If you're looking for a holiday gift for your child that will be useful long after the holidays and will help his or her schoolwork, consider a typewriter or a word processor.
Although students are not likely to be required to type formal assignments until they reach high school, typing is a skill that can be learned by even a first-grader, and the earlier the better.
Luckily, you don't have to plunk down thousands of dollars or buy a complete home computer system. You can find a good machine that will serve your child through high school and beyond for just over $100.
Since more than a dozen companies make typewriters and word processors, choosing the right one for your child can seem bewildering. But here are recommendations from some local merchants who sell most brands.
Smith-Corona (SCM) was mentioned most often for its low price and durability. I'm not surprised; my father wrote more than a dozen books on his SCM, and mine has carried me through UCLA and the years of writing since.
The SCM XL-1700 is a good basic and inexpensive electronic typewriter for about $120. A no-frills model, it is similar to the old electric typewriters from before the computer age. It has no data memory or special features, but it is self-correcting, so that the touch of a key automatically lifts typing errors right off the page. The XL-1700 may not be glamorous, but it is easy to carry and use, and it can fulfill your student's basic typing needs.
The Silver-Reed EZ-22 is another no-frills typewriter similar to the SCM XL-1700, including self-correction. It costs about $170.
The SCM XD-7600 is more typical of electronic typewriters because it contains features that are now considered standard. These include a spell-checking program that beeps at misspelled words and shows the correct version on its screen, easy deletion of words or whole phrases and a 20,000-character memory. The XD-7600 costs about $329.
The next step up, SCM's XD-7700, gives the student a larger list of words in its spell-checking program and a larger memory capacity. It sells for about $369.
If portability is crucial, try laptop word processors, which are basically typewriters with batteries, display screens and a few more features. Laptops are usually much lighter than typewriters and run on rechargeable battery packs. The drawback is that the printer is a separate unit that requires an electrical outlet.
Be sure not to confuse laptop word processors with laptop computers. Computers can work with words, numbers and graphics. Word processors manipulate only words--they're not "number munchers."
Again, Smith-Corona dominates the laptop word processor field. Its PWP-7000 has features typical of laptops, such as spell-checking, automatic centering and underlining of text; a search-and-replace function for easy editing, and a thesaurus that spots overused words and offers suitable synonyms. It costs about $349.
The PWP-7000's memory stores 50,000 characters (about 50 pages) but uses an odd-sized disk made only by SCM. The machine connects only with its own printer, which sells for about $150. The optional battery pack costs about $50 and lasts eight hours per charge.
Panasonic's WL-50, for about $429, is also outstanding and offers features similar to the Smith-Corona. It weighs just 2 1/2 pounds and can operate for about four hours on its optional battery pack.
Panasonic's laptop uses a standard 3 1/2-inch disk and stores more memory (120,000 characters) than the SCM. And, unlike the SCM, the Panasonic will connect with most popular brands of printers. A matching Panasonic printer costs about $140.
Just remember the key to choosing the right machine: try it before you buy it. Ask your child to type a few lines so you can help him or her to test for noise, printing speed and quality, and keyboard comfort.
Also, make a list of the kinds of projects and assignments that your child will be producing with the machine so that you'll find one that does all that is needed.