You've got the cash, but what PC do you need?

10th March 2000 at 00:00
As the state-funded Computers for Teachers scheme boots up, George Cole helps to steer a course through the bewildering array of PCs on the market.

Try before you buy. It's the golden rule when buying many things in life and none more so than a new computer. The government's Computers for Teachers scheme means that thousands of teachers will be buying a new computer this year, many of them for the first time. Under the scheme the government will donate up to pound;500 towards a new computer, provided certain conditions are met - and tax is paid on the donation.

Even so, the scheme means that teachers can acquire a new and powerful computer for a reasonable price. But before buying any computer, you need to ask, what do I want to use my computer for? This will determine the features your computer has. For example, a computer that is fine for word processing may not be powerful enough to run a sophisticated graphics package. The key is to choose a flexible machine that can be upgraded to meet your future needs.

Fortunately, the minimum specifications laid down by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) for computers that are eligible under the scheme mean that teachers do not have to worry too much about factors such as processor speed, hard disk size or the amount of internal memory or RAM. These should ensure that all teachers end up with a computer that can comfortably run most of the latest software packages. That said, if you can afford to buy additional memory or a larger hard disk (and many suppliers are offering upgrade packages), then it's well worth considering.

The next question is what computer system to go for. The choice boils down to a PC or an Apple machine. The PC is the "VHS" of the computer world - there are more brands, more machines, lots more software packages and many more peripherals or add-ons (like printers) for PCs. The chances are that if your colleagues own a computer it will be a PC. This makes it easy to swap programs and to find software packages.

However, Apple machines have their supporters. Apple computers are generally easier to set up and use (although the latest PCs are narrowing the gap), are more efficient (you don't need as much RAM or hard disk space to run programs) and the arrival of models such as the iMac and iBook portable computer, have transformed the style and design of modern computers. What's more, if your Apple computer has sufficient RAM and processor speed, you can use pecial software to run PC programs too - the best of both worlds. Another factor to consider is the Internet. Most of the content on the Internet is designed to run on various types of computers, so the type of computer you use is almost irrelevant.

Most of the computers under the scheme have CD-Rom drives, but some offer DVD-Rom drives. DVD-Roms look like CD-Roms, but can store much more data. DVD-Rom drives can also read CD-Roms, although CD-Rom drives cannot read DVD discs. If you want to future-proof your computer, then it's worth considering a DVD-Rom drive, although bear in mind that for the next couple of years or so, the vast majority of software will remain on CD-Rom. Many machines come with software bundles. Go for the quality of the software on offer rather than its quantity, as some bundles offer lots of packages that are of limited use.

The next question is: desktop or laptop? The advantages of a desktop are that it generally offers a larger screen, has a full-size keyboard (although BECTA states that laptops must have full-size keys), uses a mouse pointing device and usually has more RAM memory and a larger hard disk than a laptop.

Laptops however, offer portability - you can use the computer almost anywhere, such as in a living room or kitchen, or at home or school. These days, most laptops offer 12-inch, flat-screen displays and the best use TFT displays, which are clear and sharp. Most use a trackpad or touch-pad as a pointing device rather than a mouse. This is a small metal plate which uses sensors to detect the position of your finger on the plate, and moves an on-screen cursor.

All the portables sold under the scheme must use lithium-ion batteries, which offer around several hours of operating time before needing a recharge. Before buying a laptop check out the build quality - laptops need to be robust as they can take quite a bashing. Also test the weight as some laptops are more "luggable" than portable. Thanks to the groundwork done by BECTA, you are unlikely to end-up with a lemon, but with all computers do check things such as service, support and warranties, and the cost of telephone support - not all of these are equal.

BECTA has published a free booklet, Computers for Teachers - how to apply, which includes details on computer specifications, suppliers, and the grant application process. You can obtain a copy by calling 0800 0366500. Or visit the Computers for Teachers website:

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