Living With a Computer

"The process works this way. When I sit down to write a letter or start the first draft of an article, I simply type on the keyboard and the words appear on the screen"

2. Scrimping on storage. Computers are now reaching the "commodity" stage. With a few glaring exceptions, to be mentioned in a moment, they're all more or less the same. Not so the storage devices—the disks or tapes on which you store information when the machine is turned off. Tapes are obviously a terrible idea, but the wrong kind of disk can be almost as bad.

The practical limit on what a computer can do is not the memory built into the machine itself, although any serious computer should have at least 48 and preferably 64K of random access memory, but rather how much information it can quickly draw from its disks. Here again I speak from the perspective of the sadder-but-wiser man. In moving up from tapes to a disk drive, I took the bargain route. I bought one rather than two, used small disks (5 1/4" diameter) rather than large (8"), and chose single- rather than double-density storage. I saved a couple of hundred dollars but bought myself a source of frustration, since each disk fills up too quickly and I have to keep rotating different disks in and out of the drive. (Again, this may not sound like much to you, but live with it for a year or two and you'll see what I mean.) I think you're cheating yourself if you get anything less than two double-density 5 1/4" drives, which together should be able to store 400K or more of data. The exact capacity varies quite a lot, depending on the configuration a manufacturer chooses. A two-drive system of 5 1/4" disks for the Apple III, for instance, can store as little as 280K, while Heath-Zenith and Victor each offer two-drive 5 1/4" systems that hold more than 1,000K, or one megabyte. In some cases, you may do better to get two 8" drives, depending on the specific prices and configurations different manufacturers offer.

The top of the line among storage systems is the hard disk, most often available in the form called the Winchester. (This is not a brand but a nickname, applied by wits in the computer world because the model number on one of the earliest drives was 3030, reminiscent of a rifle.) The other disks, known as floppies, get pulled in and out of their drives like tape cassettes, but a Winchester is permanently sealed in its case. You don't need to remove the hard disks because each one stores a prodigious amount of data, from two or three on up to several dozen megabytes. With even a small Winchester, you can store some 2,000 pages of data at once—enough, for example, to contain all the notes for a book, along with drafts of all chapters, or a record of all your correspondence over a period of years. Winchesters are expensive; cheap models go for about $2,000, and some of them cost at least twice that much. But you shouldn't buy one right now anyway They're just entering the period of soaring volume and falling prices and will be cheaper in a year.

3. Scrimping on the printer. The same misguided frugality that directed me toward tape recorders also tempted me to think that my converted Selectric printer was a great deal. True, I could have made an even worse mistake. I could have bought a dot matrix printer, which is fast and cheap but which leaves you with a manuscript resembling a grocery receipt. If eyes other than your own are going to see the things you print, you're foolish to get anything except a letter-quality printer. This means either a converted Selectric, like my first printer, or one of the systems known as daisy wheels or thimbles. These have small wheels or drums that spin across the page and print at a phenomenal rate. They cost more than the Selectric to begin with, but they're a bargain in the long run. The real cost of the Selectric is the headaches of repair and breakdown. In operation, it is a blur of rods and connectors, one of which is always about to go awry. But daisy-wheel printers have only one main moving part. A year ago, I gave in and bought a daisy wheel, the Anderson-Jacobson 830 model, which cost about $1,400. In a year of steady use, it has broken once, which is about one tenth as often as the Selectric. You should get one from the start.

NOW THAT YOU know what not to do, you're ready for more positive advice. If I were a shrewder man, I would refuse to give it. One of the perils of dispensing specific advice is that it may be outdated by the time the magazine is in your hands. The products that are available—and their relative values—are changing almost day by day. Fortunately for the consumer, all the change seems to be in the direction of more value for less money. This spring, Radio Shack knocked $400 off the price of its small business computer, the Model II—which sounded impressive until Digital Equipment Corporation knocked $3,500 off the price of its DECmate. The Model II with 64K of memory and one 8" drive went from $3,899 to $3,499, and it can be bought from mail-order firms for about $400 less. The DECmate, with the same memory and two drives, went from $6,595 to $3,095. Meanwhile, several other companies brought small computers onto the market, and there is no end in sight.

Yet another hazard is that recommending the right computer is a little like recommending the "right"' religion. People tend to like the system they've ended up with. The most important point about computers, more so than about religions, is that the difference between a good one and a bad one is tiny compared with the difference between having one and not.

Finally, a computer will be more or less right depending on what you want to do with it. If you are mainly interested in playing chess against a computer, you may be quite happy with some of the low-cost computers that Atari, Commodore, and Radio Shack have put out for under $400. (All three companies also offer good business systems.) If video games are your exclusive interest, you'd probably do better to buy a $150 TV adapter from Atari—although you'd then be shutting yourself off from all the wonders I have described. If getting the feel of a computer is your goal, you could buy a Sinclair ZX81 for $149.95 or $99.95 as a kit. But if you're also interested in business uses for your computer, you might think of systems and programs like the ones mentioned below.

