Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 10, NO. 6 / JUNE 1984 / PAGE 126

Undercover consumer; editorial espionage reveals the perils and pleasures of buying a personal computer. Betsy Staples; John J. Anderson.

That was the moment at which the idea for this article was conceived. How many innocent neocomputerists were making important and expensive decisions based on false information? How many salesmen were as ignorant or unscrupulous as the one we had overheard? We thought times had changed since our first Mystery Shopper article in the spring of 1979, but perhaps they hadn't. We had to know.

So, one day in March between snowstorms, we disguised ourselves (not too cleverly) as a young suburban couple in search of the ideal computer. We were Andy and Betty Johnson, parents of two bright young children (we had to say they were bright or the salesmen would have become suspicious), Timothy, age 10, and Pennington, age 5. Andy, we decided, would be a marketing executive at a large communications company in the area, and Betty would be a freelance writer. We wanted a computer that could handle serious word processing, spreadsheet analysis, and educational programs. Prodigious Information at Prodigy

Our first stop was Prodigy Computer Center in East Hanover, NJ. We walked in the door and barely had time to pick out "The quick brown fox..." on an IBM PC keyboard before a salesman was upon us. "Hi, folks. What can I do for you?"

Somewhat timidly, since we were newlyweds, we stammered, "we think we're looking for a computer, but we don't really know what kind."

He took the bait: "Well, first of all, my name is Danny. Welcome to our store." He told us that computers were becoming "a way of life--almost a necessity these days."

Then he made the statement that we had heard ourselves utter so many hundreds of times over the years: "First of all you narrow your choices by deciding on your applications, and then you narrow it further by deciding on your price range." We listed our proposed applications, starting with word processing.

"There are various levels of word processing," Danny explained. "You can buy a complete word processing setup for as little as $2500 or you can buy one for $6000. Obviously, there's a difference..."

Andy blanched convincingly. "$6000 is out-right out of the ballpark. We're talking $2500 to $3000 max."

"OK, then, what else do you want to do?" asked Danny, undaunted.

We told him that educational applications were a high priority.

"It's very important that I know that kind of stuff, because there are machines that don't have that kind of software. Like the IBM PC has very little, where the Apple IIe has thousands and thousands of educational software packages.

"It's a very fine machine simply because there is so much available for it. You can tailor the machine for your needs: you can get a package for anything from dog grooming to sheep herding. Half the stuff you see around here is Apple software. And it's a very expandable machine. Let's take a look at it."

We walked over to the Apple, which was displaying a syntax error, and Danny launched into a balanced discussion of printers and convinced us that we needed neither letter quality nor friction feed.

"You're talking about a one-drive system with a printer for about $2000."

"Do we need two disk drives?" Andy asked.

"Some applications require two drives, but word processing and spreadsheets you can do with just one. However, your optimum system is this right here. It's a two-drive system with 128K and a monitor for $1795. Then you would just tack on whatever kind of printer you wanted and your word processing and spreadsheet programs. It would be just about $3000 with software."

We asked about the future of the Apple and gave Danny a chance to steer us to IBM by saying that we had heard that the educational software situation was changing. He wouldn't bite.

"It's a $5000 machine. There just aren't that many of them in the home. It isn't the thrust of the machine."

"What about the baby IBM?" we inquired.

"Well, that machine really isn't geared for word processing," he answered. "If you know how to type, you'll go berserk with that thing."

"What about the new Apple" we asked, feeling ornery. "isn't that going to replace the IIe? Everybody seems to be going crazy about that machine."

Patiently, Danny walked us over to the Macintosh and gave us an impressive demo. "The only flaw with this machine is that there is no educational software and probably will not be for a while. Again, the thrust of this machine is the business market."

We discussed at length the possibility of buying a Mac for Dad and "something really cheap" for the kids, but came back to the idea of one computer to do everything--an Apple IIe to do everything.

"Yes, but this seems light years ahead of the IIe," Andy lamented.

"It's light years ahead of everything else we have in the store, but you have to sit down and say 'Well, right now all I can do is graphics and word processing and Multiplan.'"

"But I'm really taken with this machine; we're going to have to give this some thought," Andy said.

"You're about to say 'the heck with the kids,' aren't you?" asked Betty in an accusatory tone.

