Home Computer: Coming to terms with computerland: High-tech novice Mary Braid goes shopping and learns to hold her own in a world full of toys for the boys

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TWO WEEKS ago my ex-boyfriend decided I had had long enough to decide whether to buy his Amstrad. He had a point. A year after parting company I was still 'looking after' the three-year-old word processor.

As he disappeared downstairs with the computer, the daisywheel printer and the telephone answering machine I had also been kind enough to look after, I was filled with the dread I usually associate with changing a tyre, fixing the plumbing or buying a car.

I had been unable to decide if the second-hand computer was a bargain because my ex has always been my personal technology guru. I spotted the rather obvious conflict of interest in this instance, but was deathly slow to find out anything for myself. Left with a dusty outline where the computer should be, I had to face it: my pathetically lazy approach to technology was about to change.

But where do you start when you don't know a ram from a joystick? How do you decide between an Apple and an IBM-compatible when you don't even understand what 'IBM-compatible' means? Having the ex's PC for a year had hardly transformed the Queen of Low Tech into a computer genius. The Amstrad had remained a glorifed typewriter.

A list seemed a good place to start. What did I really want a computer system to do? It had to be a competent, easy-to-operate word processor with spelling check and other basic features. I needed a decent printer and a way of sending copy to the office from home. I was unsure whether I wanted a lap top or desk top machine. That would depend on what I could get for pounds 1,000, my notional spending limit.

When wrestling with embarrassing levels of ignorance it's probably best to start in the privacy of your own home. Buying a specialist magazine seems a good option, but even that turned out to be a nightmare. Which computer magazine to chose from the host now on the market?

In spite of the number of computer publications, none of those I encountered seemed to have an article tailor-made for first-time PC buyers. The assumed level of knowledge floored me; scores of strange words conspired to form a foreign language.

The magazine I eventually picked turned out to be useless, except for the advertised telephone numbers of some mail order firms. I phoned Dell, MJN and Dan, three of the companies with the largest advertisements, freely admitted my ignorance and pleaded with them to treat me gently.

The salewoman at Dell must have thought I was being falsely modest. She immediately launched into 'software'. Was I intending to work from Word Perfect or MS Word? I just wanted to know what she thought was best.

She suggested the company's own '386' desk top system offering 33 megahertz - or was it bytes? The computer, printer, software and modem - this, I discovered, was the device which allowed your home computer to chat and exchange information with your system at work - would cost pounds 1,547. Eventually, I discovered a peculiarity of the computer trade: the prices they quote exclude VAT, so actually, Dell's system, like all the others, was much more expensive than appeared at first sight.

If I wanted a portable lap top it would be pounds 1,597. The laptop or 'notebook', I was told, also offered a 386, this time with four megabytes of ram (she had me there).

At MJN, Colin the salesman started well. He actually asked me what I wanted a PC for. Then he suggested Amipro, 'the best word-processing package on the market'. The computer would be delivered by couriers, software - or is it softwear - preloaded, just 'ready to plug in'. The company had its phones staffed seven days a week to advise on problems. It sounded like heaven, but of course, it had its price.

He offered a 386DX with 4 megabytes of ram and an 85 megabyte hard disc. I appeared to be the first person who had ever asked the difference between ram and hard disc memories. Colin struggled with analogies. The hard disc was like a filing cabinet, the ram a desk. The bigger the desk the more I could get on it at any one time. At the end he was pretty chuffed with his own ingenuity; I was still a little confused.

Colin ruled out a portable. I certainly would not get one for under pounds 1,000.

Both Dell and MJN were quoting prices way outside my spending limit. I tried Dan, the last mail order firm on the list.

By now I suspected that 386 was more than a popular number, but the Dan saleswoman was the first to explain that the 386 generation of computers had been superseded by the 486 and soon 586s would be on the market. For my purposes, she said, a 386 would do, although the company's second smallest model could be 'upgraded' to a 486 once I gained the confidence to do more sophisticated things. At the moment it cost pounds 171 to replace the computer chip.

She recommended a 386 with 4 megabytes of ram and a 100-megabyte disk drive. Then came a stream of jargon, just as I was beginning to feel I had a grip: features included a 3.5-inch floppy, 14-inch SVGA monitor, DOS 5, Windows and mouse.

I had only been on the telephone a few minutes, but the salewoman could not wait to get rid of me. She promised to send some literature which would make everything crystal clear and suggested I look at some more magazines.

They all promised booklets, but Dell's never materalised. MJN was the only one to follow up my interest with a telephone call.

Mail order firms had offered little help, but I had great hopes for face-to-face inquiries. I opted for a stroll down the Tottenham Court Road in central London, a stretch of road which is to technology what Fleet Street once was to journalism.

I started with Micro Anvika, which advertises in computer magazines. For novices the service was appalling. The three male assistants seemed comfortable serving the dozen or so guys looking for specific machines and components. They seemed at a loss as to where to start with a beginner - and I suspect a female beginner - like me.

The fact is computer shops are decidely male. The assistants are predominantly male and so are the buyers. I suspect there is also a lot of male bravado. Even if they shared some of my ignorance they are hardly likely to admit it. When I asked one assistant to demonstrate a machine, he seemed unsure and totally unable to explain how it worked. I wondered how many first-time PC buyers give up at this stage?

The advice I did receive was rather basic. One assistant said the advantage of a lap top was that it was portable and I could take it to the library with me. Prices were lower than those offered by mail order.

My heart sank when I walked across the road to Micro World Technology. It was the same scene. Men chewing the cud with other men about the relative merits of computer parts. Little boys exchanging computer games with teeange assistants. There were more than 30 people in the shop and only one other woman.

But I was lucky. I met a brilliant assistant, Keith, who had actually been trained to recognise 'that its not just men in suits who want to buy computers'. In the next 15 minutes I learned a wealth about computers.

I discovered DX computers processed information faster than SXs. DXs were more easily upgraded to 486 capacity than SXs. He managed to explain the distinction between ram and hard disk so well that I understood what the MJN guy had been getting at.

His 386s ranged from pounds 595-pounds 895 excluding VAT and the cheapest would meet my needs.

There was a huge variation between retailers in the price of computers. Keith's recommended package came to around pounds 1,400 (with VAT) but he did offer to knock pounds 100 off if I bought the entire system there.

Keith set me up for visits to Morgans on New Oxford Street and Dixons at Marble Arch. Morgans just sells computers. Printers and modems have to be purchased elsewhere, but by now price variations suggested that buying bit by bit was a good idea.

The salesman in Morgans admitted he did not sell the world's most advanced word processors, but they were perfectly adequate for what I required. He recommended a Morgan 486SX-25 with with 1 MB of ram for pounds 499 plus vat.

The man at Dixon's tried to persuade me I needed to spend twice as much. He insisted that an IBM 386SX PC at just under pounds 1,000, including VAT, was what I needed. It came with a Seikosha dot matrix printer and Wordstar for Windows word processing software. Once I said pounds 1,000 was my limit, this seemed to be the only system he was interested in selling

When I expressed interest in an Amstrad PCW9512 with a Canon bubblejet 10 printer and Locoscript 2 software for pounds 600 including VAT, he said Amstrad's back-up service was very poor compared to IBMs. You could never get anyone on the phone at Amstrad.

I did not buy the IBM. I have not bought anything yet. But I will soon, when I know a little more. Computerland is hostile to the novice buyer, particularly the female, but I should be thankful to my ex. You can learn enough, with a little effort and perseverance, to make your own informed choice.

(Photograph omitted)

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