ICT - One for all

8th October 2010 at 01:00
Neat, compact and user friendly: all-in-one computers are a welcome alternative to desktop models, says George Cole

For Sarah Beckingham, the selling point was the chance to save space. "Before, we could only fit 16 computers into our ICT suite," she says. "Now we have 30 in the same space, so every child in a class has access to a computer."

The solution to the space problems at Westmorland Primary in Stockport, where Ms Beckingham is ICT co-ordinator, was all-in-one computers, a more compact alternative to the conventional desktop.

Desktop computers can be bulky devices even when used with a modern, flat-screen monitor. As well as the monitor and PC box, there is the keyboard, mouse and cabling to find room for.

All-in-ones offer a neat solution to desktop clutter, although they do this in different ways. One variant has the monitor and PC box in a single unit, another has a smaller version of the box and monitor on a single stand, although the most common type has a separate PC box and monitor that fit together.

Westmorland, a 400-pupil school, has bought 50 all-in-ones with height-adjustable screens, making them easier for smaller pupils to use.

"You can also store the keyboard on top of the computer so that younger pupils can just use the mouse," says Ms Beckingham.

Her only complaint so far is over the side-mounted CD drive. "Most of our CDs are stored on our server, but if you want to play the odd disc to the class it is a little awkward when inserting it," she says.

A survey commissioned last year for RM, a major provider of all-in-one computers to schools, found that 65 per cent of network managers and ICT co-ordinators believed they were well-suited for classroom use.

But there were concerns over the cost and maintenance of all-in-ones compared with standard PCs. "To produce their slim, space-saving design, many all-in-one PCs have internal component layouts that are hard to access for maintenance," says Adam Stewart, senior product manager at RM. "This can make the cost of warranty or servicing these PCs more expensive and can increase the total cost of ownership of such a device."

Initial costs vary widely. All-in-one computers start at about #163;500 but can sell for about #163;1,000 in the case of the Apple iMac with a built-in DVD writer.

The single unit option is more compact, but this often means they use small, bespoke components, which can be more expensive. Maintenance can also be more difficult, and if a component, such as the monitor, fails the whole unit is out of action.

Separate monitor and PC box variants use standard components and so tend to be cheaper. If the monitor fails it is not the end: you can connect the PC box to an external monitor.

An all-in-one computer that uses a mountable monitor and stand can be a cost-effective solution, but more care is needed with its set-up and more cabling is required.

But for a number of schools, the advantages of all-in-one PCs far outweigh these issues. Barclay Primary School in Waltham Forest, east London, has at least three all-in-one computers in every classroom. Headteacher Justin James describes them as "very neat, very compact and very user friendly".

Most of the settings are controlled by buttons on the back of the computer, so pupils are less likely to fiddle with them and inadvertently change something, he says. Fewer cables mean there is less chance of children disconnecting their monitors. "Because they're integrated, they create more space and pupils can write at their computer desk," adds Mr James. "We're very happy with them."

Some versions of all-in-one computers come with a touch screen, which has proved a major advantage to Abbey Court School in Strood, Kent. The school, which has about 70 pupils aged three to 19 with severe and profound learning difficulties, has bought 12 touch-screen computers.

"There is lots more space around the computer, you don't have cables everywhere, and they are safe and secure - there's even the option of bolting them down," says John Bosley, deputy head.

Pupils use touch-screen technology elsewhere in the school, so opting for all-in-one computers with an integrated touch screen offered cost savings, he adds.

Although maintenance can be more expensive than for conventional PCs, Danny Stewart, the school's network manager, says they have had no complaints on that score so far. "All-in-ones are very easy to install and maintain," he says. "One of our pupils accidentally broke a monitor screen, so we got a replacement. It was a five-minute job to install it."

At Holloway School in Islington, north London, the now-axed Building Schools for the Future scheme provided an opportunity to invest heavily in ICT. As a result, the school bought 300 all-in-one computers, opting for an energy-saving model.

"The pupils really like them," says James Greswolde, the school's ICT systems manager. "They have USB ports on the front so the children can bring their work into school on a memory stick and plug it in. Because of their small size there is lots more space and you can detach the monitor from the computer, so when the PC comes to the end of its life you can re-use the monitor. I think they are brilliant."

All-in-one computer criteria

- Try testing an all-in-one PC in the classroom before deciding whether to invest in the technology.

- Check the build quality and design - is it robust enough for the classroom? Is it easy to install, use and maintain?

- Try to get the highest-spec model you can afford, as this will extend its operating lifetime.

- Make sure it can run all the software and applications you want to use.

If you have a policy of upgrading your ICT hardware to extend its lifetime, check how easy this is on an all-in-one computer.

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