Buying desktop PCs for schools

18 Feb 2012
Buying desktop PCs for schools

Desktop PCs remain the mainstay of schools ICT. George Cole takes you through the choices in today’s PC market

There are many types of computers available today, but for most schools, the desktop PC remains the number one choice for classroom computing. In terms of performance, desktop PCs provide the best value for money; full-powered laptops always command a price premium for their smaller size and portability.

Desktop PCs are also more robust, they have large keyboards and can be used with a wide range of monitors. A well-specified desktop PC is also more versatile. even a modestly specified system can handle a range of classroom activities, from emailing to word processing; from exploring the internet to editing images, video or audio.

There are other benefits, too. Since desktop PCs use standard- sized components, they’re cheaper to replace and easier to maintain. They generally offer more scope for upgrading, making it easier to prolong their working life, and even old desktop PCs don’t have to be retired. A little refurbishment, and you have a thin client running on the school network.

Different styles
Desktop PCs come in an array of sizes, types and prices, and the key is to purchase one that offers the best value for your needs; a cheap, under-powered PC could turn out be an expensive mistake if it doesn’t deliver the performance staff and students require. Likewise, a high-end system that’s only used for word processing and web surfing is a waste of resources. if you want to use 3D material or edit video with your students, invest in a PC that can handle this type of content. if you don’t, save your budget for other things.

The desktop PC market is currently dominated by computers equipped with the intel family of Core i3/i5/i7 Sandy Bridge CPUs. Intel has made its processors so powerful, energy-efficient and affordable, that it’s been hard for rivals to compete.

However, AMD is fighting back. Its A6 and A8 series of Fusion APUs (accelerated processing units) combine the features of a CPU with those of an entry-level graphics processor, giving you more advanced 3D graphics performance than you’d get from the Intel equivalent. 3D graphics used to be synonymous with games, but increasingly a fast GPU can play a part in other applications, including classroom packages. Since you don’t need a dedicated graphics card, an A6 or A8-powered system can provide better value.

There are many other factors to consider. How robust is it: are the buttons, flaps and PC case strong enough to withstand the rigours of the classroom? How big is the PC’s desktop footprint and can it be used in a variety of configurations, such as horizontally, vertically or attached to the back of a monitor or desk? How much noise does it produce? A classroom full of noisy PCs is no place for learning. Meanwhile, energy-saving features can save a school plenty in energy bills, which can add up to a considerable amount if you’re using a suite of PCs.

You also need to look at connectivity. Are there enough USB ports? Does it include front-mounted ports for headphones, mic and USB devices, or will students have to fiddle around at the rear? Any design feature that discourages students from doing so is worth looking out for.

It’s also worth thinking about the equipment you might want to connect to the PC, both now and in the future. The ubiquity of USB over the past decade makes this easier, but some schools may still use equipment that needs old-fashioned serial or VGA connections.

Similarly, does the PC have the new USB 3 ports or just old-fashioned USB 2? While USB 3 hard disks and devices are currently thin on the ground, this won’t be the case in a few years’ time. If your students shoot a lot of video, are there ports for connecting a digital camcorder? Do you need HDMI connectivity?

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