Extreme caution is advised when last-minute shoppers reach the point of desperation, the moment when they seize on the idea of finding something for the intended recipient's computer. We overheard one such shopper say brightly, "I'm not sure what kind of computer he has, but this program sure looks interesting."
Not all computers are created equal, of course; a software application written for a Macintosh works about as well on an IBM PC as an audio cassette works in a videocassette player, and vice versa. But it is even more complicated than that, unfortunately.
For example, a friend with an older Mac, the kind with 400-kilobyte disk drives and 512 kilobytes of memory, finds he cannot use any of the new Macintosh programs he wants. Similarly, a friend with an IBM XT, no hard disk and no color graphics card finds himself shut off from programs that are tantalizing but out of the reach of his system.
Even owners of the most modern, fire-breathing PCs can be frustrated, as we were recently when a much-coveted program arrived on 5.25-inch disks; the only PC in the office at the time had a 3.5-inch drive.
Having said that, here are recommendations for a few "neutral" computer gifts.
Typing information from paper documents into the computer can be a pain in the neck, literally, unless the paper is next to the computer screen. Kensington Microware Limited of New York, (212) 475-5200, has a device called the Side Clip ($6.95), a swiveling arm that attaches to the side of any monitor and holds up to eight sheets of paper.
This model is superior to other copy clips we have tried. For those who want true copy holders, the kind used by people who type for a living, Kensington also makes a fancier $29.95 Universal Copy Stand.
We have discovered another Law of Computers, that the ideal location for the computer is always across the room from the power outlets. Thus, power strips with long cords, at least six feet, are handy to have in most computer rooms. Some of these multisocket extension cords are advertised as "surge protectors," but don't trust your computer to them. Get a real power line protection device and plug the power strip into it.
Or get the benefits of both a power strip and a power line protector in the Kensington Masterpiece ($149.95), Masterpiece Plus ($159.95), and Masterpiece Mac II ($159.95). Each is smaller than a pizza box and fits neatly under most monitors. The computer and as many as four other peripheral devices plug into the back of the Masterpiece, and the Masterpiece plugs into the wall.
Winter brings with it lots of static electricity, which is bad for the computer and not much fun for the human, either. The Masterpiece has a touch plate that siphons off the charge before it can cause damage.