What computer, what software for a lab?

Subject: What computer, what software for a lab?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: techwr-l List <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, David Hailey <david -dot- hailey -at- usu -dot- edu>
Date: Sat, 17 May 2008 11:30:13 -0400

David Hailey wondered: <<Our department has a grant to upgrade the
teaching lab (where I teach digital media topics). There is a chance
the project leaders will want to install Macintosh laptops.>>

That's a good choice. A Mac will let you run Mac software, Windows
software, some Unix software, and possibly even MS-DOS software all
on the same computer hardware. You'll pay a slight price premium for
a Mac compared with a comparably equipped brand name PC (or
considerably more compared with a generic clone), but possibly no
price premium at all with Apple's educational discount, but you get a
better computer in most cases. (For example, Mac desktops have topped
the reliability ratings published by Consumer Reports and both
desktops and laptops have topped the satisfaction ratings for
something like the past 3 years. And the gap compared with PCs is
quite large; check out the latest issue for details. PC Mag, despite
often biased coverage, usually reports similar results in their
annual user survey, but I haven't read them for a couple years now
and can't say whether this is true.)

<<My sense is that for better or worse, the vast majority of
technical writing takes place in DOS or UNIX environments, but
perhaps I am out of touch, perhaps I am wrong.>>

If you mean "MS-DOS", then you're _way_ out of touch. <g> If you mean
Windows, you're correct. Unix is less common. But if you're
specifically focusing on technical writing, then you need to be
running Windows, no matter whether you buy Apple or Dell or any other
manufacturer's hardware: Windows is where most of the software is
being developed and being used, and even traditionally Mac software
(i.e., Adobe) is now developed first for Windows, and only later for
the Mac. You can't really run a modern version of Frame, or any
Windows help-authoring tool under OS X, though you can run it in
Windows on Apple hardware.

<<Do you think such a teaching lab should be using DOS-based
computers (since there is no way we can use UNIX)?>>

You should be able to run some form of Linux (simplistically, "free
Unix") on pretty much any modern computer, including all computers
with Intel chips (both Macs and PCs). You'll have to check whether
specific software you need is available for your flavor of Linux.

<<I also suggest that the software we must have is Office and Adobe's
techcomm studio package, which I think includes Frame, InDesign,
Dreamweaver, Flash, Captivate, and possibly Robohelp. I would also
like to have Maya and 3DsMax for teaching 3D technical animation, but
that's unlikely to happen. I guess that for now I will teach with
Flash and Captivate.>>

Except for the 3D software (only rarely used in tech. comm. --
witness the near-total lack of questions about such software on
techwr-l over the past 15+ years), that sounds like a good starting
point, but you'll also want to include MadCap Flare for help
authoring, and at least consider WebWorks ePublisher (either for Word
or for Frame). Also consider OpenOffice, which exists for all three
operating systems (as "NeoOffice" for OS X), and screen capture
software such as SnagIt. Some kind of screenshot (bitmap) editing
software is necessary; Photoshop, for instance.


----------------------------------------------------
-- Geoff Hart
ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca / geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com
www.geoff-hart.com
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