Computer programmers call them TSRs (for "terminate and stay resident"). Others call them "RAM-resident utilities." To many users, they are known simply as "pop-ups." They are handy little programs that are always available, even in the midst of another program. Many users of IBM-standard personal computers swear by them, but sometimes they swear at them because they can cause major problems. Now there's help.

The reason for the popularity of these little programs is simple. No longer do you have to exit your spreadsheet and load a different program just to dash off a simple memo, look up a phone number, do a little math or format a disk. There are also RAM-resident keyboard "macro" programs to make one keystroke do the work of many. Others set screen colors, speed up your cursor or give you instant control over your printer.

Many users like to have several of these programs in background memory at once. The problem is they often don't get along with each other and with your main applications. The "hot key" that brings the pop-up into play sometimes turns out to be a key combination that your main program already uses. Some pop-ups allow you to change the hot key. Some don't.

And some, like the wildly popular Sidekick, insist on being loaded after all others. Obviously, you can't use more than one that requires that. Worst of all, these programs can cause your system to crash. You have to experiment to find out which programs get along with which, and in what order they must be loaded. In addition, some programs provide no way to unload them from memory without restarting your system.

Now there are RAM-resident utilities to give you better control over your RAM-resident utilities. They range from simple public-domain programs available free to more elaborate commercial packages costing as much as $79.95.

First the freebies. Best known is a pair of programs called Mark and Release. They allow RAM-resident programs to be loaded into marked memory layers, which can later be cleared on a last-in first-out basis. They are available from bulletin boards and user group libraries, including the Capital PC User Group Library, Box 6128, Silver Spring, Md. Ask for disk 62 and include a self-addressed mailing label and a check for $8 to cover handling.

A similar pair of programs, called Install and Remove, was published in the the August issue of PC Magazine. You can either type them in from the magazine or call the magazine's bulletin board at 212-696-0360. Set your modem at 1200-N-8-1. Some local bulletin boards and user groups also have these programs.

The simplest of the commercial programs is Popdrop, which works much like the two above. But the latest release of Popdrop also allows programs in memory to be deactivated as well as removed. Thus, if you have a hot-key clash or other incompatibility problem, you can deactivate the offending program, then turn it back on later.

Popdrop also has a useful "view" feature that puts a diagram of your computer's memory on your screen showing each layer and its size. With later versions of DOS, it also shows what programs are loaded in each layer. It also shows what programs have been loaded before Popdrop. None of the other programs does this.

Popdrop is available for $49.95 plus $5 shipping from InfoStructures Inc., P.O. Box 32617, Tucson, Ariz., 85751.

More complex, but still easy to use, is ResMan (short for Resident Memory Manager). Once loaded (it takes about 15K), ResMan can be summoned at any time by a hot ; 1/4. It shows what programs are loaded in what order. You may deactivate or remove any program you wish. There is also a useful "uncrash" feature that can allow you to exit any program that is "hung" without restarting your system.

ResMan is available for $79.95 from DOS Enhancements, P.O. Box 1703, Silver Spring, 20902.

Finally, there is the ambitious package Referee, which is actually a set of programs. The core program, called Refwatch, must be loaded ahead of any resident utilities. It consumes about 25K of memory, which makes it quite a dose. You may then use a second program to activate, deactivate or unload your pop-ups. You can even set up Referee so that it will automatically activate or deactivate certain pop-ups while using certain applications.

Referee includes a third program, Sideline, which functions much like ResMan. But it consumes another 15K or so. It is available for $69.95 from Persoft, 465 Science Drive, Madison, Wis. 53791.

The best values here are the two public-domain programs. Of the commercial packages, ResMan is the easiest to use, but it is also the most expensive -- too expensive in my opinion. PopDrop is also easy to use and it gives you the best picture of what's going on in your computer's memory. It also consumes the least memory.

Referee is just too complex. While the instructions for the other two programs consume only a page or two, Referee has a booklet that goes on for 57 pages. It uses too much memory and, like the others, costs too much.

Brit Hume is a contributor to the Washington Post Writers Group. Hume is an ABC News Capitol Hill correspondent and the founding editor of a computer newsletter.