Hardware: Once you move above the bargain-basement machines, to the tier where the computer memories are 48K or larger and the price is $2,000 and up, almost any computer you find will do the job. Over the past few months, in the interests of thorough research, I have tried computers by Apple and Zenith, Victor and Vector, Digital and Wang, Superbrain and Radio Shack, Atari and North Star, to name just a few. Despite their differences in detail, the machines seemed to fall into two big general categories.

One is computers per se, which will cost between $1,500 and $4,000 for the machine itself, plus (for some machines) up to $1,500 for an adequate complement of disk drives. Most good letter-quality printers will cost $1,500 or more, which means the cost of a complete word-processing system is between $5,000 and $6,000. These computers are not specially designed for word-processing, or for anything else. They will run whatever program you feed into them.

In the other category are the dedicated word-processors, which are designed for one purpose only. The IBM Displaywriter is one such machine, and the Wangwriter is another. NBI and Exxon produce similar systems. These cost a lot more than the all-purpose computers—the Displaywriter with a good printer was quoted at $11,350 by my local IBM dealer. They're also easier to use, since they have keys for such things as "delete para" which isn't feasible for more versatile machines. (When I want to delete a paragraph with my machine, I must place a marker at the beginning of the paragraph, place another marker at the end, and then press both the control button and the U key, which is the signal to remove the material between the markers. Easier than scissors and paste, but harder than the Displaywriter.) These single-purpose machines are generally sold not to individuals but to organizations, which presumably would rather pay the price for easily understood machines than train typists in complicated computer routines.

Within each category, your choice of machine depends mainly on taste. You'll spend a lot of time with the keyboard: does it feel right? The Xerox 820 model and my own SOL-20 are my favorites on this score; I liked the Apple least. Screens come in different colors, sizes, and angles-to-the-horizon. Sometimes the monitor comes attached to the computer, sometimes you buy it separately; you have to try them to know your own taste. Of the ones I've seen, a green-tinted monitor by NEC (model JB 1201M) seemed the best bargain, at $210; but patriots should take note that NEC stands for Nippon Electric Company. Many computers now offer a detachable keyboard, which you can hold on your lap while typing or lay next to a document while you are copying figures or text. Those who have them say they are wonderful; since my SOL doesn't have one, I consider them silly.

Your choice should probably turn on the best deal you can make, in this blissful era of plummeting prices. As of press time, some of the systems that struck me as being good for business uses, and also good values, were (in no particular order) the Xerox 820 ($3,795 with a 64K memory and two 8" drives), the Heath-Zenith 89 ($2,895), and the North Star Advantage ($3,125). The Atari 800 uses your home TV for its monitor, which makes it less desirable for business purposes, but at $1,700 for a 48K system it's a very good buy. The Atari also offers more interesting graphics—for example, color- coded bar graphs for a family budget—than many other systems. The DECmate—at $3,095, as explained above—is a pleasure to use, with a variety of keys usually found only on dedicated word-processors. Its disadvantages are that its software is overpriced—$500 for word-processing,, $800 for a mathematical package including BASIC and FORTRAN—and that, at least for now, it is not compatible with CP/M. The TRS-80 Model II from Radio Shack is more expensive than some others—about $4,100 with two 8" drives—but it is the only machine that can operate the word-processing program I prefer above all others, Scripsit 2.0. Both IBM's Personal Computer and the Victor 9000 use a 16-bit microprocessor; both are handsomer than usual; but the Victor has a better screen, more internal memory, and larger external storage, so all in all it gives better value for money ($4,995 for the Victor 9000 with a 128K memory and 1.2 megabytes of storage; IBM offers only a third as much storage for $4,000). The IBM might be the safer long-term choice, however, since manufacturers are already offering accessories designed specifically for it. Both of these machines are, for the moment, caught in a software drought, because the established CP/M programs for 8-bit machines have not been adapted to 16-bit operation. This situation will obviously correct itself, not least because IBM is expected to sell more than 100,000 Personal Computers this year.

The best-known small computer is probably the Apple. Because there are so many Apples in circulation, and because the company has pushed software so aggressively, you can get a wider variety of programs and accessories for an Apple than for any other system. The Apple II, which costs $1,350 with a 48K memory, is good for games, simple graphics, and other home uses, and with about a thousand dollars' worth of extra circuitboard it can make a good word-processor. But for business purposes, you'd probably do better to look instead at the Apple III. It costs more than twice as much to begin with, but now that the initial bugs have been worked out, it is ready to do the job without extra attachments.

