Computer Shopping

Mark Pottenger

This article is about shopping for a computer. Shopping with a computer is also a popular subject, but I will leave that to others.

I will start by saying what my biases are in looking at computers and what my own shopping experiences have been. I program in my job and at home for recreation and family astrological projects, so one of the things I now look at in a computer is how easy it will be to program and how similar it is to others I work with. Our whole family likes gadgets, so there is also a tendency to pay more attention to hardware than software. I have personally bought an Apple II Plus and an Osborne 1 and I have contributed toward the family S-100.

I am a computer addict, and have been following the small computer field for several years, so I will try to define a few of the field’s words and buzzwords here for people less familiar with the field. The definitions include shopping cautions where I think they fit, so the bulk of this article is in the definitions. No order of definitions is completely satisfactory, so some terms are used before they are defined. If anything looks too technical, skip it. Because of the way some terms are needed to define others, reading the whole set of definitions twice might be the best approach for anyone completely unfamiliar with the field. If readers want even more details, write to let me know and I will see about writing further articles.


Hardware means the physical equipment—the computer, disk drives, displays, printers, and any other physical device attached to and communicating with the computer.


The word “computer” can be used in several ways. 1) The Central Processing Unit (CPU)—the Integrated Circuit (IC) or silicon chip that actually performs logical and arithmetic operations. 2) The circuit board or boards with the CPU, memory chips, Input/Output (IO) circuitry, disk control circuitry, and several other possibilities depending on how much the manufacturer likes to put in. 3) The circuit boards plus disk drives, keyboard and some kind of screen display all packaged together. 4) The just mentioned package plus related equipment called peripherals: printers, modems, graphic input devices, and so on. (This is what could be called a “computer system”.) With many manufacturers, disk drives are treated as peripherals and not included in the standard package.

Is what you are buying complete?

When one sets out to “buy a computer”, option 2 or 3 above is what one first thinks of, but option 4 is what will actually be the end result. This is one of the areas that sales people unfortunately tend to take advantage of. Many ads I have read list the price for the minimum system without all the peripherals which are necessary before you can make any real use of what you buy. When you add the prices for everything you really need, many seemingly cheap systems become expensive. A computer where you buy everything you need as a single package is called “bundled” and one where you have to buy a lot of separate pieces is called “unbundled”. The price quotes for a bundled system are much more realistic. The Osborne 1 is a bundled system, even including a lot of software in the list price. The IBM PC is an unbundled system where you have to pay for a lot of extra pieces to get anything useful. When you do your shopping, be sure to compare the prices of complete systems, because that is what you will end up buying.


The “chips” in a computer are the main working part of the hardware. Chips, or integrated circuits (ICs), are very small pieces of silicon (or other materials in some newer chips) with very small electronic circuits built into them. A single IC can have the equivalent of hundreds or even hundreds of thousands of discrete transistors or other electronic components in it. The actual IC is very flat and most are less than a centimeter square. What you will usually see if you look inside a computer is chips packaged in plastic casings with metal pins along both sides for signals to get into and out of the chip. (This is called a “dual in-line package”, giving us DIP chips.) The actual IC is inside that plastic casing. The pocket computers now on the market are able to be so small partly because they don’t use the same kind of casing.


The Central Processing Unit (CPU) is the “brain” of the computer. This chip (or set of chips in some cases) is the core of the whole system. There are many different CPUs on the market from different companies. They can be grouped into families based on similarity of design. The 6502 is the chip used in the Apple, Atari, and Commodore PET. The Z80 is the chip used in the TRS-80, Osborne 1, and many S-100 computers. The Z80, 8085, and 8080 are all similar and all three chips can execute 8080 code. All of these chips are 8-bit designs—the basic unit of information the CPU normally works with is one 8-bit byte (see later). Newer CPUs are designed to normally work with 16 bits and 32 bits. In general, the larger the basic unit the CPU works with, the more powerful it is. The other factor affecting the effective power of a CPU is how fast it runs. CPU speeds are normally given in Megahertz—millions of cycles per second. The 6502 in the Apple runs at a speed of 1 MHz. The Z80 in the Osborne runs at 4 MHz. However, direct comparisons of speed can be misleading because a 1MHz 6502 is roughly equivalent to a 2MHz Z80. (With the Z80, a letter is used to indicate the speed rating: Z80 is 2 MHz, Z80A is 4 MHz, Z80B is 6 MHz, and Z80H is 8 MHz.) Newer 16 bit CPUs available include the 8086, an extension of the 8080, and the 68000, Z8000, and 16032. The 8088 used in the IBM PC is a version of the 8086 that communicates with the world like an 8 bit computer, making it only halfway a 16 bit computer.

