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First-Time Computer Buyers: Advice from the Experts

"Which computer should I buy?" Every tech coordinator and Webmaster hears that question from time to time -- or more often than that! This week, Education World's "Tech Team" debuts, providing the best advice they can muster for teachers considering that first-time purchase. Even technical people might find new ideas about how to answer that oft-asked question!

Tech Team GIFThis week's Curriculum story marks the debut of Education World's Tech Team, a group of 35 technology experts from schools around the world! Our team includes school technology coordinators, Webmasters, computer lab administrators, Internet trainers, media specialists, and more -- a cross-section of members of the technology community!

"What kind of computer should I buy?" If you were a school technology coordinator, you would hear that question all the time! The question usually comes from a technology novice, somebody who is about to purchase his or her first home computer.

"I get this question from teachers frequently," said Pamela Livingston, director of information technology at Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia. When someone asks Livingston that question, her first reaction is always the same. "I must ask some questions of the teacher before I can give any advice...."


Livingston and other members of Education World's Tech Team shared some of the questions they ask of soon-to-be computer owners. First-time computer buyers should give ample thought to their needs, and the Tech Team's comments might help them determine exactly what those needs are.

  • I want to know what kind of computers people use in their classrooms, what kinds of things they will want to be able to do at home, who else will be using the computer...." said Livingston.

  • "While surfing the Net is fine, my first questions are 'What else do you plan to do with the computer? and 'What is your comfort level on the computer?" added Fred Holmes, Webmaster for the Osceola (Nebraska) Public Schools. "It doesn't do much good to get a computer with all the bells and whistles if you aren't comfortable on it."

  • "I say it depends on two major factors -- what the teacher is planning to do beside surf the Net and what the price limit is," said Sachin Bansal, Webmaster of Tomahawks Online.

  • "Do you have any children?" is a question Dianne Prager always asks. "If the person has kids, the kids will probably want to play memory-demanding games," said Prager, library media specialist at Pleasant Grove Elementary School in Stockbridge, Georgia.

  • "E-mail is one thing, surfing another, and downloading sounds, graphics, and QuickTime movies as the teenagers like to do is another," added Sue Myers, integration specialist for the Lockport (New York) School Department.

"Needs and purpose always come before suggestions," added Myers. "And I never give the same advice twice. I try to assist the person in individualizing a purchase to meet his or her needs. This takes more time, more discussion, and a little more patience, but it helps the individual greatly."

"Recommending a computer to a novice is a dangerous thing," said Patricia Bihon, technology specialist at Lincoln Roosevelt School in Succasunna, New Jersey. "First, I share with people the ways that I use my computer. That helps them see what they can do.... Establishing what they think they will use it for helps to define what they need."


"What computer do you use at school and what word processing software or other software does it use?" are other questions Fred Holmes always asks. Those are important questions if a teacher will be taking computer work home, added Holmes. That teacher will want to have machines that are compatible.

Russ Stamp, media specialist and Webmaster for Manitou Springs (Colorado) Schools, agreed: "Buy the same type of machine that you use in school. If you use Macs, buy a Mac. If you use PCs, buy a PC. There are still compatibility issues between the two types of machines. It would also be a good idea to use the same word processing software that you use at school since you'll probably find yourself doing a great deal of word processing at home for tests and worksheets. That way, you can work on those things at home, e-mail them to yourself at school, send them directly to your printer, and away you go to make copies."

"Buy the same computer you have at work," agreed Mary Kreul, a second-grade teacher and technology mentor at Richards Elementary School in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. "The learning curve goes way down, you won't have problems taking work back and forth on a disk, and you will increase your comfort level and usage much more quickly."


The hardcore decisions about a computer's capability are tied to what the user will want to do with the computer. The Tech Team's advice was all over the ballpark, but there seems to be some general consensus on what the "bottom-line requirements" might be. When shopping for a computer, first-time computer buyers should be aware of those bottom-line requirements. They should also know some basic computer vocabulary because, if price becomes an object, they might "negotiate" some of the bottom-line requirements -- but they'll want to know what they're negotiating!

