Computers are the new hi-fi

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THE long-awaited home computer revolution has arrived.

More than a million households bought computers last year - the equivalent of 3,000 buyers a day, according to a survey by GfK Marketing Services, Europe's second largest market information company. It showed that by the end of last year 3.3 million households - one in seven - owned at least one computer, with 47 per cent using home computers regularly for work or business and 43 per cent for education.

The majority of computers are still used in workplaces, but CD-Rom software disks, user-friendly software and information services such as the Internet have boosted the home computer's status to that of hi-fi.

Charles Smulders of Dataquest, a computer market research company, said there were three reasons for this: "Multimedia [the use of CD-Rom disks with moving pictures and sound] has given computers a strong educational element. That is a big motivation for parents with school-age children.

"There has been a price war: it is possible to buy a PC for as little as £100, though the more functional machine is around £1,200. The proportion of PCs sold for home use is smaller than for business by about five to one. But it will certainly change in coming years, no doubt about it."

Housebuilders have already cottoned on to the home computer revolution. Rice Homes, a Hertfordshire-based firm, has joined forces with Compaq, Britain's largest personal computer company, to develop the UK's first homes with built-in computer networks and data sockets. Around 250, in Ashford, Kent, will be built with computers able to talk to printers and other machines in other rooms and three phone lines for faxes and the Internet.

Builder Raymond Rice said his inspiration was his daughter who took over the computer in his study for three months for a school project. "I thought it would have been nice if she could work in her bedroom but still print her stuff on my printer. We've had a lot of interest from people in similar positions, particularly couples who work from home by computer."

The market is dominated by dual-income couples who buy machines for work and leisure use at home, and families with children at school. According to 1994 government figures, nearly six in 10 households with children have a computer, more than four times the level in childless homes. Parents worry that their children could be left behind in a computerised world.

Nicholas James, an oil trader from Richmond, Surrey, his wife, Georgina, a former journalist, and their children, Fiona, 10, and Louisa, six, are a typical "microchip" family. Mr James uses the home machine, which is connected to his workplace, and a lap-top computer to cut down on his office hours. Mrs James, a former technophobe, is now a regular Internet user and uses the machine to do freelance work for a local magazine. The children use educational games software which, according to their mother, have improved their spelling and maths.

But home computers are still used mainly for games: 54 per cent of users play games on them regularly.