Circuit board and bus

The CPU chip, memory chips, IO circuitry, and several other things are all mounted on one or more circuit boards. A circuit board is (usually) made of rigid plastic with holes for mounting ICs and other components and copper conducting paths between them to carry power and signals. Circuit boards range in size from a couple inches to several feet on a side. A computer with all of its components mounted on one circuit board is called a single board computer (SBC). If there is more than one circuit board, there must be some way for them to communicate with each other. The set of connections and signals for communicating between a series of boards is called a bus. The S-100 bus is a widely used one with 100 lines for communication between boards. With a bus-based computer, upgrades and changes are often much easier than with a single board computer—you can upgrade a part without having to replace the whole thing. The oldest and newest computers in our house are both S-100 bus systems.

Disk Drives

To be really useful, a computer must have a way to permanently store programs and other information. Many early home computers stored information on cassette tapes, but that is an extremely slow and awkward system. Most computers now come with “disk drives” either built in or available as a peripheral. A disk drive is the record-erase mechanism (like the cassette player) for a much more efficient system of storage. Disks (or discs—I’ve seen both spellings) are flat circles with a magnetic coating essentially the same as that used in tapes. The most common kind of disk used in home computers is called a “floppy” or “flexible” disk because the coating is on a flexible plastic base. The other kind of magnetic disk, the “hard” or “rigid” disk, uses a rigid metal base for the magnetic coating. Hard disks are only now coming into the price range for the home market, but they are coming down in price rapidly. Optically recorded disks are another new technology just reaching the market. Floppy disks come in two main sizes: 5 1/4 inch and 8 inch diameters. (There are also several new disks with sizes under 4 inches coming onto the market.) The actual disk is packaged inside a square covering with an inner lining designed to remove dirt from the disk. The disk drive reads and writes the disk through a slot in the square covering. NEVER touch the magnetic coating visible through the slot and always try to protect disks from dust, bending, heat, magnets and anything else that might erase or damage them. Also, try to always put disks into their paper envelopes as soon as you take them out of the drives. Many drives actually read and write on the side of the disk that will be the bottom if you handle the disk label side up, so it is easy to set it on something.

Disks are preferable to tapes because they read and write much faster and any part of the disk can be used without having to go through the rest like a tape. This ability to reach any point without going through everything else is called “random access”. The information on a disk is organized in circular tracks, which are further subdivided into sectors. The disk drive read-write head moves radially to get from track to track and the disk is rotated to move the sectors past the head. The storage capacity of disks varies considerably. Single density disks code the information one way and double density disks code the information in a different way to fit more in the same space. The number of tracks packed into the open area can also vary. Also, some disk drives (they are called double sided) are designed to read both surfaces of a disk without physically removing the disk and turning it over, which doubles the useful capacity. They have a read-write head on each side of the disk instead of just one. I have worked with disks ranging from single density single sided 5 1/4 inch disks with a usable storage of 86 K (see later) to double density double sided 8 inch disks with a usable storage of 1,200 K to a hard disk with a usable storage of 40 Megabytes (40 K K).

Unfortunately, all of these varieties of disks are incompatible with each other. Even the disks that have the same physical size and use the same number of sides are often written in different ways on different machines or with different operating systems (see later). One of the major variations is whether the disks are “hard sectored” or “soft sectored”. Hard sectored disks have 10 or 16 or more little holes in the disk near the center which mark the beginning of each sector. Soft sectored disks have 1 hole (called an index hole), with detailed placement of sectors determined by software. Hard and soft sectored disks and drives are usually incompatible. There is no universal standard for disk formats, so you can seldom write a disk on one brand of computer and read it on another. The closest to a disk standard available is the 8 inch single sided single density disk used by the CP/M operating system. Many machines can read disks written in this format. There is some compatibility between 5 1/4 inch disks written using CP/M, but much less than with 8 inch disks. The Osborne 1 and the Morrow Micro Decision can use the 5 1/4 inch disk formats of several different machines, making them more flexible than most. Be very cautious when you buy programs on disks or even blank disks that they are the correct disks for your machine.

