Computer magazines are full of must-reads but can anybody read them?

April 19, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

The bookstore cashier couldn't believe it. When even the slimmest paperback costs $6.95, I was buying a 902-page magazine, weighing in at about 5 1/4 pounds, for only $2.95. Computer Shopper, a Ziff-Davis publication, is the best bargain in the publishing world.

Of course, it's virtually unreadable. Nearly all computer magazines are. They're too fat, overloaded with nearly identical ads, and they are built in such a way as to make page-thumbing impossible. Truth is, they are preposterously inefficient ways to keep up on changes in the technology world. In a world purporting to be paperless, they are paper by the ton. In a world of targeted information, they are data sprawl.

Take the flagship of the Ziff-Davis stable, PC Magazine. You subscribe to it because you want to stay current with new products, new technologies, better ways to use your systems. But what arrives in the mail is a different animal altogether. "Monitors, Monitors, Monitors: We Review 58 14" and 15" Super VGA Displays," the cover announces. The issue is 484 pages long.

If you are like me, you always flip to a favorite feature. I like reading the columnists, like John Dvorak and Jim Seymour. In a world of bafflement, it is reassuring to find people who know exactly what is going down, who tomorrow's winners will be and aren't afraid to express themselves in boldface type.

Never mind that nearly every column is about Windows vs. OS/2, or Microsoft vs. IBM, Stupid Lotus 1-2-3 Tricks or who had sand dabswith whom at the latest Comdex. Never mind that columnists never seem to agree with one another, or even with themselves from issue to issue. These guys make you feel like you know what is going on.

The trouble is finding them. Ordinary magazines are maybe 125 pages long, and the paper stock is the same from page to page. Maybe a tip-in card falls out on you -- usually in the bath, I've found -- but as a whole the package is manageable.

Not computer magazines. Every page is an adventure in different weights, coatings and even sizes of paper. Advertisers, desperate to attract your attention in the low-margin, ad-intensive world of computer direct marketing, use every trick tomake you stop at their ad. So you thumb from ad to ad to ad, desperately seeking editorial copy. Your thumb is like the dove released from the ark -- it can find no resting place.

Let's return to the cover story for a second. Fifty-eight monitors, eh? Who is that story for, exactly? Does the peripheral-buying world wait for the March issue of PC, read through all 58 exhaustive reviews, and then go out and purchase the best of the lot? It may, but I don't. In fact, I have noted a dismaying pattern -- that whatever I bought last month turns out to be reviewed in the month's issue, and rated 54, 55 or thereabouts.

Finally, there is the question of audience. Computer magazineshave to walk a fine line between appealing to tech-heads with features like Lab Notes and Power Programming and appealing to the technologically challenged of us, who do not and will never be able to long-divide in binary.

The balance is a wobbly one. I have been reading Lab Notes for years out of a sense of duty. I have yet to understand a single sentence. Efforts to find a medium for the rest of us have had halting success. PC Computing, another Ziff-Davis book, tries to be the Vanity Fair of computer magazines. Doubtless, tech-weenies are as put off by the pastels and John Updike profiles of PC Computing as we tech-impaired are by 40-page articles on the CPYWORDS function in C++.

You keep thinking that, in our age of technology, it should be possible to deliver to the customer just the goods that each customer wants. One feels this especially when trudging a year's worth of Computer Shoppers to curbside for the recycling wagon.

Apologize to the forest for turning its trees into Gateway ads -- you know, the really dumb ones with the plywood Holstein cows symbolizing that Gateway's clone computers are made in Iowa.

Don't even think of the slick of pulp, ink and solvents coating the river downstream from the paper mill, where real cows dip their heads and drink. Environmental degradation is the price we pay for the monthly renaissance fair of new offerings, information about upgrades and the jostling of 1,000 competing PC piemen.

Just relax and open the latest computer magazine to the cover story, on Page 108. Or try to.

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