When Benjamin Franklin said that the only certainties in this world were death and taxes, little did he know that a third item would be added to his list: computer breakdown.
Computer problems are caused by a variety of reasons: hardware, software, peripherals or add-ons, and what is delicately termed "finger trouble" (your own fault). Fortunately, many problems can be cured by simply re-starting the computer, but if that doesn't help, you may need to resort to the manufacturer's helpline.
As more teachers buy computers for personal use (and a recent survey published by Microsoft suggests that half the homes in the UK will have a PC by 2002) the importance of good after-sales care cannot be exaggerated. Before buying a computer, it's well worth checking things such as the level of support, the hours the telephone helplines are open and how much it costs to use them (some use premium-rate lines). Also check whether the after-sales service is on the basis of return-to-base (you take the computer back to the shop) or on-site (an engineer comes to your home or school).
Microsoft's survey had some interesting things to say about our relationship with computers. Fifteen per cent admitted crying over their PC, 35 per cent had laughed at it, and 2 per cent had actually kissed their computer. Asked whether they would prefer eating chips to being on their PC, 80 per cent preferred the latter. And 74 per cent even said they'd prefer a session on the PC to a glass of wine or beer. Mind you, 10 per cent admitted to having given their PC a thump.
When Tesco started selling computers from Fujitsu Siemens, a few eyebrows were raised. Would customers really want to add a PC to their trolley with the weekly shop? In fact, the scheme was a great success and Heath Mount school in Hertfordshire even bought 20 PCs from Tesco. Since then, Fujitsu Siemens computers have been sol by Sainsbury's. On Boxing Day, some large Sainsbury's branches began selling a new Fujitsu Siemens PC, the Xpert 9102, a well-specified machine that includes Windows 98, Microsoft Word and Works, plus a choice of six software titles from a selection of 20. The after-sales service is good too, and includes free home installation, a helpline charged at the national rate, and on-site repairs. The Xpert 9102 costs pound;999.99 (inc VAT).
Just before Christmas a new type of computer appeared in the shops. The Easy PC has been developed by Intel and Microsoft and is smaller and, the manufacturers claim, easier to use than a standard PC. The Easy PC can be left in standby mode and re-started within 10 seconds. Easy PC uses a special connector called a Universal Serial Bus (USB), which makes it simple to connect devices such as scanners and printers to a computer. Easy PCs sell for about pound;900 each.
Another Easy PC, only this time it's a new software package from Longman, which is designed to help teachers develop their Information and Communication Technology skills and could be a useful tool for schools running their own training. The program uses commentary, animated demonstrations and hands-on exercises. There are three main sections: Mouse Skills helps you learn how to move a mouse; Your PC offers a tour of the various bits and includes a guide to the Internet, and Windows Desktop explains what all those bewildering icons on a Windows 95 and Windows 98 screen are for. A Capability section asks you to assess your IT skills by answering questions such as "Can you set up and use a computer?", "Can you load and use a CD-Rom?" and "Can you use all the keys on a keyboard?" One small gripe: while the female commentary is clear, it is a bit ponderous, and it's easy to forget that using ICT can be fun. Easy PC costs pound;57.58. Longman: 01223 425558; www.logo.com george cole