"I sure am," he muttered. "We're going to have to get back to you on this, Danny." Poor Pitiful Paul

Across the road at a Radio Shack Computer Center we made the acquaintance of Paul, a young salesman with a scraggly mustache and gravy stains on his tie.

Again--this time with a great deal more confidence--we described our needs. Deftly sidestepping the question of educational software for a five-year-old, Paul led us to a TRS-80 Model 4.

"Now, you mentioned VisiCalc, which is why I showed you this machine. This is more or less the most compact machine that will run all the applications you've talked about, and it happens to be on sale this month--I'm on page 22 of the catalog--for $1799.

"There is also a one-disk version. As far as the applications you mentioned--word processing and spreadsheet--those will all run on one disk. The second disk is nice to have for making backups."

We talked a little more about our needs, establishing firmly in everyone's mind that while our computer was not going to be used in an office, we did not want to buy a toy. We reminded Paul that one of our priorities was educational software for our youngsters.

"Let me treat the kids first, then," he volunteered. "The real avenue to go with kids--what they teach them in school--is the programming language called Basic, and this machine runs Basic. We have some pre-programmed Basic courses that run on this machine. Also there are lots of books, and we have classes here.

"But for word processing, you don't have to know any programming. The word processing package is called SuperScripsit."

Paul then turned on the Model 4 and, after a few false starts, loaded SuperScripsit from the Winchester drive. He went quickly through the startup procedures and then called up his demo document, which was set up in two-column format. We noted that at no time did he offer to demonstrate the editing features of SuperScripsit.

"Now let's print this out," said Paul, leaning over to turn on the attached printer. As the printer hummed away, Paul assured us that we could learn word processing in "an evening or two."

Then, suddenly, the demo fell apart. The printer paper had been loaded incorrectly, and Paul's tidy columns were printing on top of each other and totally out of alignment.

Trying to regain his composure, Paul assured us that the source of the problem was that the last person to use the printer had adjusted the tractors improperly.

"Anyway," he continued, "the purpose of that particular document was to show how it scrolls back up to the top of the page and prints the second column--which it didn't do."

Paul decided to cut his word processing losses, and shifted the discussion to spreadsheets, pointing out that there were two available for the Model 4.

"Multiplan," he told us, "includes quite a few improvements over VisiCalc." He went on to build a convincing case for the superiority of Multiplan over VisiCalc in terms of user-friendliness, which, he allowed, did result in a slight loss of speed when compared to VisiCalc.

Our discussion of speed and user-friendliness led us naturally to Betty's request that Paul compare the Model 4 with the Apple IIe.

"I don't know the Apple IIe that well, responded Paul, with a great deal less embarrassment than was warranted.

Andy told him that we had just looked at one, and that it was in the same price range as the Radio Shack machine.

"Yeah, this machine is our entry in that market, for sure," said Paul hesitantly. "The Apple has external drives, if I'm not mistaken. It's all one unit, right? You have the monitor on there and everything," he stammered, missing a perfect opportunity to offer a comparison of the 40-column Apple screen with the 80 columns standard on the Model 4.

Regaining his composure again, Paul redeemed himself by reiterating the all important consideration: "When comparing computers, the most important thing is to look at the software."

But he floundered again where he suggested that "from a strictly technological standpoint, they are compatible machines. How much memory comes standard on the Apple?" 64K, we told him.

Dropping that subject instantly, he moved on to a discussion of "RS-232, a port for communicating with other computers, either by the phone or hardwired. I don't remember if the Apple has RS-232 standard; I think it's an add-on. In the case of this computer, if you buy the two-drive system, it is included. With the one-drive system, it is a $100 add-on."

Changing gears again, Paul reiterated the importance of software. Andy responded by mentioning the large number of educational packages available for the Apple.

Paul opened the catalog to a page of game software, and pointed out that "this is probably not what you mean by educational software." We agreed.

Fumbling through a few pages of the catalog, he came at last to the education section and noted that much of what we saw advertised there was intended to be used in the classroom. Betty pointed out some Sesame Street programs that she thought would be good for little Penny. Paul agreed, and then noticed that those packages were available only for that Color Computer. "Why don't you just take the catalog home and study it," he suggested.

