Think you need a home computer? You do!

Sylvia Porter

May 29, 1991|By Sylvia Porter

* First of two columns on home computers.

was not too long ago that there were questions about whether you really need a computer for your home. Today, those questions are almost always answered with a resounding "yes!"

In the last year, computer prices have plummeted. A system that would have cost you well over a thousand dollars in early 1990 can now be had for a few hundred. At the same time, the software (computer program) has become much easier to use and of greater utility.

Many of you have long since acquired your first home computer. Yet, most of you still have not discovered all its wonders.

A computer consists, of course, of a screen (like a small television), a keyboard and a box full of computer innards including disk drives. Most people add a printer. But many are discovering that even more useful than a printer is a "modem." This stands for modulator-demodulator. What it does is allow computers to talk to each other over telephone lines.

A modem opens a whole new world. With one, and the appropriatesoftware, you can:

* Pay your bills without the hassle of writing and sending checks. A service called Check Free makes sure fixed payments are there on time, allows you to specify other checks you want written and keeps track of your expenditures for budgeting and tax purposes. And if you write more than a handful of checks each month, the cost is little more than it would be were you to write and mail them yourself, but the time saved is substantial.

* Gain access to one of the many on-line services. The two that are easiest for the beginner are Prodigy and America On-Line. Both require special software that you can get from the respective company either free or at low cost. You can then make travel reservations, follow your stocks, read the latest news, even shop, all by computer. If you have children, they will find on-line encyclopedias that are helpful with school projects. And these services have message areas where people of similar interests can discuss their favorite topics.

* Become a member of a bulletin board. Using a communications program such as ProComm from Datastorm Technologies, you can dial up a nearby central computer (there are thousands, in all parts of the country) and "talk" with other computer users,

"download" programs that make your computer more useful, play games and so on. Being affiliated with a bulletin board is especially useful to fledgling computer users, because it is a quick and easy source of expert advice. If there's something you don't understand or you're having difficulty making something work, the chances are good that someone on your BBS (bulletin board system) will be able to help you out.

* Make investment transactions. Some brokerage houses now allow you to call a central computer to buy and sell securities. This kind of computer trading everyone likes, because it is extremely efficient.

Even without a modem, a computer is a great home resource.

Keeping track of your finances and investments is a snap with programs like those from Intuit and Timeworks. An added benefit is that these programs provide data that make tax time an almost unnoticeable event if you do your own taxes, and a cheaper time if you employ an accountant.

Today, you can customize your computer to do whatever you need it to do. Starting with a basic package such as Geoworks Ensemble, Lotus Works or Microsoft Works, you can add programs (called "applications") as you need them. If you have children, you might be interested in educational programs, too.

You may have hesitated to get a computer because you believe that, for all its usefulness, it is just too difficult to learn. But it's easy to gain such knowledge. Adult classes in operating computers are common. Many computer users are eager to share their knowledge, too. you'll be up and running.

NEXT: How to buy a home computer.

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