Ready for School in 95
by Alan Zisman
(c) 1995. First
published in Our Computer Player, September 1995
Back to school-- new runners, new notebooks, pens and
paper. Time for
Let's take a look at getting a computer for a student,
young or old...
some myths, some facts, and what to look for.
#1) THE MYTH OF COMPUTER LITERACY
If you remember the early eighties, then you've
probably heard the phrase
"computer literate". At that time, manufacturers tried to sell the
generation of personal computers, primitive by today's standards, by
on parents' fears-- without a personal computer at home, students would
never become 'computer literate', and would not be ready for
or for high paying jobs later in life.
At the time, computer literacy actually meant the
ability to write programs
in BASIC, the standard computer language of these early computers.
If that's computer literacy, it's pretty much a dead
skill-- a small
number of computer users can build on programming skills, and get
careers writing software, but the rise of pre-packaged applications has
meant less and less need for every computer user to have to write their
own. And as computers have become increasing easy to use, following in
the footsteps of Apple's pioneering Macintosh, there's been less and
need for users to spend a lot of time learning the intricacies of
systems. (It can be rewarding if you want to spend time learning to use
operating systems, or to program-- but it's less necessary all the
The goal is to approach the invisibility of Automated
(ATMs) in your bank-- pretty much everyone has used one, without
that they're actually manipulating a powerful computer connected to a
via telecommunications... no one thinks they need to be 'ATM Literate'.
Even though parents don't need to fuss over computer
literacy, a computer
in the home is a valuable tool... if only to get your students in the
of word processing, spell checking, and printing out their assignments.
Classic educational research showed that the neater an assignment
the higher it tends to be graded-- regardless of content! Word
spell checking, and computer printouts can be a big help in this
#2) THE MYTH OF 'THEY'LL GET IT AT SCHOOL...'
Schools have been setting up personal computer labs
for years. In the
past year, the BC Provincial Government has announced a major
to fund computers in schools... surely my child will be getting all the
exposure to computers they need at school. Won't they?
Although many schools and teachers have been working
for 15 or more years now, there's still much further to go. While most
businesses have a computer on virtually every desk, the majority of
are still in the computer dark-ages. There may be a computer or two in
many elementary classrooms, but often they are ten or more years old,
little relevent software, while often teachers have little idea of how
to use them in their lessons-- and even at best, one or two computers
a class of twenty-five or more students isn't going to give much use to
Other elementary schools have set up computer labs--
in some cases,
dedicating a teacher as resource person. In the best scenario, there
be a clearly structured program, aiming at giving every student in the
school computer using skills, with well set-out goals. But even here,
student will be lucky to get an hour a week of computer time-- far less
than ideal for learning to integrate this tool into their work habits.
A computer at home gives every student a big step up
towards being able
to use computers as part of their everyday life... an experience that
still unlikely to be able to get at school.
#3) THE MYTH THAT 'THEY'RE JUST KIDS-- THEY DON'T
NEED ANYTHING POWERFUL'
As businesses have upgraded their hardware, they've
had the problem
of what to do with the older machines. For a while, they could pass
down the hierarchy, letting more and more employees end up with
on their desks. But for the past few years, every office desk that
hold a computer has pretty much had one.
So many businesses have offered their employees the
often for as little as a few hundred dollars, or even less.
It's tempting-- but think back a few years. Remember
running Word Perfect
on an orange and black monitor? With a lot of training, you could get
work done. But it felt like a chore.
Similarly, trying to get a child up and running on
that same system
is possible-- and they, too, can eventually learn to use the word
to get their assignments done. But because it's a chore, they're less
to go any further, to learn to use the computer in any of the other
to make it a part of their lives, just as in the workplace, it is
part of their work-life.
Ironically, educational and entertainment software
places more demands
for computer power than the average business application. This software
cries out for full-colour video, for sound, for lots of ram and hard
space, and a fast, powerful cpu. Luckily, today's entry-level machine
more of all of these than the high-end machine of just a few years ago.
#4) THE MYTH THAT (pick one) KIDS NEED A MAC/PC
As you go shopping for computers, you'll hear people
claiming that you
HAVE to get a MAC or a PC because.... well, the reasons will vary, but
there will be many persuasive reasons for one platform or the other.
The secret is that both sides are right-- and kids are
and can thrive with just about any computer.
By now, machines from either platform are relatively
close in price,
and relatively easy to get up and running. Good educational,
and work-related productivity software is available for both
often identical products for both, at the same price.
