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Back to School - Is a Computer
on Your Child's Shopping List?


By Rob Kay and Jeff Bloom

It’s that time of year again. As parents buy new jeans or athletic shoes for their progeny many are also considering the purchase of a new computer.

The good news is that whether you’re buying Johnny or Jan their very first machine or replacing an old unit, you’ll be happy to know that this year your dollar will go further than ever before. Whether you’re buying a PC or a Mac for a grade school child or a college student, virtually everything on the market will more than meet their needs. Even the bargain basement specials offer more than sufficient hard drive storage, processing power and communications capabilities for the typical student.

However, there still are decisions to be made to properly select the right unit. Let’s look at some key questions you should ask before purchasing that shiny new computer for Junior:

How powerful a machine do we really need?

This question came up several weeks ago when a family friend asked us what type of computer her son should purchase. Kelsey, who attends middle school in Mililani, is an avid computer game enthusiast well versed in computers. No doubt many of his waking hours were spent poring over magazine ads that touted state of the art Pentium III processors, "Voodoo 3" video cards and other technical hype. He wanted a high-end system for his games despite the fact that it was overkill for his 7th grade homework assignments.

Mom reluctantly caved into Kelsey’s demands although she could have gotten away spending much less. The point is: unless your child is really into computer games and you don’t mind spending the money for a machine with the muscle to handle 3D graphics, MP3 encoding (for downloading music) or digital video editing, don’t do it. The price point on this type of machine would be $1500-2000--easily double what the average student actually needs.

What kind of processor should we consider?

PCs nowadays are typically configured with Intel Pentium II or III and Celeron processors. Other companies such as AMD produce the state of the art Athlon as well as the older K6 II and III models. We think a machine with a K6 II, an Intel Pentium II, or a Celeron running at 300 to 400 Mhz is plenty of processor for your child. It’s simply not worth spending the money on for the average student’s homework assignment on a Pentium III or the hottest new chip from AMD.

How much memory do we need?

Memory, known as DRAM, is perhaps the chief area where today's inexpensive systems fall short. Most come standard with 32 megabytes of memory. That's usually enough plenty to run most applications by themselves, but not enough to keep several programs (such as your word processor, encyclopedia and web browser) running at once. With 64 megs of RAM you’re better off. RAM is generally cheap so spending an extra $75 on 32 megs is worth it.

Do we buy a Windows or Mac?

Whatever your child is more comfortable with. We tend to prefer (as a matter of taste) the PCs which are also generally less expensive. Typically, more software is available for PCs but the new iMac is a well-engineered product that the trade magazines have rated very highly. In many respects the Macs are easier to use and easier to set up so you won’t go wrong with either one.

Do we buy a notebook or desktop?

Notebooks tend to be more expensive—they will cost you at least $1500 for a reasonably configured machine vs. half that much and less for a desktop. We think for grade school and high school kids a desktop is just fine. College students though might find a laptop much more compelling for note taking chores. A notebook also makes sense as a space-saving move in a puny dorm room. The new Handheld PC’s and H/PC Pro’s are also a good choice. They come with Pre loaded with Windows CE and Pocket Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Most allow you to connect to a laptop or desktop computer and can transfer files easily. The model we use, Compaq 2010 even has a modem built in and can be used to connect to the Internet for mail and Web surfing. The benefit is that they cost less than $1000, are very light and compact and offer very good tools for school.

What about the monitor?

Don’t pinch pennies on a monitor--get something that will be easy on your child’s eyes. Keep in mind how many hours your kid will be perched in front of it. The rule of thumb is to buy one with a ``dot pitch'' of .28 millimeters or less. Look around the computer store or ask friends for recommendations before purchasing. The best thing to do is put them through the acid test and fired up a word processing program to see what you’re getting into.

How about the printer?

Prices for printers have come way down. Even the dirt cheap ones that generally come bundled with the systems are adequate. However, if you expect Junior to print tons of pages you're better off with a unit in the $150 to $300 range. Both laser printer and ink jet models work quite well.

What about software?

Software always comes bundled with the machine. Microsoft Office and Word, Corel Office and WordPerfect, and Microsoft Works will all be more than adequate. You can always check with teachers or other students to see if there’s anything special you’ll need. If you can get an antivirus software along with the purchase it’s probably a good idea. There are scads of educational and reference programs however the software that comes bundled with your machine may not match your children's grade level. The good news is that some companies—notably Compaq and Radio Shack--will allow you to try up to 38 educational software programs free with your purchase and allow you to take home 12 of your favorites. That alone might tip the scale as to what kind of machine to buy. If you are interested in buying a locally made computer designed specifically for the back to school crowd check out Honolulu-based PDC Systems "Celestra" series which starts at $789. The Celestra however, comes only with Windows 98 software.

Rob Kay is a Honolulu-based public relations practitioner who works with technology companies in Hawaii and Silicon Valley. He can be reached at rkay@pactechcom.com or 539-3627. Jeff Bloom is the founder of Computer Training Academy/Network Resource Center, a computer education/consulting firm based in Honolulu. His contact is jeffb@cta.net or 839- 1200.

Pacific Business News - Friday September 10, 1999

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