Another quick change of topic and we were listening to the virtues of Radio Shack service. "I don't know much about Apple's marketing," he admitted, "but when you buy a Radio Shack product and Radio Shack software and a Radio Shack printer, we owe for the life of the equipment--which is essentially forever--to help you with it; to answer questions, be they about malfunctions, which doesn't happen often, or just user problems.

"With the Apple, you're buying an Apple computer, an Okidata printer, and your software comes from So and So Software Associates in Palo Alto, CA. when you have a problem, you dial area code California; you get I'm sorry, all our lines are busy...'"

He went on to describe the service facilities at his store, which included not only himself, but a full-time customer service representative "whose job it is just to support technical and software questions. And if he can't answer your question, he, then, makes the long distance call for you."

After a brief digression during which we learned that the Model 100 was definitely not for us, Paul asked us to have a look at a printer that would be better suited to our needs than the long-carriage model attached to the Model 4.

"And besides, this one eats paper," quipped Betty.

"No, no! Let me explain again what happened," said Paul with a note of hysteria in his voice.

He did explain again the problems of two-column printing and then offered to show us a sample of the word processing mode print of a smaller dot matrix unit. But after much fussing with paper and producing something that resemble a moire pattern, Paul blamed the same gremlin who had foiled his earlier demo, and we said we could discuss printers another day.

After we purchased some batteries to power our hidden tape recorder, Paul gave us a business card with the name Peter Olson crossed out in pen and Paul White written in below.

"I'm Paul. If you have any questions..."

"You're not Peter Olson?" interrupted Betty.

"No, I'm not. For some reason he rates cards because he's not here, and I don't because I am."

As we were walking out the door, we noticed and commented on a package containing a TRS-80 Color Mouse. It was then that Paul made his only meaningful comment on his competition.

He implied that mice are highly overrated and asked if we had seen the Macintosh. Andy's eyes misted over as his sighed, "Yes, Prodigy had one."

"Well, if you're going to do a lot of typing, think about having to take your hands off the keyboard to move the cursor around."

We hadn't thought about that, and when we did, the Macintosh lost some of its appeal.

Paul closed by reminding us that we would certainly want to make our decision by the 31st of the month so we could take advantage of the sale on the Model 4. We assured him that we would. K-Mart Marvin Tells It Like It Is

Slightly disappointed that we had not yet been given any really bad advice, we pushed on to our local K-Mart where some people will think we got the best advice of the day.

We sauntered up to a working TI99/4A, and Andy asked "Can we get a terrific buy on this?"

"It's not for sale," grumbled K-Mart Marvin from behind the counter. "This is used for demonstration of software. It's the last of the Mohicans. But Texas Instruments is considering reinstating their product."

"You're kidding!" we chorused.

"I wouldn't lie to you, sir. Maybe, perhaps an improved version or a little more professional. It was one of the best of the home computers."

"No kidding," said Andy, careful not to give away his editorial status by flaunting his vocabulary.

"Because, you see, if you are familiar with economics, they have what is known as the Peter Principle--people are promoted up to their level of incompetence. And they had it at Texas Instruments--incompetence. They had a good product and they didn't know how to handle it."

"Well, we are interested in buying a computer," said Betty, "If you won't sell us that one, what else can you show us?"

"Let me tell you about all of them; by the time I finish, you'll be in tears.

"Commodore products have 20 to 30 percent returns--you sell 100, 20 to 30 come back."

"Is that figure based on your own experience?" we asked.

"No, it was a Wall Street Journal survey."

WE asked how his experience corresponded with that survey.

"Twenty to thirty out of a hundred--if not even more. So you may get a good one..."

"Do, we get to run through as many as we need?" asked Andy with a grin.

"You get a 30-day guarantee. Some people buy them, but after the guarantee we don't know what happens. Because most people--I would say 75 percent--buy them on an impulse. They think they want it and they don't know what they're buying."

"Is that us?" Andy asked Betty.

"Oh, I think we're convinced," she replied. "We want one."

"Yes, we want one, but we don't know what we want."

Marvin grabbed the bait and spit it out: "I would bide my time, since there is no immediate rush. There was a big demand over the holidays, and they evaporated most of the items they had in stock, so now they are trying to get replacement models for them.