It is hard to make any emphatic statement about what brand of disks to buy. Dysan are supposed to be the highest quality, but I have had trouble with Dysan disks as much as with any other. I generally buy either Verbatim or Maxell because they both behave for me and are available for around $30 to $35 per box of 10 (5 1/4 inch) where we live. Test whatever disks you buy to make sure they work well in your computer. Double density double sided use does require a higher quality disk than single density single sided.

For most uses, any disks at all will be adequate, but there are some uses of computers that require large amounts of information to be permanently stored on disk. If you are planning to use the computer for something that involves a lot of stored information, keep it in mind when looking at disk drives and go for high capacity.


Most home computers have a keyboard very much like a typewriter. A few of the cheapest don’t, and a few of the most expensive also have other ways of entering data. Most of the time, the keyboard is your primary way of communicating with the computer. You type instructions and information. The need to type is so great that I recommend that anyone who is not already a touch typist learn that skill. You will be using the keyboard so much that the layout and feel of the keys can make a big difference in your reaction to the computer.

Keyboard layout: There are two main variations on keyboard layout: IBM Selectric typewriter and manual typewriter. The most obvious difference between these layouts is whether a shifted 2 gives you a quote (”) or an at sign (@). There are a lot of other small variations in the placement of non-alphabetic keys. Because the normal computer character set has more symbols than a conventional typewriter, there are also going to be several more keys which get put in a wide variety of places. (The IBM PC keyboard layout is the WORST I have ever seen.) Another thing added to many computer keyboards is a calculator style numeric keypad. This is definitely a feature to look for—it makes many kinds of data entry go much faster. Sit and type at the keyboard of any computer you are looking at to see if your fingers can find the keys.

Keyboard feel: The other important keyboard feature besides key placement is key feel and stiffness. If the keys are so stiff that they tire your fingers or so loose that you constantly get extra characters you might want to look elsewhere. Another thing to watch is whether the computer keeps up with fast typing. The way the keyboard is read in some computers makes them so slow that a fast touch typist can get ahead of them and lose letters. Watch out for this. A feature that is nice but not essential is the ability to redefine the meanings of some or all keys. I use this feature on the Osborne to make some fairly complex commands with single keystrokes. If the computer doesn’t have a built in keyboard, using a separate terminal instead, you should check out the terminal just as carefully.

What do you see?

Displays are whatever let you see what the computer is up to. A CRT is a cathode ray tube—the picture tube of a television. A video monitor is basically a CRT designed to be used with a computer. A video terminal is a CRT with a keyboard. A printing terminal is a printer with a keyboard. An ordinary TV can be used as a computer display by making a connection between the TV antenna and the computer. Unfortunately, to work with text for any length of time, a TV hookup is not satisfactory due to poor image quality (fuzzy letters) or room for too little text. Even with a monitor or terminal instead of a TV, it is worth checking the readability of the letters. The number of dots used to make each letter (the “dot matrix”) will determine how readable it is. The other question is how much text you get on the screen. People often treat 24 or 25 lines by 80 columns as a standard to aim for. A few more expensive computers have even larger screens, showing 66 lines by 80 columns. Many more computers go to less text: 16 by 64, 24 by 40, or 16 by 32. The Osborne uses 24 by 52 for its built in screen. Look at the display and decide if enough information is visible at one time to satisfy your needs, especially for text.


Printers are among the most important peripherals. A printer gives you results on paper. You can buy a computer without a printer, but you will find yourself buying the printer as soon as you can afford it. Until you get a printer, anything you get from the computer must be copied from the screen by hand.

There are two main types of printers for the home market: dot matrix and fully formed character printers. A dot matrix printer has a “print head” with a vertical row of small wires. Each wire can strike the ribbon independently, and letters, numbers, and graphics are all formed from individual dots carefully placed. (There are other kinds of dot matrix printers, but the kind I have described is most common in the home market.) A fully formed character printer has a print element with individual letters and numbers cast permanently. The most used character printers use a “daisy wheel” with all the letters at the end of spokes on a small wheel—the wheel spins to bring a letter to the top and a small hammer pushes the letter against the ribbon. With certain exceptions, I believe that a dot matrix printer is the best choice as the first printer—especially for astrologers. Dot matrix printers are cheaper and faster and most on the market allow you to print astrological glyphs by using their graphics features. The exceptions to this recommendation are people whose main use of the computer will be for word processing and printing good looking text. The print from a fully formed character printer is referred to as “letter quality” while the print from most dot matrix printers doesn’t look as good. However, the print from many dot matrix printers is good enough for most purposes, so you should really look and decide for yourself. Unfortunately, it is hard to get glyphs with a fully formed character printer.

