Sometime between paying off the last Halloween-costumed mini-bandit and polishing off the Thanksgiving leftovers, some red-suited fat guy shows up yelling "Ho! Ho! Ho!" which is Santa-ese for "Buy! Buy! Buy!"
Here are some general guidelines for would-be Silicon Santas on computer systems, peripherals and software:
Computer systems: If you can't spend at least $1,000, consider another gift. With some careful shopping, that money will buy you an IBM PC-AT compatible with a hard drive, a floppy drive and a monochrome monitor. Or you can buy the new Macintosh Classic, which lists at $999 and sells at retail for at least $100 less.
The best bargains are via mail order, so if you want your gift to arrive in time for the holidays, start hustling now. Computing magazines are good sources for mail-order ads. Try PC Magazine and MacUser or Byte for openers. For those looking at IBM compatibles, don't assume the monitor is included just because the picture shows one. Read the components list.
And if the most important thing you want in a non-Mac system is no hassle, check out either the IBM PS-1 or the Tandy 1000RL. Both are intended for those who want the computer to do some useful chores but don't really give a gosh how the thing works or why.
Computer peripherals: A printer will cost $200 to $500 for a dot matrix, around $500 for an inkjet and about $1,000 for a laser. The inkjet printers will give you the nicest output for the lowest cost, although they won't do multipart forms. They're also relatively slow, but a heck of a lot faster than typing.
Hard drives, which store anywhere from 20 to 110 million characters, run from about $240 to $650. Remember when price-shopping to include the cost of a controller, usually--but not always--bundled with the drive. For IBM-PC users, a nice present at much lower cost is an extra floppy drive. For around $70, you can get someone who has either a single 5.25-inch or 3.5-inch drive one of the other size, giving them the ability to read software from either kind of disk. For internal installation, be sure to specify what kind of computer is the intended host so that necessary brackets, adapters and cables are included.
Computer game junkies will appreciate a sound board, a device that brings stereo-quality sound to PCs for around $150. The sound can be connected to stereo speakers or, when neighbors start complaining, to earphones. Upgrading the monitor to high-resolution color is also a show-stopping gift, but figure on spending around $350 for an EGA or VGA color monitor. If the computer system doesn't have an EGA or VGA output, figure on another $100-$150 for the graphics card to make the monitor work. (Color monitors in ascending order of price, number of colors displayed and resolution: CGA, EGA, VGA.)
Software: Wordperfect 5.1 is available by mail at around $250 and does just about anything that may be done with a word-processor, plus graphics. Ideal gift for someone entering college.
Games run between $30-$50 and the hot thing is simulations: complex games that involve real-life skills and concentrations, whether piloting a plane or performing surgery. Read the hardware requirements on the package. When they say "recommended" take that word as "required."
There are literally thousands of software titles for special interests. Finance, genealogy, cross-stitching, Bible study. Software stores are the easiest way to get an overview and if you don't see what you want on the shelf, ask. Most one-task programs run under $100.