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From WORD CHOICE: General Guidelines for Purchasing a Microcomputer with a Word-Processing Program

Dr. Roger C. Schlobin

The purchase of a microcomputer and a word-processing program or system will always be marked by personal needs, price, and local availability (although dealers can order programs they don't normally stock, and the programs frequently can be ordered directly from manufacturers). It's also difficult to go too far wrong with most selections. Programs for microcomputers are far easier to use ("user friendly") and frequently more powerful than those that run on the larger minicomputers and main-frame computers. However, here are time-tested guidelines that should be seriously considered. All factors should be carefully weighed since studies have shown that most computer users (and institutions) stay with their first purchases.

1. Buy a computer that uses the "CP/M" (Control Program for Microprocessors) operating system. An operating system tells the computer what to do. It's like a traffic cop at a corner or a distributor in an engine. It prepares new disks and programs, measures disk space and file size, copies files from disk to disk, renames files, controls the flow of information in and out (BIOS), controls the disk drives (BDOS), etc. Developed and marketed by Digital Research (ca. S250, P.O. Box 597, Pacific Grove, CA 939501 [408]-649-3896), the CP/M operating system is as close to an industry standard as there is.

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There are a number of versions of CP/M for different types of computers, and there is price variation among them. CP/M or CP/M-80, as it's sometimes called, is for single-user, 8-bit computers. CP/M PLUS or 3.0 is its newest and "hottest" version. MP/M is the version for 8-bit, multiple-user systems. CP/M- 86 is for 16 -bit, single-user applications (like the IBM-PC), and MP/M-86 is its multi-user form. Concurrent CP/M-86 is for 16-bit, single-users who would like to be able to do more than one task at a time. CP/M-68K is for computers that use the Motorola 68000, 16/32-bit chip.

While there is considerable debate over whether or not CP/M is the best system ("UNIX" is one competitor), it has the advantages of being the oldest (although it has been updated and improved many times) and the most established. Thus, there are more programs available for CP/M than any other operating system (well over 50,000 at last count). For example, no other system has as many different word processors. For a full discussion of the various operating systems for microcomputers, see John M. Allswang's and Carl Heintz's three-part series in Interface Age (August, September, and October, 1983).

An excellent guide to an overview of CP/M and MP/M is Rodnay Zaks' The CP/M Handbook With MP/M (Berkeley, CA: Sybex, 1980). This covers CP/M up to version 2.2. Discussions of the new version of CP/M-80, "CP/M PLUS" or "3.0" should start appearing in the handbooks soon. In the meantime, there have been numerous articles on CP/M PLUS. The best of these are Mark Dahmke's "CP/M PLUS" in BYTE (July 1983, pp. 360-84) and a series of articles in Microsystems: David Hardy and Kenneth Jackson's "CP/M PLUS: An Overview for CP/M 2.2 Users" (February 1983, pp. 20-29) and "From CP/M 2 to CP/M PLUS' (March 1983, pp. 94-101), and Bruce Ratoff's "Implementing the Advanced Features of CP/M PLUS" (January 1983, pp. 26-29) and "Implementing CP/M PLUS Part Two" (April 1983, pp. 70-72). However, CP/M PLUS often requires more than 64K of RAM and isn't a necessary purchase; version 2.2 works fine.

