Getting Started With a Personal Computer: Know Your Needs

Many people want to take the plunge but are intimidated by the ever-changing, sometimes confusing technology. Today the Monitor begins a five-part series to help you on your way.

Have you thought about buying a personal computer, but can't decide what to buy? Feeling a little bewildered, perhaps?

You are not alone.

So you want to buy a computer. Or at least, you think you do. Friends sing the praises of their machines. Maybe a daughter-in-law or an uncle is hooked into the Internet. It sounds intriguing but, well, you're hanging back with questions like:

What should I buy?

Is it really complicated?

Do I really need one?

This series aims to answer those questions. It will lead novice computer users through a step-by-step process to determine what computer they need, what software, and where to get help.

Let's start with the most important question: Do you really need a computer? The answer depends on what you plan to do with it. Personal computers or PCs do many things. And that makes this question the biggest hurdle you'll face as a novice.

At least when you purchase a television, no matter how sophisticated it is, you know you'll use it to watch TV shows. PCs are different. They can help you write letters, organize your finances, play games, or send messages around the world. What you do with your PC will probably differ from your friends' computer activities. So, to decide whether you need a computer means getting a rough idea of how you expect to use it.

I had the same questions a decade ago. This newspaper had sent me an IBM PC to write articles and send them in. But I knew there was more to PCs than this. I began to explore the crude spreadsheet (which organizes numbers) and time-planner that the computer included. From there, I bought a database program, which organizes lists of people or things. Then I found a personal information manager, which helps organize ideas and information. Each step led me to something else - not because I wanted to use a computer, but because the machine could help me do something better or faster.

That's the key to getting a good start on computers. Forget about hardware - the various models, their prices, and so on. Think software. If a software program can help you do a favorite activity faster or better, you will take the time to learn how to use a computer.

Probably the most common activity on PCs is writing. PC users write letters, publish newsletters, and type out reports on computers, because in most cases it is easier than using a typewriter. That's because computers allow you to make infinite changes and view the final document before you print it out. That's an important benefit for anyone who does even moderate computer work. No more eraser smudges or whiteout. An added bonus is that you can print out the same document as many times as you want.

Or maybe you have a letter to Aunt Nora in California that you want to change just slightly for Uncle Fred in Florida. The PC allows you to do this without retyping the whole thing.

Another common use of the PC is tracking finances. Computers make it easy to categorize all your purchases and determine which ones are tax deductible. At the end of the month or the year, the program gives you a breakdown. This makes it easy to see where you spent money (and can speed up income-tax calculations). The program can make you a chart.

Make sure you really want or need to do this before running out and getting a computer. In most cases, you'll have to enter your data twice - once in your checkbook and then in your computer. That can be tedious for those who don't like budgets.

An emerging field of PC use is electronic communication. Even those who shudder at using anything more advanced than a microwave oven will be intrigued by the idea of zapping letters to someone nearly instantaneously. Send 30 or more a month and it can be cheaper than sending mail through the post office.

And if you have a hobby, there are thousands of special interest groups using computers to ask questions and share ideas, such as Civil War buffs sharing details about history. This communication is one of the most powerful uses of a computer. And the services to deliver these messages are becoming simple enough for novices.

What about games? There are a number of interesting possibilities. Yes, you can get the games that let your children or grandchildren blast their way through an armada of space beetles. But PC games can also teach. Some re-create historical events by letting you try, for example, to make your way through the Oregon Trail. Others create a mystery world that will test your sleuthing skills.

Do you play chess? Computer chess games have become so sophisticated they can serve as tutors. I wouldn't buy a computer just so children can play games, but it's an added benefit of a PC.

Reference works are another PC strong point. Computerized encyclopedias, for example, are not only cheaper than the bound-volume kind, but they're also better. You can look up ideas in much more imaginative ways than an index. The software will find all the references to Ronald Reagan and Hollywood, for example, or the number of times that ''Bible'' is used in the encyclopedia.

There are also specialized references on everything from sports to gardening, from 1960s retrospectives to recipes from Hollywood stars.

The how-to category is also growing rapidly. Cooking software not only lists recipes, it will let you input what you have in the house and come up with recipe suggestions based on those ingredients. Landscaping programs have reached the point that you can model your yard, plant imaginary trees, and project how they'll grow over 10 years. There's even a program to help you buy a new car.

Perhaps you want to learn about PCs to enhance your job skills or to run a small business. Besides word-processing, you will want to consider spreadsheets and accounting software. These categories differ somewhat. Accounting software deals specifically with the ledgers kept by businesses, and they automate some common functions. Spreadsheets are more general-purpose programs. You can set up a business ledger on them or keep inventory or even a list of customers and their orders. That last bit might better be handled by a database, which usually organizes text in much the same way a spreadsheet usually organizes numbers. But both can do the trick. I know a bird-watcher who kept a log of his sightings on a spreadsheet.

You want to find that special piece of software that will enrich one of your hobbies or interests. You want it to be a special interest, because some learning is involved. You don't have to program the computer, but you will have to learn keystrokes and how to operate a mouse.

Once you have mastered your favorite program, the next piece of software will be less intimidating. Gradually, you'll wade deeper and deeper until one day, you'll realize you've gotten used to the computer.

If you've read this far, it means you've stopped looking behind you. It's time to get your feet wet.

* Part II, Settling on Hardware, will appear on Thursday.

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