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Consumers win computer revolution


The computer revolution has been in full swing for some time, but in 1992 the consumer is on the winning end.

Cutthroat competition to gain market share has brought financial losses and employee layoffs. Combat similar to that in the airline industry has put some manufacturers at risk.

There's a positive side many consumers haven't discovered yet, but computer buffs know well: If your family would like a home computer, it's an excellent time to buy. You'll pay as little as half the amount of a year ago and get more for your money.

"Pricing is down dramatically, as much as 50 percent in many cases, and at the same time you're also getting more horsepower and speed," observed John Venator, chief executive officer of ABCD, the microcomputer industry association.

Computer owners I've chatted with agree the downward price spiral in hardware and software isn't just advertising hype. The previous $2,500 home computer system with printer has dropped to a range of $1,200 to $1,500.

"It's reverse 'sticker shock,' and buyers that set an initial price range can afford goodies they hadn't expected," said Daniel Ness, senior industry analyst with the La Jolla, Calif.-based Computer Intelligence market research firm. "I see prices continuing to fall, and, while you'll always have $1,000 and $2,000 computers, you'll get more bang for your buck."

A dealer should be able to help you steer clear of manufacturers that may disappear.

"During this shakeout, stick with a manufacturer that has a good track record and is going to be around a while," advised Jim Louderback, director of PC Week labs, the testing unit of PC Week magazine. "I wouldn't buy a computer unless it had a warranty of at least one year and a good maintenance contract."

There are several ways to buy.

"A well-known and respected computer dealer is a good way for the first-time buyer to get information and support, but it's not uncommon for computer buyers to go to mail-order houses advertised in computer magazines," said Alan Simpson, author of the book "Your First Computer" (Symbex Computer Books; Alameda, Calif.; 1992). "The first-time buyer should stick with

products of bigger manufacturers."

Experts recommend buying a computer with sufficient power to handle quality software (the program stored on disk that runs the computer) and expand in the future. That means at least a 386 CPU (central processing unit) chip. As far as memory, they suggest six megabytes of RAM (random-access memory) and 100 megabytes of hard-disk storage space.

A mouse, a small device you roll on a desktop to move the on-screen cursor, is essential for advanced software. Ink-jet printers, which shoot ink onto paper and are quiet for home use, are popular.

Recently, at the Elek-Tek Inc. computer chain in Chicago, an IBM PS/1 386SX system including software, mouse and modem (to send data over phone lines) was $1,199, down from $1,600 for a less-advanced model last year. A similar system from Leading Edge, an IBM clone, was $999, half the cost of a year ago. A Hewlett-Packard ink-jet printer ranged from $399 to $599, several hundred dollars less than last year. A number of examples of popular software were half their prior prices.

Before you buy:

* Know what you intend to use the computer for and how much equipment you need. Research software and make sure it isn't overly complicated or cumbersome. Determine your price range.

* Consult the library and magazine stands for publications that explain computers and analyze brands. Talk to friends with computers. Learn computer jargon.

* Shop at least three stores and watch for special sales. Choose a brand with extensive software available for it. Ask about training classes and whether telephone assistance is available.

Recognized financial software includes Intuit's "Quicken"; Microsoft's "Money"; Mega's "Andrew Tobias' Managing Your Money"; and Chipsoft's "Turbo Tax," which lets you file electronic tax returns.

Among a myriad of other popular programs are Microsoft's "Windows" program, which simplifies and permits use of the mouse, and Lotus "Works," which features three separate programs. For kids, there's Walt Disney Co.'s "Mickey's Fun with Numbers," plus the Learning Co.'s "Reader Rabbit."

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