An attractive aspect of CP/M is the number of free programs available. The CP/M Users Group ("CPMUG," 1651 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10028) and the SIG/M Users Group (Box 97, Inselin, NJ 07081) offer over two hundred volumes of programs (ca. 4,000 programs) on disk for handling and mailing costs only. Each volume typically contains twenty to thirty programs. The CPMUG catalogue is $10 in the United States and $15 elsewhere; individual volumes range from $13 (United States) to $21, depending on disk format and destination. The SIG/M catalogue is $ 1.50 in the United States and $2.00 elsewhere; SIG/M volumes, only available on 8-inch disks by mail, are $6 in the United States and $9 elsewhere. While these volumes of programs are cheap enough, there are local user's groups that will provide the same ones (under CPMUG and SIG/M auspices) for only one or two dollars with the user supplying the disks. In addition, with the use of a modem, many programs are available over the telephone for the cost of only the call. Using the telephone modem also overcomes the obstacle of disk size and format. CPMUG and SIG/M programs include mailing lists, utility programs (i.e. to check program and file sizes), modem programs, business and accounting programs, games, programming aids, indexing programs, word processors, etc. New volumes of programs are announced in Lifelines/ The Software Magazine (available from CPMUG at $24 for 12 issues) and other CP/M-oriented magazines (i.e. Microsystems, CN 1987, Morristown, NJ 07960, $20/yr., and The User's Guide to CP/M Systems and Software, Box 3050, Stanford, CA, 94305, S18/yr.).

Note that the CP/M approach eliminates the use of some popular computers that have their own unique operating systems, which are incompatible with many other computers (for example, the IBM-PC, Apple, TRS-80). For the most part, these are mediocre computers anyway and are more the products of advertising than outstanding quality or ease of use. For example, anyone considering the purchase of an IBM-PC should make it their business to read A. Richard Immel's "How Invincible is Big Blue" in Popular Computing (September 1983), Paul L. Young's "Silent Swap of Marginal IBM Memories" in Information Systems (15 August 1983), and Peter Norton's "The Dark Side of PC-DOS 2.0" in PC Magazine (July 1983), as well as other articles that provide unbiased evaluations. In addition, the Apple II+ and IIe need special accessory cards to add features demanded by the better CP/M word processors. And make no mistake the better CP/M word processing programs are far better than any of those specifically dedicated to one type of microcomputer. However, computers like the Apple IIe and IBM-PC are CP/M adaptable at extra cost (ca. $300-$1200).

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2. Find a respected and supportive local dealer, and buy all the initial equipment and programs in one place. Since so few people really know about computers before they buy them and since few people with degrees in Computer Science have training in microcomputers, it is vital to find a dealer on which to depend, one who will be helpful. Unbiased friends who own microcomputers and respected consultants can also be very valuable. Too often, buyers who purchase by mail order because of lower prices have major problems getting questions answered. At the beginning, the number of questions anyone will have is astronomical, and they are often embarrassingly elementary. My favorite anecdote about this involves an astute, University of Chicago Ph.D. He couldn't get a program to transfer from one disk to another. When I asked him to check the disk for space, using CP/M's "Stat" program, he reported that the disk was "OK." Actually, the disk had "OK"--"zero K"--no space at all. Thus, every buyer needs someone to answer questions, and dealers do not support equipment or programs they have not sold.

3. Pick a program; then, find the computer and the printer to run it. Take the time to sit down and try various programs. Be sure to have a good idea beforehand of what you want to accomplish. Don't expect to be too comfortable with any program. The more powerful word processors sometimes take a month to learn fully. However, the programs can be tested to see that they'll do what the user wants. Most of the CP/M programs should be run on a computer with 64K of internal memory (known as "RAM"; despite many remarks, more than 64K is rarely necessary) and with two disk drives. However, many programs work better with some equipment than with others. For example, there's nothing more frustrating than having a full-feature word processor bound to a printer that won't support underscore or superscripts without specialized (and sometimes expensive) installation.

4. Avoid the cutting edge of the technology. The tales of the dilemmas, and pain of buying the newest and most innovative microcomputers, printers, and programs are legion. Most users want a computer that runs well and does what it's supposed to do. It is not unusual for new software and hardware to be filled with mistakes ("bugs"). While puzzling out these difficulties may appeal to those who are intrigued by how computers and programs operate, inexperienced first-time buyers who want to just do things with their purchases will be disappointed and upset.

