What do you want a computer for? It's the first question any school should ask when purchasing one. The jobs you want a to do will determine a computer's features, specification, type and price. For example, a computer used for simple word processing and web surfing can be less powerful (and less expensive) than one for multimedia or flash design software.
The next step is to see what software packages are available for your activities. This will help determine the computer's specification and the type of computer or platform. Software is normally designed for a specific type of computer system - in schools it's usually a PC or Apple Mac - although a number of educational titles will run on both or Acorn, too. All software titles require a processor chip of a certain power and operating speed (measured in megahertz), a minimum amount of hard disk space (measured in megabytes) and a minimum level of working memory or RAM. If the computer doesn't have sufficient resources to run the software, it may run slowly or not at all. Incidentally, always treat the recommended specification as the bare minimum.
The VHS of the computer world is the PC, which accounts for nine out of ten computers sold. As a result, it's easy to think you can have any computer you like as long as it's a PC. Not so. But the PC does have a lot going for it. It's ubiquitous, has the widest range of software titles, offers the greatest choice of models, and developments like Microsoft's Windows 95 and 98 have made it easier to use. Companies like RM focus on the PC platform. Mark East, general manager of Microsoft's Education Group, says: "The issue is what people are using at home. Fifty per cent of families have a computer and the vast majority of these are PCs."
A survey carried out by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) found that 59 per cent of the computers in primary schools (excluding BBCs) were PCs, while the figure for secondary schools was 71 per cent, but there are alternatives. Applecomputers are widely used in schools in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and in various English local education authorities (LEAs). But Apple has had something of a renaissance thanks to the iMac and iBook computers. Nick Evans, head of marketing at Xemplar, which markets Apple computers for education, says: "Apple technology is recognised as having a place in the national curriculum. ICT (information and communications technology) bidding documents now include Apple as one of the options."
Last year, Acorn announced it was pulling out of the computer market, and it wasn't long before obituaries were being written about the computer platform. However, Castle Technology has licensed Acorn's technology and is launching new machines as well as developing the platform. "There was a loss in confidence after Acorn's announcement," admits Jack Lillingston, Castle's managing director, "and there's no doubt that the march of the PC is unstoppable. But there is a niche market for Acorn and many schools still have lots of Acorn computers and software, and software companies are still making titles for Acorns. The message is that Acorn computers are alive and well."
Castle also offers Network Computers (NC) - stripped-down computers designed for Web surfing and basic tasks like word processing. An NC lacks a hard disk and collects its programs from a computer with a large storage capacity known as a server. It costs around a third of the price of a multimedia desktop computer and some schools now run NC suites, which give pupils access to more computers for less.
Some schools are purchasing computers direct from manufacturers or local companies, while others have formed consortia to give them purchasing power. Others take advantage of LEA purchasing schemes. It's worth remembering that there is a lot more to the cost of a computer than just the hardware and software. Installing, managing, maintaining, repairing and upgrading the computer will add to the original cost. Then there is the cost of staff training and support. That's why more and more schools are opting for managed services, which aim to take care of all hardware and software issues, leaving schools to concentrate on teaching.