Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 55 / DECEMBER 1984 / PAGE 162

IBM Personal Computing

Donald B. Trivette

Christmas Shopping For An IBM

Here's a one-line BASIC program that's sure to put panic in the hearts of holiday shoppers:

10	M = VAL (MID$(DATE$, 1, 2)) : D = VAL
   (MID$(DATE$, 4, 2)) : IF M = 11 THEN D = 55
   - D : PRINT D ELSE D = 25 - D : PRINT D

Can you figure out what it does? While you're working on that, let's talk Christmas shopping. For those friends or relatives on your Christmas list with an IBM Personal Computer, finding just the right gift may be easier than you think.

Computer programs make great holiday gifts. Well, some computer programs make good gifts. Others don't. The selection of a word processing, financial, or spreadsheet program is very much a matter of personal choice and taste. Don't give DisplayWrite or VisiCalc to someone unless it is on his or her Christmas list. For a surprise gift, stick with less expensive, one-of-a-kind software.

Subtle Intelligence-Gathering

Before we get to some specific ideas, you should do a little research. (Especially if you don't know much about computers and someone clipped this article as a hint. Otherwise you may skip this section.)

First, find out exactly which computer the intended recipient of your gift actually owns. Is it an IBM PC, PCjr, PC-XT, or Portable PC? It will be embarrassing if you buy a PCjr cartridge program for someone who owns a PC, for instance, because the PC has no cartridge slots. Perhaps you can work this query into dinner-table conversation: "Mother's coming a week early for the holidays … could you move the computer out of the spare bedroom? What kind is it, anyway?" If the answer is the name of a fruit, you are consulting the wrong column; otherwise, press for more information. "She's bringing her cats … by the way, how much memory does it have?"

Armed with the model and amount of memory, you need another fact: "Can that thing draw color pictures?" Here you're trying to find out if the PC has a color/graphics board. (The PCjr and Portable PC include this as a standard feature.) If it doesn't have a color/graphics board, it's called a monochrome system, and certain programs won't work on it.

Finally, it's important to know if the computer has a disk drive—almost all PCs do—but you won't have to ask about that. Snoop around the machine for evidence. If you find paper envelopes about 5-1/2 × 4-1/2 inches that say disk or diskette on them, you can be sure the machine has a disk drive. (Either that, or the person is hinting heavily that he wants a disk drive.)

By now, you've gathered the four basic (very basic) facts you need to know to purchase a program for an IBM computer: the model of the computer, the amount of memory it has, whether it is equipped for color graphics, and if it has a disk drive. For example, let's say your relative or friend has an IBM PCjr with 128K of memory (memory always comes in K's, for kilobytes)—and you've found the telltale envelopes that mean a disk drive. With this information you can visit a local dealer and make your selection. Your gift still may not make the person jump for joy, but at least the computer won't choke on it.

Software Suggestions

If you're stuck for an idea, I can pass on a few hints. While the following summaries aren't full-blown reviews and don't necessarily represent endorsements by COMPUTE!, they are based on my experience with the products.

ProKey is a program that works along with other software. It allows you to redefine the keys on the keyboard to have whatever meaning you'd like. For example, instead of typing four lines of difficult-to-remember commands to start a program, you can have ProKey enter those lines every time you hold down the Alt key and press the A key. ProKey is one of those programs you don't appreciate until you've used it—then you don't want to be without it. (ProKey 3.0 from RoseSoft; for the PC, PCjr, PC-XT; requires 64K memory, disk drive, color or monochrome; $130.)

The Norton Utilities is a collection of programs that allow you to examine, modify, and manipulate disk files. Unless you are interested in the complexities of disk storage, this package will sit on the shelf collecting dust—until you do the unthinkable and accidentally erase an important file. Then the UnErase program can bring it back, saving you hours or days of work. You don't need the Norton Utilities until something goes wrong, then you'll be awfully glad you have them. (Norton Utilities by Peter Norton; for the PC, PCjr, PC-XT; requires 64K memory, disk drive, color or monochrome; $80.)

Disk Drive Analyzer is an inexpensive program that tests the disk drive hardware for alignment, speed, clamping, and read/write performance, and then reports problems and potential problems. It's a program that a computer owner might not buy for himself, but which he would surely love to have. (Disk Drive Analyzer by Verbatim Products; for the PC, PC-XT; requires 64K memory, disk drive, color or monochrome; $40.)

Just For Fun

The programs mentioned so far could qualify as tax deductions for someone in business, and therefore might not be ideal presents. But one does not compute for practicality alone. Computer games make wonderful gifts and certainly would not be deductible. Here are three family games for consideration.

Microsoft Flight Simulator has been at the top of software best-seller lists for a long time—and with good reason. It's a realistic program that puts you in the cockpit of a Cessna 182. Even if you fear flying, you'll enjoy this program. (Microsoft Flight Simulator by Microsoft; for the PC, PC-XT with 64K memory, disk drive, and color/graphics; PCjr with 128K memory and disk drive; $49.95. Be sure to get the latest version which works on all types of monitors.)

Ultima II is an adventure game. You roam around the Ultima universe seeking to find and conquer the evil Enchantress. Along the way you must fend off all manner of strange characters, including Orcs, thieves, wizards, and even sea monsters. Since the adventure can easily last weeks, Ultima lets you save a game in progress and pick it up later. (Ultima II by Sierra On-Line; for the PC, PC-XT with 64K memory, disk drive, and color/graphics; PCjr with 128K and disk drive; $60.)

Championship Boxing puts you in the ring with the boxer of your choice—Duran? Leonard? Hearns?—to slug out your aggressions. Sixty of the greatest boxers are included. If you're too tired to step into the ring, you can match any two fighters and whisper strategy from the corner. A great game for a sports fan. (Championship Boxing by Sierra On-Line; for the PC, PC-XT with 64K memory, disk drive, and color/graphics; PCjr with 128K and disk drive; $35.)

Hardware And Accessories

Software isn't your only choice for a computer gift. Consider hardware and accessories.

Computer users can never have too many blank disks. Disks generally cost $20 to $35 for a box of ten. There are dozens of brands, but there's not a great deal of difference. Any brand labeled DS/DD (double-sided, double-density) and "soft-sectored" will work in any of the IBM PC-family computers. A related gift is a smoked-plastic storage box that holds 50 disks (about $35).

Books always make good gifts. The Naked Computer by Rochester and Gantz (William Morrow & Co., $15.95) is a 335-page almanac of computer facts and trivia. Sing a Song of Software by Soltzberg (William Kaufmann, Inc., $9.95) is a light-hearted book of computer graphics and verse:

Who wrote this code so long ago?
I feel as if I know her, though
We've never met nor shared a word
Of pleasure at this program's flow.

(Only modesty, good taste, and a picky editor prevent me from recommending my own book: A BASIC Primer for the IBM PC, Scott, Foresman & Co., $18.95.)

Of course, an excellent gift is an IBM PC or PCjr. If you're planning to give a computer—and retailers say quite a few of you are—then please include at least one computer program. There's nothing worse on Christmas morning than receiving a shiny new computer without a program to run on it. That's like getting a camera without film or a GI Joe Walkie Talkie without a battery.

A word about retail prices. Almost all computer programs can be purchased at a substantial discount from mail-order firms, though you may prefer the personalized service and assistance that a local dealer can provide. With the Christmas mail crunch, you may not have time to take advantage of these lower prices, unless you ask for express shipping. The BASIC program at the beginning of this article will tell you exactly how many days you do have.