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HOME COMPUTER GUIDE BEYOND THE BLIPS

Home computing is more than a game.
By George Rodrigue |

THIS IS a column about computers, but before we get too involved in the subject, I want to assure you that I am not a computer nerd.

Admittedly, during high school I did occasionally stay up all night with a six-pack of Coke and a computer terminal. But I did not wear short-sleeve white petroleum-derivative shirts buttoned all the way to the collar. Nor did I sport a briefcase, white socks and a Motorola plastic pocket protector. Not for very long, anyway.

As for making Emory University’s Control Data mainframe spit paper all over the computer room or as for tossing a few extra lines of code into my high school’s administrative programs so that my friends and I would never have to serve detention-not guilty. And it wasn’t me who taught the computer to greet school administrators with a string of obscenities.

Even if I did do some of those things-which I won’t admit until the statute of limitations has run-you couldn’t say that I was crazy about computers. For one thing, there were too many distractions. For another, computers were about as cuddly as walk-in freezers. And the academic computer at my college was bigger than my English Lit classrooms. When one reverently stood in line to run one’s programs, he would pray for success because failure meant another half-hour wait. And one never, ever thought about touching the computer, which was enshrined behind walls of glass and chrome. It was a forbidding beast, approached only by graduate-student acolytes attired in vestments of pale blue.

Those computers were not at all like Heidi, my personal home computer, which sits comfortably atop my desk and requires fewer creature comforts than I do. Heidi (1 think of her as the younger sister to my mammoth high school computer, Hal) has been with me only a few months now, but already I know that our relationship will be deep and meaningful. I am writing this article on Heidi; I write all my articles on Heidi. Heidi is to typewriters as Porsches are to roller skates. She allows me to insert and delete words, sentences and paragraphs at will; to take the top half of page five and add it to page 19; to scan 40 pages of manuscript in seconds, for the occurrence of a particular word. She’ll even check my spelling.

At home, when the money gets tight, Heidi and I start talking budget. She keeps the family checkbook, warns when my wife and I have spent too much money on movies, restaurants or bicycles and makes sure that D Magazine pays us whatever we have coming. When my bank officer says “I’m sorry, sir, but our computer records are quite definite,” I can reply that my computer records are equally definite.

When I become nostalgic for my newspaper days and want to look at the news as it’s happening now, I can dial a computer data base called The Source and ask to see the latest wires on Beirut. I can ask for anything on the sports wire concerning the University of Virginia and find out who most recently has humiliated my alma mater’s football team. If I had any disposable income, I could get a great price on stereo equipment or make airline and hotel reservations in Tahiti.

And, yes, I can play electronic games.

So why buy a home-video game when, for very little additional money, you could have an honest-to-goodness computer? Within the past year, vicious competition and brilliant technical innovations have blurred the line between silly little beep-and-blip boxes and he-person computers. The Texas Instruments 99/4A home computer once cost almost $1,000; nowadays TI will be delighted to give you a $100 rebate if you plunk down $299 for it.

“Fine,” you’re thinking, “you can use one of those contraptions because you grew up with them. But you’re obviously brilliant, and I could never catch on.”

Nonsense. Anyone can learn to use a computer. It takes time and effort, but there are plenty of reasons why you should learn to program, preferably in BASIC, the standard micro-computer programming lingo. It’s the only way to get your computer to perform some specialized tasks, and it’s a lot cheaper than buying prewritten programs for others. Plus, learning to program does something good for you, logically and psychologically. It teaches you to look at problems systematically and to break them into manageable chunks. It gives you that all-too-rare feeling of actually being in control of something. You can learn it from a book if you’re a self-starter or in a “computer course” (many local dealers sponsor them). If you don’t want to spend the time and effort, you can buy special “applications” programs that will handle word processing, balance your books, play Star Trek or teach the kids math, chemistry and spelling.

Collectively, the programs are known as “software,” and without them your computer can do nothing but eat electricity. A computer is just thousands of microscopic on/off switches; the software allows you to play games or write programs of your own. So when you first consider getting a computer, think first of software. If you want to write with your machine, make sure that it will run a good word-processing program. Don’t take anyone’s word that the program will work; use it before you buy it, on the computer you have in mind.

The “hardware”-the plastic, silicon and metal that use the software-also is a relatively simple collection of goodies. Basically, every computer has the same parts: a processor, some “core” memory, a way for you to communicate with the processor and a way for it to communicate with you. Worthwhile machines also will have some permanent storage and will be able to handle a whole category of optional, specialized equipment.

The processor makes all the computer’s decisions, but it is in some ways the least important part of the machine. Computers ranging from $100 to $10,000 use the same processing “chip.” Indeed, $5 will buy you a Z-80, which is a fast and commonly used processing chip. But it can’t do anything unless it has memory chips from which to get its information and instructions. So computer watchers judge the “power” of a machine by the amount of high-speed random-access memory (RAM) it can handle.

