Guide explains bewildering variety of choices for first-time buyer

Personal computer

March 04, 1991|By Michael J. Himowitz | Michael J. Himowitz,Evening Sun Staff

Buying your first computer can be a white-knuckle experience.

At the outset, you face a bewildering variety of choices in hardware and software.

When you try to sort things out by talking to salesmen or computer-happy friends, you find yourself on another planet inhabited by people who look like Earthlings but speak a strange language that bears only a passing resemblance to any known human tongue.

If you need an interpreter, the Personal Computer Buying Guide, by Olen R. Pearson (Consumer Reports Books, $10.95), does a tolerably good job of simultaneous translation for computer novices.

Aimed at home users and small businessmen who are looking for their first computer, the guide takes Consumer Reports' thorough, no-nonsense approach to the basic mysteries of hardware and software.

Pearson advocates a seven-step approach to choosing, purchasing and maintaining a computer system. While few of us are that compulsively methodical, his advice is generally sound and his explanations of technical terms are clear and accurate.

Basically, Pearson suggests that novices learn a bit about computers first, then figure out what they want their computer to do for them. Once that's done, he recommends finding software to do the job and then buying the hardware to run it.

The guide does an admirable job of dealing with hardware and software. It explains the basics of microprocessors, disk drive systems, monitors, circuit boards, ports, memory, printers, modems, DIP switches and other computer arcana.

Without going into detail about specific machines, Pearson talks about the difference between the two major types of systems on the market today -- IBM compatibles and Apple Macintoshes.

He deals well with operating systems and explains with clarity the difference between text and graphic-based computing environments. He notes that text-based systems are harder to learn but faster and leaner, while graphical systems are easier to use but slower and memory-hungry.

Pearson also provides a nice, quick summary of the different types of application software on the market, ranging from simple checkbook balancers to high-end databases and programming languages. This is terrific for people who want to know what a computer can do for them.

His treatment of dot matrix printers is one of the best I've seen. He explains, with simple diagrams, how dot matrix printers produce text and graphics. He discusses fonts, paper widths, justification options and other technical issues simply and directly.

The guide tells you how to shop for a computer, and once you've bought it, how to care for it and troubleshoot hardware and software problems.

Finally, a glossary at the end of the book provides a handy way to look up definitions of terms discussed in the main chapters.

The problem with any book of this type is that it's often dated by the time it reaches the public. This is partly a function of the computer business -- it can change radically from month to month, while it can take a year to bring a book into print. But some of Pearson's information is unacceptably timeworn.

For example, he mentions that Apple Macintosh computers come with a basic word processor and graphics program. In fact, Apple discontinued those freebies a couple of years ago.

He also virtually ignores Microsoft Windows, a phenomenally successful graphic environment that gives IBM-compatibles much of the friendliness of the Macintosh.

Likewise, the forces of the marketplace have overtaken his definitions of basic vs. high-end computers. Prices have dropped so dramatically and horsepower has increased so quickly that systems he would describe as "professional" are virtually

off-the-shelf items today.

Finally, the book is padded with useless stuff. I guess the publisher figured he had to make 200 pages somehow. First, there's an old evaluation of laptop computers from Consumer Reports -- so old that many of the models listed aren't on the market any more.

This is a shame, because Pearson's information and advice are worth the $10.95 cover price without the fluff. If you're looking for a computer, you'd be well-advised to look at this book first.

Speaking of beginners, I've been impressed recently by a series of good, cheap programs aimed at new users from MySoftware Co. of Menlo Park, Calif.

The firm began with basic mailing lists, databases and labelmakers, but recently it has been expanding into more sophisticated applications.

MyBackup copies the contents of a hard disk to floppies on an IBM-compatible machine without a lot of hassle. At $24.95, it's less than a third the price of most backup programs.

Like all of MySoftware Co. products, the program is so simple that it comes with no printed manual. You can print out instructions stored on the disk, or just call them up to the screen while you're running the program.

It's a snap to back up an entire disk, selected directories or individual files. If your floppies aren't formatted, MyBackup will automatically format them on the fly.

The main difference between MyBackup and more expensive programs is file compression. The high-end backup programs will compress your files as it copies them, which means you'll need fewer disks.

MyBackup won't compress files. On the other hand, it stores the backed-up files in standard DOS format, which means you can copy or restore them individually without using the program.

Personal Computer/Buying Guide

L Author: Personal Computer Buying Guide, by Olen R. Pearson.

Price: $10.95

Summary: An informative, plain English guide to the mysteries of personal computers.

For information: Contact Consumer Reports Books, 51 East 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10017, 212-983-8250.

MyBackup

Price: $24.95

Summary: A simple, inexpensive program that backs up the contents of a hard disk to floppies.

For information: Contact MySoftware Co., 1259 El Camino Real, Suite 167, Menlo Park, Calif. 94025, 415-325-9383.

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