So you've put off buying the kids a computer. But the neighbors have one. And your kids' school will move PCs into the classroom this fall. Face it, the moment of reckoning has come.
If your children are using one brand at school and are familiar with the software and the machine, you might want the same type of computer. Otherwise, there's scant difference between the capabilities of IBM-type PCs and the Apple Macintosh. Both now offer color displays and easy-to-use operating software and run versions of many popular educational programs.
You should choose a PC with at least 4 megabytes of memory, 120 megabytes of disk storage, so you can add plenty of software, and a graphical operating program, such as Microsoft Windows. Your IBM-type machine will need VGA graphics to run most software.
ADD SOME COLOR. For simple reading, math, and writing programs, a PC with black & white display costs as little as $600 new. Basic machines also can handle an important but neglected computer skill: programming. For teaching a child to think through a problem, writing simple programs--say, to calculate the savings account interest needed to buy a new bike--will be much more stimulating than drill-and-practice packages.
For most families, a color monitor is the smarter choice. Newer, graphical high-school-level software now assumes a color display. Color also is key for painting programs that can teach first-graders computer basics.
A color PC will set you back $1,000 to $1,500 for an IBM type and about $1,500 and up for a Macintosh. If price is an issue, second-hand PCs are available through newspaper ads or the Boston Computer Exchange (617 542-4414).
If the machine is for a high-schooler, consider a built-in CD-ROM player and sound capability. These multimedia PCs run encyclopedia, music appreciation (with music), and atlas programs. Tandy's Sensation is a great soup-to-nuts machine for $2,000. If purchased separately, CD-ROM players, such as the Apple CD-300, cost about $700, with several programs. On most PCs, sound usually costs extra. The Thunder Board from Media Vision is a steal at $80.
Sound is even beginning to be required in software packages geared to elementary students. Kid Works 2 for the Mac, $80 from Davidson Associates, will "read" stories created on the word processing and painting program, helping kids learn spelling and pronunciation while inventing their own fairy tales.
THE WORLD OF PAW. Once you've got a machine, one of the first software purchases should be a touch-typing program. "Typing is the only way for kids to get words out of their heads as fast as they think them up," says Diana Nunnaley, director of the Maynard (Mass.)-based Chapter 1 Computer Center, which advises elementary schools. For third-graders and up, try Microtype, The Wonderful World of Paws (Southwestern; $35). Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing (Software Toolworks; $35) is a good advanced trainer for ages 12 to adult.
One of the neatest packages for learning to use a computer is the Broderbund Software painting program called Kid Pics (about $40). It's so simple that kids as young as 5 can be drawing in minutes. Teens appreciate the sophisticated graphics called "clip art." Beyond the artistry, Kid Pics is a great way to introduce pull-down windows and the mouse, at the heart of running advanced programs.
The next step is to encourage programming skills. The boom in packaged software has taken away the joy of writing programs, says Russ Walter, author of the primer The Secret Guide to Computers ($15; 617 666-2666).
Programming software teaches more about computers than mere game playing. One of the liveliest packages is LOGO, with separate $100 versions available from Harvard Associates and Terrapin. It lets children write programs teaching an on-screen turtle to walk. For older kids, PCs include the easy-to-learn Basic programming language with most operating systems.
For a catalog of some 200 educational programs, many at 30% off retail list prices, call the Learning Advantage (800 524-2468). Its staff also will search for hard-to-find programs and provide insights into popular programs.
So get over your computerphobia and act. You might discover you have the next Bill Gates living just down the hall.