Computers for Christmas

Laura Nolan is three years old. Unlike most children of her age, one of the things Laura likes to do is to play with a computer. Her favourite programme is 'My First Alphabet' which, obviously enough, she has used to teach herself the alphabet.

Besides her fascination with commputers, Laura is also different from many young kids in that she has a "computing" father, Fergus Nolan, managing director of Edtek Computer Company, which retails all things commputing at the Powerscourt Townhouse Centre in Dublin. Fergus believes that his daughter has been introduced to computers at just the right age, and that to have done so any later would have drastically reduced her potential computing abilities, and, he forcefully believes, her employment and lifestyle prospects in later life.

Conviction in the central role of computers in future life of the type displayed by Fergus Nolan, along with measurable portions of novelty and necessity, have shifted the emphasis of the computer revolution from reevolutionary business machines to what is called the Home Computer.

Much of the mysticism regarding computers has gone. No longer are they regarded as monolithic machines, accessible to a select few, but as important tools of education, business, and leisure, which large numbers of people can install in their homes. Home computers aren't this year's models, soon to be forgotten, but innovative and lasting Instruments of competence in the largely computerised society in which we live.

Home computers, have boomed in this country over the last year. Whereas twelve months 'ago, shops stocked three types of home computers, now they stock upwards of eight. Thousands of Irish homes now have a computer, many thousands more have used those computers, and nearly everyone knows somebody who owns one. Such has been the avalanche of interest in home computers, that, without exception, people in the distribution and retail end of the business are predicting a total sell-out of computer stock before Christmas.

Simply, home computers are scaled down versions of business microcommputers. The basic home computer comprises just one unit, which conntains the Central Processing Unit (CPU), the brain of the computer, and a keyboard, through which the user interacts with the CPU. Visual maniifestations of the operations of the computer are obtainable through linkking the computer to a Visual Display Unit (VDU), which for most people will be a normal television.

The information on which the commputer acts is contained in programmes, which are collectively called software. The programmes contained series of instructions which are understandable by the computer's CPU. Software for home computers can be stored on either ordinary cassette tapes or on small floppy disks, and cassette recorrders and disks drives are the respective tools for feeding the software into the computer. The cassette tape is the commonest form of information storage for home computers, but are much slower to operate than the vastly more costly disks. Finally, if you wish to have a printed version of the stored information, this may be obtained using a compatible printer.

In deference to pragmatism, I decided to tryout a couple of the home computers on the market before pontificating to you, the good reader, on the virtues or otherwise of the said machines.

Maurice Cohen, whose company Tomorrow's World is one of the biggest distributors of home compuuters in the country, very kindly arrannged for me to put a couple of his machines through their paces. Helpful to the last, Maurice professed connfidently that I would have few probblems with the Commodore 64 and the Sinclair Spectrum. To his credit, and to that of the machines, he proved to be right.

There is very little difficulty innvolved in setting-up either computer, essentially, a straightforward plug-in and tune the television job. Running some of the software is similarly simple, with clearly stated instrucctions given at every corner. Getting the computer 'up and running' presents no problems, and at this stage the computer neither requires nor preesumes any computing knowledge. And so to the programmes.

Three main types of programmes are available for the home computer user: games programmes which are of either the arcade type, which are based on such intricate abilities as being able to 'ZAP' and 'POW', or the 'head' type, which demand varying degrees of strategic planning and skill; educational programmes, which try to teach languages and traditional educational subjects; and business programmes, which can handle business functions involving finance, costing, planning, filing, and correspondence.

For the Commodore, Maurice Cohen gave me such illustrious games proogrammes as 'Siren City', where you are the patrol cop chasing baddies round a city fun of perils, 'Crazy Kong', in which a hairy beast captures a beautiiful girl, who you try to rescue, but can't because the horrible creature keeps rolling massive rocks in your direction, and 'Attack of the Mutant
The educational programmes for the Commodore are fme, but they presume habitation in Britain, the History lesson, for example, asking questions primarily about British hisstory. Surely some Irish computer entrepreneur will produce Irishtated equivalents in the very near future.

The business programmes, again, are fine. However, their limitations should be realised prior to purchasing a home computer. The business packkages available for the Commodore and other home computers, are ideally suited to small business people who need to keep accounts, lists -of names, etc, in some coherent fashion. For large businesses, it is unlikely that any home computer will provide the necesssary data processing capabilities.

The Sinclair Spectrum is smaller than the Commodore 64 in size, memory, and costs significantly less. However, the software available for the Spectrum is of a very high quality. The only drawback here is that, unnEke the Commodore 64, no games programme joystick is available yet 'or the Spectrum, and all zapping and _ owing must be done by pressing certain parts of the keyboard, which proved to be slightly cumbersome during the test-run.

Nevertheless, great enjoyment was to be derived from such programmes as 'JETPAC', a 'slightly sophisticated arcade game, 'Valhalla', an adventure game which includes colour graphics and which creates the illusion of 'realltime' action, and 'Scrabble', which is a computerised version of the wellknown board-game.

The Spectrum, you will find, will be much less suited to any kind of business or education applications than the Commodore, mainly because of the dearth of Spectrum software directed toward those areas. But it is eminently programmable for the firstttime corr rv er user, and is sufficiently popular tc ensure that large quantities of software will continue to be availlable in the immediate future.

However, although it is the preepared software which will provide the initial introduction to computing, and the home computer, computer dealers agree that the primary value of the home computer is as a means to commputer literacy and proficiency, rather than as a machine which runs games and quiz-like educational programmes.