5. Select a microcomputer with "Industry standard" features. Some of these features are as follows:

A. One or two RS-232C (serial) ports. Most users will use one of these for a telephone modem and a second for a serial printer.
B. One Centronics (parallel) port. This would be used for a printer, usually a dot-matrix. While some buyers may think they need only a serial or a parallel port, it is frustrating to want to add a second or different printer later and not have the capability.
C. A standard typewriter keyboard. Learning how to use a microcomputer can be difficult enough without having to learn a new method of touch typing. For example, some industries are making significant amounts of money selling standard keyboards for the IBM- PC. Why have to replace the keyboard that comes with the microcomputer?
D. "Industry known" installation parameters. Some of the new equipment is very nice, but it's a major headache to have to try to figure out how to make something work, especially if your dealer is grappling with the problem too. A quick way to check this is to look at the manuals for the programs you're thinking of buying. Check the installation sections in them and make sure that the microcomputer and printer you're thinking of buying are listed. One small caution here: most microcomputers emulate (act like) various terminals. For example, the KayPro II emulates the Lear Ziegler ADM-3A and the Xerox 832-11 the Televideo 950. Before dismissing a particular microcomputer because it's not listed in the program manual, check to see what terminal it emulates.
E. Select a microcomputer with common disk-format parameters. There is nothing worse than discovering that an important program is not available in a disk format that will run on your Aardvark 2000. Again, the way to check this is to find out what disk formats are available for the programs being considered.
F. Be sure that the microcomputer has, at least, an 80-column by 24-line screen. Without it, word processing, not to mention spread-sheet accounting, can be very difficult.

In other words, select a "generic" microcomputer that will provide full access to as many of the industry's programs and peripherals (printers, modems, hard disks, light pens, etc.) as possible. Invariably, this turns out to be an 8-bit, CP/M machine.

6. Pay the extra money to have the dealer install the programs and the printer. While some programs

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are easy to install, others are difficult. It's frustrating to be trying to figure out an installation for the first few weeks of ownership rather than being able to work with the computer and programs. Most reputable dealers will do the installation at a reasonable cost ($50-$100). Be warned that most mail-order dealers will not help with installations and are known to do things like supply printers without cables; the later and necessary expense of installation or a cable can ruin what appeared to be a bargain.

Request that the dealer make back-up copies of your program disks. Originals should, then, be stored away in a safe place. If a copy is destroyed or flawed, another can easily be made. If an original is destroyed, another has to be bought at full price. Experienced users will later be able to make their own copies, but no one should take a chance on ruining an original through inexperience.

7. Give serious consideration to lessons supplied by the dealer or to interactive training programs (cassette or disk). Many program manuals are hard for the neophyte to understand, and a microcomputer is not like a typewriter. Learning how to operate one, especially if a number of programs is involved, will often take over a month of hard work.

8. Remember to include supplies in your initial purchase. The new owner will need about 40 disks (ca. $4 for 8"; $3 for 5.25"), paper, and printer supplies (ribbons and typing elements). It's a good idea to buy these from the computer dealer. They will be more expensive, but they'll work. Once the user is more familiar with the equipment, lower prices can be sought. A good source for supplies is the Quill Corporation (100 S. Schelter Rd., Lincolnshire, IL 60069 [312]-634-4850). In fact, it's an excellent source for any office supplies. A good source for just disks is Transaction Storage Systems (22255 Greenfield Road, Southfield, Ml 48075 [800]-521-5700).

9. Consider 8-inch disk drives if they're available for the computer you select. They cost $800 to $1000 more, but they provide larger storage space and much faster memory access. Also, there is a standard format for single-sided, single-density eight-inch disks, and almost all programs are available on it. 5.25-inch formats will vary from computer to computer. At present, the faster and much larger hard-disk drives are still expensive (ca. $2000 for 5 megabytes [2500 pages]) and still a bit delicate. The wave of the future is probably in solid-state disk emulators ("semi-disks"); however, the ratio between their storage size and cost is still high.