There is a wealth of computers on the market to choose from. All the more reason to be sure about what you're getting, writes Jack Kenny.
IT IS THE worst term that can be applied to schools technology companies - "box shifter" means their only interest is in selling computers with minimum support and little or no focus on education.
All the product companies listed here have aimed their machines at education. How far they have achieved this and at what price is the issue that should concern you. So numerous are the companies vying for the school market that anyone can go around the corner and get a "bargain".
However, budget is not always best as schools need machines built to last: both teachers and students make excessive demands on computers. There are also questions apart from the machine itself that need answering, such as the amount of bundled software, its ease of use, reliability and security to protect the system from inadvertent or malicious damage. You should also ask about technical support, as well as the supplier's general feel for the needs of education, and how the main software fits with the national curriculum.
Centerprise is not a big player in education, but this is set to change as its machines have been chosen for the government's laptops-for-teachers project. Centerprise works with Granada Learning (the former YITM), and its curriculum and technical expertise makes these machines worth considering. Many of the included titles were created by the software company Semerc.
Users can decide which of various software combinations they require. For example, the key stage 2 bundle comprises 19 titles ranging from Semerc's popular Sheetwise spreadsheet program to Logotron's First Logo modelling package. Prices range from Pounds 899 for a 166MHz Pentium processor and 2.1Gb hard drive, to Pounds 1,399 for a 233MHz Pentium II with a 3.2Gb hard drive and 32Mb of RAM. Call Centerprise on 0161 627 4469.
RM, the education market leader, makes the Window Box curriculum PC. Its new machine features the innovative SchoolShare software which enables the sharing of applications, printers and Internet access. The other highlights are the quality of the software, including the Black Cat programs and the debut of Textease. Schools have a choice of CD-Roms and programs such as Colour Magic, Illuminatus, Roamer, Super Logo, Smart Alex and My World.
Prices range from Pounds 999 for the 233MHz MMX processor with a 2Gb hard drive, to Pounds 1,599 for the 300MHz MMX chip with a 4Gb hard drive. All systems have 32Mb of RAM. Tel: 01235 826868.
The Apple Macintosh Toolbox machine is well provisioned. HyperStudio, for multimedia, is still one of the best software programs around, as are Web Workshop and Widget Workshop. But the outstanding feature is Portfolio Builder, which allows pupils to compile electronic portfolios of their work. The system is a Power Mac 4400, with a 200 MHz PowerPC processor, a 2Gb hard drive and 32Mb of RAM. It costs Pounds 1,099.
However, Apple is also making a big splash in the education and consumer markets with the new iMac (see page 26), an all-in-one that has received uniformly good reviews in the United States. Although cheap - some suppliers are offering it for Pounds 799 - it is powerful and is housed in a transparent case. The machine can be networked, comes with a 56k modem, a 4Gb hard disk, 32Mb of RAM, system 8.1 and other software titles. Call the Apple information line on 0870 600 6010 or Xemplar on 01223 724200.
Meanwhile, Acorn RiscOS systems continue to command strong loyalty, with many who believe Acorn systems are superior to PCs in some respects. The RiscOS Junior Toolbox comes with four CDs from Anglia and software such as Multimedia Talking, Textease, Toolbox or Infant Toolbox, Datasweet 3, Datasheet 2 and Spex. All software is pre-installed. The machine is an A7000, with an ARM 7500FE processor, a 1.2Gb hard drive and 8Mb of RAM. The price is Pounds 1,399.
Acorn is also to launch a new system, the Phoebe 2100, which features an enhanced operating system as well as hardware improvements. Though it can be used as a stand-alone, many will buy it as a network server. Call Acorn on 01223 725920, or Xemplar on 01223 724200.
ICL has launched the ICONJ range especially for education and it is offered in three configurations: a straight standalone, a mini-network or an NT network.
