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Which key shall we turn?

A computer system pre-loaded and ready to go sounds like the answer to a hard-pressed teacher's prayer. considers some of the best options currently available

The whole concept of a "turnkey" computer system, one pre-loaded with software and all the items you need for an immediate start-up, is very appealing to schools. You buy the machine, connect the components and are then ready to begin using it.

These days you can expect a complete educational package, with curriculum software already loaded for instant use, along with lots of support.

Few items of hardware are ever going to be totally fault-free, so there has to be support for teachers at the end of the phone and possibly after-warranty service.

Turnkey systems are particularly attractive to primary schools where non-specialist teaching staff are the norm and technicians are conspicuous by their absence.

At the BETT technology show earlier this year several companies launched multimedia, primary turnkey systems: ClassICLTAG - Primary Partner; MJN Education - Primary PC; NES Arnold Vale Computers - This is IT; Research Machines - Multimedia Junior Window Box 5.

Primary Partner

ClassICLTAG: Pounds 1,699Tel: 0800 252674

based on ICL's proven hardware and in conjunction with software supplier TAG, Primary Partner offers technical and curriculum support from a team which has years of experience in making information technology work.

TAG is responsible for the software and the company took trouble in talking to numerous local education authorities in order to provide software which supports all strands of the curriculum. It certainly has been well thought out: HyperStudio, ClarisWorks 3.0 and Primary Templates, WeatherMapper, Talking Write Away, MicroWorlds Project Builder, Kidpix2 and the following CD-Roms - The World of the Vikings, Encarta 96, Musical Instruments and Dorling Kindersley's The Ultimate Human Body.

All this excellent software runs under Windows 3.1 and the Primary Partner management software which is loaded automatically to provide a "teacher friendly" yet pupil-proof system.

Software can be set up by the manager in the knowledge that children can only access files which are assigned to them. The password-protected Cat Flap application makes it easy to set up. Although it is not the cheapest system on offer, the Primary Partner system is attractive and represents a good buy - if for no other reason than the excellence of the bundled software that comes with it.

Primary PC

MJN Education: Pounds 1,169Tel: 01282 777799

MJN offers two systems for primaries based on the Pentium 75 (Pounds 999) and 100 (Pounds 1,069) - a first-class hardware platform. All software runs under Windows 95 and MJN's own excellent SMS Manager.

SMS is a Windows 95 menu system with time-out and security-access features which are easy to use. With SMS Manager you can limit groups of users to particular titles and limit the time a user spends on a particular application if neccessary.

Each user has password-protected access and SMS can even terminate a particular program before a new one is started, log files and track exactly when each program was run and for how long.

The bundled software has been assembled with care and relates to national curriculum requirements. The essential tools are covered by Pages, Junior Pinpoint and Sheetwise Spreadsheet while a plethora of SEMERC software covers other essential areas: Graphplot, Treasure Chest CD-Rom, My World 2 files (Minibeasts, Castles, Garden, Design and Technology CD-Rom) and Just Pictures (British Animals, Pondlife, At Work, Victorians). Presswork DTP, Designworks, First Logo, Intercept3. World Atlas, Dinosaurs, Play and Learn CD-Roms complete the suite.

The Primary PC is an excellent and cost-effective system from a company that will have to prove its commitment to education in the light of recent press coverage of customer dissatisfaction with its parent company, Granville.

Multimedia Junior Window Box 5 Research Machines: Pounds 1,699Tel: 01235 826000 Research Machines has continuously improved its Window Box system over the years but how does its latest Multimedia Window Box 5 compare with all this new competition?

As you might expect, Window Box 5 offers more features, software and support than ever before. The software runs under Windows 95 and RM's acclaimed and revamped ClassMate II management program, which now runs even better under Windows 95 and remains the consistent means by which users interact with the system.

It provides numerous management tools to make the system manager's task much easier and, unlike some Windows 95 systems, children are offered a secure system which does actually help them learn how to use the operating system as it was designed to be used.

An impressive suite of useful software includes Talking First Word For Windows, Excel Starting Grid, Information Workshop, MS Publisher, Illuminatus, First Logo, RM Logo, PowerPoint, Colour Magic, Music Explorer and Clip Art Library with several additions to the Windows software (including chess). The CD-Roms include Encarta 96, The Ultimate Human Body, The Way Things Work, Dangerous Creatures, Maths Workshop and Speaking Starspell -a thoroughly comprehensive compilation.

The whole system offers unprecedented ease of access at all levels and is easily set up and managed as well. The Junior Multimedia Window Box 5 is not the cheapest buy but, without a doubt, it currently represents the definitive system.

This is IT

NES ArnoldVale Computers: Pounds 1,149Tel: 01159 717171

Educational supplier NES Arnold, in partnership with Vale Computers, provides a range of PC turnkey systems aimed at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. The hardware is pretty impressive and for those willing to forgo the speed and convenience of a Pentium 75, an 86 version is also available (Pounds 1, 099). Part of the purchase includes free installation and training. This is most reassuring for the first-time buyer.

Both Windows 95 and all the software in the category you have selected is pre-installed on the hard disc. You can only choose software from one of three categories: the six elementary titles include Maths Blaster, Kid Phonics, Kid Works Deluxe and Kid Cad; intermediate comprises eight titles including Encarta 96, Fine Artist, Dinosaurs and MS Works and reference has most of the intermediate software with World Atlas, Guinness Disc of Records and Graphics Explosion.

I am not entirely happy with the style of the software, much of which is imported, with a cultural and linguistic bias, and there is no word processor or database manager, which is a major oversight.

This package is a curate's egg: the hardware provision, support and back-up are first class but I feel the software bundled has not been well thought out.

There are many other factors to consider before making your choice: budget, staff confidence and expertise, school organisation and previous IT investment.

The NES ArnoldVale This is IT offers a strong hardware platform and very good support but is let down by the available software. The ClassICLTAG machine is a comprehensive, all-round contender presenting an excellent software base, but at a price.

The MJN Primary PC is the clear winner on cost alone, offering excellent value for money but from a firm with a relatively short education pedigree.

Ultimately my vote must go to RM's Junior Multimedia Window Box 5 system whose excellence owes much to RM's continued commitment to children and schools, and to the fact that RM listens and responds effectively to what schools need. But it will have to keep on its toes, the competition is hotting up fast.

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