Try before you buy

Debbie Davies

Laptop computers have always been popular with people who travel and need to take their office with them, but portable cuteness comes at a price: they can cost at least a third more than a full-size desktop computer with similar capabilities.

However, the Computers for Teachers scheme launched by the Department for Education and Employment last month makes them more affordable. It offers teachers in schools in England who have taken or plan to take New Opportunities Fund training up to pound;500 off a computer.

Though early laptops often lacked the power of desktop computers and were often just glorified typewriters, most now have the power to run complicated software and connect you to the Internet. It is this type of all-singing, all-dancing laptop that features in the Computers for Teachers scheme.

A typical portable computer has a built-in keyboard, built-in speaker(s), built-in touchpad (a square pad you rub with your finger instead of using a mouse), and built-in battery. It can also be plugged into the mains.

Portable computers are referred to as laptops or notebooks. While a lot of people use the terms interchangeably, all notebooks are laptops, but not all laptops are notebooks. The difference is in the weight: laptops are heavier, usually weighing around 3kg. Before you go shopping, take a look at the DfEE's Computers for Teachers website or contact the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency for a brochure. (Be aware that the website gives you little more than a list, and that there are no links to the approved manufacturers' sites where you could see a picture of the model and read a full specification. A bulletin board where you could post a question and discuss what to buy with other teachers would have been useful.) To qualify for a rebate, you must buy one of the approved computer systems from the accredited suppliers on the DfEE's list. The prices on the list are indicative only - on average, the cost of a computer falls by three per cent every month.

When I looked at the Computer for Teachers' website, Gateway's Solo 2550SE laptop, for example, was pound;1,456.06. A look at the manufacturer's website at revealed the same model and support package at pound;1,395.91. Gateway added that the price was also due for another downward review.

None of this affects your rebate gven that the Government's offer is 50 per cent off the price to a maximum of pound;500 (which you have to pay tax on) , but it does affect the amount that comes out of your pocket. The important point to remember is that to qualify, you must purchase from an accredited supplier and the model supplied must have a Computers for Teachers code number. Without the code number on the paperwork from your accredited supplier, you will not receive the rebate.

In drawing up the list, the DfEE has made some decisions about what you can and can't buy. For instance, the list does not include budget notebooks (priced below pound;1,000) that you could use to support a desktop computer you already own. The approved models are very obviously aimed at teachers who do not own any other computer. The inclusion of home installation with all models puts the price up by a few hundred pounds, as does the insistence on a floppy disk drive which makes transferring files from the Internet so much quicker.

Besides checking that the software is what you want, what else do you need to consider? Well, as with any computer purchase, start by deciding how you are going to use your laptop. Some laptops are noisier than others and may prevent you working at night in bed when your partner is asleep. You might want a portable because you have no room at home for a desktop. If you cycle to work a portable may be out of the question.

If you are going to use graphics and art applications, go for the biggest screen you can afford; if you will be using the laptop for administration and management tasks, save money by choosing a model with a small screen.

If you plan to be away from a mains socket, pay close attention to the battery. Lithium ion batteries are better than nickel metal hydride (NiMH) ones, as they don't suffer by being partially charged and discharged. Ask for advice from the ICT co-ordinator at your school. Whatever system you buy, it should be compatible with the system used at school.

Finally, try before you buy. The functionality of keyboards especially, and the pointing device you use in place of the mouse varies between models. Laptop users can become heated about what makes a good pointing device. You will only know which you like best by testing machines.

Computers for Teachers website: 01203 416994

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Debbie Davies

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