One of the most interesting new computers, both as a piece of machinery and as a specimen of capitalism in action, is the Osborne I. Its creator is Adam Osborne, an author of computer books who decided to break the price on-computers. The Osborne I is a very strange-looking piece of equipment. When folded up, it resembles a bulky white briefcase; it is advertised as the only computer that will fit underneath an airline seat. When unfolded, it looks like an outdated military radio. It comes with a full-sized keyboard, a 64K memory, two disk drives, and software for word-processing and accounting that would cost more than $1,000 if bought separately. Osborne offers the whole package for $1,795, which makes it the best bargain on computer power in the business. The catch is that the built-in screen is about the size of a postcard, although it is much easier to read than that would suggest. For an extra $300, you can buy a normal-sized monitor and attach it to the Osborne.

In a perfect world, everyone who had a home computer would also have an Osborne to travel with. According to dealers, Osbornes are selling so fast that many people must have decided that it makes sense not just as their second computer but as their first.

The Otrona Corporation also makes a portable computer, called the Attache. It is smaller and lighter than the Osborne (less than twenty pounds, versus the Osborne's twenty-three), it has dual-density disk drives, and its higher-resolution screen displays a full eighty-character line, instead of the Osborne's fifty-two. Its only drawback is that, at $3,995, it costs more than twice as much as the Osborne.

One other tip on hardware: If you live in a climate less humid than Panama's, you must invest $100 in an anti-static mat to place under your desk. If you don't, in wintertime you'll get shocks of static electricity when you touch your machine. There is always the possibility that this will erase what you're working on at the time.

Software: If you were a logical creature, you would start here rather than with hardware in making your decision, since certain programs run better on certain machines. Unfortunately, you will find this hard to do. It takes weeks or months of use to know a program well enough to judge it, and to get that much experience you usually have to own a machine. But don't worry: most people seem happy with whatever program they use. I thought my version of The Electric Pencil was the greatest thing invented until I examined the newest word-processing programs and realized I was stuck with something outdated and crude.

The basic choice here is between simplicity and complication. Any word-processing program will do the basic jobs—adding and deleting copy, moving material from one place to another, searching for a word or phrase and replacing it with another. What you get with the fancier versions is mainly refinements in formatting—for example, the automatic placement of footnotes at the bottom of the appropriate pages. There is a cost, however, which is a more cumbersome operation. You have to punch more keys to get things done, and you have to sit longer and wait for the disks to stop whirring and the results to show on the screen.

My program, The Electric Pencil, is a stripped-down model. It's very fast and easy to operate, but there are a lot of things it just can't do—for example, automatically center a line, or stop the printer at the end of each page so you can feed in a new sheet. Today's most popular word-processing program is WordStar. Its users swear by it. It does perform a variety of complicated formatting chores, but to me, on the basis of several hours' worth of demonstration, it seems to have the benefits of neither simplicity nor complexity. It's slow and clumsy to operate, at least in the version I saw on an Apple, without the flexibility of the most sophisticated programs.

If I were looking for a simple program, I'd stick with The Electric Pencil—which I am forced to do in any case, since nothing new on the market will run in my poor obsolescent SOL. Or I might choose Magic Wand, which is simpler to use than many of today's complicated programs. If you're looking for sophistication, I'd suggest you pass by WordStar to choose between two other programs. One of them, Perfect Writer, is available by mail from Perfect Software, Inc., 865 Conger Street, Eugene,Oregon 97402. (The other programs are available from computer stores for prices between $200 an ' d $400.) It is so sophisticated that one might as well be operating a nuclear reactor, but it does things I've seen nowhere else. For example, it allows you to divide the screen with a horizontal line, display one document in the top half and another in the bottom, and move material from one document to the other. It also has a bigger variety of printing formats than most other programs.

The other choice would be Scripsit 2. 0, which is put out by Radio Shack and runs on its TRS-80 Model II computer. (Confusing nomenclature: the TRS-80 Models I and III are the cut-rate versions, while the Model II is the serious business machine.) I had snobbishly resisted Radio Shack because of the low-rent appearance of its products, but I was forced to the conclusion that, all in all, Scripsit is the best program on the market. To give one example, it allows you to program up to twenty keys with your own commands. If you press one key, it might print your return address in the upper corner of the page; press another, and it can perform a search-and-replace routine you often use. Like many other programs, Scripsit can also include a spelling-checker, which proofreads documents and is a godsend to the careless typist.

My Picks: If money were no object, I'd buy an IBM Displaywriter, which is the prettiest of all the models and has the simplest commands.

Money being an object, I would vacillate helplessly among the TRS-80 Model II with an extra 8" disk-drive and Scripsit 2.0, the Xerox 820 with two 8" drives and Perfect Writer, and the DECmate. And yet, a year from now, when its software has caught up with it, I'd expect to be choosing the IBM Personal Computer. If I received a small bequest, I'd also buy an Osborne I—if the bequest were large, an Otrona—to take on the road. For any of these systems (not including the Osborne), I'd spend no more than $6, 000, or half as much as for the Displaywriter.

Godspeed as you follow this advice; meanwhile, I'll be spending nothing, sticking with SOL and The Electric Pencil, and hoping for a world in which my sons can grow up to have a better computer than their father had.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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