Computer Life column for April 18, 1998
While I was mowing the lawn last weekend, my neighbor's brother stopped me.
He had seen a WebTV Plus unit at Sears and was very impressed. These are the "set-top network computers" that you can plug into your existing television and your existing phone line to surf the Net.
He liked the price: He could buy a WebTV Plus system and a printer for less than half the cost of a decent "full-service" computer. It seemed like a fun, simple and convenient alternative to buying a traditional system.
We talked about surfing the 'Net and sending and receiving e-mail. He thought that sounded fun, and said he'd do a little bit of that, but what he was looking forward to was being able to type and print some of the letters and newsletters he writes for his civic association.
After we talked about more full-featured word processing programs, he decided that the WebTV system wouldn't do his newsletters and form letters very well. And those are the things he's most interested in computerizing.
As I resumed trudging behind my mower, I thought about how complicated buying a computer really is. Lots more complicated than buying a lawnmower.
No matter what kind I buy--side-bagging, rear-bagging, riding, or whatever, I'll always use it to cut the grass. Obvious things like the size and slope of my yard and the size of my bank balance dictate my shopping choices.
With most medium- to large-ticket purchases--refrigerators, cars, washing machines, dishwashers--you know how you're going to use the thing after you've bought it.
Computer purchases are more nebulous. We don't run out to a store and buy a computer so that we can "compute"--whatever that means.
Before buying a computer, you need to backtrack and figure out for what tasks you want to use the system: What do you want to do that a computer might make easier or more fun? Is there something new that only a computer can help you try?
The basic tasks
There is no universal task for which everyone uses a computer. So, before you go shopping, make a list of the things you want the computer to do. Then, if you need help, require that the salesperson explain exactly how the system he or she recommends will let you do those things.
- Word Processing--Good word processing software is more than typing and printing. You can save, revise, and re-use documents. You can do newsletters or individualized form letters and certificates. Features like spell-checking, different typefaces, and page design can make fancy documents.
- Information Processing--What kinds of records do you keep? Lots of software can make any record-keeping task more efficient. It's more than spreadsheets and accounting. You can do financial planning, keep track of your soccer team's players, do expenses and billing for your business.
- Research and Education--Computers can help a 2nd grader with addition facts, a 1st grader brush up on phonics, a 9th grader with a research paper, a scholar with in-depth research. You can use the Internet for some of these tasks, or you can buy software that runs on your system. Some packages are a hybrid. For example, you can buy an encyclopedia CD-ROM set and get access to the company's Web site.
- Communication--Send e-mail to far-flung friends; make your own Web pages so others can learn about you.
- Entertainment--It's more than games, games, games. Sure, computer games are available for just about every taste. But don't forget other things like touching up family photos, plugging in your music keyboard and composing your own songs, editing the family videotapes, or hunting for goofy Web sites.
- New ways of using a computer are popping up all over the place. For example, software and adapters are now available to let you have your computer control the lights all over your house.
And if you find a computer that will mow the lawn and prevent crabgrass, drop me a line.
Copyright © 1998, The News Journal Company
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Richard Gordon helps support faculty, staff and student computing at the
University of Delaware. E-mail questions, comments or suggestions to
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