The basic machine will include Microsoft Works and Word, World Book, Junior Pinpoint, First Logo, and Pages from Semerc. The machine come with a modem and an Internet account. Schools can also opt for an Iomega Zip drive.
The machine costs Pounds 1,399 and comes with a 266MHz processor, 2Gb hard drive and 32Mb of RAM. Tel: 0800 252674.
Xemplar is launching a PC Toolbox which it describes as "innovative and radical". It has headphone and microphone sockets placed on the front of the machine - obvious, so why doesn't everyone do it?
Three machines are planned: infant, junior and standard. It will probably come with a Pentium II chip, 32Mb RAM, a 3Gb hard drive and a network card.
The management system allows maintenance to be done centrally by a local authority team, or by a classroom teacher using wizards. The software included is compatible with Windows, Apple and Acorn machines: Datapower, a new spreadsheet from Black Cat, Dazzle, Pages, Portfolio Builder and new software for music. The basic machine will cost Pounds 999. Tel: 01223 724200.
The Woodstock IT Centre machine is a brave attempt to take on the establishment. Assembled in Britain, all the software is pre-installed. The centre is used to dealing with teachers. Different combinations are available for infants or juniors. The system is easy to manage and competitively priced at Pounds 995 and comes with a 233MHz processor, a 2Gb hard disk and 32Mb RAM. Tel: 0116 2350355.
The Tiny Class Tutor is a Windows PC set up with Microsoft Works 4. Depending on whether you opt for the key stage 1 or key stage 2 machine, there are a number of Dorling Kindersleysoftware titles pre-installed. Although this is a splendid basic machine, its set-up betrays the company's lack of education experience.
The KS1 machine costs Pounds 799, Pounds 899 for the KS2 version, and Pounds 999 with all the software. It comes with a 266 MHz Pentium processor, 3Gb hard drive, 32Mb of RAM and a 56k modem. Tel: 01293 821555.
The machine from Time Education is innovative, and comes with network and television cards as standard - all you need to add is an antenna. Apart from programmes, the system can also capture single frames or sequences.
Time Education is noted for the range of software that accompanies its primary and infant machines. It now issues comprehensive manuals to illustrate the use of programs such as Pages, Sheetwise, AtoZap, Thinking Things, Graphplot, First Logo, Junior PinPoint and speech software Simply Speaking Gold. There is also a 10-CD bundle including 3D World Atlas and Compton's Encyclopedia.
The opening screen is set out under national curriculum headings, a feature enhanced by a nifty administration tool. Another 18 CDs with wide curriculum coverage completes the package. The machine costs Pounds 1,099, including an Epson Stylus printer. It has a P2 266MHz processor, 3Gb hard drive and 32Mb of RAM. Call Time Education on 01282 777799.
Megabyte (Mb): One million bytes (or units) of memory.
Gigabyte (Gb): One thousand megabytes.
RAM: Random Access Memory. The more you have, the faster the computer can run.
Pentium:Intel Corporation's family of fast processors. The higher the MHz number the faster the computer will operate. Pentium II is the most recent.
MMX: Short for Multimedia Extension. These Pentium processors improve the performance of multimedia and communications applications.
Power Mac: An Apple Macintosh that uses the Power PC processor, allowing Windows as well as Apple software to be used.
Wizard: Interactive help that guides the user through a task.
Zip drive: a disk drive that can store 100 megabytes of data
POINTS TO PONDER
Machines date quickly, so ensure yours is as future-proof as possible.
Make sure your computer can be protected from trouble-making students and well-meaning teachers who might lack expertise.
Check the machine's software has programs that you really want and not lots that you do not.
To access the National Grid for Learning, you will need a modem (ideally one that operates at 56k).
If you want to use the PC on a network, make sure it has a network card
Memory should be at least 32Mb.
The hard drive should be at least 2Gb.
Make sure there is good telephone support.
Check the warranty: the minimum to look for is one year.
Ensure the firm has a good track record and will continue trading