My wife is generally understanding when I retire to my study to work on my column. But one night she was a little quizzical as she walked past my room. The color screen on my IBM PC was adorned with a flight simulation game. My Mac was playing rock 'n' roll music and my laptop was hosting a Las Vegas-style blackjack game. "I'm doing research for my annual holiday gift column," I exclaimed, as I munched on a chocolate floppy disk.
Selecting a good computer-related gift requires some thought and sometimes a little research. If you're going to buy software--even a game program--you need to know about your friend's computer and how it is equipped. Many games for the IBM PC and compatibles, for example, require graphic displays, which are optional on those machines.
You also need to know a little about the person's tastes. Some people thrive on "shoot-'em-up" games while others love to toil away on intellectual pursuits. Others might have no interest in computer games but might enjoy a low-cost utility program, a floppy disk holder or an anti-glare screen.
The manufacturer's suggested retail price of a game has little bearing on the actual street price. Generally, computer games run between $25 and $49. They're fairly expensive presents and, like records and tapes, they are often not returnable unless defective. One of the oldest, and most popular, games for the IBM PC is Flight Simulator from Microsoft. I'm a licensed pilot, but I have trouble flying a keyboard. I've also played with Chuck Yeager's Advanced Flight Simulator from Electronic Arts. I tried the IBM version and found myself reasonably comfortable at the controls of the simulated Cessna 172. At times I almost forgot I was flying a computer, and whenever I got into trouble, there was a picture of old Chuck, with some terse comment, like: "What a wreck. Have you tried fishin'?"
I love music, but I'm a little short on talent. That's why I'm picking Jam Session as my favorite entertainment program of 1987. The program, from Broderbund of San Rafael, Calif., turns an Apple Macintosh into a musical smorgasbord. You select a song from the menu and the screen displays the musicians at work. After initial applause, the music starts. Touch any key and you join the group. One row of keys might simulate a saxophone while another lets you play the piano. Unlike real instruments, however, you can't hit a bad note. The program gives you the feeling that you're contributing to the music, yet it sees to it that everything you do sounds great. What's more, it has its own "tape recorder," allowing you to save your creation on disk. It even comes with a "player" program that you are allowed to give away to your friends so that they can listen to your compositions. The Mac's built-in speaker is barely adequate. For best results plug in standard headphones or, better yet, connect the Mac to your stereo via an inexpensive adapter cable from an electronics store. Be careful. Jam Session is addictive.
Thunder Mountain, a division of Mindscape of Northbrook, Ill., is doing something about the high cost of game software. All programs on this budget label sell for under $10. Releases for the IBM PC, Commodore 64 and Apple II include such classics as Pac Man, Ms. Pac Man and Galaxian. If your friend is a real enthusiast, consider the company's "Holiday Stocking Software Classics Package," for which $25 buys you a stocking stuffed with three oldies.
A lot of businesses are using computers to compose and lay out publications, a process known as "desktop publishing." Electronic Arts has created a desktop publishing program for the home. Instant Pages sells for $49.95, a fraction of the cost of PageMaker and other professional desktop publishing programs. Instant Pages is designed to work on any PC with an inexpensive Epson compatible dot matrix printer. Unlike most desktop publishing programs, it even works on a text-only monochrome display. The manual is refreshingly brief (70 pages) and easy to read. The program brings out the best from your dot matrix printer, but you'll need a laser printer to get near-typeset quality associated with desktop publishing. The program works with the Hewlett-Packard laser printer.
Speaking of desktop publishing, how about "Chest-Top Publishing"? That's the title of a program from Berkeley-based Unison World that allows you to create iron-on patches for T-shirts and other garments. The package comes with a disk containing sample artwork and lettering along with a special ribbon for the Apple ImageWriter dot matrix printer that produces images that can be ironed on cloth. There is even a a box of special fabric crayons to colorize your creation.