Buying software for child is like groping in the dark

PERSONAL COMPUTERS

September 14, 1992|By PETER H. LEWIS

Buying a computer for your child is less than half the fun. Then comes the task of trying to find the best software.

Software is expensive, and no one wants to pay a lot of money for a program that a child may use for a few minutes and discard to the closet. On the other hand, the right program can keep a child challenged and entertained for months.

"A major frustration for parents is that they cannot see the software when they go to buy it," said Ken Kosmoski, executive director of the Educational Products Information Exchange Institute (EPIE), a not-for-profit, independent educational consumers' union.

"It's like not being able to try on the pants you're going to buy for back to school. It doesn't seem fair."

Just because the disk fits in the computer, it might not be a good fit for your child.

But how does one tell the difference between good and bad? Some stores do indeed allow people to preview software before buying it.

In some cases, the software company provides the store with "demo" disks -- either crippled versions of the actual program or slide-show presentations -- that can be displayed on a computer in the store.

Some stores are willing to open a package and allow the customer to test the program.

That "try before you buy" attitude is encouraged at Egghead Software, said Megan McKenzie, a spokeswoman. Egghead Inc., based in Issaquah, Wash., operates nearly 200 software stores in North America.

"We typically have loaded up on IBM and Mac machines many different demo disks of educational software," Ms. McKenzie said. "In addition, if there isn't one loaded, we'll be happy to take it out of the box and load it up."

If the software proves to be a dud after the sale, customers can return it, with proof of purchase, within 30 days, she said.

Not all computer stores are so responsive. I called my local Babbage's software store and was told that no demos of software were available, and that they would not open a box.

"It wouldn't do any good, because we don't have any computers in the store," an employee said. No computers in a software store? "That's overhead," she said. "But if you buy something and don't like it, you can bring it back."

Many software companies will allow a school to preview software for a short time. Because school budgets are so sparse, it would be disastrous to spend the limited dollars on programs that cannot be returned.

Mr. Kosmoski said parents who call the EPIE Institute for software recommendations are asked, for informational purposes, to estimate how much money they had spent in the past year on software.

"The range is $300 to $800," he said. "And the average expenditure for kids in school? It's about $6 per child."

The EPIE Institute, based in Hampton Bays, N.Y., maintains a data base (about 36 megabytes worth) listing more than 12,000 educational programs, with product descriptions, ordering information and a summary of reviews from some 41 different magazines, newsletters and education agencies.

The data base is leased to state or regional education agencies, and individual schools in those states can tap into it.

EPIE also has a shorter "Latest and Best" data base (just 8 megabytes) that catalogs recent programs of merit. ("Reader Rabbit," from The Learning Co., continues to be the highest-rated program in the listings, Mr. Kosmoski said, even though it has been available for several years.)

Parents can also get access to the "Latest and Best" in a book published by EPIE each year. The 1992-1993 school year book will be available in late fall or early winter for $49.95, plus $5 shipping.

Copies of the 1991-1992 book are available for a discounted price of $19.95, plus $5.

The EPIE Institute can be reached by phone, (516) 728-9100, or by fax, (516) 728-9228.

(Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas, bureau: [512] 328-8258.)

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