"But I would say that as time goes on, they'll gather a little dust, and they'll probably start giving rebates and discounts. So I would bide my time; new models come out all the time.

"I would get a better quality product if I could. Why buy something for $200 and have a headache when you get something for $400 that's trouble free?

We asked about the Atari computers that were running at the other end of the counter.

From behind Marvin a woman who had been engrossed with an adding machine piped up. "do you know how to compute now?"

"No, we're just getting started. We want to get a computer."

"I'm telling them about 20 to 30 percent returns."

"But what about the Atari?" Betty inquired.

"I think they are overpriced. We never had too much success on the Atari," opined the ever-optimistic Mary.

"The Atari doesn't even come with the Basic language. You have to buy that. It doesn't really have that much," volunteered the woman, whose name badge we couldn't read.

Having laid to rest any notions we might have had about buying an Atari, Marvin and the woman mused about the 99/4A and speculated on the possibility that it might be available at 47th Street Photo in New York.

Trying to get the conversation back on track, Andy asked about the price of the Vic 20.

"$84.97, and $199.97 for the 64, but you can't use all 64K of the memory, because when you use the accessories it uses up about 32 of the K out of the 64."

"Well, thanks for your advice," Andy said. "I guess we'll wait a while."

"Take my advice," said Marvin, "spend the money on yourselves."

"But they want to compute," wailed the woman from the background.

"No, no. They don't need it," said Marvin, raising his voice for the first time in 15 minutes.

Leaving the salespeople to squabble in peace, we slipped into the crowd of K-Mart shoppers and bolted for the door. Adam and Steve

Our next stop was Bamberger's, a local department store chain. At the store in Livingston Mall, we found computers adjacent to the portable typewritter counter.

We saw a Pet 64, a Commodore 64, and a Coleco Adam--the only one we saw in our travels. There was a poster extolling the virtues of Atari computers, but there was no Atari in sight.

Nor was there a salesman in sight. So we tried to attract attention by turning on the Adam and typing on the platen by pressing the numbers on the keypad. The condition of the platen told us that we were not the first shoppers to while away the hours in this manner, but the sales staff remained unconcerned.

After 10 minutes of fussing with the Adam and the 64 trying not to look as if we knew anything about them, and listening to a dozen kids play "The Entertainer" with varying degrees of lack of skill on the nearby Casio keyboards, we went to the typewriter counter and asked if anyone could tell us something about computers.

"That would be Steve," replied the only salesman in sight. "He just stepped away. He'll be right back."

Ten minutes later, we still had seen no sign of Steve, so we headed for greener pastures around the corner at Bamberger's full fledged Computer Center.

There we met Norm to whom we told our by now very well rehearsed life story, and asked for his advice.

He wasted no time in ushering us to an Epson QX-10--the first we had seen that day.

A man of few words, Norm rattled off the features of the QX-10 and told us we could have it all for $2995.

"That would take care of what you want to use it for, except, of course, for buying educational software and a spreadsheet for it."

"Is there much educational software for it?" asked Betty.

"It's just starting to come through now. We have a shipment of Acorn educational software coming that should be here today. But for $2995 you get all that, so it's really the best dollar value."

Eyes misty again, Andy interrupted, "I can get a Mac for $2,995."

"With the Mac for $2995, you get a portable, much smaller screen, one disk drive, and 128K of memory. You also get MacWrite and MacPaint, but no educational software. And I couldn't sell you a Mac for another eight weeks.

"The thing about the QX-10 is that it comes with a lot of power. It's expandable; you can buy in the next couple weeks the IBM expansion board that will enable it to run IBM software for $395.

"Every Epson customer I have is waiting for that board to come in. Because I think this hardware is much better than the IBM."

We asked about the printer that would come with the Epson, and Norm led us over to an MX-80FT that was hooked up to a PCjr.

"I guess we don't want one of these," said Andy pointing to the jr.

"I don't recommend the PCjr to anybody. The only people I have sold PCjrs to are people who come in and say specifically, 'I want to buy a PCjr.' If I have to recommend something, I don't recommend the PCjr. It's a very difficult machine to make good use of.

"It's fine, I guess, for kids, to do educational stuff. But not for word processing just because the keyboard is horrendous.

