6.3 Hardware and software

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Computer specifications are continually changing, so it is important to obtain up-to-date advice before purchasing or accepting any equipment. It is recommended to choose a computer with a well-known brand name. These can be more expensive, but more reliable.

Regardless of changing specifications, the process for deciding what to obtain remains the same. It is important to decide:

  • what the computer will be used for
  • how many programs it will run
  • how much data will be stored on the computer
  • how fast the computer will need to work
  • how the use of the computer might change or increase in the future.

The following equipment will be needed: computer with CD-ROM or CD-RW drive, printer, cables, back-up facilities, modem, UPS device, anti-virus software, and software for communications (e-mail and Internet), word processing and other functions as required.

Computer - A fast, high-capacity computer with a CD drive will be needed for a resource centre planning to offer information services such as internal and external database searching, current awareness and repackaging services, or access to the Internet. The following is the standard specification for a computer for a resource centre in early 2003. It is meant only as a guide, as it will quickly become out-of-date.

  • 533 MHz Intel Pentium 4 processor with 512Kb cache
  • 256 Mb SDRAM (random access memory)
  • 20 Gb IDE hard disk 
  • 17-inch screen colour SVGA (15.7-inch VIS .28 dot pitch)
  • 20/48x CD-ROM drive
  • 1 parallel port, 2 serial ports, 2 USB ports 
  • UPS (uninterrupted power supply)
  • Back-up facilities: 3.5-inch diskette drive, and either 250Mb zip drive, 2–8Gb DAT drive, or CD-RW drive in place of CD-ROM drive
  • 56 Kbs (kilobytes per second) modem
  • Windows 2000 Professional or Windows XP Professional operating system.

Guidance on buying IT equipment, including the latest recommendation for a computer specification (updated every six months) is available at:


A CD-ROM (read-only) drive can read information that has been recorded onto a CD-ROM, a disc that stores large amounts of data. This could be anything from publications, to databases, video or audio files. It can be internal (part of your computer) or external (a separate box that can be attached to your computer). Accessing CD-ROMs is very useful if you do not have reliable access to the Internet, as some resources, such as databases and journals, can be supplied on CD-ROM (sometimes for a fee).

CD-RW (Read-Write) drive, or CD burner - Similar to a CD-ROM drive, a CD-RW drive can read compact discs (CDs), but has the added ability to record information on blank recordable CDs, and to record over (overwrite) data on an existing recordable CD. This is useful for archiving large amounts of data or to back-up the information saved on your computer, and can help economise on memory space in your computer. Recording over data on a CD requires a blank CD sold for this purpose, called a CD-RW (slightly more expensive than a normal blank recordable CD).

CD-RW drives are becoming a standard part of computer hardware. A computer without some sort of CD drive may cost a little less, but it can be more expensive to purchase and install one later on.

Printer - One or more printers will be needed to print information from a word-processor, database, e-mail or the Internet. There are three main types of printer – laser printers and inkjets, which both use toner, and dot-matrix printers, which use ink ribbons. Laser printers are fast and produce high quality print, but they are expensive to buy and run. Inkjet printers are less expensive and produce reasonable quality print, but are also expensive to run. Dot-matrix printers are less expensive to buy and run, but are noisy and produce lower quality print. However, they can take continuous paper as well as single sheets, and are therefore convenient for printing out address labels, and large amounts of data, such as documents or database records for proof-reading.

Cables - These are an important part of the computer equipment. The correct cables should automatically be supplied with the computer and any new piece of equipment purchased. However, it is important to check that all the required cables have been provided, such as cables to connect each piece of equipment to the computer and power supply.

Back-up facilities - If you don’t have a CD-RW drive (see above), you’ll need plenty of floppy disks (1.4Mb) to make regular back-ups (copies) of databases and day-to-day work such as word processing. Media that can store more information than a floppy disk – for example, CDs (700 Mb) or tape such as a DAT (2–8 Gb) – can be useful for backing up larger databases and publications including illustrations and pictures. CDs, for example, can hold as much information as 550 floppy disks, and DAT drives can hold all the information on a computer. Zip disks (100Mb or 250 Mb) are quick and easy to use, but are significantly more expensive than CD disks.

Modem (MOdulator-DEModulator) - This is a device that enables messages to be sent from one computer to another, via a telephone line. A modem can be a card fitted inside the computer (internal modem) or a small box next to the computer (external modem). The modem links the computer to a telephone line using a telephone cable. The same modem can be used to link more than one computer to the same telephone line over a ‘local area network’ (LAN).

Some modems can be used to send and receive faxes (known as fax modems). A fax modem makes it possible to communicate with people who have a fax machine but no e-mail, as it enables messages to be sent directly from a computer to a fax machine.

An important feature to consider when choosing a modem is speed. Faster modems cost more to buy, but save telephone costs and on-line charges of the Internet service provider (see Section 6.5). Modems with speeds of 56Kbs per second are becoming standard. The speed of a connection between two modems is limited to the speed of the slower modem. However, it is still worth buying a faster modem, since organisations are continually up-grading their computer equipment.

