What can't it do?
In such a situation, the thing to buy is called a multimedia computer. For teachers and parents it is the tool to access today's entertaining and educational software. It has extra features that make using computers more real. It can play music, sounds and speech. It can show colourful graphics and photos and play video clips. It can also play all the software you want and can just afford to buy.
A peep at the United States shows the rapid growth of multimedia: 70 per cent of the computers sold this year were multimedia computers that's compared to 10 per cent last year. It's a trend we're certain to follow, so that next year your computer dealer will quiz you mercilessly if you say you don't want one. You'll need a good reason not to have one that you just want to do word processing is one answer to have handy. But you will miss out.
Every multimedia computer is fitted with a compact disc (CD-Rom) drive. It is the vital part that reads all that multimedia information from CD-Rom discs. Colour photos, music and thrills just don't fit on those little plastic discs any more, so they use compact discs instead.
If you've been teetering, because of the money involved, take heart that prices have taken a dip recently just enough to give you all those extra features at the past price of a basic computer. If you've got old catalogues, and old means a few weeks in this business, you may as well recycle them.
Pop down to the shops and eye up your choice of the three main families of multimedia computer. The IBM compatibles or PCs take up most of the display. Beside them are the non-PCs, machines made by Apple and Acorn which offer distinct advantages worth serious consideration. PC or not PC is the question that needs to be answered here.
The PC has a massive following and an equally massive amount of software available to it. Microsoft Windows, the program now installed in most PCs, has made life much easier and is the main reason why computers are so popular today. But it's not that easy trying to plug in a new printer can be a challenge and you'll spot the handiwork of misanthropists as you do. You may need an expert hand to outwit them but then you might not.
Things are set to change dramatically next year. The new version of Windows, and the new-style PC that will appear with it, should ensure that whatever you plug in the machine will behave intelligently and accept it with a minimum of fuss. It should make the PC plug-and-play, though for the time being you'll have to plug-and-pray.
Nevertheless the major manufacturers are wise to this and firms like IBM, Compaq, Dell, ICL, Research Machines, Packard-Bell and a few others sell machines which are well supported, well documented and ready to go. You can go elsewhere, but it seems masochistic to do so. PC expert, Martin Kilkie of Barking and Dagenham local authority, warns: "You can get a good machine elsewhere. But too often when people try to save themselves money, we see them getting their fingers burned".
Then there's the Apple Macintosh range. The windows and the plug-and-play idea truly belong to the Mac. Long-time user Jonathan Osborne of King's College recalls, "It's always been the computer which, when you asked it to print, it printed." Printing, by the way, is a basic human right for computer owners.
Being labelled friendly or easy to use has its downside. There's the (apocryphal) story of the person who tried to set up a Macintosh and complained that he couldn't get it to work even though he had pressed the foot pedal (mouse!). But while using a Mac is still easier, choosing a Mac is slightly more complicated. As well as the Macintosh we all know and many love, Apple has brought out the Power Macintosh which is both a Macintosh and a PC. This odd marriage, of the Macintosh's ease-of-use and the PC's anything-but, currently comes at a premium which you may find too high.
Apple has bet the family silver on the new machine, hinting that it will in time become the Macintosh. Right now, while Apple is still supporting the traditional Macintosh lineage, you can safely opt for a Macintosh upgrading it to a Power Macintosh when you need to.
For those in education, Acorn's Archimedes range has tempting advantages over PCs and Apples. Their blistering performance and ability to handle graphics is both a key requirement for multimedia and a revelation to those who use other machines. But there's more to it than speed. It's common to see children using them to go a lot further than usual, even making their own multimedia presentations. Pat Nichols of Oakham School, Rutland, puts it down to an intuitive way of working, "It's so easy to transfer data between pieces of software, I haven't found a piece of software that isn't compatible with another." His glowing reports would point to considering the Acorn Archimedes if your school, or your child's school uses them. There is, however, such a relatively poor choice of multimedia software for the machine, that it seems fruitless to invest in a multimedia Archimedes despite its fitness for purpose otherwise.
Some grumble that the Acorn machines are not "industry standard" computers the type you'll find in offices and businesses all over the world but then some say "So what." Acorn has, nevertheless, started moving towards the industry standard. It now produces the Risc PC a two-in-one computer which runs Archimedes software and will also access the vast library of multimedia PC software. There is even talk of it running Macintosh titles. However, the news is that neither the PC nor the Mac feature will make it to this year's Christmas party.
This then is the score. There are a few clear losers but there's still more advice to be had from friends, neighbours and the people who have been through the inevitable hiccups and foot-pedal problems. Martin Kilkie agrees that getting this sort of help may be more valuable than technical features: "There are no clear winners, just buy the machine that you can get local support for."
But then if there's no money left from mending the roof and doing up the spare room, never mind, curl up on the sofa and console yourself in front of the telly. Now that's a multimedia machine for you.
Multimedia systems, with software, to look out for: IBM or compatible Multimedia PC 486 66Mhz or Pentium processor, 400 Mb hard disc, 8Mb memory, 1Mb graphics memory, CD-Rom drive, sound card, from Pounds 1,299 (inc VAT) Apple Macintosh Performa 630 with 350 Mb hard disc, 8Mb memory, CD-Rom drive and TV tuner, from Pounds 1,720 (inc VAT) Acorn Risc PC 600, 420 Mb hard disc, 9Mb memory, second processor PC option, sound card and CD-Rom drive from Pounds 1,996 (inc VAT) Acorn: 0223 254254Apple: 0753 615999Chromasonic: 081-203 8989Compaq: 081-332 3000Dell Computer: 0344 720000
IBM: 0345 500900
ICL: 0344 711503Packard Bell: 0753 831914Research Machines: 01235826868