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Today's Computer Buyers: Advice From The Experts

In 1999, the Education World Tech Team made its debut in the article First-Time Computer Buyers: Advice from the Experts, in which our team of technology experts offered "the best advice they can muster for teachers considering that first-time [computer] purchase." Educational technology -- and the technology needs of educators -- have changed dramatically in the four years since that first article was published. What purchasing advice, we wondered, would our experts offer today? Included: Information about RAM, CPU, OS, more...

Recently, we asked the 2003-2004 Education World Tech Team: What would you recommend that today's educators who are buying new computers for their personal and professional use --and who want the technology to be usable and useful for as long as possible -- look for in terms of memory, hard drive, features, programs, accessories, software...

Today, as in 1999, our experts said that the primary consideration for any computer buyer is his or her individual needs.

"When you go to buy a new computer -- whether you're an educator or not -- you really need to sit down first and decide what you are going to be using the computer for," Jennifer Wagner told Education World. "Then you go from there."

Shopping Advice

Our Tech Team members offered the following tips for your computer shopping trip:

* Ask friends and colleagues for recommendations and try out several brands and models, just as you might test drive different cars before purchasing one.

* Check online and at local stores to find the best price; Apple, for example, has special educator discounts at their online and mall stores.

* Look at the warranty information. Look for a three-year on-site service contract, either free or at a reduced cost.

* If cost is a concern, go with the next-to-latest (instead of the latest) technology -- although if you want to get four or five years out of your computer, extra dollars spent now will end up being a good investment.

* Purchase a name brand. Big companies have the advantage of being able to test and manufacture machines with parts that are identical, that work with a low risk of failure, and that have been tested for compatibility. With the larger companies, you get support and service that might not be available from smaller companies.

"When teachers come to me for advice on purchasing a computer, I usually begin by asking about their specific needs," Cathy Chamberlain agreed. "Some teachers are interested only in using the Internet, others want to use a lot of multimedia. It's important to listen carefully; the computer they buy can meet teachers' needs in ways they aren't even aware of. I also ask potential purchasers what their price range is; it makes it easier if you know that before you begin determining the best system for them.

"It really depends on the needs of the individual," Chamberlain continued, "but I like to recommend a higher end machine, if they can afford it, so they won't have to buy another one as quickly."

"I think the first question teachers need to ask themselves, whether they're buying a computer for home or school, is what are they planning to do with it," said Fred Holmes. "For a home computer, a laptop or notebook computer with a docking station is the way to go, especially for educators who take night or summer classes. With a docking station, the laptop becomes a desktop computer replacement -- with the advantage that you can take it with you anywhere.

"For school," Holmes added, "the biggest thing to keep in mind is expandability. You should look for a computer you can upgrade in the future. It's cheaper to buy more memory up front than to have to go out and buy a new computer every few years. Keep in mind that you get what you pay for," Holmes pointed out.

"Figure out what you will use the computer for," Lydia Nelson added. "If you're just going to use it for grading, then you won't need a system powerful enough for multimedia and video editing -- but do get the most speed and memory you can afford.

"Finally, although I don't have a laptop," Nelson added, "I wish I did. Many times, that would have been very convenient for me."


In 1999, our experts advised educators to purchase a computer that offered 32-64mb (megabytes) of RAM (random access memory) and 4-8gb (gigabytes) of hard drive space. What do they say today?

"I like to recommend 512mb of RAM, if possible, and I usually don't advise less than a 40gb hard drive," said Chamberlain. "In fact, I like to steer them to even more RAM, if possible."

"Memory, in my humble opinion, should be 256mb minimum," Wagner told Education World. "However, with the low cost of memory right now, I would advise going to 512mb -- or even double that. Four years ago, if you had 64mb, you were considered just fine. Now, it's about 128mb. So going to 512mb or more should allow you to not have to upgrade in the next few years. With memory, I always err on having too much rather than not enough.

"The main things I tell teachers to look at in a computer is the speed of the processor and the amount of RAM," Debbie Thompson said. "If you want the computer to run quickly, don't go for a low-end processor. Depending on how much money you are willing to spend, look at the mid/high-end models. Get at least 256mb of RAM; 512mb or more, if you can afford it."

"Get scads of memory and hard drive space (gigs and gigs) -- with room to add more," advised Bernie Poole. "The CPU (processor) runs faster when it has room to 'breath.'"

"Educators thinking about purchasing a personal computer should buy one with the most memory and hard drive space possible," agreed Mary Kreul.

"I recently purchased some new iMacs for our elementary school and, since money is tight, I was concerned with getting the most bang for the buck," said Lori Sanborn. "So I purchased the most economical model they had, then added more RAM."

"If there's particular software you use or expect to use, take a look at what memory and processor speed is required for that software," Nelson added. "Double or triple the RAM requirements and seriously look at the CPU speed.

"It's better to go with a model with a bigger hard drive and more RAM then with a cheaper model; the better one won't be "out of date" in a few months," said Holmes. "You never know what new software will come along and make demands on your current system. Also, as you become more comfortable with your computer, you'll probably want to try new projects."

"Get a Pentium chip - the latest, if possible," said Julia Timmons. "Pentium is more reliable than its copies. Get a large hard drive, as the data and programs you will store require more and more space every day; if you're into lots of pictures and video, you will need lots of space. Finally, go for it on the RAM. Here too, you'll need more for any high end programs you plan to run."


