Home Computer: Backing a hunch on the Performa: Nicholas Timmins opens the book on apple's new range for the home user; Apple Performa

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The Independent Online
ONCE UPON a time, back in the mid-1980s, I thought I was interested in computers. I knew they were going to replace typewriters in newspapers. I had been rather awed by Christopher Evans's book The Mighty Micro. The BBC B computer with all of 32 kilobytes of main memory - minimum memory these days is 1 megabyte, more than 30 times as much - had just come on the market putting computing within financial reach. Fearing I had better learn about all this before I became too old, I bought one and buried myself in 30-hour Basic.

Half a dozen tries at 'Let S = N1 + N2' taught me overnight that I was never going to be a computer programmer. So I bought a copy of Hunchback - a great game - a simple word-processing program and from then on used my pounds 800 investment - a lot of money back then - as a glorified typewriter. Had I waited six months, the first Amstrad PCWs, packaging computer hardware, word processing software and printer at half the cost, would have hit the market and I would probably have been a richer and happier man. There is a lesson there that still holds: it is never the right time to buy a computer.

Now I am facing the current project of writing a book and not wanting to face that on the BBC B's primitive Wordwise word processing program, what do I buy?

Like most people I have friends. On this subject they divide into two deeply hostile camps. The Apple Macintosh-ers are the romantics. Their eyes glaze over and they will talk trance-like for hours about the beauties of the graphical user interface, the sheer simplicity and the delights of a machine that actually smiles at you when you turn it on - and it does.

The PC-ers are the new brutalists. The future is theirs, they argue. IBM PCs and PC 'clones' - machines from other manufacturers that work the same way - are what most offices use. Microsoft's Windows graphical interface makes them almost as easy to use as a Mac. There is more and cheaper software available. You might as well face facts and learn it.

But the argument that persuaded me to try a Mac was from the one person who used both - and had just persuaded his university department to quit Dos-based machines - PCs - for the Mac.

When the review machine - a Macintosh Performa 400 - arrived, it provided an instant test. It came - no fault of Apple's - without the manuals. A classic chance to test Mac's claim that you can just plug in and go. You can. In no time at all, I - and the kids - were into its innards, playing with the ClarisWorks software with which it comes and able to do things for real.

The arrival of the manuals, which in the main are written with refreshing clarity, certainly helped - I still have a manual for the printer I bought to go with the BBC B which not even a programmer from Mars would understand. I mainly used the Performa with the Wordperfect for Macintosh program, as that matched the word-processor on the office-based machines I was also working with. Its manual is so clear and simple it should get a plain English award.

Nonetheless all was not plain sailing.

It was a vital requirement for me that the Mac's claim to be able to read Dos-based disks - formatted using the Dos operating system for use with a PC - held up so that I could transfer text from the office and be able to transfer it back the other way. The Performa comes with PC Exchange, a piece of software that does just that. But I found I had to use the right disks - high-density or double-density depending on the office machine; the Mac can handle both.

Also the manual for the program proved to be the weakest of those supplied with the Performa. It is clear on how to get material from Dos disk on to the Mac. Much less clear on how to take it back the other way.

Moreover much detailed graphics and document formatting - the layout, typefaces, borders, columns and so on - that goes across varies between programs. The Apple Help Line and the publishers of the software you want to use should be able to tell you in detail before you buy.

So after three weeks with a Performa what is the verdict? It is not like using a new vacuum cleaner, but as computers go it does seem easy to use; certainly easier than a PC without Windows. It is genuinely fun and while I still struggle, Apple's claim that it behaves intuitively seems proved by my eight-year-old, who has never seen one before, but who arrives and instantly tells me what to do.

Is it worth it? The Performa 400 was pounds 1,100 when I started looking at it and these days you can get a good brand name PC 486 machine for about that. But the Performa comes with word-processing, database, spreadsheet and communications programs - but no modem - which I have not fully explored, but suspect would keep even quite serious home users and some small businesses happy for a long time. It can talk to PCs and there is a neat little program thrown in that stops your children getting at bits of data or programs you want to protect. It is a genuine package. And the Help Line - free for a year - is a real boon for beginners.

The sane corner of my mind still says that for my needs - writing copy, letters and a book - I might be as well off with a pounds 500 programmable electric typewriter as with pounds 1,100 of computer plus another pounds 300 for a simple printer. But then I would not have played Lemmings, fooled myself that it might one day sort out my accounts, or treasured vain hopes that the children's education might benefit.

And blow me if the day I sat down to write this, wondering whether the price was really worth it, Dixons knocked the price, down to pounds 950. There is never a right time to buy a computer.

Vital statistics

System: Apple Macintosh

Features: System 7 operating system; Claris Works integrated software package (word processor, database, spreadsheet, graphics, communications); PC Exchange software to read Dos discs; Help Line support

Availability: High street retailers; Apple dealers

Price:

Performa 200 (includes integral 9-inch mono monitor)

List: pounds 799

Street: pounds 705 (Wildings)

Performa 400 (with 14-inch colour monitor)

List: pounds 1,100

Street: pounds 940 (Wildings)

Performa 600 (with CD-rom drive)

List: pounds 2,200

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