If you're shopping for a personal computer that you and the kids can share, picking the right combination of hardware and software at the outset will save you time, hassle and money.
The same basic rules apply whether you're buying an IBM-compatible machine or an Apple Macintosh: Get enough computer to handle the jobs you'll want to do next year or the year after that, when you've learned your way around.
First things first. Avoid the closeouts and low-ball computers advertised at prices that seem too good to be true. Chances are that they're older models that may have trouble running the latest software -- even educational programs and games.
If you're buying an IBM-compatible, make sure it has an 80386-SX or DX microprocessor running at a 20 MHz or better, and get a 25 or 33 MHz machine if you can. Older computers running at 16 MHz don't really have the horsepower for Microsoft Windows and other graphics-intensive programs.
Macintosh buyers should look for models with Motorola 68030 microprocessors. The newest Mac Performa computers that you'll find in mass retailers all run on these chips, but you'll find dealers trying to get rid of older models with 68020 or 68000 chips. Avoid them, even if they seem outrageously cheap.
The least expensive Macintoshes have small, 9-inch monochrome monitors built in. They don't take up much space, but color is a lot more fun for kids, and the small screen can be tough on parental eyes that are approaching middle age. The small screen also makes desktop publishing an iffy proposition (you can never tell when you'll be tapped to do the PTA newsletter).
No matter which type of computer you buy, make sure you have at least four megabytes of memory. Macintoshes need this much memory to run Apple's new operating System 7, while IBM-compatibles need it to handle Windows.
Low-end computers frequently come packaged with only two megabytes of memory. Adding two more megabytes shouldn't cost more than $100. Make sure your retailer can add more memory before you take the system home, or be prepared to take your machine to a computer store for an upgrade.
Hard disk storage is another issue. Get as much as you can afford. You'll use it. With their sophisticated graphics and sound files, even educational games can eat up eight to 10 megabytes of disk space apiece. Some business applications will use twice that much.
A good starting point is an 80-megabyte drive. If you're planning on doing desktop publishing or using other sophisticated business software, a 100- or 120-megabyte drive is better and won't cost much more.
Your next major consideration is a printer: Neither you nor your kidswill be able to do anything useful without one.
If you're on a budget, a 24-pin dot-matrix printer will produce acceptable business correspondence and will be just fine for the children. You'll need a dot-matrix printer for business applications that require multipart forms, and they're also the best bet for basic mailing labels.
You can buy a 24-pin printer for IBM-compatibles for as little as $250. Epson and Panasonic have the lion's share of this market, although there are dozens of models available from different manufacturers. You can often add color capabilities to these printers for about $50, something your children will love.
Because Macintoshes don't use industry-standard printer interfaces, Mac owners will have to stick with Apple printers in this price category and can expect to pay about $100 more.
For better quality and less noise, consider an ink-jet printer, which start at $350 to $400. The output from the best of these, such as HP's DeskJet series, rivals the quality of laser printers, although they're slower than lasers.
While your youngsters certainly won't need a laser printer, you may want one if your computer will be used extensively for business. Lasers that can produce four pages per minute start as low as $800, although you may want to spend a little more for a printer with one megabyte of usable memory -- the minimum for a full page of high-resolution graphics.
Your start-up software is just as important as your hardware. For school, home and business applications, the most important program is almost always a word processor.
Many computer systems today come packaged with so-called "Works" programs that include word processing, spreadsheet, data base and communications software. These are often good starting points, particularly if your children are young and your business correspondence needs are fairly standard.
Works programs are easy to use because the various modules use the same basic commands. And most of them are integrated, which means it's easy to paste numbers or graphs from a spreadsheet into a word processing document, or to use names and addresses stored in a data base for "personalized" form letters.
If your business requires software that can handle complex tables and graphics, or if you have older students whose academic papers require footnotes, tables of contents or indexes, a stand-alone word processor is a better choice.
WordPerfect is by far the most popular program for IBM-compatibles running under DOS (the standard disk operating system). It's the de facto standard of the business world.
Microsoft Word is the most popular Windows word processing software, although it's being challenged by WordPerfect and Lotus Ami Professional. These powerful graphics-based programs display on the screen exactly what you'll see on paper.
Macintosh users have been accustomed to graphic-based software from the start. The Mac word processing market has long been dominated by Microsoft Word -- a favorite on college campuses -- although Claris MacWrite might be a better choice if you don't need Word's more exotic features.
(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Sun.)