Nicholas Langlie, however, disagreed about the need for a large hard drive. "The size of your hard drive is no longer very important," he told Education World. "Most computers today ship with more power than you'll ever need, and they are easily upgradeable. You can even purchase external drives to add storage.

"A motherboard that is expandable should be a big concern, however," Langlie added. "Mass producers of computers like Dell and Gateway will outfit you nicely at a good price, but they may ship you a system with a motherboard with no expansion slots (which happened to me). For example, if you purchase a computer with only enough expansion slots for 512mb of memory and later decide that's not enough, you are essentially stuck and have to buy a new motherboard. It's just not worth the expense.

"Memory is one of the areas where you should invest a little more up front," Langlie noted. "The cost of memory goes down a little over time, but you still get good bang for your buck. You should, as a rule of thumb, figure out what computer companies consider the current average memory, and then go one level higher.

"Processing power generally is not as important as memory, but it's close," Langlie added. "A good rule of thumb: Get whatever the current recommendation is, if possible; but don't go back more than one level. Right now, we are into the next generation of Pentium 4s, which means you should not purchase a new computer with a processor older than the first Pentium 4. At this point, Pentium 3s are losing their value to consumers."


Four years ago, most schools -- most schools that had computers, that is -- had Apple computers For some of today's Tech Team members, that is still the only way to go.

"Above all else, make sure your new computer is a Macintosh," said Stew Pruslin. "They have a tremendous reliability advantage over PC's, and viruses and spyware are virtually non-existent on Macs. Historically, Mac software is very compatible with subsequent generation Mac machines."

"I'm a Mac man," Bernie Poole told Education World. "I have four at home. But if it has to be a PC (*sigh*), get a laptop at least, so you can take it with you wherever you go. Almost every hotel I stay in these days has Internet connectivity, and the computer has become the essential communications device."

"I've been waiting for a question like this to get up on my soapbox!" John Simeone told Education World. "I am a Mac user. I always have been one, and I always will be one. When someone who has never used a computer before asks my advice concerning a new computer, I always steer them toward an Apple product. Macs work well on every front -- word processing, digital music recording, digital filmmaking, Microsoft Office, Web design, graphic design, and any other application that can be run on a Windows machine.

"The Macintosh product line offers a wide variety of models," Simeone noted, "but even the entry level eMac allows the average computer user to make very cool projects for school and for home, especially in the area of moviemaking. They are reliable, offer a wide array of installed applications with a basic purchase, and they often are very nice to look at!

"The argument I hear from many teachers -- "'We should train our students on the platform that is most prevalent in the real world.' -- is too old and very weak," Simeone added. "I say, shouldn't we be teaching our students to not think like everyone else? Shouldn't we be teaching them to be their own people? Buy a'll have so much fun, and still have time to live your life!"


Not everyone agreed that a particular operating system is the key to technological satisfaction, however.

"From my personal experience and from my experience helping many teachers and administrators purchase computers, the key to buying a computer is not the operating system or the power of the system, but the ease with which you can move data from one system to another," Sith Nip told Education World. "Hardware components, RAM, hard drive size, speed, graphics, and so on, are not important; today's computers are more than adequate to meet the need of most users. Even e-machines have moved up to new standards to satisfy their customers.

"What every teacher, administrator, and student should be concerned about is the software/applications that come with the computer," Nip said. "If one operating system is used at work and a different one is used at home, the key to success is the ease of moving data from one system to another without complications. In actuality, we're not using the operating system, but rather the software that comes with it. Whether or not a user has to worry about compatibility will determine the usefulness of the computer to that user. Once we have software that's compatible for both systems, it won't matter where we work -- or what we work on."

Be sure to read next week's Tech Team article, Learn to Accessorize, in which our experts discuss the essential computer accessories -- CD burners, monitors, graphic cards, USB ports, and much more.
Who Are They?

The Education World Tech Team includes more than 50 dedicated and knowledgeable education technology professionals who have volunteered to contribute to occasional articles that draw on their varied expertise and experience. The following Tech Team members contributed to this article:

* Cathy Chamberlain, technology integration specialist, District Education Center, Oswego, New York
* Fred Holmes, high school LanManager/Webmaster, Osceola Public Schools, Osceola, Nebraska
* Mary Kreul, grade 4 teacher, Richards Elementary School, Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin
* Nicholas Langlie, online teaching/learning support, Hudson Valley Community College, Troy, New York
* Lydia Ann Nelson, instructional technologist, Curry College, Milton, Massachusetts
* Sith Nip, computer teacher, Alexander Fleming Middle School, Lomita, California
* Bernard John Poole, associate professor of education and instructional technology, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, Johnstown, Pennsylvania
* Stew Pruslin, grade 3 teacher, J. T. Hood School, North Reading, Massachusetts
* Marcella Ruland, social studies teacher, Glenelg High School, Glenelg, Maryland
* Lori Sanborn, K-5 technology specialist, Rancho Las Positas School, Livermore, California
* John Simeone, computer teacher, Beach Street Middle School, West Islip, New York
* Debbie Thompson, director of instructional technology, University of North Carolina at Pembroke School of Education, Pembroke, North Carolina
* Julia Timmons, instructional technology specialist, Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School for Innovation, Lynchburg, Virginia
* Jennifer Wagner, computer coordinator, Crossroads Christian School, Corona, California

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2003 Education World