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 a bit baffled. Each month in this column, COMPUTE! will tackle some of the most common questions that we are asked by beginners.
Q I own an Atari 400 computer and 410 recorder, and I'm very interested in programming. Lately I've been experimenting with the different graphics modes. I can draw pictures on the screen, but I don't understand how to move them around with the game controllers (joysticks, paddles, and keyboard). What command makes the joystick move the picture? If you could just explain how to use the game controllers, I would be very grateful.
A Although this particular question comes from a 14-year-old reader with an Atari, it is a common one asked by new users of all brands of computers. How can I animate objects on the screen with the game controllers? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer.
First, it's important to understand that the game controllers by themselves do nothing to animate objects on the screen. Animation is up to your program. All that a game controller does is change a number in a memory location somewhere inside the computer. That number indicates the status of the controller, such as which way a joystick is deflected, or how far a paddle knob is turned, or which key is pressed on a keyboard.
Except for returning this number, a game controller does absolutely nothing else in the way of animation. A program reads this number, uses it to figure out what action the user desires, and then responds accordingly, thereby achieving animation. This is not an easy task for beginning programmers. Many beginners are dismayed when they discover that animation is far more difficult than just plugging in a joystick and typing in a command or two that will move their pictures around.
That's why most home computer manuals and instruction books barely cover the subject. You must be on solid ground with the fundamentals of programming before attempting something like animation.
To learn these more advanced techniques, you'll have to read many computer magazines and books. COMPUTE! has published numerous articles on animation for the Atari and other popular computers, and will continue to do so. The Beginner's Page column in the February 1983 issue, "Writing An Arcade Game," is a good introductory article. It includes example programs for several computers to demonstrate one method of animation: repeatedly drawing and erasing an object in screen memory. Other good sources are COMPUTE! 's First Book Of Atari Graphics and COMPUTE!'s First Book Of VIC.
Q I'm shopping around for my first home computer, and I see many ads in magazines and newspapers for low-priced computers. But when I visit the store, it seems like the sales people always try to sell me on numerous accessories and other things that end up costing more than the computer. How many accessories do I really need to get started? Isn't the computer itself enough?
A Chances are you will end up buying more than just the computer to get started. But how many accessories you need really depends on what you plan to use the computer for - something that should be foremost in your mind as you shop.
A computer by itself is more useful than a stereo receiver without speakers, a turntable, a tape deck, and records. But there is an analogy here. To make a computer really useful you need software, programs to make it run. Among the most popular uses for home computers are entertainment and education. This means you'll need game programs, educational programs, and so on. You can write programs yourself, copy them from COMPUTE!, or buy commercial software. But whatever you do, you'll at least need a tape player.
You'll need some way to load the programs into the computer. Some programs are built into plug-in cartridges which require no additional equipment. But most programs come on cassette tapes or disks. Loading a disk requires a disk drive, which costs $350 to $600. That's why most people start out with cassettes, which are far less expensive. A few computers–the Timex/Sinclair T/S 1000, for instance–work with an ordinary portable cassette recorder, which you may already own. Others require a special cassette recorder, which can cost $65 to $90.
Most people end up buying a starter system that includes the computer, a tape recorder, a few programs on cartridges or cassettes, and often some game controllers (joysticks or paddles). It's a good idea to hold off on buying additional equipment until you're better able to tell what you'll need. Later, you can add a printer, disk drive, additional memory, telephone modem, or other accessories as you want them.