As soon as I opened the big box and saw the new Adam home computer, I knew I'd be giving the folks at Coleco an "A" for ingenuity.

Somebody at Coleco took an intelligent look at the home computer market and figured out exactly what was needed: a total computer system, complete with letter-quality printer, software, cables and even a game, all priced way under $1,000.

Sadly, though, getting the idea is only half the battle; on the second half--making the idea work--Coleco still has a ways to go. Based on a month's use of the two review models the firm sent me, I would have to stretch to give Adam a gentleman's "C" for performance.

I trust Coleco will find ways to solve the problems, because the new Adam is a perfect example of the marketing technique known as "nichemanship." Whether through brilliance or luck I cannot say, but Coleco has entered the home computer market's "low end" (meaning a complete system for under $1,000) at precisely the right time.

Texas Instruments and Mattel have dropped out of that market. Atari, which closed its domestic factory (eliminating more than 1,000 American jobs), has discovered--ah, sweet justice!--that its new Asian manufacturers simply can't produce. Thus the Commodore 64 largely has this market to itself right now.

The family looking for a computer it can use--to write letters, organize financial data, teach the kids how to use computers--has not had much choice, at least not in a reasonable price range.

But now, for a list price of $700 (discounted to $600 at some stores), Adam offers a computer with a lot of RAM random access memory and strong graphics capabilities; a separate keyboard; a daisy-wheel printer; a "digital data pack" memory device (i.e., a fast tape casette); a word-processing program, and a BASIC interpreter.

Adam also provides a video-game player that will take all ColecoVision cartridges; one game; two joysticks, and all of the cables needed to hook up the family television and start computing. The package even includes the three-pronged adapter needed to plug Adam into a normal wall socket.

I really like the keyboard. It is a comfortable, solid piece of gear, easy to use either on a table or just resting on your lap. I am sitting here banging out this review on it right now and thinking that it's as good as the keyboards on a lot of computers that are priced far higher.

The cassette ("data pack") memory seems a reasonable compromise between a disk drive and a normal tape memory drive. It is about five times slower than the former, and two to three times faster than the latter. It took about 70 seconds to store this review on the tape. A 50-line BASIC program takes from 50 to 70 seconds to store or retrieve.

At first blush, the task of turning all of the various cables and components into a working system seems formidable. In fact, we found it to be a piece of cake; the whole thing was put together and seated nicely on a shelf near our TV within 15 minutes.

But then we wanted to use the computer. We sat down to read the instruction manuals. That's where our trouble began.

The two key books that come with Adam--one on the word-processing software and one for BASIC--are both wholly inadequate: unorganized, incomplete, inaccurate and generally inexcusable.

This is not a terribly serious problem for word processing, because the program itself has enough prompts and guides built in so that you can perform reasonably well without instructions. We found the program (called "Smartwriter") easy to use and well-designed. It has many of the features of expensive programs, including a search-and-replace function.

But if a question pops up--we never could get the automatic page-numbering feature to work, for example--you're at the mercy of the manual, which means you're out of luck.

"When you delete a file, it is erased from the data pack and can no longer be recalled," the manual says. Not so; the file is preserved in a backup directory. But unless you're willing to experiment with the various function keys--which is the only real way to determine how the program works--you'll never see your backup file again.

The real disaster of the Adam documentation, though, is the BASIC manual. Even by the standards of computer books, where clarity is rarely a watchword, this volume is a travesty. The examples are stupid, the explanations of commands are incomplete and sometimes wrong.

Furthermore, the manual has no index and three separate tables of contents (why?). The table that is supposed to explain error messages naturally fails to include the most common message ("Illegal form of OS command," whatever that means.)

Although Adam is clearly able to produce a wide variety of sounds, the BASIC manual provides zero explanation of how to do so. Adam's BASIC has "peek" and "poke" commands, but the manual offers no memory information to make them usable.

The saving grace is that Adam's "SmartBASIC" is generally compatible with AppleSoft BASIC, about which there are many fine books. We finally threw out the Adam manual and bought an AppleSoft guidebook, and were able to produce some lively and colorful programs. Even this was limited, though, because we could not use any AppleSoft program employing "peek" or "poke."

A more serious flaw with Adam is in the hardware. Although I liked the computer and found myself looking forward to using it, we were regularly frustrated by breakdowns.

One casette "data pack" locked up so none of the programs on it could be retrieved. The first printer we received flatly refused to print an even margin; sometimes it printed an entire file without moving the carriage, so we ended up with a single large black blob instead of a neat business letter on the page.

The key problem here is that the power supply for the whole computer is in the printer; if you have to take the printer in for repair, your whole computer becomes inoperable. Coleco sent us a new printer (something that is done for reviewers, but probably not for ordinary customers), which printed beautifully for two weeks and then came down with a loud terminal hum and refused to work at all.

Can I recommend Adam for the family that wants a reasonably priced computer? I'd dearly like to, because Adam is a nice package already, and will be a better one when some planned add-ons, including the CP/M operating system, a modem and a disk drive, become available.

For the time being, though, I'd advise you to proceed with caution. If you're looking for a family computer, take a look at Adam. But make it a hard look--take the unit out of the box and put it through its paces before you take it home.