RAM is like those pigeonhole mailboxes at your local post office. The computer can store one character in each box, which computerphiles call a “byte.” A huge IBM computer can reach directly into any one of perhaps a billion boxes with the speed of light. A typical personal computer’s microprocessor can handle 65,000 boxes simultaneously- about twice what a light-duty home computer would need, and plenty of memory for most small-business applications. Heidi can handle about 1 million bytes, which is eight times more memory than the RAM chips I’ve installed in her so far. But adding RAM chips is cheap, while getting a new computer is not. When considering a machine’s memory capacity, look both at the number of RAM “mailboxes” it’s got installed and at the total number it can handle. (Most of us will never need more than 65,000 characters of main storage at a time – that’s equal to eight full pages of D Magazine.)

Alas, RAM is emptied every time the computer is switched off. Unless you’re prepared to type those characters back into the machine every time you need them, you’ll want permanent storage. The cheapest, slowest alternative is a cassette tape recorder, which is fine if you’ll be running programs that don’t require much data entry, or if you’ll be sorting or updating. Game programs, for instance. But for advanced programming or business uses, you’ll want at least one (and preferably two) disk drives. Disk drives are much faster and can skip right to the program or file you want, so you don’t have to run a casette tape back and forth looking for your information. Disk drives also cost more. For $300 you can get a disk drive that runs 5 1/4-inch-diameter “floppy” disks – little Frisbees of magnetic tape. For $2,000 you can get a “hard” disk drive that holds 30 times more characters and recalls them 10 times faster than a floppy. On the horizon are drives for “shirt-pocket” diskettes, only 3 inches in diameter, that can hold more information than the 5 1/4-inch disks, operate faster and cost less.

To tell the computer what to do with all this data, you’ll need an input device, which is computerese for a keyboard. The cheapest computers come with flat-membrane keyboards, like the cash registers at Burger King. One notch up are the “calculator-style” keyboards with tiny keys that barely move when touched. Either style is fine for a beginning computer, as long as you realize you won’t be able to type very fast. But if you plan to write long programs of your own or do word processing, you’ll need a full typewriter-style keyboard.

The computer will communicate with you either on your television set (fine for games and brief programming sessions) or on a special monitor. The monitors offer a sharper image that is easier on the eye and can display 80 characters per line while televisions, because of their lower resolution, generally are restricted to 40-charac-ter lines. A good black-and-white monitor might cost $180 to $200. An excellent color monitor can cost $1,000.

Finally, there are the optional items that plug into your computer to perform special tasks. A game might require joysticks to control Star Wars fighter craft. An architect might use a light pen or graphics tablet to design and alter the shape of a building or the contents of a room. A writer or accountant would need a good printer. A homeowner could buy special circuitry that would allow his computer to control lights and household appliances or to operate an entire security and fire-alarm system. A farmer could use remote-control devices that would allow his computer to monitor and control irrigation and fertilizer systems. A doting parent could buy a voice synthesizer so his child’s math-instruction program could reach the child by sound as well as sight. A businessman desiring up-to-the-minute stock quotations would need a “modem” device over which his computer could speak to another machine, using telephone wires.

Obviously, an individual’s hardware needs depend on what the computer will have to do-no point in buying a panel truck when a sports car will suffice. I was looking for a business-oriented machine that could run my favorite word-processing program (WordStar), keep the family books and handle complex “what-if” financial-analysis problems, such as last month’s rough guess at an affordable Dallas transit system. I settled on Heidi, an IBM Personal Computer, because of her elephantine memory (256K), her wonderfully crisp keyboard and the high quality of her monitor.

If I wanted a portable computer and didn’t need the memory for large financial analyses, I’d be happy with the Osborne I, which also uses WordStar and is half the cost of Heidi. On the other hand, if I were working on the Great American Novel, I’d want more disk storage than the 640K that Heidi currently offers. If 1 ran a small business and wanted to do financial planning while my bookkeeper was sending out computerized bills, I’d have required a multiuser system.

If I wanted a powerful little home computer with great games and educational programs, I probably would have picked an Atari, Apple, Commodore or Texas Instruments machine. They have color graphics, cost only a fraction of what I’ve sunk into Heidi and have larger software collections. They illustrate one of the paradoxes of today’s computer market. The latest Motorola 68000 processing chip is a thousand times more powerful than the Apple II’s venerable 6502 processor, but a list of Apple software would fill a 300-page book. The 68000 hasn’t been around long enough to have all that software.

It’s tempting to rush out and buy the most exotic piece of hardware you can find, but something cheaper might actual-ly be better for you. And remember that $4,000 can buy either a nice computer or half of a very presentable car or a few wonderful weeks in France. You want the cheapest machine that best fits your needs. For a businessman, this might be a relatively simple question: Look around your office. Wherever there’s a backlog of paper work or someone doing dull, repetitive tasks (inventory, accounting, typing form letters manually) there’s every chance that a computer can cost-justify itself.

Around the house, alas, there is virtually no chance that the computer can cost-justify itself. A non-business computer, unfortunately, cannot be counted as an income-tax deduction. It might be a wonderful educational and recreation tool, but it won’t let you “fire” a family member or two. “It’s like my airplane,” says John Lancione, who sells Radio Shack computers from his Montezuma Micro store at Redbird Airport. “1 can’t cost-justify the airplane. I just like it. I don’t BS anyone about it.”

