Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 43 / DECEMBER 1983 / PAGE 174

Questions Beginners Ask

Tom R. Halfhill, Features Editor

Are you thinking about buying a computer for the first time, but don't know much about computers? Or maybe you just purchased a computer and are still a bit baffled. Each month in this column, COMPUTE! will answer some questions commonly asked by beginners.

Q What is the best way to mail computer tapes and disks?

A As carefully as possible. Many tapes and disks arrive at COMPUTE! Publications every month. The vast majority survive the mails unscathed, thanks to careful packing and postal handling. But cracked plastic cassette boxes and crumpled envelopes show that some of them have had a bumpy trip.

Cassettes seem to fare better than disks because of their rigid plastic enclosures. If you need to mail only a few programs, a cassette might be safer. Be sure to use an unbreakable plastic cassette box instead of the standard Philips box.

Disks should always be mailed in the stiff cardboard mailers available at some stationery shops and computer stores.

For either tapes or disks, use a padded envelope if possible, or wrap the media with paper or foam. Plainly mark the envelope with these warnings: "Handle With Care," "Hand Stamp Only," and "Magnetic Media Enclosed — Keep Away From Electric Motors And Other Magnetic Sources." Wrapping the media with aluminum foil offers little or no protection against magnetic fields.

If you find yourself regularly mailing programs to friends, you might want to consider equipping your respective computers with modems and transmitting the programs over the phone. This is also a lot faster and sometimes even cheaper.

Q I am new to home computing. I bought an Atari 800 with a cassette recorder in September. I understand some of the advantages of disk storage versus the cassette, but would like to know some of the disadvantages, if any. I also don't understand why Atari's 810 disk drive is so expensive (about $450). Are there disk drives for this machine that are more moderately priced?

A There are a few disadvantages to disk drives as opposed to cassette recorders, but most people find the balance weighs heavily in favor of disks.

Probably the biggest disadvantage is the one alluded to in the second part of your question: the higher cost of a disk drive. Ironically, a year or two ago your question would have seemed strange to most computer hobbyists, because at that time $450 or even $550 was considered a good price for a disk drive. Since then, prices of personal computers have been dropping as drastically as were prices of hand-held calculators in the mid-1970s. However, as you've noticed, prices of certain peripheral equipment — such as disk drives and printers — have dropped relatively less. There are two general reasons for this.

First, computers are largely solid-state devices with virtually no moving mechanical parts except for their keyboards. Their major components are silicon "chips" — memory chips and microprocessors. Rapidly declining manufacturing costs for chips account for much of the computer price-cutting. But disk drives and printers are more mechanical than electronic. They are complex machines with scores of precision moving parts. It is much harder to cut costs because mechanical technology is not advancing nearly as fast as electronic technology.

Second, the well-publicized price war of 1982-83, primarily between Atari, Commodore, and Texas Instruments, forced computer prices to drop even lower. Peripherals were not as affected by the price war partly because many dealers were selling computers "at cost," and then depending upon peripherals and software for profits.

For these reasons it is likely that prices of disk drives and printers will continue to decline only slowly. It is difficult to economize without sacrificing precision and reliability. Cassette recorders, at less than $90, will remain attractive alternatives.

The greater complexity of disk drives accounts for their other disadvantages as well. Recorders are easier to use, particularly by beginners. They offer fewer features, fewer options. There is no Disk Operating System (DOS) to worry about, and no menu of disk commands to learn. Too, disk drives are sensitive to bumps and jolts when moved from place to place. The read/write head (analogous to the play/record head in a cassette recorder) requires extremely precise alignment for reliable operation. Plus, when a cassette recorder does break down after the warranty period, it can probably be fixed by any good audio equipment repair shop. A disk drive must be fixed at a special service center.

These factors must be balanced against a disk drive's much greater speed, flexibility, capacity, ability to use a wider variety of commercial software, and greater reliability of storage.

To answer your specific question about alternatives to the Atari 810 drive, there are several units now being sold by independent manufacturers. They are regularly advertised in COMPUTE! and other computer magazines. They are not significantly less expensive than Atari drives, but some do offer more storage capacity at a lower price. You should visit your local computer dealer or write the manufacturers for more detailed information.