Questions Beginners Ask
Tom R. Halfhill, Features Editor
Are you thinking about buying a computer for the first time, but don't know anything about computers? Or maybe you just purchased a computer and are still baffled by what personal computing is all about. Starting this month, COMPUTE! will tackle some questions which we are most frequently asked by beginners.
Q: Which is the best computer to buy?
A: The best one for your needs.
Seriously, we're not trying to duck the question. People ask us this all the time, in letters, telephone calls, and at computer shows we attend. We get the feeling they are never really satisfied with our answers, since what they really want to hear is something like, "Buy the Atapple ZX-20, it's definitely the best one." Unfortunately, we cannot give such an answer. For one thing, since COMPUTE! covers many machines, the magazine must maintain objectivity. But more importantly, there is no one right answer. All the computers have their own strengths and weaknesses, and all computer buyers have – or should have – their own ideas of what they need in a computer. We think nearly anybody who buys one of the major brands with a clear idea of his or her needs will be satisified with the purchase.
The key is to identify your needs and desires. If game-playing will be a major use of your computer, then color graphics and sound will be important features. Someone primarily interested in word processing may well have no need for either feature.
If you've looked hard and long at the various computers in a certain price range and still can't decide between them, then perhaps the differences are too slight to matter anyway. Or maybe you should base your decision not on the hardware, but on the available software. If the computer will be used primarily for educational purposes, and you're attracted by a particular line of educational programs, you may lean toward the computer that those programs are designed to work on. The programs may not be compatible with or available for another machine.
If you still think we are sidestepping the whole question, then consider this: If one brand of computer were clearly superior, and if we at COMPUTE! were in a position to know about it, then it stands to reason that all of our editors would own that computer. But in fact, both at work and at home, we own and use many different computers. 'Nuff said?
Q: What are PEEK and POKE?
A: PEEK and POKE are words (instructions to the computer to do something for you) in a computer programming language known as BASIC (Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). BASIC is the standard language on home/personal computers. PEEK and POKE allow you, as a programmer, to work directly with the computer's memory.
PEEK allows you to examine the contents of a single memory location (known as a "byte"). Each memory location in a computer has a numbered address, sort of like houses in a city. In turn, each memory location stores a number which usually has something to do with the operation of the computer or a computer program. If you type PRINT PEEK (8502), the computer will PRINT on the screen the number stored in that address. Therefore, PEEK is often used in programs to determine if a certain number is stored at a particular location, usually as a prelude to changing the number to achieve some desired result.
POKE is the word that allows you to make those changes, to change numbers stored in locations in Random Access Memory (RAM) – that part of a computer's "user memory" which can be changed by the programmer. For example, if you type POKE 82,0, the number 0 will be stored at memory location 82. POKEs can often change some facet of the computer's behavior. Since each model's memory is arranged differently, PEEKs and POKEs will not achieve the same results on different computers (in the above example, POKE 82,0 will make the left screen margin zero on an Atari).
Q: What is a CONTROL key?
A: A CONTROL key (often abbreviated CTRL) is a special key found on many computer keyboards. In effect, it works something like a SHIFT key. Just as a SHIFT key adds a function to a regular key – i.e., changes a lowercase letter to uppercase, or changes the "4" key to a dollar sign – the CONTROL key also is used in combination with another key to select an additional function or symbol.
These functions and symbols vary among different models of computers. For example, holding down the CONTROL and "C" keys on an Apple II will usually stop (or "break") a BASIC program which is running. CONTROL-C on an Atari will print on the screen a small graphics character resembling the lower right corner of a box. On a Commodore VIC-20, CONTROL-C has no effect; another special key is used instead to print graphics symbols. The manual which comes with every computer explains the functions of its special keys.