My mother's first car was a 1953 Ford Custom 500 two-door sedan.
It had a six-cylinder engine, standard transmission and a heater. The upholstery was strictly Depression. There was no radio and no carpeting.
"Basic transportation" is what Mom called it, and she loved it because it was hers and it got us where we wanted to go.
There are still a lot of people who want basic transportation -- in computers as well as cars. I get a lot of letters from them. Some are retired folks, looking for a simple machine they can use to track their investments, manage their finances and write letters. Some are young parents who want something the kids can use for their homework, and that they can use for work they bring home from the office. They're not interested in state of the art. They want a computer they can plug in and use without a degree in programming.
Luckily, major manufacturers who once disdained these people are finally listening to what they have to say. Every few days another computer maker is announcing 20 or 30 new models aimed at the SOHO (Small Office/Home Office) market, which is fueling much of the growth in the industry.
I'm normally hesitant to recommend particular models, since the market changes so fast and there's always a little more bang to be had for the buck today than there was yesterday. But for people who want a decent, minimal computer that will handle everyday chores with aplomb, I'll go out on a limb this time.
Check out the Compaq Presario 425.
It's a dandy little machine, and little is the operative word here. Taking a cue from the design of the original Apple Macintosh, Compaq has packed virtually everything you need into a compact bundle that's available for about $1,400 on the street. The processor, monitor and disk drives are in a single unit that won't eat up much desk space, and there's only one power cord to worry about. Plug it in and turn it on. I estimate setup time at about three minutes.
Under the hood, there's an Intel 486SX processor running at 25 mHz and 4 megabytes of internal memory, which is fairly standard in low-end machines these days. But there's also a roomy, 200-megabyte hard disk, which isn't. The full-size, built-in 14-inch monitor has a crisp, .28 mm dot pitch and is easier on the eyes than many of the cheap, fuzzy screens I've seen packaged with many other inexpensive systems. The built-in fax modem can double as an answering machine, and energy-saving circuitry will power down the monitor and hard drive if you haven't touched the computer for awhile (you decide how long).
But Compaq has done more than figure out how to pack a lot of hardware into a small box. It wants its computer to be easy to use, and its bundled software package is designed to get you up and running quickly. It includes Microsoft Windows, PFS Window Works (an integrated word processor, spreadsheet, data base and communications program) and Quicken for Windows, the best selling home financial program that will manage your checkbook, saving accounts and credit cards and perform basic investment tracking.
Compaq throws in the usual starter kits for the Prodigy and America Online information services. There are also eight games for the kids. Newer models may also come with TabWorks, Compaq's first entry into the retail software market, which turns the often-confusing Windows user interface into something resembling a friendly loose-leaf notebook.
If you don't like the bundled software, the Presario has adequate power to run industry-standard word processing, spreadsheet, data base and accounting programs. Those with complex investments and financial arrangements might particularly want to consider adding MECA's Managing Your Money. Simple desktop publishing shouldn't be a problem either, although the 486SX doesn't have the horsepower for sophisticated graphics work. But most of the people who would buy a Presario probably don't have that in mind.
There's a downside to Presario's compact convenience -- a lack of expandability should your computing needs require it. The computer comes with a single 3 1/2 -inch floppy disk, and there are no internal bays for popular add-ons such as a 5 1/4 -inch floppy, a CD-ROM or tape backup. To add one of these, you'll have to buy a more expensive external unit. Even then, you may be limited by the presence of only two internal expansion slots for controller cards.
Many two-piece computers in the same price range have both 5 1/4 - and 3 1/2 -inch floppy disks, along with a couple of open drive bays and four or five expansion slots. If you think you might want to add a CD-ROM and a sound board down the road, one of these machines will make the job easier. The one-piece unit may also make repairs more difficult and expensive, although Compaq's three-year warranty is one of the best in the business.
If your needs are modest and aren't likely to change, the Presario is a fine machine from a company with a reputation for superb quality. The question you have to ask is whether you'll need more in the future -- or demand it.
Take my mom. She's had quite a few cars over the years, and a month ago she bought another Ford. This one has gadgets on its gadgets. There's a little push-button gizmo that opens the doors from outside and a gadget that turns on the headlights automatically when it gets dark. The car has power steering, power windows, power door locks and a 14-way power seat with a gadget that inflates a lumbar support.
I was impressed when I saw it. But I had to ask her whether, deep down inside, she really liked the fancy new Ford better than that first, stripped-down car she bought 40 years ago.
"Of course I do, dear," she said. "Wouldn't you?"
(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)