Is what you are buying complete?

Something to watch out for in getting a printer is an unbundling trick similar to what is done with computers. On dot-matrix printers, the extra hardware or software to make graphics possible is often sold as an extra rather than being included in the base price. On many printers, you have to pay extra for the hardware to let you use either single sheets of paper or continuous paper (something called a pin-feed or forms tractor). Another item often not included in the base price quotes is the cable to connect the printer to the computer and sometimes a special circuit board (an interface) to enable proper communication. Some computers require you to purchase an interface board and some come equipped with an interface. There are also some printers on the market that do not print the computer’s full character set in the base price versions—lower case letters are an option you have to pay for. Sometimes punctuation marks like the curly brackets ({}) or square braces ([]) are not available at all. Another variation is the physical width of the printer. Many of the cheaper printers for the home market will not print on paper wider than 9 1/2 inches because the physical carriage is only that wide. Other printers have a 15 inch carriage or offer a higher priced model with the wider carriage.

Communicating with the world

I/O: I referred earlier to Input/Output devices. A printer or screen displaying something from the computer is an Output device. A keyboard or card reader is an Input device. The printed paper from the computer is also called output.

Interface: the hardware and software to allow a computer to communicate with other computers or peripherals. Many computers have the interface hardware and software built in, but for some you have to add it. The two main types of interface are “serial” and “parallel”. A serial interface sends information one bit (see later) at a time over one or two wires. The most used serial interface is called RS232. A parallel interface sends information at least 8 bits at a time over at least 10 wires. Two of the most used parallel interfaces are called Centronics and IEEE 488. Parallel communication is faster than serial, but more subject to electrical noise.

Modem: this is short for modulator-demodulator. A modem is a device to allow computers to communicate over the phone system. Your computer can talk to others like it or to larger computers with large amounts of stored data available (data bases).


This is a term you will see used and misused a lot. One K is 1024—the K is from Kilo, the root for thousand, but the number 1024 is the power of 2 closest to one thousand (2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2 or 2 to the 10th power). A power of two is used instead of a power of ten because the basic design of most computers is based on powers of two (binary arithmetic). If K is used without anything after it, most people mean Kilobytes. One byte is 8 bits. One bit is one binary digit—a 0 or 1. The most widely used system for coding letters, numbers, and punctuation (a “character set”) uses one byte for each character. This system is called ASCII—the American Standard Code for Information Interchange. So 1 K can be thought of as 1024 characters. One Megabyte is 1024 Kilobytes.


The K described above is normally used as a means of measuring memory and storage capacity. There are several kinds of memory for a computer. There is what might be called “working” memory—that part of a computer that holds a program and the data it is using. This memory changes as programs work and in most computers its contents are lost whenever the power is turned off. This memory consists of electrical patterns within certain chips on the computer’s circuit board(s) and is called RAM for Random Access Memory. (The name is slightly misleading in that most other kinds of computer memory can also be accessed randomly, so some people like to call it Read-Write Memory.) Another kind of memory stored electronically in chips inside the computer is ROM (Read Only Memory) or PROM (Programmable Read Only Memory). This is like RAM that has had a pattern of charges permanently burned into the chips so that it doesn’t erase when the power goes off. It also can’t be changed by normal computer operation, hence the name: you can only read from it—you can’t write to it. All computers have some ROM or they would never do anything when you turn them on. The more you put in ROM, the less flexibility you have to change things around. The third kind of memory we are concerned with is permanent storage memory—mainly disks and tapes. What you write to a disk can be read back later or read by someone else, so disks are your permanent storage of programs and data and your best way of sharing them with other people.

How much is USABLE?

