Computers: Sweet smell of success: Keren David feels the lure of the microchip after her start in computing goes with a bang

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LET'S START with the embarrassing bit. When I was conscripted to review a new computer as a complete beginner, I was not - having the usual physical attributes and a modicum of remaining brain cells - expected to blow it up. But when I plugged in the new Dell Dimension - after spending about five minutes putting it together - it responded with a large bang and an elegant and acrid puff of smoke.

Fortunately, there are probably not many people who would have made the same mistake - even the neighbours' cat knows you do not tinker with voltage settings. But the incident proved me suitably qualified as a technical sub-idiot and gave me the chance to test Dell's back-up system.

Dell advertises Dimension as a no- frills package, claiming to have cut the price to about pounds 1,000 by cutting out unnecessary refinements.

One such frill is an on-site repair service. You can pay pounds 39 extra for it, otherwise a courier comes to pick up the machine and returns it four days later. I decided that, in the real world, a klutz like me would indubitably pay the extra pounds 39, so Dell sent round an engineer who mended the blown-out power supply in 15 minutes and told me tactfully that it was an easy mistake to make. Everyone else fell about.

From there on it was all remarkably easy. The early stages of the Microsoft Windows operating system was easy to follow and I successfully loaded all the applications software - the programs that actually let you do different tasks like word processing - into the system. The only problem came when I hit the power-off button instead of the switch for the floppy disk drive when I was loading, but even this did not seem to do too much damage.

I counted 24 separate pieces of paperwork - 'documentation' in the jargon - with the computer, including a hefty instruction book for every software package. This was somewhat frustrating.

I was so impatient to play with my new toy that I could not contemplate reading it all. What I really wanted was one simple guide to lead me through the opening stages.

A book, Windows and PCs, A Complete Introduction, by Glyn Moody (NewTech) gave me exactly the simple introduction I needed - although I laughed when I read: 'Before getting to know what PCs are and what they can do for you, it is important to realise what they are not: they are not easy to damage.' As you might guess, Mr Moody and I have never met.

Once I had conquered my impatience and begun to use the instruction books, they also proved easy to understand and immensely useful.

Dimension may be advertised as a no-frills machine, but for someone like me, used only to an elderly Amstrad and the utilitarian austerity of the Independent's in-house computer system, it could not have been frillier wrapped in pink lace.

The frills it lacks are a matter of faster graphics speed and easier ways to upgrade the machine to a more powerful system - nothing that a beginner like me would notice. The software includes Works, an integrated package of word processor, spreadsheet and database, Publisher, a basic desk-top publishing package, Money a personal finance package, and Golf, the well-known game for geriatrics. They were all useful, except Golf, which is a miracle of beautiful graphics and so complicated that it is totally unplayable unless you know how to play the real game, in which case you might as well play that.

The one frill I would have liked - and this goes for almost every computer package that I have seen - is a printer. Almost anyone using a computer needs a printer, so why not sell them together? Isn't that how Amstrad made its millions? It is nonsense to say that printing is easy when instruction number one is: 'Go out and spend hundreds of pounds on an extra machine.'

That apart, I happily recommend the Dell Dimension to any beginner. I started out thinking it could be vaguely useful to have a grand word processor at home, but was surprised at how much I enjoyed thinking of other ways it could be used, to set up lists of addresses for example, and how interested I became in finding my way round it.

A word of warning to other technophobes: this is definitely a seductive business and I can feel myself being sucked into an expensive and time-consuming interest. Blow it up before it is too late.


Dell Dimension

Computer system


Vital statistics

System: PC-compatible

Hardware: 486SX-25 processor,

80-megabyte hard disk,

4mb main memory,

SVGA graphics

Software: Includes, Microsoft

Windows, Works, Publisher, and Money Supplier: Dell 0344 720000

Price: pounds 1,010 (inc VAT)

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