"Detroit in its heyday had nothing on the microcomputer manufacturers," says one recent buyer of a home computer. "The base price is just for the engine. Tires, doors, chassis are all extra, and with computers you may not even know the names, let alone the functions, of the parts you need!"
Other computer owners compare the ordeal with trying to buy a stereo in the early days of hi-fidelity, when components first became available separately.
"The most frustrating aspect was finding that there is no one best computer. There are always trade-offs," says Joel Makower of Tilden Press.
Makower says he is not a typical buyer, and he's right for several reasons: He knew precisely what he wanted (a computer for word processing and business paperwork), he was already familiar with word processing, having used a stand-alone word processor to write a book, and he spent over a year studying the market before deciding on the brand to buy. After all that and despite the fact that he is basically pleased with his decision, "I'm still not really comfortable with the technology."
At this point, it is probably safe to say that few people are completely comfortable with microcomputers -- not even computer professionals who have been in the field for years. For one thing, new computers come on the market every month, each with special highly touted features and wildly varying prices. If the Apple and the TRS-80 were the Model Ts of the 1970s, you can now buy anything from a motor scooter to a Cadillac, with all sorts of options in between. The burning question is how to choose one that won't turn out to be an Edsel.
If you have the slightest interest in owning a computer, you will have seen the basic advice articles in all sorts of publications. Deciding what you need the machine for is still the first step: If you're just trying to keep the kids out of video arcades, you can buy a much cheaper machine than if you want to computerize your business accounts, write a novel or manipulate financial or statistical data.
The next step is shopping around at dealers' showrooms. Some sell only one line or brand of computer; others sell a range, from game machines on up through portables to the top-power 16-bit micros. Some computer stores are chains, some independent. Some concentrate on home and personal use, some on business applications. Look for the ones reasonably easy to get to (remember, that's where you'll need to go if things break) and drop in or call for an appointment. You should be able to see a demonstration of any computer they sell, but it may take some arranging. Some stores also offer seminars on the products they sell.
There are people who decide what they want right there in the showroom, write a check and compute happily ever after. Chances are, however, you'll be more bewildered after your first shopping tour than you were when you started. Computerese is a mysterious language stuffed with arcane terms that defy translation. Do you want a Z-80 based 22-pound machine whose features include a 7-inch CRT with an 80-character-by-25-line display, two 400K floppy disk drives, 65K random access memory, CP/M and MBASIC, an RS-232 port and 19 independent programmable keys?
Do you want an Apple? Atari? Timex/Sinclair? TRS-80? Commodore? Zenith? Osborne? KayPro? Otrona? Sony? North Star? Xerox? Franklin? Victor? Cromemco? Toshiba? Eagle? Escort? Hewlitt Packard? DEC? IBM?
And that's only the beginning. You haven't yet considered printers: dot-matrix or letter-quality? At a cost of $500 or $3,000? New or reconditioned? And how about monitors? Green screen, black-and-white, amber, or color? For $99 or $999?
How much storage space? What kind? The smallest, cheapest computers use tape cassettes to store information -- which quickly become a nuisance, since the entire tape must be played to locate a particular piece of data and since you need a lot of tapes. Most computers use drives that save and retrieve data from "floppy disks": plastic cards that may be 8 inches, 5 1/4 inches, or 3 1/2 inches wide. Your disks have to be the right size for your drives or you're out of luck. A 5 1/4-inch disk stores the equivalent of 40-50 typewritten pages, which is very roomy if you're writing computer programs and not so roomy if you're writing a novel.
Just becoming widely available, to vastly increase storage, are hard disks and disk paks. Some floppy disks hold about 160,000 bytes of data (in computerese, a byte is eight bits). A hard disk may hold even 20 million bytes in a more convenient, safer form -- but at a stiff price, often as much as a mid-to-upper-level machine.
Then comes software. Unless you are a programming whiz, and even then, most likely you will need to buy programs to use the computer the way you want to. There are programs for accounting, financial "spreadsheet" analysis, word processing, checking spelling, mass-mailing, data base-management (in essence, these do filing), even program-writing programs.