The reason I said earlier that the term K is misused a lot is the way people describe the RAM, ROM, and disk storage available on their computers. On most home computers, the upper limit on the RAM and ROM that can be used at one time is 64 K. This limit is due to design features in the CPU chips themselves, but it is being gotten around somewhat in newer computers and is not a problem with newer, more powerful 16 bit CPUs like the 68000. What this means for the ordinary user with an 8 bit machine is that even if the computer has 128 K of RAM or even more, it will normally only be usable 64 K at a time! For similar reasons, if you have 16 K of ROM and 64 K of RAM, at any given time either the ROM or 16 K of the RAM will not be in use. So when someone says the computer has a huge working memory, find out if all of that memory is actually available for use by most programs you can buy or write. In addition to the tendency to inflate the memory capacity beyond 64 K, there is an even stronger tendency to neglect to mention that parts of the rated memory are unavailable to the user because the manufacturer is using them for something. The USABLE RAM is almost always less than the RAM capacity cited in the literature. On an Apple II, for example, if you have 48 K, you will find when you are using disks that the actual space available for BASIC programs is 35.5 K. The Disk Operating System (DOS) takes up 10.5 K, the text screen takes some memory, and your usable memory gets whittled down. For another example, the Osborne 1 is listed as having 64 K—it does, but 4 K of that is used for screen memory and is unavailable for programs, making it a 60 K system. After you load CP/M and a language into that 60 K, the Osborne has 38 K available in CBASIC and 29 K available in MBASIC. When you get down to what is usable, an Apple II, a Commodore 8032, and an Osborne 1 are all very similar in memory capacity.

The other area where people tend to inflate figures of K available is in disk storage. One trick I have run into with hard disks is to cite the “unformatted” capacity. Before you can actually use it, the disk has to be formatted, and all of a sudden you have lost a fifth of the rated storage capacity. It isn’t quite that bad with floppy disks, but quoted capacities usually neglect the fact that disks, like RAM, usually have part of their capacity reserved for computer needs and not available to store the user’s data. All disks have some form of directory or catalog on the disk listing the files stored on that disk. Most disks also have a copy of the DOS somewhere on the disk. Many disks also use something called a map to keep detailed track of exactly where on the disk all files are. All of these use disk space, reducing the amount available to the user. Occasionally, ratings also mislead by using K when they mean multiples of 1,000. Osborne does this by referring to their disk capacity as 102 K when it is really 102,400 bytes or 100 K. When you allow for the reserved spaces mentioned above, an Osborne single density disk actually has 90 K available for the user. Apple disks, rated at 140 K, actually have 122 or 123 K available.


Software means programs. The name came from an analogy with hardware. The -ware suffix is popular in the field. Firmware is software in ROM.


A program is a set of instructions or codes that tell the computer to do some specific sequence of operations or actions.


A bug is a program error or deficiency. A bug can be a simple typographical error or an error in program design or writing. A bug causes unexpected or unwanted results when using a program. Some program features are hard to classify: they are what the programmer intended, but to the user they seem like bugs. Program changes to correct bugs are called enhancements, corrections, fixes, patches, or kluges, depending on how permanent or elegant they are.

Operating Systems

An Operating System (OS) is a special kind of program. The OS is the program that deals most directly with the hardware. All use of keyboard, disks, printers, screen and anything else is under control of the OS. In a sense, the OS tells the CPU within the computer what appendages it has and contains the instructions for using them. The user really interacts with the OS. When you speak of “the way the computer does things” you are really speaking of the way the Operating System does things. Apple DOS is an OS. CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers) is a very widely used OS. There are also a number of “Unix like” Operating Systems becoming available. Unix is an OS developed at Bell Labs. There are also several look alike or work alike imitations of CP/M, with the usual quota of incompatibilities.


A language is a system for giving the computer instructions. There are hundreds of languages used on computers, but the one most widely available on home computers is BASIC (Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code according to some people, not an acronym at all according to others). Other languages are available on small computers, including Ada, APL, C, COBOL, Forth, FORTRAN, LISP, Logo, Pascal, and PL/1. Machine language is, as the name implies, a language the computer (CPU) can understand directly. Every CPU has a different machine language. All languages eventually produce machine language or nothing would get done. There are two main kinds of languages: compiled and interpreted. A compiler reads a program written in that language and translates it to machine language once. Once the program is compiled, the translated form will work directly on the machine. An interpreter reads and translates a program written for it a command at a time as the program is being used. No permanent machine language program is produced, and even if a command is used repeatedly, it is interpreted each time it is used. Compiled languages are usually faster than interpreted languages, but programs in interpreted languages are usually easier to change.