Maurice Cohen says that the home computer is a tool for acquainting' people with computing jargon and languages, and to make them literate in same. His experience is that kids, who are by far the main users of the home computer, will initially play with the games for entertainment and leisure, but that they very quickly move on to programming.

Larry Kelly of Electronics World in Limerick concurs with Maurice Cohen's view of the role of home computers, and adds that with the limited availability of computers in schools, the home computer may be the only means through which a child will gain computer expertise, which will be demanded of many when they eventually seek employyment.

Fergus Nugent sees the home commputer as being educational in two ways: by facilitating a high degree of familiarity and competence in computers for the user, and also by innstructing the user in. certain discipplines through the repetitive drill exerrcises which the computer will coordinate. He believes that if children are exposed to computing at a very early age, then computer programming and operations will be governed by the left hemisphere of the childrens' brains, which controls language among other functions. If this was achieved by all the upcoming generation, according to Fergus, then computing would be carried out with the ease and faciility with which this generation reads and writes.

If you are convinced of the imporrtance and value of a home computer, then there are two ways in which you can make a purchase, from an established computer dealer, or from someone else such as a large department store or one of the ever-increasing number of discount stores. For many reasons, the difference between the two is the difference between a good and a bad buy.

No two brands of computers are the same, with the result that some computers will be more suitable to the potential buyer than others. Any computer dealer worth their salt will gladly discuss. the needs of the potenntial buyer and make an informed recommendation on the basis of the supplied information. This makes good sense, in that there is little point in buying a £1,000 computer when a £400 one will suffice. The advice of the dealer will be based on such contingencies as the functions which you expect the computer to carry out, the possibility of wishing to expand the computer's capacity in the future, and the availability of suitable softtware on a long-term basis. Such inforrmation will rarely be forthcoming from shops where computers are not the sole produce being sold.

A most important factor in computer purchase is the availability and quality of technical expertise and after-sales service. Larry Kelly says that the computer user will more than likely require the services of computer experts every few months, at least for the first year. If your home commputer suddenly breaks down, a computer dealer will know exactly what the problem is, and often make repairs on the spot. Where no computer exxpertise is available at the point of purchase, there is likely to be a connsiderable delay in getting the computer back into working shape.

Fergus Nolan feels very strongly about after-sales service, knowing that perhaps as many as 10% of computers will have some small problem which requires expert treatment. He also urges people who are buying home computers this Christmas to buy early and try early.

When buying, ensure that you will have the computer before Christmas. Many shops are taking orders, and deposits, for computers which they don't physically possess, so be certain that you will have your computer this side of December 25th. Having got your computer, make sure that it is working properly. Try it out and if any problems arise, go back to the dealer who will sort things out in good time.

And finally, to that nasty but necessary subject, money. Although they are not cheap, home computers are good value in terms of the enjoyyment and skills which they will bring to those who use them. The Commoodore 64, which I discussed earlier, costs in the region of £325, but you will require a special tape recorder for this one which will set you back a further £60. Game programmes average at about £10, with educational and business programmes costing considerably more. For example, a spreaddsheet package will cost around £145.

The Sinclair Spectrum costs about £195, with games programmes starting at about £6. The Sharp MZ-700 costs around £355, with games programmes costing roughly the same as for the Sinclair, though there aren't as many in the Sharp range.

Atari market four computers, ranging in price from £199 to £495. Atari programmes are among the best availlable, especially their range of educaational programmes. You can get a very good 'Conversation French' package for £60, which, with the help of the Atari voice-box, will go a long way toward preparing you to order escarrgots in a restaurant beside the Seine with a style and panache befitting such an occasion. . .

Four home computers which will achieve varying degrees of impression this Christmas are the Orie-L, the Spectravideo SV-3l8, the SORD MS, and the VIC-20. The Orie-l 48K retails at around £220 and has already had a considerable impact on the Christmas market. The Spectravideo SV-3l8 is also selling remarkably well, and is tipped as one of next year's big sellers.

The Japanese designedSORD MS is being manufactured here in Ireland, but unfortunately is breaking any sales records so fat. And finally, the VIC-OO which has been around for a comparatively long time, but remains a. strong seller. One of the principle reasons for this is the vast amount of VIC-20 software which is available, a factor which, it must be repeatedly stressed, is one of the main selling points of home computers.

The next stage in the evolution of home computers will probably be the' introduction of VDU's as part of home computer systems. At present, most home computing is carried out on the family television, often at the expense of missing television: programmes, to the annoyance of other-members of the household.

Here in Ireland, the next likely development is the widespread availlability and legality of MODEMs, which connect home computers to the telephone system, giving the user access to Data Bases around the world. The Prestel system in Britain is one such system, providing interactive innformation covering such topics as travel, sport, and share prices. Such systems also provide for tele-shopping and electronic mailing. It is only a matter of time before a videotex system such as Prestel is available in this country, and most home computers will be able to speak to that system.

But a final word about the present.

In choosing a home computer this Christmas, it should be remembered that the software which is available for the machines is as important as the machine itself. Base your final decision on the possibilities of the computer rather than its physical appearance or its expense. Expense isn't a guarantee of suitability with computers. When you do get your computer home and begin to use the machine to its full potential, you will thank yourself for having spent half a day in a shop with a dealer. Good Computing. Oh, and a Merry Christmas. •