"And it will never go past one drive. And it will never go past 128K. And it's still expensive. You don't get Basic; you don't get the disk operating system. If you want to hook it up to your TV set, it will cost you $1500 just to walk out of here."

Getting back to the business at hand, betty asked Norm to compare the QX-10 to the Apple IIe.

"The QX-10 is a much more powerful machine; the IIe has more software available for it. But, of course, with the IBM expansion board for the QX-10, you have all the educational software for the IBM available."

We asked Norm about the Adam we had seen outside. He said that he thought that Coleco had solved the problems that had originally beset the Adam, but that now the problem was software. "They have absolutely nothing available today, and they're talking a couple of months before the next software package comes out for it."

As we walked over to the counter to collect a packet of literature Norm had for us, we asked what word processing program he would recommend for the Apple. He thought PFS: Write and Apple-writer II were the best choices for our needs.

We collected our literature and left the relative calm of the Computer Center to continue waiting for Steve. After another 10 minutes, we concluded that Steve's last name was probably Godot and left.

Several days later, we returned to Steve's corner of Bamberger's to find that the Coleco Adam had joined Steve in Never Never Land. The stand was still there, but nothing had been brought in to take its place. This time we didn't bother to wait for Steve. Computers: Games or Gadgets?

Just outside of Bamberger's on the main level of the Mall, we noticed Games and Gadgets, a small video store. They had Commodore and Atari computers on display along with game systems and vast quantities of game software.

We entered and once again told our story to the saleswoman. We asked for her recommendation.

"I'm personally using a Commodore 64."

"And doing all those things?" Andy asked incredulously.

"Yes, I have a Bank Street Writer program that does just about everything you want. And my kids play games on it--just about every game you could want is available for the Commodore 64.

"There is a spreadsheet for it, but I don't use it, so I don't know much about it."

"We've heard some scary things about the C64," said Andy.

"Like what?"

"Like they don't work."

"Some don't; some do. But anything electronic is that way. If it doesn't work, you bring it back and get another one.

"The Ataris are good, but they are limited, because the Basic language in Atari is more than Basic in the Commodore 64. I taught myself Basic on the Commodore 64, so it's fairly easy to learn. It's fairly sturdy; the kids don't seem to be able to do too much to it..."

We asked about the TI 99/4A that was running nearby.

"If you can get your hands on one, it's a good buy," she replied. "It's an excellent computer--no question about it. The problem with TI is that its language is also very specific to TI and not easily transferable to another computer.

"There is lots of software for it; lots of people are now making software for it. But Texas Instruments is no longer making the computer.

"Somebody else is going to pick it up, but no one has yet."

We seized on this bit of intelligence and asked for clarification.

"Oh, yes, somebody is going to. Definitely. No question about it. The patent has already been sold, but we don't know to who yet. And Texas Instruments right now is sitting on three million chips for software, so there's going to be plenty of software."

We looked at printers for a moment and remarked on the low prices of the units on display. The saleswoman told us that they did not carry expensive models because they did not have that kind of customer.

"If you really want to get sophisticated," she said, "I'd say to go to the IBM PC--not the PCjr, the regular PC."

She closed by saying that her colleague, who had been fidgeting with the C64 while we talked, was very knowledgeable and would be glad to answer our questions when he was free. Gem of a Salesman

Futher on down the Mall we stumbled into Gem Electronics, where we saw Atari and Commodore computers in a glass display case near the front of the store. The price tags on the machines carried the full list prices. We went over to the cash register where the only two employees in the store were standing and described our needs.

One of the young men behind the counter replied, "Well, the Commodore has a couple of advantages, one of which is cheaper hardware. For the word processing, you will need a printer and disk drive, and you'll save a little over $2000 on the hardware.

"And the Commodore word processing program is supposed to be excellent. It's supposed to be one of the easiest to use.

"The advantage of the Atari is software availability."

From the other end of the counter, his colleague disagreed. "Actually, now it's going the other way; there's more for the Commodore."

"What about educational software?" Betty asked. "Which one would have more?"

"Probably the Atari," he replied.

Silence fell between us, and after a few moments of awkwardness, we thanked him for his time and pushed on to Sears. Seared at Sears

Like Bamberger's, Sears had its computers on display alongside the typewriters and cameras. There in the case, next to the Polaroids and Canons, we saw Ataris, Commodores, and a naked TI disk drive.