  • Processor speed. The CPU (central processing unit) is the brain of your computer. The speed of the CPU is measured in megahertz (MHz). Ed World's Tech Team members recommend everything from 333 to 466 MHz. Minimum requirement: 333 to 400 MHz.

  • Memory. RAM (random access memory) is where your programs live when they run. Generally speaking, the more memory, the faster the speed of your machine. If you plan to run a word processing program when you surf the Net or if you want to use game software and listen to audio files, 64 megs (megabytes) of RAM should suit you well. Several Tech Team members recommend 128 megs. Bare minimum requirement: 32 megs. (If there is a chance you might want to add memory at a later date, you'll want to know if that is possible with the machine you're buying.)

  • Hard disk/hard drive. This is where your computer will store all the programs and data you aren't using at any given time. It also serves as a substitute resource for memory when your system's RAM is challenged to its max. The capacity of your hard drive is measured in gigabytes. Six gigabytes of hard drive space should do the trick; 8 would be great! Minimum requirement: 4 gigabytes.

  • Modem. The modem relates to system speed too. Most computer systems today advertise 56K (kilobyte) modems. That means that, under ideal circumstances, the system can transfer data at 56,000 bits per second. If you connect to the Internet through an Internet service provider (ISP) -- for example, a national provider such as AOL or ATT WorldNet or a local provider -- that doesn't support 56K, you aren't going to get the speed your computer was designed to deliver. First-time buyers should be aware of higher-speed alternatives to the 56K modem; if Internet connectivity speed is crucial, the buyer might want to research alternatives such as cable modems and DSL (digital subscriber lines). Minimum requirement: 56K

  • Sound. Most computer packages come with sound systems that will meet or exceed the minimum requirements of the first-time buyer.

  • CD-ROM. CD-ROM should be considered a requirement. Most software publishers now provide their software in easier-to-install CD-ROM form. The first CD-ROM drives installed on computer systems were slow. Today, many computers come with 32X (32 times faster than the originals) CD-ROM drives. Minimum requirement: 12 to 24X. (Note: Many computer systems offer DVD drives in place of CD-ROM drives. DVD drives play both DVDs and CDs.)

  • Monitor. If you can afford the small difference in cost, go with a 17- or 19-inch monitor. Minimum screen size: 15 inches.


Shop around! That's another piece of advice for first-time computer buyers echoed by many of Education World's Tech Team members.

When Patricia Bihon sits down with a first-time computer buyer, she carries with her the ads for two or three stores from Sunday's newspaper. Talking about what comparative systems offer helps Bihon talk with the person about the features he or she wants and needs "in a concrete way."

"I also show people how to locate on the Internet various name brands -- and how to actually design a computer for themselves if they want," added Bihon. "I point out sites such as valueamerica.com, where you can purchase a computer on-line. Using the newspaper and showing people Internet resources helps them get used to the computer terms I use."

Many educators can take advantage of special buy programs offered through schools, credit unions, and the like. "Look into those educator buy programs and then compare their prices with what Best Buy and other major discounters are offering," said Libby Adams, computer resource teacher at Troost Academy in Kansas City, Missouri. "Be sure to look at warranties and how easy it will be to have repairs made," added Adams.

Buyers should realize that most computer retailers want to make a sale, said Dianne Prager. "Realize that many times you don't have to buy the 'package' as advertised. Most computer retailers now will spec the computer with what the user needs -- more RAM, a little bit slower processor, a smaller monitor...."

"Be aware," added Prager, "that the computer you buy today might sell for about half the price in six months -- and don't be frustrated by that. You can wait for a 'better' computer at a better price, but that's an infinite wait. Computers are constantly getting faster and cheaper. If you buy the fastest processor today, the computer will serve you well for at least a couple years. By that time, you can get a 'better' computer for less."