Enough. At this point, you may decide that you don't really need the new toy yet and sit back to wait until the market settles down . . . if ever. But if you really do need a computer or just cannot resist the urge (after all, when cars were first invented nobody really needed them either) what do you do?
Set aside some time to learn a little about microcomputers and peripherals? Yes, definitely. Hire a consultant? Maybe. Call up your friends for free advice? Maybe. Call up perfect strangers for free advice? Quite possibly.
You can locate a computer consultant with no ax to grind through the local chapter of the Independent Computer Consultants Association (P.0. Box 1512, Arlington, Va. 22210 or call 244-6663). ICCA will at no charge furnish the names of consultants familiar with anything from micros to mainframe computers (the big number-crunchers), but be prepared to pay for the actual consultation. Charges run from $20 to $50 or more per hour, and you can expect to spend several hours getting help, according to chapter president Steve Huggins.
"The break-even point depends on the tasks you want the computer to do. If you're looking for a personal computer for games and home use, you probably don't want a consultation, but if you have business interests and needs, and are willing to spend $200-$300 for advice, then you need to contact a consultant." (Some will even do the buying for you.)
Dealers, as Huggins points out, "are interested in selling equipment. A consultant is interested in solving the problems of the user and can point out the pros and cons of all kinds of systems . . . At this point, it's not reasonable to just go buy a computer, because a lot of systems are not as 'friendly' as they purport to be, and you will need training."
Huggins advises making sure that you select a dealer with whom you are comfortable: "Some salespeople are more aware of the market, and some are more 'real world' than others. Every dealer is different."
In any case, declares Huggins, "People need to know they are going to have to spend time on the purchase."
If you're not sure you need a formal consultation, by all means consult informally with anyone you can get hold of -- anyone that is, who uses a computer in roughly the same way you would like to.
Talking with people who have recently bought micros can be very helpful. They've just had to wade through all the material and conflicting claims of manufacturers and may be eager to show off their knowledge. They also may be discovering limitations or problems in their system that they hadn't counted on, and could save you from a similar fate.
What if you're the first on your block to buy? You can still benefit from the knowledge -- and blunders -- of others by becoming acquainted with area users' groups: quite simply, people who use computers.
At the micro level, users' groups are made up of people who have purchased a particular brand of computer and meet regularly to swap information. Some have special-interest subgroups. Apple Pi, for example, even has a special group for kids called -- you guessed it -- Apple Seeds.
Both Apple Pi and Capital PC, the users' group for IBM Personal Computer owners, have hundreds of members and regular monthly meetings. They also have buying programs through which members can get discount prices on paper, diskettes, software, even hardware. Meetings may include formal presentations in which new software programs are reviewed or new hardware demonstrated.
If you are polite and reasonably considerate about taking up people's time, you will probably find that users' groups are full of people who will answer even the dumbest-sounding question. They, too, were once novices and sympathize with the bewildered. So don't be afraid to attend meetings of users' groups whose members own the computer you're considering buying.
"The users' groups take the edge off the terminology. People explain things in personal, understandable terms," points out ICAA's Huggins, who belongs to Capital PC. You'll also hear about the problems and frustrations people are encountering with their machines, which can provide much-needed context for the dealers' glowing sales pitches; you'll begin to get a sense of what being a computer owner rather than a customer will be like. Perhaps most important, you also can start connecting with the people who can provide invaluable tips and advice once you have made a purchase.
Remember that you, as a microcomputer owner, will have much in common with the early car owners. As E.B. White recalled, "There was this about a Model T: the purchaser never regarded his purchase as a complete, finished product. When you bought a Ford, you figured you had a start -- a vibrant spirited framework to which could be screwed an almost limitless assortment of decorative and functional hardware. Driving away from the agency, hugging the new wheel between your knees, you were already full of creative worry. A Ford was born naked as a baby, and a flourishing industry grew up out of correcting its rare deficiencies and combating its fascinating diseases."
Micro owners know that "creative worry" is real enough, but so is the exhilaration, as the jargon goes, of "bringing the machine up."