We engaged in an animated discussion of the computers, hoping to attract the attention of the overweight adolescent in charge of the small section. When, however, after 10 minutes she had failed to so much as acknowledge our presence, we concluded that her commission on film sales was larger than her commission on computers and left. ComputerLand #1--Or Is It?

The ComputerLand in Morristown, NJ, was the first ComputerLand franchise in the nation. Creative Computing has been doing business with them off and on for years, and our experiences with them led us to approach this last store on our journey with something less than optimism. But we hadn't been in the store for quite some time, so maybe things had changed.

Before we evern entered the store, we noticed a woman with a car full of Compaq computers. Every cubic inch of the car, except for the driver's seat was occupied by Compaq boxes. "Either ComputerLand has done one heck of a sales of a job on that woman, or she's using the boxes for Christmas tree ornaments, "joked a very weary Andy.

Once inside, we realized that times really had changed. Most of our differences with ComputerLand had been over repairs and nonreparis of our Apples. Now the store that we once suspected of having its interior decoration done by the marketing department at Apple looked more like an office automation center; Apple Computers were conspicuous only by their absence.

We ambled over to a Compaq, and while we were admiring its sleek lines, Kathy came over and asked if she could help us.

"We think we want to buy a computer, but we're not sure which one."

She scored big points by immediately asking what we wanted to do with it and refining our answers. Then she made her recommendation: "I would suggest either a PC or a Compaq; Compaq is the IBM compatible."

"Is that what this lady is buying 20 of?" asked Andy, pointing to the woman who was trying to cram still more computers in her car.

"They are for AT&T. They bought 200 of them."

For a moment it looked as if our decision had been made for us. With a recommendation like that, how could we consider anything else? But we decided to see what Kathy had to say about the various machines in the store.

She described the Compaq with 256K, two disk drives, and IBM compatibility, "which means that any software that runs on IBM will also run on the Compaq, and as far as software goes, there is the most out there for IBM."

"Including educational software?" asked Betty, feeling like a broken record. "Someone told us that the most educational software is available for the Apple."

"That might be true," answered Kathy, "but there are literally hundreds of packages out there."

"But why would we buy the Compaq instead of the IBM?" Andy wanted to know.

"No reason," said Kathy, "unless the portability means a lot." She went on to explain the complexities of the IBM monochrome and color monitors and the necessity of deciding in advance whether we wanted to do graphics on our machine.

We then spied the PCjr on the other side of the store and asked whether it would be reasonable to consider that.

"If you want a spreadsheet, that's probably out, and there's not that much software available for it yet. The more you use a computer, the more you discover that you can do with it, and you just couldn't do much with that. And a full blown PCjr costs about $2900..."

"I thought it was $700," said Andy incredulously.

"Oh, that's the entry level system, which would be fine for little kids or to play games, but that's about it. If you're going to spend $3000, spend another $500 or $600 more and get a regular PC."

We then looked at the HP 150 with its touch screen, and Kathy gave us a abbreviated demo, confessing that the machine had been in the store for only a short time and she was not very familiar with it. She seemed to think that it was a good machine, but she didn't try to push it.

As we made our way to the door, Kathy whipped out two spec sheets--one for the Compaq and the one for the IBM PC. The one for the Compaq was simple and straightforward: $3595 for the computer plus $595 for the printer for a total of $4190. Then she went over the IBM laundry list: $2104 for the 64K CPU with one disk drive; $595 for the second disk drive; $595 for the printer; $55 for the printer cable; $40 for DOS and Basic; $595 for the Quadboard; $680 for the color display; and $244 for the color graphics adaptor for a total of $4842. We began to suspect that the buyers at AT&T were on the right track.

Kathy wanted to know what other machines we were considering. We told her about Prodigy, and before Andy finished pronouncing the O in Radio Shack, she interrupted:

"Radio Shack. As far as support goes, I don't know how much I would count on them. They'll be there forever, but I just don't know hw knowledgeable they are on the computer aspects.

"We have people who come in here and say 'You're a few hundred dollars more expensive than Radio Shack.' We say, 'OK, then, go to Radio Shack.'

