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. Each month, COMPUTE! will tackle the types of questions we receive from beginners.
Q Do I really need to learn how to program in order to use a home computer?
A No, you don't — not really. You could simply stick to buying commercial software, programs which are pre-written and pre-packaged for you by professional programmers. Your local computer dealers, and mail-order dealers which advertise in magazines such as COMPUTE!, carry hundreds of programs for all types of computers. You only have to make sure that the programs you buy will work on your computer and do what you want. (Read reviews; test the programs at the dealer's showroom.)
If you have a standard VIC-20 computer with a Datasette tape recorder, for example, make sure the programs you buy come on cassette tape (not diskette) and use no more memory than the standard VIC's 5K of RAM. Some computers, such as the VIC, also accept programs stored on plug-in cartridges. In any case, make sure you know what you're buying. The software should be clearly labeled as to its requirements: type of computer, amount of memory, peripherals required, and special equipment, if any (such as joysticks). Test the program if possible to be certain it does what you want.
Building a software library in this manner is like buying records or tapes for a stereo system — you don't have to be a professional musician to enjoy the equipment.
Computers, however, give you a choice that stereos do not. You can learn to write your own programs. This has several advantages. For one thing, you can tailor your own programs to do exactly what you want. For example, you could buy a pre-packaged personal budget program, but it might not be designed for a household with two checking accounts. It might also lack other features you find desirable. If you write programs yourself, you can fit them to your needs — exactly.
Also, writing your own programs is less expensive than buying commercial ones. Although it's quite challenging to write commercial-quality arcade games, something as relatively simple as a checkbook-balancer could be written in an evening. You might save $20 or $30.
And finally, do not immediately dismiss the idea that programming can be fun. Too many people assume that programming would be too hard or too boring for them. Yet, thousands of children have learned how to program computers, and their attention is often riveted for hours.
Q I'm interested in buying a home computer, but it seems that the prices are constantly dropping, and that new and better models are coming out all the time. Why should I buy a computer now? Shouldn't I wait?
A This seems to bother lots of people shopping for home computers. If you want to wait, you should define for yourself exactly what you're waiting for. A computer with 65K of memory selling for under $500? Any computer selling for under $75? An under-$1000 computer with at least 128K? A computer with eight synthesized voices and 500 colors?
If you don't decide exactly what you're waiting for, you might be waiting forever. For the past two decades, computer technology has been moving faster than any other technology, and it is not slowing down. In the foreseeable future, computers will always be getting cheaper and more powerful. This is likely to continue throughout our lifetimes. So if you wait, there's no doubt you'll get a better deal in terms of computing power per dollar.
But in the meantime, you won't have a computer. It's sort of like deciding whether to join some friends who are swimming in a lake on a chilly summer morning. You are hesitating because the water feels cold. You can see that your friends are enjoying themselves, and you know that if you jump in, you'll get used to the water and have fun yourself. But you also know that if you wait awhile, the day will grow warmer and make your dive easier. When do you take the plunge?
Another thing to consider is that the computer you buy first doesn't have to be the last one you'll ever buy. You might start out with an inexpensive model to be sure you'll enjoy computing. A few years from now, maybe you can move up to a computer which is much more powerful than what you could afford today. Chances are you can trade in your original for a discount on a newer model too.
Also, if you are buying a computer for educational reasons — for yourself or for your children — you should balance the money you might save by waiting against the educational value of having a computer in the meantime. Admittedly, it's not an easy choice.