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Buying a computer for Xmas 1994
Advice on what to look for when buying a machine (December 1994, TES) 
by Roger Frost

"Oh, darling... it's a... com-pu-ter! For me? For Xmas? You shouldn't have... how won-derful".

Yes, very dreamy. But let's not be silly and forget we are teachers. Besides, no one loves you that much anyway. You'll have buy your own. 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 makes 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% of the computers sold this year were multimedia computers - that's compared to 10% 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 or `CD-Rom' drive. It is the vital part which reads all that multimedia information from CD-Rom discs. Colour photos, music and thrills just don't fit on those blue plastic discs anymore 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 which offer distinct advantages you'll want to look at seriously. PC or not PC is the question you need to answer.

The PC has a massive following and a massive, even excessive amount of software available to it. Microsoft Windows, the program now installed in every PC, has made the PC much easier to use and it is largely responsible for 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. It should make the PC into a plug-and-play machine, though for the time being you'll have to plug-and-pray.

Nevertheless the major PC manufacturers are wise to this and firms like IBM, Compaq, Dell, ICL, RM, 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 & Dagenham LEA warns "You CAN get a good machine elsewhere. But too often when people try to save themselves money, and we see them getting their fingers burned".

But then there's the Apple Macintosh range. The `windows' and the `plug and play' idea truly belong to the Macintosh such that long-time user Jonathan Osborne of Kings 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 couldn't get it to work even though they had pressed the foot pedal. 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 have 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 PCs anything-but, currently comes at a premium which you may find too high.

Apple have 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 and not cutting it out of the will, you can safely opt for a Macintosh - upgrading it to a Power Macintosh when you need to.

For us 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 that 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 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'. Redbridge LEAs IT inspector, Mike Bostock commented, "We no more need industry standard computers than we need to turn our schools into factories".

Acorn have nevertheless started acquiring the industry standard marke. They now produce 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 a possibility it may even run Macintosh titles. However, the news is that neither the PC or Mac feature will make it to the Xmas party this year so if the RISC-PC is your top choice, realise that you are buying on promises.

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 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.

What if you already have a computer?

If you already have a computer, and you're appetite's whetted by multimedia software, you could upgrade your machine. You need to bring your machine up to approach today's machine. You could add and swop bits on your computer until you're left with just the original wall plug.

But you CAN get away with a lesser machine though Apple dealer Steve Bonnick explains the problem "All CD-Rom drives are pretty slow anyway but when you use them with a very old machine, the speed of the computer itself seriously slows everything down. Video clips are the main casualty - they run like a machine gun".

As a rough and ready guide, if you bought a new and current computer this year, you should be able to add memory, sound capability and a CD-Rom drive and gain a bearable result. So if you have a Macintosh XX or a XX PC you are probably OK to go ahead. Bob Hart of education consultants, Imagination Technology puts it down to a simple costing exercise, "Look at what you want it to do, what the costs are and compare that with throwing it away and starting again."

Yes, the computing business is a black and not very green comedy. Along comes multimedia software demanding more powerful computers and then it's oops, and goodbye to the ozone layer.


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