Written by David Tebbutt, Mensa 07/89 - scanned

Have you got a personal computer yet? Or are computers so confusing/frightening/ irrelevant that you're keeping clear of them? For those with their noses pressed against the computing shopfront, I thought you'd like a glimpse of what it's like to actually own and use one of these things. Or, in my case, several.

My computers help me and my family with writing, thinking, playing and billing people. I occasionally do more esoteric things like programming, building simple financial models and making up program disks for my wife, but these are not central to my computing life. A side benefit is that the computer acts as a handy filing cabinet for everything I do when seated at the keyboard.

The actual machines we have in the house are two IBM PC compatibles, an Apple Macintosh, two Amstrad PCW8512 word processors, a Cambridge Computer Z88 and a Sinclair Spectrum. With the exception of the last machine, I used these computers on a regular basis in connection with my writing and my wife's business.

Of course, the hardware is only a small part of the story. The software you run on it will influence how you feel about a machine and the supplier you buy it from will directly impact the quality of your computing life. Terrible software cannot be improved by a good machine and a supplier who doesn't listen to your needs isn't worth a light. (Perhaps these are themes for future columns. Let me know if you're interested.)

Right. Starting at the metaphorical bottom of the heap, with my eight-year-old's Spectrum 128 +, this is great for arcade-style games. If you're not too fussy about screen quality, then you can do a lot worse than buy one of these. They've been around, in one form or another, for donkey's years and there's plenty of software for them. If you're buying for a child, then it's odds on that his or her friends will have Spectrums too.

I believe that this sense of belonging and sharing experiences with friends is far more important than having some super duper machine that no-one else can afford. Those with fatter wallets and a desire for a more powerful games computer might consider a Commodore Amiga or an Atari ST. These can also double up as business computers far more readily than the humble Spectrum.

Moving on to the family favourite - the Apple Macintosh - this provides a qualitatively different computing experience to any of the other machines. The one we've got displays everything in black on a paper white screen. (Colour Macintoshes do exist, but they tend to cost a few thousand pounds.) Despite the apparently `old-fashioned' colour scheme, the Macintosh is surprisingly pleasant to use. Because the screen doesn't flicker, it's almost like looking at paper - something humans are very familiar with. More importantly, the Macintosh is astonishingly easy to use. It uses sound and graphics to communicate with its user, while a `mouse' is used as an input device, in addition to the conventional keyboard.

The screen of the Macintosh looks cute and approachable but, don't be fooled, it hides real power. Application programs and their data are represented by small pictures called `icons'. By rolling the mouse around on your desk, you move a pointer on the screen to one of these icons. When you reach the one you want to work with, click a button on the mouse and the application will be loaded, together with the data file you have chosen. Apple published a set of user interface guide-lines for Macintosh right from the start and most software writers have adhered to them. The result is that, once you've learned one application, you already know pretty well how all the others work.

IBM has decided that Apple had the right idea with its graphics and mouse user interface. It is desperately trying to make its equivalents, called Windows and Presentation Manager, popular on its own machines. Apple has taken legal action to try and prevent other companies catching up and, so far, this has proved most effective. Users want machines which work like the Macintosh but the majority of software developers and dealers seem reluctant to commit themselves yet.

Many companies have copied the IBM PC designs and it is possible to get extremely good value for money, especially from the likes of Amstrad and Tandon. PCs also have masses of software written for them. No other machine type in history has ever been so well supported by software developers, hardware manufacturers and service companies. You can buy PCs from a few thousand pounds up to over ten thousand, depending on your needs. Macintosh power in a PC costs about two thirds the price. You could liken Apple and IBM to BMW and Mercedes with the others being Ford, Vauxhall, and so on.

A great accompaniment to the PC and the Macintosh is the machine I'm writing this column on. Right now, I am sitting on a Metropolitan line train just passing through Wembley Park. I notice that since I left Baker Street, I have written 300 words. The machine is none other than Sir Clive's Z88. When I get home I have the choice of transferring this article to the Macintosh, to one of the PC's or, indeed, directly to a printer. Being a coward I will probably stick it in the PC and use the word processor to tidy the article up before printing it and sending it to the editor.

I rarely use the Z88 for anything other than writing, but it does include spreadsheet, diary, alarm clock and all sorts of other goodies. I hate the idea of trusting my life to a computer, so I steer clear of these `personal organisation' applications. I may be a Luddite, but I prefer a watch and a diary thanks very much.

The last machine, and this is a real little workhorse, is the Amstrad PCW. My eldest son has one which he uses for writing up projects for his college work. My wife uses the other primarily for invoicing and for making program disks which she sells. The machine is low cost and comes with everything you need, not only for word processing, but for running a wide range of other applications. You can even buy graphical games for it. Every PCW machine represents extremely good value for money for people with straightforward business-like requirements.

That's the end of the tour. I realise I have left millions of things unsaid, but I do hope I have imparted something of the flavour of the options which face you when you look for your own first computer.