Computers: Drop the dead disk drive: Denis Davies, our man in the hat and dark glasses loitering by the magazine rack, filed this article from an unknown address in the Home Counties

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The Independent Online
YOU WANT to buy a computer. You may even know why, but you do not understand the jargon and if the salesman does, he is quite unable to communicate the fact. So you buy a magazine.

What you will find, sandwiched between the soft porn and the lifestyle guides, is whole new cornucopia of confusion. Even the titles are indistinguishable from each other: Personal Computer World, PC User, PC Magazine, Personal Computer Magazine, PC Plus . . .

You might think that enough was enough, but no - Dennis Publishing, home of once-trendy Mac User and anorak-haven Computer Shopper, is launching PC Pro. That is going to fit into the hairline niche between Personal Computer World (mildly boring, occasionally worthy) and PC Magazine (boring; worthy).

The key to the British computer magazine is the British computer magazine journalist - at least an all-too-common variety of the breed. At a typical press conference, the keen observer of the human condition can spot ex-actors from Rada, programmers and rock stars manquees, verbose but incomprehensible youngsters and jaded, gaunt old hands with failed ponytails who can remember who designed the Oric Atmos.

Fortunately, most computer journalists are first-class anoraks. Show them a multiprocessor SQL server or a C++ class library browser and they salivate. They read manuals for fun; some of them even write software in their spare time. Few get paid much, most are in the game because they get to play with all the technology they can eat. This does not necessarily mean they pay for it.

'Blagging' is a fine art and skill here reflects directly in the admiration and jealousy inspired in one's peers. Software blags are crushingly easy; the only stuff in short supply is either the good - which everyone wants - or the bad. Nobody knows why, but the few software companies who try and get stuff back after review are those who produce execrable, bug-ridden, gunk that you could not return because it has trashed your hard disk. After a while, even an average hack collects enough boxes of obsolete software to build a small nuclear shelter.

Hardware blags are trickier and while most journalists have an old 286 PC- compatible left over after Gomorrah Micros went down in 1985, there is considerable kudos in getting permanent possession ('long-term evaluation loan') of the latest Pentium laptop or colour laser printer. Every technohack worth their salt keeps close tags on which companies are being generous this month; the reason that so many columnists can expound so authoritatively on the development of product lines and marketing plans is that recently obsolete equipment out on loan is more likely to stick. Heaven forbid that anyone should explain, in print, that old hardware works perfectly well. Someone might want it back. Once you get the hang of blagging, though, it can get silly; there is probably nobody who really needs a five-station network at home, run from a server in the cupboard under the stairs, but it generates a lot of respect. If H E Bateman was alive today, he would have the perfect subject in The Computer Journalist Who Admitted Paying For A Computer.

All this would be great fun and mostly harmless except that somewhere along the line, someone has to write something to fill up the spaces between adverts. Every month, on every magazine, a strange sense of can-do optimism settles on the office. Press releases are stacked up, the party schedule fleshed out and Production - those brave, foolhardy souls who have to disguise the words as English and get them on to the pages - await their text. The review and features editors make telephone calls and extract reasonable promises from their favourite freelancers. Then the wheels fall off.

First, the PR companies send the wrong product. This can have two effects: either the mistake is spotted at once and two weeks expended in sorting it out, or the reviewer leaves the box unopened until five hours before deadline. This latter mistake can easily be rectified by reviewing the packaging instead; most manufacturers helpfully print all the salient points on the box thus removing any need to rip off the shrink-wrap.

If the right product has arrived on time, it has to be installed (if software) or plugged in (if hardware). Software never works first time, leaving the hapless hack to work out if it is unfinished or there is some obscure incompatibility with all the other stuff on the system. Hardware is much more fun since even if it works at first there are plenty of ways to physically break it, usually at deadline minus four hours. The more technical magazines have automated this process in their labs, where one or more technicians pre-break the hardware before passing it on to the reviewer.

It is now an hour before deadline and something appears to be working. Bear in mind that the product is the end result of many months of development, a complex, multi-featured technical wunderkind. It is so new that nobody in the UK knows anything about it and the only technical support is on the West Coast of America and will not even be scoffing breakfast for another eight hours.

Feverishly, the hack goes through the manual, tries out some examples, loads favourite files and then, at 20 minutes to deadline, logs on to a few on-line services to catch up on a couple of thousand messages. (This, incidentally, is the main reason for the Internet's saturation media coverage; so many journalists waste so much time on it, it is the only thing they can write about.)

At deadline plus a day or seven, the frantic editor finally extracts 1,000 words from the writer. Then the monthly miracle occurs, when Production - staffed by people who know nothing about computers and want to keep it that way - translates the results into English.

MEANWHILE, back at the racks, you, the reader, are left none the wiser, writes Denis Davies.

Strange men in ill-fitting suits seem to be picking off the really big, boring magazines without so much as opening them; these publications are aimed at the poor corporate souls who need to buy computers 50 at a time.

The sort of magazine you need to buy and, alas, read is thinner and even more crashingly tedious. Buy almost any book with a name like Dos for Dumbos, read it, and then read PC Plus or, even better, PC Direct.

The latter is quite possibly the dullest mass-market magazine in the world, but it does the job. Like efficient dentistry, it minimises the pain by opening wide, presenting the facts, closing and rinsing. You may not enjoy it, but you will waste no time.

Denis Davies is a computer magazine journalist.

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