Don’t worry. I’m going to make this simple. No techno-talk or brand-name hype. I would like to suggest some ways to approach a purchase that will have as much impact on your family’s lives as your car or telephone - your first family computer.
Let me begin by dodging the debate on whether Macintosh or IBM PCs are best. From what I’m seeing, schools today often provide both systems, and kids just beginning to learn on computers are extremely flexible, adapting easily to different formats. A phone call to the computer instructor at your children’s schools probably makes good sense.
If my 7-year-old Nickolaus is any indication, he has - in the course of four years - “played” on a DOS-based no-Windows operating system, switched to Windows, Windows NT, Windows 95 and a Mac. I say play, because he considers computers as much a toy as books, games, videos and other educational media. Of course, to his parents and other adults, the home computer is a “productivity tool,” expected to write letters, pay bills, plan finances, create mailing labels, conduct research, crunch numbers and other such tasks. So, adult requirements also should be factored into the first system you buy.
I strongly urge first-time buyers, purchasing from either mail-order catalogs or local computer stores, to ask about a package deal - including computer tower or brain, monitor, keyboard, mouse, builtin modem and CD-ROM unit, sound card, user’s guides and manuals, operating system and usually a few software games or programs. This will run anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000, an average being around $2,000 (without printer). For product information, browse the latest issues of the PC Zone or the Mac Zone computer discount catalogs or purchase popular computing magazines at local bookstores or newsstands.
If you buy at the lower end, be prepared to invest more money down the road. As your computer ages - and computing knowledge doubles every 18 months - you will want to consider upgrades and replacement parts to extend your original investment. That may be another reason to do business at your local computer outlet, rather than buying secondhand from the want ads.
Of course, you will be able to buy a used system for less money. But this carries no guarantees or assistance in trouble-shooting.
With the package deal, the first-time buyer will most likely receive service and support that often includes a 24-hour help line. Unless you have a computer whiz friend, you will need this to resolve software loading questions, system failures or other glitches not addressed in your guides. Along this same line, computing superstores sometimes offer training sessions for specific equipment or programs, ranging from $100 to $150.
To run today’s operating systems as well as software and a few other features, the minimum memory of the computer you choose should be 8 megabytes of RAM. For multimedia applications programs that use video clips, animation and sound - 16 RAM is even better, but this costs about $350 more.
For children’s use, I believe the CD ROM (attached compact disk system) drive and sound card are essential. That extra reinforcement by voice or sound helps kids learn concepts and delights them, and keeps them believing that education is fun. Even adults enjoy compact disk use for such data-intensive programs as encyclopedias, atlas, texts, reference materials or other space hogs.
I am convinced that a connection to the Internet is equally important to a family interested in learning. Such access transforms your computer into an “answer machine.” Almost any topic of interest can be probed on the Internet. In fact, my family recently was concocting eggnog and wondered how to avoid the risk of salmonella from using raw eggs. So we searched the Internet for 20 minutes until we found a method to heat the eggs and milk together to 160 degrees before mixing, thereby safeguarding against the microorganism.
I suggest a visit to your local library or nearby college for a test “cruise” on its wired computer. Click the mouse on whatever browser is supplied (Netscape, Mosaic, etc.) and you will be on the Internet. Select the search button and write in the subject of your interest. This can take you to anywhere on the globe that has provided information on that subject.
Next step is to investigate the connector services in your area, and the monthly and other access charges. Some common connectors are America OnLine, Compuserve, MS Network and Prodigy. Your computing system will need a modem hooked to a telephone line for this service.
Finally, the plethora of software, games and learning programs! Mass merchandisers display tables of Disney, Sesame Street and other fanciful characters willing to help your children read, count, learn colors, shapes, stories and games. Be sure you get the right program for your system - Mac or Windows, adequate RAM, and compact disk or computer software. They range in cost from $10 to $40. Average is $25.
MEMO: John Guyer is computer programmer and systems manager at the Washington State University School of Architecture.
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