PCs are somewhat cheaper, and Macs are somewhat better
is definately easier to add equipment such as a CD-ROM player to a Mac,
but if you buy a machine already equipped, this isn't an issue.
So what should you get?
If you're buying a computer entirely for your
children's use, ask what
is being used in their school, and get something compatible with it.
on the other hand, parents are going to sometimes bring work home, get
a machine compatible with the work environment... the kids will be able
to use it regardless. Mac or PC is luch less important than the ability
to share your data between work and home. (Kids are easily able to
between the computer at home and the computers at school, just as they
switch between different sets of rules at home and school in a million
NO MORE MYTHS-- ALAN's ADVICE!
Presumably, the last paragraph has helped you decide
whether to get
a PC or a MAC.
Here's a checklist:
First off, set yourself a budget. Then, get:
-- at least 8 megs of ram. Luckily, most of the
vendors of desktop-style
machines are putting 8 megs ram on their standard offerings, even
this pushes up their advertised price. Don't accept less for either a
or a PC.
-- at least 250 megs of harddrive for a Mac and at
least 400 megs for
a PC (PC software tends to be bigger). Harddrive prices have taken a
tumble over the past year, so this shouldn't be a problem.
-- a CD-ROM player and sound capabilities-- making
your purchase a 'multi-media
computer'. The CD-ROM should be double-speed or better, and on a PC,
sound card should be Sound-Blaster compatible, so that it will
by the majority of software. With a PC, get this preinstalled, so you
everything will work. Often, these come bundled with a number of CD
but often these are older versions of programs, or
While these can be a nice bonus, don't make a purchasing decision based
on the number of CDs thrown in... but DO get a CD-encyclopedia-- these
are one of the most compelling things for any student to have.
-- check the monitor's specifications. The standard is
at least 14"
dialgonal measurement (what is that in metric?), with at least a .28 mm
dot pitch, capable of high resolutions such as 800 x 600 or 1024 x 768
pixels, in non-interlaced modes. Don't worry what these mean... but
sure you get them. Lower priced monitors have improved, but this is one
area where some dealers have tried to save money, by bundling
monitors with their entry-level systems.
With a PC, make sure that there are Windows SVGA
drivers the system's
video card, and ask the dealer to set up your system for 256 colours.
-- try out the keyboard and mouse, and let the
eventual main user do
so as well. Some keyboards are clicky, others have a soft touch-- find
a touch you like. And some mice are simply too large for small hands.
-- make sure you've budgetted some money for a printer
and for software.
Colour inkjet printers, starting around $399, provide reasonable
black and white output, with the bonus of attractive colour... and
the machinegun-like noise of older-style low-price dot matrix printers.
A Works-type package (Microsoft Works or Claris Works
for both Windows
PCs and MACs, for example) provide all the word processing needed by
student from about grade 3 through secondary school, with database and
spreadsheet capabilities as well. (OS/2 WARP comes with a nice Works
right in the box). Any of these will, in a single package, get your
through years of homework assignments. Again, add in a CD-ROM
Other educational programs are more focused on specific age groups and
-- and don't forget, this computer is going to be used
for games as
well. Budget in some money for games, as well as $30-75 for a gamepad
or joystick. Don't be surprised if your child spends more time playing
games than doing homework!
Did you notice that I haven't mentioned CPU? That's
because pretty much
everything available on the market is plenty powerful enough-- given an
adequate amount of ram (8 megs or more). The entry-level PC is
a 486 chip, running at 66 mhz... a power-users dream machine of only
years ago. It's certainly adequate for today's software. For a premium,
you can buy a faster 486, or an even more powerful Pentium, ranging up
to speeds of 133 mhz-- these machines are investments in future
On the Mac side, the PowerMacs are coming down in
price, and will soon
represent all of Apple's product line. They're a good choice today (and
will be an increasingly better one), but the older, 68040-chip Macs may
be exceptional value as they're being phased out, and will provide good
performance for several years.
But CPU is less important than the amount of ram... a
Pentium with only
four megs of ram will give less adequate performance than a seemingly
486 with 8 megs or more ram.
-- where to buy is less and less of an issue.
Computers have become
increasingly a commodity, using standard parts-- compatibility is,
more of a concern buying 'name brand' computers, than buying a store
or less well-known brand. Find a dealer where you feel comfortable, and
where you know you can get help if you need it; buying a 'name brand'
more an issue of the buyers' peace of mind than for the actual
of the machine. Check the ads in this publication, and visit several