Home Computer: The Apple of the fashionable user's eye: Is the darling of 'chip-lit' classes as good as its image? David Hewson spells out why the Macintosh still has the edge for its adoring club of users

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A LITTLE under 10 years ago a handful of grumpily dissatisfied personal computer users shelled out close on pounds 4,000 a throw for a small fawn box containing a single 400 kilobyte floppy disk drive, the central processing power of a burnt-out sparrow and an idea that was to change the face of personal technology.

As one of those sometimes happy few, I have to say that seeing the Apple Macintosh on sale in Dixon's today, with a thousand times the power available for a fraction of the price leaves me with mixed feelings.

Apple can lay claim to many firsts with the Macintosh range over the years: the first computer that you could take out of the box, plug in and use, the first to have an easy, graphical user interface - replacing the need to type in text instructions with a 'point and click' system, the first to use typefaces that came out of the world of printing and not that of typewriters. But more than anything, it was the first personal computer to be fashionable.

Before the Mac, personal computer users were either goggle-eyed technofreaks or suits using IBM PC-compatibles to run profit and loss calculations. Apple produced something that real people wanted - and then duly sold it at a price they could not afford. Swiftly, inevitably, the Mac became the darling of the 'chip-lit' classes and other layabouts, all of whom moaned like crazy about the cost of their silicon habit, but secretly relished the privacy of belonging to an exclusive club.

Over the past two years Apple has thrown open the club doors. A flood of cheap new models aimed firmly at the home and small business market have appeared, all of them less likely to induce suicide in unwired normal human beings than anything else the computer world has to offer.

Microsoft, the world's largest software company, has stolen much of the Mac's thunder with the phenomenally popular Windows 3.1, which adds on a graphical user interface to the PC's basic Dos operating system, but when it comes to ease of use, the comparison between the two is only skin-deep.

Windows, probably the closest Microsoft could get to producing a Mac-clone without ending up in court, is a lot easier than the PCs of old, but it is still littered with technological complexities that can strike the new user dumb. Setting up a printer under Windows can be a technological feat. With the Mac, you plug the thing into the computer, turn on, and you are there (usually).

Depending on what you want to do, the Mac can actually be cheaper than the PC alternative. Imagine, for example, that you want a system that has good sound, a small computer systems interface (SCSI) for connecting a high capacity CD-Rom drive or other peripherals such as a scanner and the ability to share data with other computers through a cable link. PCs are perfectly capable of all these things, but you will have to pay for add-on 'cards' - circuit boards that are added to the central processor board - costing about pounds 500.

On the Mac, sound, networking and SCSI are already built in - you just buy the peripherals. Nor does Apple have an equivalent for the great Microsoft double whammy which forces you to own two operating systems, Dos and Windows, at once.

Most Macs are used for writing, graphics and desktop publishing, the latter a computing sector entirely created by the machine and in which it maintains its predominance. However, many of the most popular applications on the market are now available on either machine.

And life with the Mac is not all a bed of roses. I regularly use both a Windows PC and the Mac. A few years ago, Apple was streets ahead. Now the two are much closer. In my opinion - and software choice is a matter of opinion - Windows has a considerable lead as a writing tool. Microsoft Word 5 on the Mac is far less satisfactory than its PC equivalent Word for Windows 2, which has everything you find in the Apple version and a lot more besides.

Apple has also confused and occasionally infuriated its customers by releasing new product lines almost as quickly as they kill old ones. The Mac product line is now so large and complex that some Apple dealers have difficulty remembering which models are current and which are not.

In addition to the new Performa range, he first aimed at the retail market, there is a thoroughly confusing mix of Classics, LCIIs, IIvxs, Quadras and the horrible-looking Centris models which are dead ringers for your average IBM PC-compatible. Then you can buy some expensive 'dockable' portables which can be carried around as notebooks or fitted into desktop units; and the original PowerBooks.

Apple's notebooks have sold well, but they now look grossly overpriced compared with the latest flush of notebook PCs such as Compaq's much more capable Contura range.

There must also be a minor question mark about the future direction of the Mac under Apple. The company is now excited about its deal with IBM to produce a new breed of computer, the PowerPC, which is due to appear next year. The PowerPC will be extremely fast and promises to run Mac and Windows applications and some super programs designed specially for it. But with Windows currently selling 1.5m copies a month worldwide, will there be anyone left to buy it?

The Mac is now too big and too popular to disappear. Buying one is as safe an investment as any piece of PC hardware and most people find that they adore the machine, even with its failings, provided you keep a sense of proportion.

One of the more alarming things about the Mac is the way it has been adopted by the kind of people who once made a living offering magical Cornish pixies for sale in Reveille. I recently saw an advert for a Mac 'thought processor' which was headlined, in all seriousness, 'unleash your creativity - without the need for drugs'.

The implicit message of all this tripe is that this is the machine that will finally help you finish that novel, master graphic arts, or churn out the business presentation that gets you the job you want. The truth is that most of us have no creativity to release and owning a Mac is a quick way we can prove it - with bar charts.

Did Shakespeare sit there, nibbling his quill, stuck for inspiration, muttering, 'if only I had a Sheaffer'? I somehow doubt it. On the other hand, he would probably have bought a Mac because it was cheap, it was fun, and it was a very luvvy thing to do. Could have worked wonders for his spelling too.

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