"Then all of a sudden they are calling us up asking for advice, and we say 'Fine, that will be$70 an hour for our consulting time.'"

On that encouraging note, we thanked Kathy for her time and staggered home. So What?

So, what did we conclude after a long day of computer shopping? What do you need to keep in mind as you shop for a computer, whether it be your first, second, or tenth?

We concluded that while the state of the art in computer sales has not advanced quite as rapidly as the state of the art in computer manufacture, it has certainly made great strides in the past five years. With a few exceptions, most of the people with whom we talked knew the hardware they were selling. (K-Mart Marvin knew his hardware so well, he talked himself out of sale.) All of them were able to make responsible comparisons of the various machines sold in their stores.

The most important thing that everyone with whom we spoke did right was ask the all-important question: What do you want to do with the computer? Then, having defined our needs, they made appropriate suggestions, being careful not to confuse us with informatio about machines that were not suitable.

They were all realistic about our needs and our financial limitations. Danny, for instance, did not push the Macintosh even though Andy was clearly smitten with it. He doggedly steered us back to the less expensive IIe because he was convinced that it was the right computer for what we wanted to do.

All of the salespeople, with the exception of those in Gem Electronics and Sears, were reasonably polite, articulate, and personable. They were eager to help but not pushy. Not a single one tried to force us commit ourselves to a purchase on the spot, even though we told them all that we had made up our minds to buy a computer "very soon." And all of them gave us their undivided attention during the time we were with them.

There was very little disparagement of competitors. Most of the salespeople used what limited knowledge they had of their competitors to offer us as balanced a comparison as could be expected.

On the negative side: Perhaps the most serious flaw in the salespeople with whom we spoke was their lack of familiarity with the available software. While we did not expect each individual salesperson to be familiar with every software package for every computer in his store, we expected a bit more knowledge than we found. Most of them were completely at ease with the demonstration software running on their computers, but when it came to recommending something else, it seemed that each knew only one or two other packages to mention. Only Paul at Radio Shack offered any support for his software recommendations; with the others, we had the feeling that their suggestions might have been based on familiarity with a name rather than with a product.

In fact, we felt that software, in general, was given short shrift in all of the sales presentations. Danny and Kathy alluded to the added expense of software, but no one really urged us to allocate any of our $3000 computer budget for software. The rule of thumb we normally use in apportioning the cost of a complete computer system is: 70 percent for hardware and 30 percent for software. None of the salespeople with whom we dealt did anything to dispel the myth common among computer neophytes that software is--or at least ought to be--free. This is an oversight that could be at least as damaging to them and theri stores as it is to be computer buyer. We often hear hardware compared to razors and software to razor blade, and these salespeople were all ready to abandon the blades in favor of the razors--a choice their employees might not have endorsed.

We also expected our salespeople to know their competition better than they did. Most of them missed at least one chance to point out the superiority of their product over a competitor simply because they did not know even the basic characteristics of the competing product.

Another area in which they fell short was the discussion of support. Paul at Radio Shack and Kathy at ComputerLand were the only ones who even mentioned support. Perhaps the others hoped that we were naive enough to believe that manuals are intelligible and computers can stay healthy forever. Perhaps they thought that the mention of repair facilities would cast a pall over the discussion.

As we expected, the stores that specialized in computers had the best salespeople. Those that carried computers as an adjunct to their primary line of games or other electronic equipment had obviously not offered their salespeople any training in computer sales. Some of them, like K-Marvin, had picked up enough information to be helpful to their customers, although not necessarily in the way their employers would have chosen. Others were basically useless.

We were very surprised to note that no one in any of the stores had anything good to say about the PCjr. Nor were the new Atari computers on anybody's recommended list. We wonder if manufacturers realize how much of their marketing effort swirls down the drain at the point of sale.

Yes, times have changed. You stand a better chance of getting good advice when buying a computer now than you did five years ago, but still the best advice we can offer is to know basically what you want before you go to the store. Find out as much as you can about the computers that interest you before you go to a store. Read magazines and talk to friends who have computers. Rely on these sources, too, for information about software; do not expect salespeople to be familiar with even a small portion of the software on the market. Then, armed with as much information as you can get, head for the nearest reputable computer store to put the finishing touches on your decision.