Buying a copy of a desktop-computer magazine may be the easiest way to survey the computer scene without destroying your checking account.

But nothing beats talking to ordinary people like yourself who've taken the plunge and bought themselves a home computer system.

Those people aren't hard to find. All you have to do is attend one of the monthly meetings of a computer-users' group.

Simply speaking, a "user group" is nothing more than a computer club created by owners of Apples, IBMs, Trs-80s, Ataris or other computers.

There are at least a half-dozen computer brands represented by user groups locally, and more are starting up each month. Their popularity stems from the fact that they offer owners a chance to discuss problems, show off and share new programs, pass on the latest info on new developments, and even buy at substantial savings programs and computer "peripherals"--equipment other than the computer itself. And the members will gladly pass on to you where, in their opinion, the best places to shop are.

And, unlike a retail store, users' groups are invariably "user friendly."

"We have people such as you show up at our meetings all the time," says Bernard Urban, one of the cofounders of Apple Pi, the major Apple Computer users' group locally. "And they have themselves a ball."

Incidently, when he refers to "people such as" me, he's talking about the ignorant of the world who have no background in computers or their use.

"What usually happens is that I'll get a call out of the blue from someone like you who'll say he doesn't want to get his information from a salesman about whether he should get a computer," says Urban. "We're organized to help those people at each meeting. We have an info table set up for them as they come in the door."

"I routinely get calls from around the country," says Ted Landberg, an officer in the IBM personal computer users' club. "We're glad to help."

Apple Pi is the largest user group in the area, with about 1,600 members. Both it and the IBM group, which has grown from 40 to 300 members in six months, meet (but at different times) in the auditorium of the Uniform Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS) at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda (4301 Jones Bridge Rd.). For more information about the Apple meetings, call 301-621-2719. For information about the IBM group, called Capital PC, you can call Landberg at 460-1295 or Mike Todd at 561-5187.

About as large as Capital PC is the TRS-80 group--they use the Radio Shack/Tandy Corp. computer.

"We talk about rumors about the company, about new products, then we'll open up the floor for" discussions about new software, says Don Gruenther (820-6847). "Usually someone will raise their hand and ask about what computer they should buy and then someone else will raise their hand and say, 'meet me afterwards.' That's how we do it."

There are others, such as Novatari, which is an Atari group (Tom Bartelt 476-8385 or Paul Chapin 476-5950), a Texas Instruments users' group (Carroll Eddy 631-1744), and an Osborn group (Michael Canyes 559-1280).

If a users' group for the computer you're interested in isn't listed here, or you're in another geographical area, simply check the Yellow Pages for a store near you that carries the model. Then call them and ask for the phone number of the local users' club. Chances are they'll have it--if there is one.