Data is information. Any information you store or use. Even programs can be data.


Graphics is a term used to mean drawings, pictures, or any kind of special symbol. Graphics hardware is any equipment needed, and graphics software is the programs that make the hardware work. Astrological symbols are a kind of graphics, as is a smooth circular chart wheel. Some computers allow graphics on the display screen, although often only a limited form using pre-defined “graphic characters” like a box or a line. All computers can do graphics on a printer with the capability. A caution on printers and graphics: some printers say they have graphics when what they have is a predefined set of graphic characters. The kind of graphics you need to do astrological glyphs is referred to as dot graphics or dot addressable graphics.


“User friendly” is a buzzword that is very popular right now. It might be translated as “easy to use”. The products and programs being given this label are seldom as friendly as the name claims. “Ergonomic” is another currently popular buzzword which can be roughly translated as designed for efficiency or comfort.

I hope those are enough definitions for the moment. I will now get on to the subject of shopping for a computer for astrological and other use.

Decide for yourself!

My first piece of advice for anyone looking for a computer is to be careful about accepting advice. A computer is still a large purchase for the budget of many families and the uses to which it will be put can be quite different for everyone. It is great if you have a knowledgeable friend who can give you advice, but make the final decision yourself! Your specific requirements and uses should determine what computer you get, not the prejudices of the people giving you advice. The only time I would consider it acceptable to accept someone else’s decision for what computer to buy is if you have hired a consultant for that specific purpose for a business.

What DO you want?

The first step in shopping for a computer is to try to decide what you will really do with it. Many of the ads I have seen propose uses like checkbook balancing and recipe collecting, which don’t really need a computer. For astrologers, the most obvious use is to calculate and print charts. The next thing I think most people will do with their computers is “word processing”. Word processing is an over-glorified term for typing and editing using the computer instead of a typewriter. Another use or set of uses is the DBMS or Data Base Management System. The simplest form of DBMS is a program for keeping lists. Keeping a mailing list can be done using a DBMS or with a separate program. Spreadsheets are programs allowing you to set up and quickly change financial models and budgets and almost anything else that can be worked with in grid form. Other uses include a number of financial (business) uses, games, teaching and programming. Business uses available include Accounts Receivable and Payable, General Ledger, Inventory, and Payroll. There are many excellent games available for the Apple II. Make a list of all of the things you think you might do with a computer, then find out how many of them you actually can do with the computers and programs available on the market. Include future uses as well as immediate uses, so you can keep them in mind during your shopping. It is possible that something you want to do can only be done with one machine or one program on the market, or only a few. Also, which use is most important to you might determine certain choices. If astrology is much more important than word processing, a dot-matrix printer is more advisable. If word processing is much more important, a letter quality printer is more advisable. (If your budget can stand it, get both.)

Buy programs!

Except for people who have the time and inclination to program whatever they need, I strongly recommend that you shop very carefully to make sure that there are programs available to do what you want. For example, writing a chart program from scratch is a minimum of several months of work. Make sure that what you want is REALLY AVAILABLE—not just promised. Hoping to get a program promised “real soon now” is a good way to get very frustrated. Make certain the programs you want are immediately available and will actually run on the computer you are looking at. Also find out if they require a specific set of options or extras in the hardware (for example, some programs will only work with the machine’s maximum RAM or disk capacity installed). If at all possible, get someone to demonstrate the program in action on your chosen machine before you buy. The programs are really what you will be using when you get a computer, so it is almost impossible to overstate how important it is to shop for programs first. Because most large programs represent several months of work, it is usually going to be cheaper to buy programs than to write them unless you place a very small value on your own time.

The hardware in many of the machines on the market today is very similar, so the availability of some program(s) only on certain machines should influence you toward the machine that supports the most programs that you want. There is still much less software available for the more powerful 16 bit machines because they have not been around as long as the 8 bit machines. In addition, some of the available software is just as slow or slower than the same thing on an 8 bit machine because the writers don’t take the time to completely redesign and rewrite for the new machines.

