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  a computer?

Let's take a look at getting a computer for a student, young or old... some myths, some facts, and what to look for.


If you remember the early eighties, then you've probably heard the phrase "computer literate". At that time, manufacturers tried to sell the first generation of personal computers, primitive by today's standards, by preying on parents' fears-- without a personal computer at home, students would never become 'computer literate', and would not be ready for university, 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 well-paying 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 less need for users to spend a lot of time learning the intricacies of operating 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 time).

The goal is to approach the invisibility of Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) in your bank-- pretty much everyone has used one, without thinking that they're actually manipulating a powerful computer connected to a network 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 habit of word processing, spell checking, and printing out their assignments. Classic educational research showed that the neater an assignment looks, the higher it tends to be graded-- regardless of content! Word processing, spell checking, and computer printouts can be a big help in this regards.


Schools have been setting up personal computer labs for years. In the past year, the BC Provincial Government has announced a major initiative 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 with computers 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 schools 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, with 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 in a class of twenty-five or more students isn't going to give much use to each student.

Other elementary schools have set up computer labs-- in some cases, dedicating a teacher as resource person. In the best scenario, there will be a clearly structured program, aiming at giving every student in the school computer using skills, with well set-out goals. But even here, each 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 they're still unlikely to be able to get at school.


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 them down the hierarchy, letting more and more employees end up with computers on their desks. But for the past few years, every office desk that could hold a computer has pretty much had one.

So many businesses have offered their employees the old machines... 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 real 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 processor to get their assignments done. But because it's a chore, they're less likely to go any further, to learn to use the computer in any of the other ways, to make it a part of their lives, just as in the workplace, it is increasingly 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 drive space, and a fast, powerful cpu. Luckily, today's entry-level machine has more of all of these than the high-end machine of just a few years ago.


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 very adaptable, 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, entertainment, and work-related productivity software is available for both platforms-- often identical products for both, at the same price.

PCs are somewhat cheaper, and Macs are somewhat better integrated. It 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. If, 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 switch 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 other ways!)


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 though this pushes up their advertised price. Don't accept less for either a Mac 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 real 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, the sound card should be Sound-Blaster compatible, so that it will supported by the majority of software. With a PC, get this preinstalled, so you know everything will work. Often, these come bundled with a number of CD titles, but often these are older versions of programs, or less-than-best-sellers. 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 make sure you get them. Lower priced monitors have improved, but this is one area where some dealers have tried to save money, by bundling inadequate 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 quality black and white output, with the bonus of attractive colour... and without 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 any student from about grade 3 through secondary school, with database and spreadsheet capabilities as well. (OS/2 WARP comes with a nice Works program right in the box). Any of these will, in a single package, get your student through years of homework assignments. Again, add in a CD-ROM encyclopedia. Other educational programs are more focused on specific age groups and subject areas.

-- 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 controller 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 currently a 486 chip, running at 66 mhz... a power-users dream machine of only two 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 software.

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 less-powerful 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, ironically, more of a concern buying 'name brand' computers, than buying a store brand 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' is more an issue of the buyers' peace of mind than for the actual 'quality' of the machine. Check the ads in this publication, and visit several dealers.

Search WWW Search

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan