These days it's almost as hard to pick a computer magazine as it is to select a computer. Waves of glossy covers picturing photogenic computer hardware are inundating magazine display racks across the US.
These rapidly proliferating publications play an important role in today's computer movement: They are helping people without any knowledge of the field familiarize themselves with the new machines, as they spread.
There has been a similar explosion in computer books, with over 3,000 titles on this subject published recently. But developments in this field are so fast-paced that books tend to be outdated by the time they're published.
Because computers are radically different from the other machines we're familiar with, learning enough about them to make an informed choice can be a time-consuming process. And it is a rare computer salesman who will take the necessary time to help educate customers who have not acquired the basics. That's where the magazines fit in.
Which are useful? The answer depends on your situation and interests. Some magazines are slanted to the novice. Others are written for business people. Still others are geared to specific brands or types of computers. To help sort through this embarrassment of riches, I've sampled several of the most popular, general-interest computer magazines, and here is my list of rec-ommendations:
Compute! is targeted for the home and recreational user. It reviews hardware and software primarily for the less expensive Atari, Texas Instruments, Sinclair , Radio Shack, and Apple computers. It emphasizes games, simple filing, word-processing programs, and home finance. Articles and programs are generally short, clear, and to the point.
Popular Computing, on the other hand, spans the spectrum from home to small business computers. Its product reviews tend to be longer and more detailed than those of Compute! Articles are engagingly written and range over a wide variety of topics. A majority of space is devoted to middle- to high-cost microcomputers: the Apple II to IBM Personal Computer range.
Personal Computing is quite similar to Popular Computing but is weighted a bit more toward business and professional users. The programs it deals with tend toward complexity. Equipment comparisons include more detailed specifications. A somewhat greater degree of technical knowledge is assumed.
Interface Age is oriented squarely to the business user. It deals primarily with machines for an office. Typical recent feature articles were ''Buyer's Guide to 100 Printers'' and ''Comparing over 50 Database and DBMS (Filing) Programs.'' Often, they seem to be written with company purchasing departments in mind.
Byte has become the microcomputer industry's bible. It features highly technical articles on microprocessors and related hardware, detailed product reviews, and industry gossip and news. It is definitely not for the novice, but the dyed-in-the-wool computer devotee can find information here which isn't available anywhere else.
InfoWorld occupies a unique niche in the realm of computer media. First, it's a weekly, while the rest are all monthlies; it is published on newsprint, rather than slick paper. It covers industry news, and it reviews new computers and software of all types. Its critiques are the toughest and often the most comprehensive of those in any of these publications. Still, the articles are remarkably readable even to computer novices.
This is only a small sampling of the computer magazines on the racks today. Many other periodicals are targeted to specific groups of users. 80 -Microcomputing and 80-US, for instance, are written for owners of Radio Shack computers. PC and PC World are vying for an audience among IBM Personal Computer users.