Santa Claus has it easy.
People sit on his lap and tell him what they want. You and I have to work a little harder to find the right gift for our friends and family, especially when it's a gift that involves computers.
In addition to knowing the person's tastes, you have to know something about his or her computer. Not all programs run on all machines. Knowing if it's an IBM compatible, a Mac or an Apple II is a good start.
But there's more. A lot of software for IBM clones requires certain hardware such as a hard disk, graphic monitor or a minimum amount of memory. You should also know the type of diskette format the machine uses. Most software companies print hardware requirements on the box. Get some elves to snoop around for you.
Fortunately, you don't have to go to the North Pole to find a good gift for a computer buddy. Most computer stores carry lots of useful items. Some dealers will accept returns on software, others won't. Egghead, at (800) EGG-HEAD, has a 30-day return policy. Browse through office supply stores, software shops and electronics stores. You're likely to find colored diskettes, anti-glare screens, diskette cases, non-magnetic copy holders and other inexpensive items.
Here are some ideas for presents. (Prices quoted are the suggested retail price. The street price, especially on software, should be lower.)
Games: These are popular gift items, but just because your friend uses a computer doesn't mean he or she will like games. Some people's idea of a good time is curling up with a new programming language.
A good source of game information (and a great gift itself) is Dvorak's Guide to PC Games (Bantam Computer Books, $29.95) by John Dvorak and Peter Spear. The 368-page book contains descriptions of hundreds of games and comes with two diskettes full of games and other handy programs. One, called the "boss key" lets you press a key to cover up the game on the screen with a bogus spreadsheet in case you-know-who walks by.
Mr. Spear recommends all the Kings Quest (between $50 and $60) and Leisure Suit Larry games ($59.95) from Sierra On-Line, (800) 326-6654. He also likes the Wizardry series ($50 to $70) from Sir-Tech Software (315) 393-6541. For the would-be fighter pilot among your peers, consider JetFighter II from Velocity and Armor Alley from Three-Sixty Pacific. He also likes Wing Commander and WingCommander II (Origin Systems).
Gifts for children: I have two in-house experts when it comes to children's software. Katherine, 7, and William, 5, love KidPix from Broderbund, (800) 521-6263. This painting program (available for both PC and Mac) uses a computer's speaker to add the dimension of sound to children's drawings. You can hear the paint gurgle as you pour it out of the can.
All Macs have high-quality sound. IBM compatibles usually come with tiny speakers. This and most other games are more enjoyable if your PC is equipped with a special sound board. The ThunderBoard from MediaVision ($169) is one of several boards that let you connect your PC to a stereo system for rich-sounding music and speech. The Disney Sound Source ($39.95 from Disney Software) is a self-contained amplified speaker that works with all Disney and some Broderbund programs.
Kid Works ($49.95), a new IBM-compatible program from Torrance (Calif.)-based Davidson and Associates, (800) 556-6141, allows children to write and illustrate their own stories. It's great for preschoolers because it reads the instructions and the child's story out loud.
My kids are a little young for Davidson's other new program, but I'm not too old for "Headline Harry and the Great Paper Race." Aimed at the "10 to adult" range, the program turns you into a reporter on the trail of real events that took place between 1950 and 1990. You travel around the country, ride in cabs, interview subjects and gather facts. Sound and animation add to the enjoyment. Once you gather enough facts, the computer writes the story for you. But be careful: If you take too long, you'll be scooped by a reporter from Marvin Muckraker's Diabolical Daily. The program is currently available only for IBM compatibles. A 16-color version costs $49.95. The 256-color (VGA and MCGA only) version costs $59.95.
Business gifts: Here are some presents for the kids at the office. Gary Larson's "The Far Side Computer Calendar" displays a Larson cartoon a day. It lists for $69.95 from Amaze, (206) 820-7007. The program allows you to view your schedule by day or week and even set alarms. You can assign an animated color icon to highlight an appointment. It's a gimmick, but it helps draw your attention to the event. The company plans to offer "graphical refills" of fresh cartoons for future years.
PowerUp Software, (800) 851-2917, publishes Calendar Maker ($69.95). It's not for maintaining your schedule; you use it to create printed calendars. I've never actually done it, but I keep planning to use Calendar Maker to create a family calendar with all the important family dates.