IF YOUR HOLIDAY wish list includes a computer this year, the box that winds up on your desk is only half of what you'll need.
The other half is software to make the computer do something useful.
Today's word processing, spreadsheet and database programs are astonishingly powerful. But they can also be confusing and difficult to learn.
Most home and small business users don't need a word processor that generates indexes, snaking columns and concordances, a database that can link 20 different files over a network, or a 3-D spreadsheet that generates multiple regression curves.
Nor do most people have the time to wade through 800-page instruction manuals, or attend college seminars that teach users what the manuals should have taught them in the first place.
What they need is a set of simple tools that they can put to work quickly and easily. For these people, an inexpensive "integrated" software collection may do the trick.
Integrated programs, available for under $150 on the street, combine basic word processing, spreadsheet, database and communications software in one easy-to-use package.
Integration means that all the programs use a common set of display screens and commands. They're also available from a single menu. This eliminates a major hassle in learning to use different programs.
Most integrated packages make it easy to transfer information from one program to another. For example, you may want to paste numbers from a spreadsheet into a business letter or school report.
While none of the individual programs in an integrated package can compete with the best standalones, they may be all that the average business or home user ever needs.
The most popular integrated packages for IBM-compatible computers are Microsoft Works (also available for the Apple Macintosh), First Choice from Software Publishing, Lotus Works, Spinnaker's Better Working Eight-in-One, and Tandy's DeskMate.
Of this bunch, Microsoft Works is the front runner. It's bundled with many computers today, including IBM's new PS/1 line. There's a good reason for this. Works works.
Its strongest point is a first-class word processor, with features such as on-page footnoting and a graphics preview that are generally found in more expensive standalones.
Works can open eight files at once and put each in a window. This makes it easy to switch between a spreadsheet and word processing document with a keystroke.
The spreadsheet is generally compatible with Lotus 1-2-3 and includes excellent graphing capabilities. In facts, you can paste graphs as well as numbers from the spreadsheet into a word processing document.
The database is competent, if a bit obtuse. But then most databases are obtuse for the average user. The communication module is competent but doesn't support many of the latest error-checking protocol
Work is a little less intuitive than some of the others in this category. But it makes up for this with the finest on-line tutorial I've seen. It takes you through the program keystroke by keystroke. Follow it and you won't get lost.
Less sophisticated, but more intuitive, is First Choice. With a few exceptions, its menus are so simple and logical that you may not need to crack the manual until you want to do something really complicated.
The centerpiece of First Choice is also its word processor, a stripped-down version of Software Publishing's PFS Professional Write. The PFS line has long been a favorite because it's so easy to use for business correspondence.
It displays your document exactly as it will appear on paper, with margins and page breaks. This also makes it particularly good for youngsters. If your word processing consists mostly of business or personal letters, you'll find this one a snap.
The First Choice spreadsheet, database and communications modules are a little less sophisticated than their counterparts in Works.
However, First Choice has a nifty quick graph routine that doesn't require that you learn how to use the spreadsheet. And the communications program, which treats a session with another computer as though it were a word processing document, is easy to use. Some versions of First Choice now come bundled with a trial subscription to the Prodigy on-line shopping and information service.
For real bargain hunters, it's hard to beat Better Working Eight-in-One. Available for as little as $40 on the street, it's a good starting point for users who aren't sure what kind of software they really need.
Like the others in this group, Eight-in-One works through a series of pull-down menus. The system is simple and intuitive, which is a good thing, since the instruction manual is a bit skimpy.
The word processor is competent, if not spectacular. A nice feature allows you to toggle the display so that it shows you page breaks and margins. Like Works, it will display a graphic preview of a document, so that you can see exactly what a page will look like.