Checkbook keeping? “A computer can’t do anything that a reasonably intelligent person with a pencil can’t do equally well,” Lancione says. Lists? “The prototypical silly use for a computer,” he says. “You’ve heard of people keeping menus on their computers? That’s something you can do faster and easier on index cards.” True, even Heidi admits. It takes about 30 seconds for her to warm up and another 30 to load the menu file. She and I are contemplating a program that will take our menus and create a shopping list, with special notice given to our file of discount coupons we’re not too proud to use those things but that’ll take probably 40 hours of programming, worth about $500. I doubt I’llever save $500 on coupons. So the officialword is that when starting into the worldof computers one should start cheap.

Fortunately, there’s a lot of inexpensive, high-quality equipment available. The Sinclair ZX-81 is a very basic little machine; it comes with 1K of memory, which you can boost to 16. Add a tape recorder and a television and you’re off-for $99.95. Timex, the clock company, is marketing a version of the ZX-81, known as the Timex Sinclair 1000. Sinclair plans to market a new version soon, with a better keyboard, a full range of peripherals (disk drives, etc.) and 16K memory. The price is expected to soar to $200 or so.

For just a little more money, there are the Atari 400 and the Commodore VIC 20, both under $300, both offering 16K or more of memory and color graphics. The Commodore is the better computer, but the Atari has a niftier selection of games.

The Texas Instruments 99/4A home computer hit the market years ago and went over like lead life preservers. But TI has added peripherals and software (45 educational programs released this past summer alone) and is offering a $100 rebate that makes its machine a $200 best buy. It has a real keyboard, up to 48K memory and adequate color graphics. I like its huge assortment of educational programs, focused mainly on grades one through five. With the optional speech synthesizer ($150), this machine is more fun than Sesame Street.

If you have larger ambitions or a deeper pocketbook, you can find several very powerful computers for less than $1,000. The Commodore 64 and P128 models have fine color graphics and unbeatable sound effects; both accept a full range of peripherals, qualifying them as serious computers. Ditto for the Atari 800, a very powerful machine that can do anything a home user is likely to need and also runs Atari’s magnificent games. The TRS-80 Model III is a great machine for more practical home uses-many local writers use their TRS-80s professionally-and is a very good buy. But it lacks color graphics.

On the border between business and home computers is the Apple II +, the machine that started the personal computer boom. It’s still the champion all-around performer, with a catalog of software and hardware options (you can make it talk, turn on your toaster or imitate Virgil Fox at the Wannamaker Organ) 2 inches thick. For $1,900 you should be able to get an Apple with 48K of memory (it can handle more) and a single disk drive.

The IBM Personal Computer can be a home machine, though its software collection so far is tilted strongly toward business. A package with 48K of memory plus one disk drive and a color-graphics card will cost about $2,500. One caveat: Many of the best pieces of hardware for this system are not made or sold by IBM. I saved about $1,500 by buying from other vendors. Talk to someone at Computer-Land or CompuShop or Sears Business Systems for more information.

As for the more business-oriented machines, there are hundreds of good little machines out there. If you’re in the market for one, just remember that not every program runs on every machine; a computer that is very popular is likely to have a lot of relatively cheap software written for it, as is a computer using a popular operating system such as CP/M.

Whether you buy for business or personal use, your machine eventually will need to be serviced. Mail-order houses offer good prices, but are not likely to provide as much advice, training or service as a local dealer. And can you spare the machine long enough to mail it to Bur-bank if it breaks? Also remember that software and peripherals can dwarf the cost of your original computer. To get an honest comparison among several machines, you’ll have to figure out everything you’ll need-memory, printer (not all machines work with all printers), disk drives, modems, software and perhaps a service contract-and compare costs on the total packages.

If you’re thinking about getting a machine and want some impartial guidance, or if you already own one and are still trying to connect all the little cables, look into one of the many computer-user groups in the area. Since each machine is different, there is a club for just about every popular computer on the market. These user groups tend to be filled with die-hard Pepsi-swilling hackers who can evaluate programs for you (or maybe give you one they wrote themselves), sell or swap hardware and perhaps fix your machine when it breaks. A partial list:

Apple Corps of Dallas. Meets the second Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mike Firth, 827-7734.

Atari Computer-User Group. Meets the first Saturday of each month at 2 p.m. Bob Dain, 358-1946.

Southwest (IBM) Personal Computer-User’s Group. Meets the third Saturday of each month from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Irving Jaycees’ Center for the Arts, 2000 Airport Frwy. Sam Cook, 253-6979.

Dallas TI Home Computer Group. Meets the third Friday of each month from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., at the University of Dallas Gorman Lecture Center, Room F, Irving. Doyle Kelley, 995-4068 or 442-2153.

North Dallas TRS-80 User’s Group. Meets the second Saturday of each month at 10 a.m., Green Hall Auditorium at UT-Dallas, Richardson. D.L. Herman, 239-3727.

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