Computers: High street sales take off: Nigel Willmott looks at the systems and prices on offer in the main retail store chains

There will be 'computer-related' presents under the tree in one-third of all British families this year, according to a MORI survey, commissioned by Dell. More frightening still, the average cost of these will be about pounds 200. Most recipients will be teenagers and they want games consoles, even though parents start off buying their children educational programs. However, 4 per cent of the teenagers being given expensive presents will be getting fax machines. Surely Mortal Kombat does less harm?

Christmas looks like registering record sales for real computers in the high street, with a growing number of store chains selling boxes from stock just like any other consumer electronics item - some even quote prices inclusive of VAT. Mail order or dealers may offer keener prices, but high street stores offer familiarity and better security if things go wrong and are more geared to selling complete set-up-and-go systems than any but the largest direct selling companies like Dell.

A tour of some of the leading retailers shows there is something for a wide range of budgets, with systems that use the television as a monitor starting at little more than most game systems. The following should provide a useful price guide, even if you decide to buy from a computer superstore or dealer.

POUNDS 200 - POUNDS 500

This is the territory of 'home computers' like the Amiga and Acorn. Both are technically advanced machines with high quality graphics and stereo sound as standard. They can be plugged into a television screen for games playing, though for serious work, you will still need to invest in a proper monitor.

Prices vary according to the package of software, but best deal on the Amiga 1200 was at John Lewis, selling the Desktop Dynamite package, including two games, the Wordsworth word processor and Paint graphics program, for pounds 349. It also offered the Philips CM883/2 colour monitor which has stereo speakers for pounds 199 including an extra game.

Tempo and Argos offer the Acorn 3010 without a monitor for pounds 399.99. It offers basically the same processor speed as the Amiga, but has a 1.6 megabyte floppy disk drive, twice the capacity of the Amiga's, and more software, including two word processors, Paint, Draw and Music programs and games.

If you want to work rather than play, many stores are still selling the popular Amstrad PCW word processing systems, with Ryman offering the best price of pounds 329 for an 8256 with dot matrix printer.

POUNDS 500 - POUNDS 750

John Lewis offers the Acorn 3010 Learning Curve package, with its own medium resolution monitor with stereo sound, the Advance integrated word processor, spreadsheet, database program (but no hard disk) for pounds 749 and with an Acorn- badged Olivetti bubble jet printer for pounds 849 - the printer alone costs pounds 199.

Apple Performas begin in this price range, starting with the basic 400 with a 40-megabyte hard disk and medium resolution monitor for pounds 645. Ryman was offering the 400 in a package with a Stylewriter printer and ClarisWorks integrated software for pounds 1,016.37.

POUNDS 750 - POUNDS 1,000

Basic models of current-generation 486 PCs scrape in under pounds 1,000, with Dixons offering a basic Packard Bell 85- megabyte hard disk system for pounds 949.99 and a Highscreen 210-megabyte system - apparently the best seller in Germany - for pounds 999.99. However, they only have basic software and, of course, no printer, which will cost about another pounds 200.

Ryman offers Compaq's Presario 100- megabyte hard disk system with ClarisWorks and two games, including Nintendo's Mario is Missing, for pounds 997.57.

POUNDS 1,000 - POUNDS 1,500

Regrettably, state of the art PCs and Macs with adequate software still cost more than a grand. Packard Bell, Compaq, Olivetti and IBM in various configuarations dominate the PC offerings. If you want the market leader, IBM's PS/1 with fast 486 DX2 processor high resolution SVGA screen and 127- megabyte disk, with Works integrated software and Quicken personal accounts was priced at pounds 1,499 in John Lewis.

OVER POUNDS 1,500

Only worth including to show that a multimedia machine that can read CD-roms still counts as long-term investment. Dixons had a discounted Apple 600CD with 80-megabyte hard disk and CD-rom drive for pounds 1,699. John Lewis offers a Presario CD 120-megabyte hard disk system with CD-rom and five disks, including games, for the same price.

(Photograph omitted)

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