built on to the actual PC motherboard, or fitted as an expansion card costing around pound;40. Note that Apple puts Ethernet into all of its Macs as standard.
While it's possible to connect two PCs to each other using a special Ethernet "crossover" cable, the most flexible networks require a "hub". This is a small box with four or more Ethernet plugs, into which you connect as many PCs or printers as you like. The networking software which comes with Windows and Macs then lets them talk to each other, although if you want Macs and PCs on the same network, you'll need a server running Windows NT or Windows 2000. Basic four-port Ethernet hubs cost from pound;35.
Sharing files, printers and Internet connections sounds very tempting, but it's a pain wheeling PCs between classrooms and finding a network point to plug them in. The solution is to se wireless Ethernet, which allows PCs or notebooks to remain connected to the network and its services wherever they are in the building, without a cable in sight. It's expensive at around pound;1,000 for a network point and two cards, but could be cheaper than laying cables or drilling holes in walls.
There are two types of printers on the market: laser and inkjet. Lasers are fast and cheap to run and produce the best text quality, but colour models are big and expensive. Inkjets produce the best photographic colour output and are also good at text, but can be slow and expensive to run - especially if you print lots of glossy pictures. If you're printing mostly letters, then buy a laser. If you're printing photos and colour presentations, buy an inkjet. Remember that you can always buy both.
Scanners have dropped massively in price over the years, with decent, flexible flatbed models starting at less than pound;100. The most important specification is the optical resolution, which defines how much detail is captured: 600dpi is very good, and 1,200dpi is better still, but where a manufacturer quotes two numbers, like 600x1,200dpi, the effective figure is sadly the smaller one.
Flatbeds are ideal for scanning printed photos, documents and even pages from open books and magazines, but if you're exclusively into scanning slides and negatives, then go for a dedicated film scanner instead - they're optimised for capturing these tiny pieces of film.
Digital cameras are all the rage and, like scanners, the key specification is resolution. Cameras are described by megapixel resolution, where the number of horizontal and vertical pixels are simply multiplied together. The higher the figure, the bigger the prints you can make. Roughly speaking, 1.3, 2.1 and 3.3 megapixel cameras can produce 6x4, 8x6 or 10x8in inkjet prints respectively.
If your pictures are for on-screen use only, such as for a website, then even the lowest resolution cameras are sufficient. If this is your thing, consider buying a webcam for around pound;65, which triples up as a low resolution still camera, video-conferencing device and webcam all in one.
Do's and Don'ts
* Don't buy a bundled package - you'll often end up with devices you don't want
* Do buy a mono laser printer if you mostly print black and white documents
* Do buy an inkjet if you want a cheap, albeit relatively slow, colour printer
* Do have Ethernet fitted as standard on new PCs if you're thinking about networking
* Don't trail wires around the school - consider a wireless Ethernet network
* Do buy a flatbed scanner if you want to capture photos, documents and even objects
* Don't buy a flatbed if you only scan slides or negatives - get a film scanner instead
* Don't buy a high-resolution digital camera if you only use your pictures online
* Do buy a high resolution digital camera if you want to make the biggest prints
* Do buy Universal Serial Bus (USB) devices if your PC has USB ports - they're quick and easy to connect