Be sure to leave money in your computer-buying budget for virus protection, advised Jennifer Wagner, technology coordinator at Crossroads Christian School in Corona, California.

"If you do work at school and then take it home -- or vice versa -- you don't want to carry a virus from one computer to another," Wagner warned. "By having a virus protection loaded, you can quickly scan all disks before unknowingly loading a virus onto your computer. If you use the Internet, both popular virus protections do an automatic virus scan of all files downloaded from the Net before they are saved to your computer."


  • "My advice is to always get the biggest hard drive, the fastest processor, and the most RAM that you can afford. Also make sure the software included with the price will satisfy your needs. Compare prices and brands and then go for the best deal." --- Beth Gregor, elementary technology coordinator, Pleasantdale Elementary School in La Grange, Illinois.

  • "The bottom line is know your price what you will use your computer for and make sure support is built-in and well-known." --- Cathy Chamberlain, teacher on assignment for elementary technology, Oswego (New York) Schools

  • "When looking at computers, check to see what kind of software, if any, comes with your computer. Some offer software components that would otherwise cost you megabucks to purchase. They come pre-installed." --- Cathy Chamberlain

  • "Be sure that the computer you buy is upgradeable. Most computers become obsolete a few weeks or months after you buy them. If the computer is upgradeable, you can add or replace components to keep up with the Jones's. That way, you don't have to replace the whole unit to keep your hardware current." --- Bill Bagley, Webmaster at Cullman (Alabama) High School

  • "Buy as much memory, modem capability, and processor speed as you can; it will increase the speed of use and the number of programs you can use simultaneously. It will also increase the amount of software you can load, which will make the computer usable for many tasks and by various family members." --- Mary Kreul

  • "Purchase the fastest processor and modem you can afford. Before you turn around, they will be outdated! Check with your school division technology resource regarding software purchase. Often teachers can purchase software such as Office or grading programs at a reduced price or free." --- Julia Timmons, instructional technology specialist at Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School for Innovation, Lynchburg, Virginia.

  • "Take advantage of free-time offers from an ISP, but be careful how much your connect time will cost. [If that ISP doesn't have a local call number] do an Internet search for an ISP using thelist.internet.com. --- Patricia Bihon

  • "Get at least a 3 to 4 gig hard drive...and a fast-speed modem. Do not go with anything less than 56K so you are not waiting forever to see Web sites." --- Carolyn Salerno, fifth-grade teacher and Internet trainer in Hauppague (Long Island), New York.

  • "Get a good service contact, and be careful of the Internet contracts that come attached to some 'special' packages." --- Kathy Campbell, teacher facilitator of technology, St. Charles Parish Schools in Destrehan, Louisiana.

  • "Ask all prospective ISPs what their modem to customer ratio is. The lower that ratio, the better. When you want to get on the Internet, the last thing you want is a busy signal." --- Russ Stamp

  • "If you're getting a mail-order computer, ask for their toll-free support number. Call often at different times during the day. If you get a busy signal frequently, go elsewhere." --- Pamela Livingston

  • "Make sure you select a multi-sync monitor, something that can support at least 800x600 resolution." --- Corrie Rosetti, language arts teacher, Lincoln Middle School in Clarkston, Washington.

  • "Buying a computer is a personal choice; I rarely recommend a brand name.... Buyers need to remember that there is rarely a moment when the computers they purchase are 'state of the art.' It seems that statement has no relevance when it comes to computers." Patricia Bihon

One last word of advice from Bill Bagley: "Talk to friends [who know computers]. Tell them what you are going to do with the computer and ask them to give you a list of what you will need in a computer. Better yet, get one of them to go with you when you shop for your computer!"


Consumer Information: Buying a Computer This article provides links to many of the best on-line resources for the computer buyer.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 1999 Education World

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