Questions Beginners Ask
Tom R Halfhill, Features Editor
Are you thinking about buying a computer for the first time, but you 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 often asked by beginners.
Q One of the big reasons I bought my computer was for word processing. I have word processing software and a dot-matrix printer. The printer has many print modes for printing expanded characters, condensed characters, double-strike, etc. But my word processor software was not made for this printer and doesn't have commands to switch the printer into these different modes. Is there any way I can use these modes?
A Yes, there is. Review the word processor manual carefully to see if there is a command for sending escape codes or control codes to the printer. Almost all word processors have some sort of feature like this. Usually they let you embed a nonprinting character in your text—that is, a character that appears on the screen but not in the printout. The escape code (CHR$(27)) followed by a number, or a control code by itself, switches the printer to whatever mode you choose. You'll have to consult your printer manual to learn the code numbers for your particular printer. Look for an appendix.
If you still have no luck, there's yet another solution. Remember that printers can be computers, too. They often contain a microprocessor, RAM, and ROM, though their computing capability is not nearly as powerful as your main computer. Still, printers can often be programmed. Sending codes from your word processor is only one way of doing this. If your word processor does not have this capability, then you'll have to program the printer before you run the word processor.
First, switch on the printer and computer. Second, before loading the word processor, use BASIC to send the proper codes to the printer. Refer to your BASIC manual to find the right command. (Atari and TRS-80 computers use LPRINT; Commodores require you to open a file to the printer and use PRINT#. For example, from a VIC or 64, you could type:
OPEN 4,4 : PRINT#4, CHR$(27) + CHR$(7)
and this would ring the printer's bell, if it has one.) Next, without turning off the printer, load the word processor. As long as the printer stays on, it should remain in the mode to which you set it. The only drawback of this method is that you cannot switch print modes within a document.
Q I use a cassette tape recorder to store programs on my computer. How safe is it to reuse tapes which have old programs on them? Can I just record over the old programs, or should I erase the tape first?
A We've re-recorded cassette tapes many times with no problems at all. Once with an Atari we even carried this practice to the extreme. It was a charting program that called for weekly updates to keep track of money market interest rates. Each Friday, at the end of the business week, the program was loaded from tape, the figures updated, and the new chart recorded over the old. By year's end, the program had been recorded over itself 52 times before the tape was retired and a new one started for the next year. Not once were there any saving or loading problems. What's more, the tape was the least expensive C-30 cassette sold by Radio Shack. However, this might be stretching things. Maybe we were just lucky.
Nevertheless, this shows that it's quite possible to re-record tapes several times without much risk. Of course, you should always keep a backup in case one recording proves faulty.
If you want to be extra careful, you can erase the tape first. The best way is to use a magnetic bulk tape eraser, available at Radio Shack and other electronic stores. Bulk erasers are electromagnetic devices which wipe a whole tape (or diskette) clean in a matter of seconds. Good erasers clean the tape more thoroughly than the recorder itself can because they generate a much stronger magnetic field, reducing background noise to a minimum. But if you use a bulk eraser, keep it far, far away from your good tapes or disks—you could carelessly destroy an entire software or music library in less time than it would take to hurl the eraser out the window.