With millions of children back in school this month, millions of parents are embarking on the computer literacy guilt trip.
They're worried that Dick and Jane won't be able to keep up if they don't have a computer, or somehow they think a PC and educational software will help turn their kids into geniuses.
They're half right and half wrong. Children should learn as early as possible the computer skills they'll need throughout their lives. Learning how to use a word processor is no longer a luxury, and computers can put an incredible wealth of reference material and other information at your child's fingertips.
But no computer is going to teach a youngster how to read, write, calculate and think critically. That's still a job for teachers and parents. Computers are good for drill and practice, but buying a PC is no substitute for spending time with your kids.
With that sermon in mind, let's talk about buying a PC that you and your children can use.
This is a particularly good time to be shopping because the big manufacturers -- IBM, Apple, Compaq, Dell and Tandy -- are falling all over each other in a race to produce inexpensive new machines designed for something called the "home computer" market.
Five or six years ago, a home computer was a toy that could -- with a lot of effort -- be made to perform some useful task. Those Commodores and Ataris have long since disappeared. The IBM-compatible and Apple Macintosh computers designed for today's home market are far more powerful than the best business machines those companies made five years ago.
Last week, for example, Apple introduced its new, low-priced Macintosh Performa series, while IBM has been beefing up its PS/1 line. Both companies are selling their computers through mass retailers such as Sears and Montgomery Ward, as well a through computer superstores.
At the low end, you can pick up a system with a decent word processing program and a printer for as little as $1,200. With judicious shopping, you can find a machine that will handle all your business needs and help your kids with their schoolwork without blowing a big hole in your bank account.
First, the hardware. You'll have two basic choices, an IBM-compatible or an Apple Macintosh. In both camps, this is a matter of religion, so it's hard to get objective advice.
There's no question that the Apple Macintosh, with its friendly, graphical interface, is easier to learn to use in its native mode. You'll usually spend less time figuring out how to get a Mac up and running. Also, all Macintosh programs use the same basic set of commands for editing, copying, printing and saving files. When you've learned how to use the first one, you'll know half of what you need for any program.
In response, many sellers of IBM-compatibles now package their computers with Microsoft Windows, a program that makes the PC almost as friendly as the Mac. And many throw in a bundle of useful software that's installed on the hard disk and ready to run from a start-up menu.
In the end, it may not matter much. There's plenty of software for both machines. Large publishers such as Microsoft make virtually identical versions of their programs for the Mac and for IBM-compatibles running Windows. And your kids will learn how to use whatever you buy -- much more quickly than you will. Macintosh computers do have one significant advantage -- built-in sound, voice and music capability, a plus for educational and entertainment software. Some models even come with a built-in microphone, so you can add voice messages to your documents.
IBM and Tandy build sound and music hardware into some of their models, and most software publishers support them. If the IBM-compatible machine you're considering doesn't have sound capabilities, you can spend an extra $100 to $200 for a sound board such as Creative Labs' Sound Blaster. If you prefer a computer that doesn't talk back, you can ignore the whole thing.
Expense may be another issue. A Macintosh system will generally cost several hundred dollars more than an IBM-compatible with comparable horsepower. There is a major reason for this. Apple has a monopoly on Macs, while there are hundreds of companies turning out IBM clones. Also, there are great deals on bundled software with IBM-compatibles.
There are other reasons to select one system over the other. One is what your child uses at school vs. what you use at work.
About 90 percent of the computers in American offices are IBM-compatibles. If that's the case in your office and it's important that you bring work home, it's silly to buy a Macintosh. If matching home and work computers doesn't matter, you may want to buy the kind of computer your child uses in school. But be careful.
In the lower grades, most schools have large investments in Apple computers -- but they're usually obsolescent Apple II machines that aren't compatible with any IBM or Apple Macintosh models on the market today. So your choice of a home machine may not matter.
In the upper grades, you're more likely to find Mac or IBM equipment, so it may make sense to buy the type of computer your child uses at school.
If you have a child in college, this can be critical. Many schools have agreements with Apple or IBM that give one or the other a virtual monopoly on campus. Through the school, the manufacturer may offer your student a good deal on a computer -- although street prices have dropped so low that the difference may be minimal. If your child's college has a preference, don't fight city hall.
So much for walking the Apple-IBM tightrope. Next time we'll discuss how to choose the right combination of hardware and software for your favorite student -- no matter which system you buy.