Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 38 / JULY 1983 / PAGE 28

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, COMPUTE! will tackle the questions most often asked by beginners.

Q Are there any problems I could cause while using a computer that could permanently damage it? How about any commands used in the wrong way? In other words, what are the chances that I could do real damage to the computer by not knowing how to use it right?

A There's an old saying in computing that goes something like this:

"The only way you can hurt a computer through its keyboard is to hit it with a hammer."

Of course, this isn't completely true; spilling liquids into a computer keyboard isn't too healthy for it, either. But the general thrust of that adage is pretty certain – aside from physical abuse, a computer can't be damaged by anything you can type on its keyboard.

There's only one rare exception we've ever heard of. A certain POKE command on one Commodore PET computer (PET/CBM's with 4.0 BASIC) can drastically speed up the process by which the computer creates the screen display. If this command is left running wild, the computer keeps speeding up until it eventually self-destructs. The chances of this POKE happening by accident are extremely remote. There are 65536 memory locations in a PET that can be POKEd, and there are 256 possible numbers that can be POKEd in each location (0 to 255). Therefore, the chances of accidentally typing in that fatal POKE command are only one in 16,777,216.

Other than this rare example, you really don't have to worry about damaging the hardware of your computer system by experimenting with commands or programs. The same pretty much holds true for the devices attached to the computer. At worst, you might cause an error which traps a device in an endless loop — for example, the disk drive might keep spinning, or the printer might keep spewing forth paper. Conceivably, if the system were left unattended, the device could eventually overheat or suffer excessive wear. But if you're there, you can always stop such "run-away" events by switching off the power. Anytime you switch off a computer or device and then switch it back on again, it resets itself.

Remember, though, we're talking about hardware damage. There are lots of ways you can cause permanent software damage. Simply typing NEW on the keyboard and pressing RETURN will wipe out any BASIC program in memory. If the program has not been saved on disk or tape, it will be lost. Likewise, certain commands can erase a program from a disk or tape, or overwrite it with something else. A wrong command, a program bug, or a typing error when entering a program listing can cause a system crash – your computer "locks up" (refuses to accept commands). Since the only way to recover, usually, is to switch the computer off and on again, the program in memory will be lost. But you can rest assured that the computer itself is always safe from permanent damage.

Q Can I do word processing with a tape recorder, or must I have a disk drive?

A It is quite possible to do word processing with a tape recorder.

Make sure, however, that the word processing program you buy or use is designed to work with tape. Some programs are for disk only; still others work with both.

The peripheral device which is most essential for word processing is a printer. Without a printer, you won't be able to generate a paper printout of your writing. And since the whole object of word processing is writing, a printer is indispensable. If you want to do word processing and must choose between buying a disk drive first or a printer, opt for the printer.

For casual word processing (average letter-writing, etc.) you may find that a tape recorder is a sufficient storage device. However, for more serious applications, you'll probably discover that a disk drive is necessary. Tape recorders can be reliable, but they are very slow compared to disk drives. Also, a disk drive adds flexibility to word processing. Depending on the word processing program, a disk drive can make it possible to easily store frequently used paragraphs on disk for merging with other files; to link several files together for very long documents; to merge files of names and addresses with form letters; and other advanced functions.