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Learn to Accessorize:
Hardware and Software Essentials

Last week, members of the Education World Tech Team offered insight into the nitty-gritty of computer buying: How powerful should your processor be? How much memory do you need? What operating system should you choose? This week, our experts go beyond the basics to offer advice on the peripheral hardware and software that will make your computer a truly useful personal and professional tool. Included: Information about RAM, CPU, OS, more...

Note: You might search Webopedia for definitions of unfamiliar computer terms used in this article.

Whether you choose a laptop or a desktop, a Mac or a PC, Education World's Tech Team members all agreed; your computer purchase should include a CD writer.

According to Jennifer Wagner, "You have to have a CD writer! Start saving all your documents, graphics, and so on, to CDs. Use the CDs you create as file cabinets -- and get organized. If you use CDs for data storage, you can have a 40gb hard drive with no need to upgrade."

"I love having a CD burner (writer)," Lydia Nelson told Education World. "It provides a separate storage area for video editing files."

"A CD burner is a useful component," Cathy Chamberlain added, "especially if you use a digital camera. In addition, a CD burner will allow you to 'burn' large files and transport them back and forth from school to home."

"A CD burner makes it easy to back up documents and applications," Mary Kreul noted.

"Be sure to get a CD-RW (CD writer), especially for a laptop," said Debbie Thompson. "I didn't and I'm still regretting it!"

"A built in CD writer has become a necessity," agreed Nicholas Langlie.

What could be better that a CD burner? "A CDRW-DVD drive -- built, in," Julia Timmons told Education World.

Lori Sanborn agreed, "If you think you will be making digital movies and want a way to share them, a DVD burner (writer) is essential," said Sanborn.


A good monitor was another recommendation common to most of our respondents, although they didn't all agree on what kind of monitor to buy.

"I like to try and steer buyers to a higher end monitor," said Chamberlain, "and to something bigger than 15 inches. If they're going to use the computer in a place that doesn't have a lot of space, a flat screen is a good choice.

"Spend a little more on the monitor," agreed Timmons. "Next time you need a new computer, the monitor you purchase now will still be good. I'd go with a flat screen, no less than 17 inches. It's worth the investment."

"For a monitor," Langlie told Education World, "the best bet for your money is a CRT (cathode-ray tube). The prices have gone way down because of the rise in popularity of the flat panel LCDs (liquid crystal display)."


Several Tech Team members recommended purchasing more than the standard hard drive.

"Some computers now are coming without A drives (floppy disk drives)," said Thompson. "If you're working in a situation in which you do a lot of work at home, you might need to look at that and decide if you want to purchase an A drive."

"You don't automatically get a floppy drive anymore," agreed Langlie, "but they still can be necessary, particularly in educational settings."

"Get a zip drive (high capacity floppy disk drive)," said Bernie Poole.

"A pen drive (a USB flash memory drive that can support up to 1gb disk space) is useful for backing up work and to use as a portable hard drive to carry files between home and school," Kreul noted.


A number of additional peripherals received high recommendations from Tech Team members. Those included...

a digital camera

"Invest in a digital camera (with lots of memory) that both you and your students can use," Kreul told Education World. "Get an easy image editing program such as Photoshop Elements, as well."

"Take the time to invest in either a digital camera or a digital video camera and start recording what happens in your daily life at school," suggested Wagner. "If you have Windows XP, you have a built in video editor and you can burn CDs about your school year for your students' families. Start documenting everything!"

a printer

"I never buy a printer as part of a computer package," Debbie Thompson told Education World. "Because I usually want more from a printer than I get with the one that comes as part of a package, I always purchase the printer separately at a local computer/office supply store. Also, when choosing a printer, be sure you can buy ink cartridges easily when you run out!"

a network card

"If you plan on using cable modem or connecting to another home computer, make sure you have a network card -- which usually comes standard in the machine," said Chamberlain.

Double-check to be sure your package comes with an internal modem and a network card," agreed Thompson. "Even if you're using dial-up Internet service now, you might switch later to a faster cable service, and you'll need the network card to do that."

graphics and sound cards

"Be sure to get a computer with a good graphic card," said Fred Holmes.

