The new home wonders: time to buy?

Personal computer makers for the last few years have released a wave of products on the market. Every year the tide of computers washing toward American consumers grows, and every year more people take the plunge into computer ownership.

For example, in 1981 only 200,000 computers in the $500-or-less category were sold. But in 1982 that figure hit 2 million, according to the Yankee Group, a research firm in Boston.

A number of things are making computer ownership more attractive. One of them is price. Recently IBM dropped the price on its Personal Computer by 15 percent. Texas Instruments has been slashing prices on its home computer since last fall. And Timex just reduced the Timex Sinclair 1000 from $99.95 to $54.95.

As prices fall, more people are discovering what a computer can do: games, business planning, education, art, music, text editing, and record keeping, to name a few. And people are finding that computers can be fun. People shop by computer, write letters to each other by computer, follow the stock market, and do home banking.

But with the surety of better, cheaper, and easier-to-use computers coming down the pike, is now the right time to buy?

The beginner, some experts advise, shouldn't wait for new models. Go with a tried and true brand that has been on the market. ''I am against the novice being the guinea pig. I would rather he work with proven technology,'' says Steve Epner, president of the User Group Inc., a St. Louis company which helps match businesses with computers.

And a headline in this month's issue of Personal Computing magazine points out that the reasons people wait to buy personal computers are ''really no reasons at all.''

There are over 170 models out there to choose from, and they vary in price from around $55 to $15,000. Some are just right for games or education. Others have the memory power for accounting or text editing. And still others are adept at making business graphs and processing large amounts of data. Many computers can do all of this moderately well, and others do just a few of them very well.

With the amount of choosing ahead of them, buyers-to-be should acquaint themselves with what makes up a computer. Basically, two words describe computers. ''Hardware'' refers to the tangible pieces of a computer, such as the keyboard, video screen, or disk drive. ''Software'' refers to the set of instructions that make computers do certain tasks, such as balance a checkbook.

The software you buy is what will make you satisfied or disappointed with your computer. This is why most experts recommend figuring out just what you want to use the computer for, finding the software that best accomplishes that, and then buying the computer that runs that software. (See story below on choosing software.)

By going to a computer store, or writing to a mail order house, you can find software programs such as accounting or text editing. Software programs come on flexible disks, usually 5 1/4 inches in diameter. What's written on the disk (magnetically) is a long list of steps for the computer to follow. And that's what ''programming'' is - writing those lists of instructions in such a sequence that the computer will do what you want. You don't need to know how to program a computer in order to run one, unless you want to create your own tailor-made programs.

Once you've decided on software, it's time to consider hardware. To supply yourself with the basics you'll want to buy a central processing unit, a keyboard, a TV-like monitor, and a disk drive. Printers and modems (which allow a computer to communicate with computers in other areas or to get information from data banks) are optional, but many owners eventually buy these too.

The heart of the computer is the central processing unit. You can understand the CPU by thinking of it as a postman which goes to different postboxes, takes out notes, reads them, and then does what the notes say. The CPU spends the whole time processing information.

Memory in a computer is important. It determines what kind of programs you can run. For instance, it takes more memory to handle a word processing program (text editing) than it does to play some computer games.

Memory is measured in bytes, which can be measured in characters and spaces. The phrase ''my computer,'' for example, takes up 11 bytes of memory. Some 1,024 bytes equal one kilobyte, referred to as 1K. ''How much K do you have?'' computer owners ask each other. One page of double-spaced type is about equal to 1K of memory. Many people who have bought computers have been able to expand their computer's memory by buying memory expansion units. This is an important feature, but not all computers have an allowance for it. Computers for word processing should have at least 64K of memory.

The capacity of CPUs is measured by bits, a subdivision of bytes. Most popular computers on the market still have 8-bit CPUs (Texas Instruments, Atari, Commodore), while newer ones take advantage of the greater speed and ability to handle more memory in a 16-bit CPU (Apple's Lisa, IBM's PC).

When talking about memory, the terms ROM and RAM often come up. ROM stands for ''read-only memory.'' It contains the basic instructions which allow a computer to respond to your commands. These intructions are permanently built into ROM and stay stored, even when the power is turned off.

''Random-access memory'' or RAM, is the main memory that acts as a temporary storage place for information. When you are typing away on a report, or working on an accounting spreadsheet, RAM is the memory that stores all that information. But information in RAM is not permanent. When the power goes, so does everything in RAM. This is why information from RAM can be transferred and stored magnetically someplace permanent.

The cheapest way to do this is to hook up a cassette recorder to a computer and store information on tapes. But it takes a computer a long time to get information from tapes.

Hence the popular ''disk drive.'' A disk drive is a small but expensive mechanism ($200 to $600) housed in a metal or hard plastic box, with a slot to hold floppy disks. The disk drive transfers information back and forth from the floppy disk to RAM.

Once information is stored on a floppy disk (and it only takes seconds), the disk can be taken out and put away. If you want to work on the program later on, you simply put the floppy disk back in the disk drive. It's easier and faster to operate programs with two disk drives. And some programs won't work without two drives.

Other hardware items include the keyboard and the monitor. Keyboards have the standard typewriter keys, though some are flat and not easy to use for normal typing. Many computers have function keys that allow the user to do a complicated task with just one keystroke. When choosing a keyboard, sit down and strike the keys. Some keyboards are a dream to use; others are less responsive.

The monitor is the TV-like screen that shows what you're typing or drawing. Some people hook up their computer to their TV set and use that screen as a monitor. It's a lot less expensive, but writing is much easier to read and graphics are sharper on monitors designed to be used with computers.

People who need to see their computer work printed on paper will need a printer. There are two basic choices: a daisy wheel or a dot-matrix printer.

Dot-matrix printers form letters with little dots rather than with solid lines. Some of them squeeze quite a few dots close together so the characters look solid. Others use fewer dots which produce characters difficult to read. The daisy wheel printers hammer out typewriter-like characters but are more expensive than most dot-matrix printers. There are good printers in both categories which give letter quality for under $1,000. Prices are dropping.

Finally, one other piece of equipment may come in handy, a modem. This links your computer with the telephone lines. It lets you get outside into a vast world of information. Through the modem, which can cost from $100 to $500, you can link up with data banks that offer everything from catalog shopping to the latest on the Dow Jones stock indexes. Data banks store encyclopedias, news wire services, even tips on car maintenance.

Though the choice of computers makes the buying decision a little tougher than two years ago, there is also a lot more help around. Mini computer courses are available at colleges, computer stores, and high schools. Magazines and books can tell you about specific products. The November 1982 issue of Money magazine gives an excellent review in plain English of 36 computers. (For back issues or tearsheets write Money business office, Time & Life Building, Rockefeller Center, New York, N.Y. 10020. Issues cost $2.)

Perhaps most helpful are computer user groups. Members include neophytes and experts. They know what a beginner needs and often have models around to experiment with and people on hand to answer questions. Most computer stores can direct you to local groups.

Computer Prices (For computers with most units sold) Computers used mostly in business* Price IBM PC (16-bit) $3,908 Apple ll (8-bit) 3,295 TRS 80 (8-bit) 3,495 DEC Rainbow (16-bit) 4,695 TRS 80-16 (16-bit) 5,400

Computers used mostly at home** Atari 400 $299 Atari 800 699 Commodore Vic 20 169 Timex Sinclair 55 TRS 80 color computer 299 * Price includes a monitor, keyboard, two disk drives, a dot-matrix printer, and mimimum of 64K memory.

** Does not include monitor, disk drive, or printer. All are 8-bit machines. Source: Input

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