It seems as if everyone wants to sell you a computer this Christmas. But ask some tough questions first, says Ken Welsby
The computer industry is spending millions to persuade you that a new PC or Mac would make the ideal Christmas present. But before you rush out of the door to buy one, take time to think the idea through.

Prices have fallen dramatically over the past 15 years; a few months ago I paid less than pounds 2,000 for a machine that's faster and more powerful in every way than its predecessor, which cost twice that sum four years before.

In the summer, the stores were full of computers at well below the magic pounds 999 price point, but last week it was a different story. I had to go into half a dozen shops to find a PC at that price - and a salesman at one big chain told me that for "an ideal home computer" I should expect to pay at least pounds 1,400.

So what's changed? In two words: the Internet and multimedia. The "ideal home computer" last year was, well, a computer. You could use it to write a novel, play games, do school and office work, and, of course, try to figure out why your bank statement was telling lies about how much money you owed it.

Not any more. Today's "ideal home computer" - according to that salesman - is a complete multimedia workstation, ready for the latest in "edutainment" CD-Roms and surfing the Net.

So the first question to ask is: why do you want a computer? Is it simply to play games, do school and office work and so on, or do you want to explore the world of dinosaurs on CD-Rom and turn green with envy when you learn, via the Internet, what the weather will be in Hawaii next week?

If what you want is the freedom to work occasionally at home, send e- mail or faxes to colleagues and friends - or simply become more computer- literate as part of your career development plan - forget multimedia and buy a low-cost PC and a cheap modem.

But if you have children over the age of nine or 10, and you want to use CD-Roms and the Internet for learning and leisure, buy a multimedia machine. This will include some or all of the following: fast CD-Rom drive (at least 4x speed), stereo sound with speakers, high-speed modem (at least 28.8kbps), Internet access software, full-colour monitor and accelerated graphics.

The next decision is which "platform" to go for: Windows PC or Mac. In business, Windows machines have 90 per cent of the market, but for home users the Mac has many advantages. It is easier to set up, easier to use and cheaper to maintain and expand.

Much popular software such as Microsoft Works and Office, WordPerfect and Corel Draw is available for both platforms, but for creative graphics, the Mac generally has the edge.

However, if you want to use your home computer for tracking investments, online banking and share dealing, a Windows PC would probably be better, since some specialist software will not run on the Mac.

Until about a year ago, the Mac was available only from Apple, but now you can buy Mac compatibles (known as MacOS machines) from half a dozen different manufacturers, including Umax and Motorola.

Whether you go for a Mac or a Windows PC, look for one that includes a software bundle. Packages such as Microsoft Works or Claris Works provide all the word-processing, database and accounting spreadsheet functions that most of us will ever need.

The next question is where to buy it. Pick up any computer magazine and you will find page after page of mail-order advertisements. While it's true that mail-order companies have thousands of satisfied customers, things can go wrong. You may not get all the "bits" you need - either because they were not included in the standard package or because the dealer was out of stock.

Buying from a store means that you can see the product and ask questions.

Staff in department stores and specialist computer shops are more likely to have knowledgeable staff than multiples selling everything from camcorders to computers.

Don't be put off by answers that are full of technobabble. Beware the salesman who reels off statistics like this: "You've got a 200 meg Pentium processor with 32 megs of RAM, a 2gig hard drive, six-speed CD and 64-bit PCI graphics."

If he told you all that came for pounds 1,500, should you be impressed? Probably, provided he can answer some basic questions: Does that include the monitor? What software is included? My daughter will want to use it to write school essays - can you show me what the word-processor looks like? Not just how easy it will be to use, but how comfortable will it be to read text on the screen?

When you walk down the high street or look though a magazine, you will find a bewildering range of brands. Reading one popular magazine in bed the other night I counted about 100 different makes, and more than 500 models before falling asleep.

So how do you decide what make to buy? Ask friends with computers what sort they have and what they think: Good value? Easy to set up? Reliable? Would they buy the same again?

Buying from a major manufacturer gives you a degree of security that, if something goes wrong, the company will put it right. Some leading brands such as Apple, Compaq and IBM are available either by retail or mail order, but others, such as Dell, Elonex, Gateway, Micron and Opus are sold directly by the manufacturers or through their UK distributors.

But whatever you buy, and wherever you buy it, remember the advice from computer support staff all around the world: RTFM, which stands for Read the Friendly Manual. At least, I think that's what the F stands for.