"For a graphics and/or sound card, buy what ever is middle of the road in quality," advised Langlie. "The only folks who need to dabble into the higher-end market are hardcore gamers and even they are paying for very slight differences. For general personal or professional use, the middle of the road is more than enough."


"Get an Ethernet port for high speed connection," said Poole.

"I've found that extra USB (Universal Serial Bus) ports are very handy," Marcella Ruland told Education World. "If possible get a computer that has at least one USB port in front. Then you can share various items among the computers you use. I have a PC at home and another at school. I have a small USB storage device (mine is a 256M Attach removable drive by PNY) that I use for all my school material. I can work on PowerPoint presentations at home, put them on the device, and show them at school. I can take my grade information with me and not store it on the computer at school. I also can take the device down to the media center or computer lab if I have to. Having the USB port in front makes it very convenient to do this swapping.

wireless access

"Wireless access as an option would come in handy," noted Poole.

a backup system

"Invest in a backup system of some kind," said Marcella Ruland. "Many of us have experienced the agony of a virus, a crash, or some other disaster. While it is never easy, it is less nerve racking if you know that most of your files still exist somewhere and can be recovered. I use a combination of CDs and a USB device. I recently got the Attach device and now I wonder what I ever did without it. It comes with a lanyard -- and it's cute. My students (very jaded ninth graders) are impressed, and that's saying a lot."

an Internet connection

"Make sure you have an Internet connection and e-mail," advised Wagner. "Also join newsgroups and visit bulletin boards. Enlarge your teaching team to include educators around the world. Share ideas and gather ideas. There's a vast amount of free information out there."

After you've decided on the basic computer system you want and the peripherals you need, our Tech Team members advise giving some thought to the software that comes with your computer system -- as well as the software you purchase yourself.

"Just as with everything else," Chamberlain told Education World, "software depends on the needs of each individual. If you like to listen to music, look at a higher quality sound system. If you use Microsoft Word at work, get it on your home computer as well..."

"Be sure the word processing software you're getting with your package is compatible with what you use at school," agreed Thompson. "If you need to get a different word processing package, know the price of buying it separately before you decide to purchase it with your computer. Sometimes it's cheaper to buy the software yourself -- and you'll avoid problems if you need to reinstall the software at a later date."

"The same holds true with anti-virus software," Thompson added. "Many companies offer a three-month trial subscription. If it's free, take it, but be sure to either continue your subscription at the end of the three months, or to purchase the software and install it yourself. The most important thing here is to have some type of virus software, to schedule it to regularly scan your computer for viruses, and to update it as often as necessary. "

"We've gotten caught up with software companies telling us that we need the latest version of their software," Wagner told Education World. "But in actuality, a lot of the old software is better. It's true that the newer programs have more bells and whistles -- but the older versions still hold up pretty well.

"It's my belief that you should have a word processor, a spreadsheet program, a presentation program, and a database," Wagner added. "In addition, a good desktop program, such as PrintShop or Print Artist, is a great way to create unique and professional looking posters, charts, thank you notes, and more. You also need a good encyclopedia program, especially if you don't have access to the Internet.

"Other than that," Wagner said, "the software you get is personal preference. If you like graphics, get a program such as Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro. If you want to create a Web page, buy Dreamweaver, Front Page, and so on!

"You really should consider creating a Web page for your class," Wagner noted. "Parents will expect you to be able to communicate via the Internet. Web sites, such as Teacher Web and inetTeacher provide pre-made templates, or take the time to learn how to create a page yourself, purchase a domain name, get a host -- and post your site!

"Just make sure you get a good virus program and keep it updated," Wagner stressed.

What else will you need to be computer ready in the future?

"The rest," noted Bernie Poole, "resides in a crystal ball, where we're all peering, bleary-eyed, wondering what wonders will come to pass."

Be sure to also read last week's article, Today's Computer Buyers: Advice from the Experts, in which our Tech Team members discuss the nitty-gritty of today's computer purchases -- operating systems, memory, hard drive space, and 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