The speed is also affected by the quality of the telephone line, the computer, the Internet service provider’s equipment, and the type of service you have contracted. Therefore, when buying a modem, it is important to consider: the modem speeds that the Internet service provider can support; the bandwidths (transmission speeds) that the telephone company can support; and any local regulations about what kind of modem may be used (in some countries, telecommunications authorities do not allow users to connect modems to telephone lines, or have a list of ‘approved’ modems for use in that country). The relevant authorities or Internet service provider should be able to advise.

UPS (Uninterruptable Power Supply) - This is a device that smoothes out fluctuations in the power supply, and provides power for a short time after a power cut. This means that work can be saved and the computer properly shut down, preventing programs and data from becoming corrupted. This feature is important if you live in an area that experiences electrical power surges or cuts, if only for a second. Other factors that contribute to power fluctuations and surges include: quality of the building’s wiring, number of electrical devices, overloaded circuits, circuitry and wiring design.

Anti-virus software - A computer virus is like a human virus – it causes damage and is not necessarily visible. Viruses can be introduced via files on floppy disks or e-mail attachments, or by downloading information from the Internet. Damage caused by viruses can include loss of data, erasing the entire contents of the hard disk, or multiplying files so that the hard disk becomes full and cannot operate.

It is important to check regularly that there are no viruses, by using anti-virus software. Anti-virus software needs to be updated at least every month, as new viruses are continually appearing. It is best to take out a subscription with an anti-virus program, so that updates are received automatically. As new viruses emerge it is important to update the software as soon as updates are available. It is important to include anti-virus software in the budget. It would be a false economy to omit it if everything were lost.

Internet users often try to warn each other about new viruses that are circulating. You may receive e-mail messages warning about a new virus. While these are sometimes useful, they are more often than not hoaxes – pranks to create panic and concern. See http://www.symantec.com/avcenter/hoax.html to check whether a particular warning is a hoax or a real cause for concern. Never open unsolicited email attachments from people you don’t know.

Communications software - E-mail software is needed to send and receive e-mail messages. It also allows messages to be stored, e-mail address lists to be set up, selected mail addresses to be recorded, and documents such as word-processed files or spreadsheet files to be attached to e-mail messages. Internet browser software such as Internet Explorer, Netscape or Opera is required for full Internet connection (see Section 6.5). It enables information on the World Wide Web to be viewed, downloaded onto the computer and printed.

For an older computer, Opera browser software might be more suitable. It works well with 386 and 486 computers and requires as little as 12mb of RAM (random access memory) and 1.7mb of free disk space. It costs about US$40 (US$20 for educational institutions; a version that includes advertisements and doesn’t include e-mail support is free). More information is available on http://www.opera.com

Netscape Navigator is available free of charge from http://channels.netscape.com/ns/browsers, and requires 64mb RAM and 52mb of space on your hard drive. Internet Explorer is also free of charge, at www.microsoft.com (requires 16–32mb RAM, depending on your operating system, and about 12mb disk space). Check that your operating system is compatible with the browser you download.

Word-processing software - Software such as Microsoft Word or Wordperfect is essential for day-to-day work such as correspondence, and for ‘repackaging’ information from e-mail, the Internet or a database. Word-processing software often comes with the computer (‘bundled’). However, bundled software is not necessarily the most suitable. It is well worth finding out what software is most commonly used in your area, or by members of a network, and purchasing it separately if necessary.

Portable Document Format (PDF) - A software programme called Adobe Acrobat enables you to create and read Portable Document Format (PDF) files, a worldwide standard for secure and reliable document distribution. PDF documents display and print with the formatting that the author created, including tables, illustrations and graphics, and are protected from unauthorized access and alterations. The Acrobat Writer (which can create these files) is available on the website for a fee. However, the Acrobat Reader (needed to read PDF files) is available on the website free of charge: www.adobe.com

PDF files are a common way of making documents available on the Internet and CD-ROM, as they can be read by any computer using the free Adobe Acrobat Reader software.

Other software - Database software is discussed in Section 6.10. There are many other types of software that can be used for different functions. For example, desktop publishing (DTP) software such as PageMaker or QuarkXPress can be used to produce attractively presented materials, such as newsletters and display materials. PagePlus is a cheaper alternative, but less commonly used. Therefore before investing in it, you should ensure that your printer can access files produced using this software. Spreadsheet software such as Microsoft Excel or LotusNotes is useful for preparing budgets, schedules or tables. Web publishing software, such as Macromedia Dreamweaver or Microsoft FrontPage, makes creating attractive websites much easier.

TIP: New or second-hand?
If funding is not available for a new computer, it might be possible to use one that has been donated or passed on from another department. However, computer technology evolves quickly and an older machine may not be suitable for the tasks you need it to perform.

Check that the size of the hard disk, processor speed and memory (RAM) are sufficient to run the software that will be used, at a fast enough speed. Check the specifications of all the software you need to run – often, newly available software will not run on older machines. Add up the software specification figures for disk space, and compare this, plus figures for processor speed and memory, with the capacity of the computer. Computers running at or near capacity will often crash, losing unsaved data and wasting time.

When preparing funding proposals for computer equipment, it is useful to bear in mind that a higher capacity computer is needed for most resource centre work than for general administrative work. If the resource centre already has a computer and another computer is needed for administrative work, it makes sense to obtain a new computer for the resource centre. Pass the resource centre computer on for administrative work (having first checked that it can support the software being used for the administrative work).