Astrology programs

The main sources for astrological software that I am currently aware of are AGS Software; Box 28; Orleans, MA 02653 and Matrix Software; 315 Marion Ave; Big Rapids, MI 49307. A group in Canada is starting a computer astrology users’ journal called RAMC (contact Paul Ostan Hewit; 1973 A Yonge St #1; Toronto, Ontario; M4S 1Z6; Canada). Right now this users’ journal has more material about Matrix software than AGS software, but I hope that will change.

Any home computer on the market should be adequate to do a chart program, but programmers have limited time and only support some machines. It would be impossible for the few people writing astrological programs to support all machines on the market. Any chart program should be able to give you planets and house cusps to a minute of arc or better, though some on the market are not even at that level. (Math accuracy is a function of the language, not the computer. Most languages on the market are good enough to produce an accurate chart, though some are not good enough for certain high precision calculations such as asteroid ephemeris generation.)

Compatibility is relative

Be very cautious about claims of being “compatible”. Many people claim their machines or programs are compatible with some other on the market. Unfortunately, many of these claims are only partially true. This problem occurs both with cheaper imitations of popular computers and with programs that aren’t really as generally usable as they claim.


Another issue to be conscious of is follow up and support. Both hardware and software can develop problems or can be improved. Try not to get stuck with hardware that has to be shipped across the country to be fixed. Find out what sort of local repair service is available for what you buy. Printers are the most prone to failure, with disk drives next and the main computer circuitry last. For software, find out if the programs are known to have bugs or are hard to use. If there are problems with the programs, find out what the software support policy is. Are bugs fixed or ignored? Do you have to pay extra for fixes? On the improvement side, how good is the manufacturer about making hardware improvements available to owners of older units? Does the software company charge a lot for improved versions of their programs? The more support available, the easier it is to live with your computer. This issue can affect your decision of where to buy. Many computer products are available at discount prices, but usually the stores that sell at those prices do not offer follow up support. This is especially true for mail-order purchases. So, even though the discount prices can be tempting, also check out the support the store will give you. Another kind of support now being offered by some stores and elsewhere is training. You can take short courses in how to use your computer. Investigate the availability of training for the machines you are looking at and for the more complex programs.

Expansible or obsolescent?

Related to support is the question of system expansibility. Will it be possible a few years from now to make changes or additions to your computer to take advantage of new technology? Can you add to the basic unit? The ease of adding to the Apple is one of the reasons it continues to sell year after year. An option to expanding your current system is to keep it and buy a second system. This gives you more power and more flexibility and a system to fall back on if you have a problem with one of your systems. Computer prices are falling enough to make it reasonable to own more than one.


Related again to the issue of support, but harder to deal with, is the question of company stability. If you buy a computer from a manufacturer who later goes out of business, getting spare parts or repairs can become a very serious problem. This isn’t a concern if you are buying a product from a well established firm, but is a risk when buying things on the leading edge from new companies. This may be part of the reason the IBM PC sells so well despite being a poorly designed machine—people expect IBM to be around a while. Stores also go out of business—one of the stores in the Los Angeles area filed for bankruptcy just a week or two ago. This leaves customers who have paid but not received their equipment stuck and also can create a follow up service problem for customers who bought things there.

Repeating a warning I gave earlier about software, be sure what somebody is promising is REALLY AVAILABLE. If a company is promoting their product as the greatest and you agree based on their literature, make sure it is a real product and not just a promise!

Personal preferences

After all this discussion, I will not even make a specific recommendation of a computer or printer or program. I will mention a few I like. I like the Apple II and what I have read about the new version—the IIe. I very much like the Osborne 1—it is currently my favorite computer to work on. I like the NEC 8023 (alias C.Itoh Prowriter) printer. I generally prefer AGS programs to those from Matrix. Matrix has always had a reputation for putting out programs with a lot of bugs and letting users do the debugging. Some of their older programs have now been debugged by this process, but their newer programs still seem to follow this pattern.

The reason I mention these as likes rather than recommendations is that this field is changing so rapidly that a recommendation is usually out of date before it sees print. The cautions I have given will apply for quite a while, but specific “best choice” computers change almost weekly.


1 Make a wish list.

2 Check available programs.

3 Determine USABLE RAM.

4 Determine USABLE disk capacity.

5 Test keyboard layout and feel.

6 Look at the display.

7 Check the speed in actual use.

8 Pick and test a printer.

9 Check out follow up support.

Copyright © 1983 Los Angeles Community Church of Religious Science, Inc.

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