DALLAS -- Computers make great typewriters, don't they? Mistakes are easy to correct. And, with an electronic dictionary, you don't even have to spell well.
Unfortunately, computers cost too much to keep around just for writing your friends or a term paper. Sure, there's a ton of programs out there. But walking into a software store can be like crossing into a foreign country. Every box has splashy pictures, intriguing titles and, often, big prices.
With that in mind, here are three titles that offer a quick way out of town, help if you're puttering around the garden or a few soothing words of wisdom if you can't do either of those.
* AUTOMAP: Electronic Atlas. Automap Inc., IBM only, color and mouse suggested, any printer. Suggested retail price: $99.95.
What a creative way to make a computer work for you. The idea is simple: how you can get from your home to any other city -- a true electronic road atlas.
The program opens with a map of the lower 48 states. There are several options, the easiest of which is selecting the city of origin and destination. After presenting a few choices, the computer sets about plotting your routes.
You always get several routes to choose from, such as the shortest or most scenic, or a route tailored to your driving preferences.
Each route appears on the national map, with the necessary highways flashing. You can print out the map and detailed directions for each route.
The data base has more than 350,000 miles of roads, 51,921 cities and a plethora of parks, lakes, rivers and other attractions. On the major cities, you can get such information as population and the phone number for the local chamber of commerce.
Automap lets you zoom in on any part of the country and see
more details. Using this function is like having your own high-powered spy satellite.
State and U.S. highways are marked, but local roads and thoroughfares do not appear. Perhaps if there is a second generation of this program, that will be added.
Installation is fairly easy, although it would be nice if the program ran with the familiar Windows interface. On a laptop computer, it was a bit awkward to use without a mouse.
* SPROUT: Graphic vegetable garden design. Abracadata, Mac or IBM, any printer. Suggested retail price: IBM, $59.95; Mac, $79.95.
Macintosh users will recognize the main screen -- it's very similar to MacDraw. But the key here is that every time you draw a shape, the computer is planting crops.
Little plants appear on the screen, and figures on the side indicate the plot's size and how many people it will feed. If you don't like the looks of those plants, you can change the pattern. There are even scarecrows, wheelbarrows and tractor pictures you can put on the drawing.
Aside from offering a scaled garden plan, Sprout tells you what type of soil each plant needs and calculates how much to plant for your family, how deep to plant it and when. Then it prints out a handy shopping list so you don't wander into the nursery looking bewildered.
The built-in list of crops is sizable. (Does anyone know what amaranth is?) If one of your favorites is missing, you can add it by using the information on the back of the seed package.
* SYNCHRONICITY: "A unique system for managing change based on timeless principles." Visionary Software, Mac or IBM. Suggested retail price: $59.95.
Somehow it seems a contradiction to say that a computer program can help you reduce the tensions of modern life. But that's what Synchronicity strives for, with babbling brooks, crickets, attention-focusing exercises and Chinese philosophy readings.
It starts by asking you to pose a question about life, kind of like the old Magic 8-ball. But if others are around, you can just keep the thought in your mind. Then you enter up to six key words.
After a simulated respite on the porch of a secluded hut, you're ready for the key-mashing exercise. While your key words spin feverishly, you mash down on the keyboard until it feels good to let up.
After repeating this activity three times, you get a selection of philosophical readings. According to the manual, each selection is tailored to your needs, although I can't explain how that is -- it HTC has something to do with how long you held the keys down.
It's fascinating enough that you'll find yourself coming back for more and pondering the messages.