Finally, a PC magazine for non-techie families


October 03, 1994|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

When the kids brought their books home on the first day of school this year, we did what we've done for the last nine years.

We rummaged, in the closet, found some old paper bags from the supermarket, and made book covers.

The kids scrawled the name of the subject on each cover, and that was it.

So imagine how guilty I felt when I opened the premier issue of Family PC magazine and found a lavishly-illustrated article on how to use your computer to spiff up those old paper bags and make impeccably-decorated book covers with multiple fonts, fancy graphics, cutouts and inserts "that erupt in vibrant colors and fun designs."

Since I'd obviously missed an opportunity for some quality PC time with the lads, I thought about broaching the subject to them while they were busy blasting androids in Doom Part 17.

But I resisted the temptation because I knew what the response would be:

"Get a life, Dad."

I guess some ideas are better than others.

But if you don't like that one, Family PC has dozens more as its publisher, Ziff-Davis, joins the home computing frenzy with an impressive debut issue.

The market for this magazine is definitely out there.

About a decade later than most experts predicted, home computing has finally arrived, thanks to powerful and inexpensive machines that are reasonably easy to operate, do useful work and entertain the family at the same time.

Until now, computer magazines aimed at the home users have largely been failures because the market has been so fragmented.

During the early 1980s, when there were dozens of computer makers with incompatible machines, general-interest computer magazines couldn't be specific enough to keep the interest of a large audience (every Apple article would lose three Commodore readers, and vice versa).

The computer-specific magazines that did flourish were often full of program listings and other technical trivia that were of great interest to hackers but of little help to people who didn't get their jollies by disassembling their computer's internal ROM.

Even most of those have died, survived by giants such as PC Magazine and Mac User, which are aimed squarely at corporate buyers and power freaks who will actually read through technical comparisons of 128 different network routers or arcane, feature-by-feature matchups of WordPerfect and Microsoft Word.

Now that the home market has settled on two standards, IBM and Macintosh, many software publishers are offering identical programs for both platforms. That makes it possible to produce a magazine with information that's specific enough to help non-expert home computer users no matter which machine they're using.

Family PC is aimed squarely at families with kids, and specifically at families that don't have a computer expert in the house. The style and tone are closer to Good Housekeeping than InfoWorld, and the writers keep technical jargon to a minimum unless they're willing to explain the jargon in simple terms.

At the core of the magazine are its projects, tips and reviews of software and hardware. While some of the projects are silly (using the PC as the centerpiece of a Halloween party), there are plenty of interesting activities for children and adults. The format also shows a great deal of thought. For example, a piece on using the PC to learn about the weather suggests specific activities, such as creating a weather diary. Knowledgeable users will be able to figure out how to do this themselves, but novices can turn to the back of the magazine and find step-by-step instructions for creating the weather table in Microsoft Word.

However, the most interesting items for most parents will be the magazine's software and hardware reviews -- and particularly reviews of educational programs.

One of the problems computer publications face is that their software reviewers are power users. Their reactions to a product may not be the same as the average buyer's. Because they're so experienced, they may be willing to put up with bugs or design and installation problems that new users would find intolerably frustrating. In the case of educational software, reviews by adults are at best problematical. What looks good to a grownup may be "borrrriiiing" to kids, and vice versa.

Family PC attacked the problem by making a deal with FutureKids, a nationwide chain of computer schools for youngsters. Through the schools, it sent software and hardware home for tryouts by real families, and their experiences show up in the magazine's reviews. Not surprisingly, the review criteria are weighted heavily towards ease of use for software and ease of setup for hardware.

The publication's roots do show up in a ridiculously complicated scoring system that has its genesis in Ziff's flagship, PC Magazine, but the net result is a package of reviews that reflect the experiences of real children and adults. Given my own experiences with the hardware and software they tried out, the reviews are largely on the mark.

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