Just what I always wanted

28th June 1996 at 01:00
Everybody is talking about them, but who would really know a good multimedia machine if it jumped up and sang the national anthem to them?

Jack Kenny considers all the options. At this point in time you should be buying multimedia. We have reached a stage when all computers will go this way.

The standard multimedia machine will give you music, text, images and sound. An advanced machine might be a video recorder, a sound recorder and editor, a telephone, a fax machine, a television set, a radio, an answering machine, even a musical instrument. An art room, film studio and communications complex all in one.

So is this the time to buy? Won't there be something better in six months' time? Yes to both questions. It will be exasperating to see your marvellous new acquisition become antiquated within a short space of time but there is no way round that. One incontrovertible fact of computing life is that since the Seventies the number of transistors on a microchip has doubled every 18 months or so, and it won't stop now. The only strategy is to make sure that you get a machine at the cutting edge.

The first crucial questions concern how you want to use the machine: * are you just going to refer to CD-Roms?

* are you going to create your own multimedia?

* are you going to do both?

If you just want to use CD-Roms then you can be fairly modest with the machine's specifications. If you want to create your own multimedia, then you need to make sure that you have some power and maybe some extras.

At the present time most CD-Roms are created for PCs. In the world of PCs (IBM, RM, Compaq, Dell, etc), it is easy to be confused by the variety of machines available. If you just want a machine to consult CD-Roms, look for one that has at least a "quad" speed (i.e. fast) CD-Rom drive; that will ensure that the information comes off the CD quickly. You need at least 850 megabytes for the hard disc size and 8 megabytes for the memory; the processor should be at least a Pentium 100 MHz. You will also need to ensure that Windows 95 is installed. With all that you should be able to read any of the CD-Roms that are currently available.

The strange thing about the standard multimedia machines is that they are not really multimedia. They do not come equipped with a video capture card. If you want to make creative use of the machine then you will also require some means to catch video images, either still or moving. You would have to specify that.

When you open the pages of the computer magazines you will be confused by all the options. Buying a PC is difficult because the range is so great. Bargains are available for those with real expertise. The guy down the road assembling machines in the garage can be good but you can make bad mistakes this way.

Be wary! The cheap high-specification machines are not always well built. Look for a name that you know. You could be spending well over Pounds 1,000. Look at warranties, help lines, track record with education and the software that comes with the machine.

If you are even slightly hesitant, go to a name you can trust. The major supplier of PCs to education is RM. It has a good track record and will have a machine to suit your needs. RM machines come with software already installed and there are systems (Window Box) for ensuring that the complexities of Windows are hidden from pupils. The help desk is first rate.

Xemplar supplies both Acorn and Apple Macintosh computers. I once met someone who argued that Macs should not be encouraged in schools because they were too easy to learn, rarely went wrong and therefore created little demand for training or repairs. What a recommendation! If you are interested in the creative use of multimedia, the Mac must be considered.

Practically every CD that you have ever used started life on the Mac, it might have ended up on the PC but it was created on the Mac. The design, ease of use and integration of all the elements is outstanding. The computers are created and built to be truly multimedia and are a sympathetic environment for text, graphics, sound and moving images.

Admittedly the Mac is not quite as strong as the PC with the range of CD-Roms that are available but as a creative tool it is unrivalled. Anything from the Performa 6200 range (basic Pounds 805) will be satisfactory. If you want to take authoring seriously then the Performa 5320 with integrated TV, teletext and video capture and player (Pounds 1,700) will be suitable.

The other Xemplar products are the Risc range (formerly Acorn). If you wish just to use CD-Roms (those that have been made specifically for Acorn) then the A7000 (Pounds 875) is worth considering. The hard disc is 540 megabytes, the CD-Rom is quad speed and there are 4 megabytes of memory.

If you want to use multimedia creatively, the Risc PC700 with 10 megabytes of memory and an 850-megabyte disc (Pounds 1,600) is the one to look at. All the machines in the Risc range come with quad speed CD-Rom drives. The PC Card which will enable the Risc PC to act as a PC is an additional Pounds 399 if bought at the same time as the computer.

Finally, you will need some training to get the best out of your machine and to maximise the learning potential.

* ContactsXemplar Education: 01223 724201RM: 01235 826000


* Decide why you want a multimedia machine: creating multimedia or referring to CD-Roms?

* Does the type of com-puter (Acorn, PC or Macintosh) give you access to the range of software that youwant to use?

* Decide on the type of machine that you want (PC, Acorn, Macintosh).

* Make sure that the processor is powerful. Pentium 100 MHz on the PC should be as low as you will go * Listen to the speakers, they are often theweakest link.

* Make sure that a microphone is supplied and is fit for the purpose.

* 8 megabytes of memory is the minimum, but 16 would be better.

* The CD-Drive should be at least quad speed.Six or eight speed would be better.

* Make sure that youare not going to run out of hard disc space.850 megabytes is the minimum; one gigabyte (1,000 megabytes) would be better.

* Does the machine come with a selection of CD-Roms? Are they what you want? (The vagaries of the software packages will have more impact on your sanity than the machine itself.) * Some manufacturersare selling machinesthat have TVs, teletext, fax machines, answerphones, radios and modems built in.If you are also in the market for one of those then it might be worth considering.

* If you want to do some creative work with video then you will need to buy a video capture card and preferably get it fitted.

* Is there a good warranty?

* Is there a help line? Try it.

* Is there a repair service?

* Can you get training?

* Can you get peripherals to go with the machine?

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