Computers: Software for All Seasons

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A holiday gift guide for putting the byte into Christmas

Thousands of Americans will wake up Christmas morning to find a computer under the tree. If they are lucky, they will also find some software in their stockings, for without programs to run, the shiny new machines are almost useless. But with more than 30,000 programs on the market, finding the right software is a chore that can daunt the sawiest hacker. Some of the best and the easiest-to-use programs available this Christmas:

FOR WORK. Computers cannot do housekeeping, but many programs can put order into even the most tangled household finances. One of the best new family-management programs is Monogram's Dollars and Sense, a powerful product that is straightforward and surprisingly simple to learn. A carefully written manual and a complete set of on-screen instructions make this almost a crash course in accounting principles. The program will balance up to twelve different checking accounts and simultaneously track 120 budget categories, from MasterCard bills to mortgage payments. The one drawback: someone must sit down every few days and tell the computer where the money has been spent. An added benefit of the program is that, come April 15, the cost of the software and a portion of the hardware can be tax deductible. Price: $100 for Apple computers and $165 for the IBM Personal Computer and compatible models.

Writing is a task that a computer can make less painful, and scores of programs are now available to turn a microcomputer into a word processor. Most fall into one of two categories: simple-but-limited or powerful-and-unnecessarily-complicated. Microsoft, the leading microcomputer-software firm, has put its considerable prestige and programming talent behind Microsoft Word, a word-processing program that is loaded with extras yet relatively easy to master. The program employs a "mouse," a pointing device about the size of a pack of cigarettes, to move around blocks of text. But since some touch typists do not like to take their fingers off the keyboard, use of the mouse is optional. For IBM Personal Computers and compatible machines: $375 ($475 with mouse).

FOR LEARNING. Hit the letter A on the keyboard, and a bright and cheery airplane sputters across the computer screen. Hit X, and a funny-faced bear plays a theme from Star Wars on a xylophone. That is the thoroughly modern way to learn the alphabet. Xerox Education Publications, the folks who put out Weekly Reader, a magazine used for decades by millions of grade-schoolers, now publish the Stickybear software series. The programs, which are aimed at preschool children, include ABC, Numbers and Opposites. Each package mixes attractive graphics with clever reading and counting lessons and has such perks as posters, storybooks and Stickybear stickers. For Apple computers: $39.95.

Rocky's Boots from the Learning Company is as much fun as the computer itself. Starting with the fundamentals of moving a cursor, the video control point, this surprise-filled program goes on to teach the basics of electronics to children age seven and up. Youngsters are eventually given instructions on how to use wires, clocks and on/off gates to build their own electronic machines on terminal screens. The program is a painless and fascinating introduction into what makes computers tick. For Apples: $49.95.

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