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Dear Judi and Frank,

I'm trying to choose between IBM and Macintosh. Everyone I know has an opinion, and it all seems based on heavy bias. Please compare the two on durability, inner workings, and how easily I can learn the system. You once said the Mac is a toy, but some salesmen say Mac can do everything IBM can and is easier to learn.Mystified in Madison, WI

Dear Misty,

You have every right to be confused. The problem is that everybody starts with the hardware, maybe because it's the high-ticket item. But it's the software that really should determine which computer you buy.

You see, a computer is just a box until you put a program in it that tells the box what to do. These days, all of the boxes - IBM, Apple, and Mac types - are well-made and durable (except for a few cheap off-brand products). In fact, most of them last much longer than they need to.

They outlive their utility because of the pace of improvements. Within three or four years, computer technology brings along better machines that run better software. Most users then start itching to trade up.

It's hard to say which system is easier to learn. The way a computer responds is called its "user interface." To start with, Macs and IBMs have very different user interfaces, and the one folks learn first is generally the one they swear by. But if you add a mouse and the program Windows to an IBM PC, it will interface like a Mac.

Back in 1983 we wrote a tongue-in-cheek column citing Murphy's Seven Laws of Computer Logic. We said at the time that Murphy's first law seemed to be, "My computer's better than your computer." In five years, nothing's changed.

Frank knows more than Judi about the electronics of computers. And he's got a pictorial mind. He found the Mac really easy to use.

Judi is still wrestling with Mac. It's partly her literal mind, partly because she first computed on an old CP/M keyboard-command type computer, which responded more like IBMs and compatibles than like Macs.

But as we've said (and say again), select a computer system not for its durability or user interface, but for the programs.

Here's the $64 question you should ask: What programs do what I want to run?

Here's the $128 question: Can a Mac or IBM PC computer run those programs?

Only if equally useful programs run on both computer types should you be concerned about anything else.

When there were few good programs for the Mac, we were among the first to point out that it was effectively a toy. Now there are many good ones.

In general, word processing on the Mac is still not as swift as on IBM and compatibles. Mac was ahead in desktop publishing, but now the two camps are about neck-and-neck. For accounting, IBM type computers give much more choice in software.

If our program needs didn't make the choice for us, we'd personally pick an IBM type PC over the Mac. For one, IBM and its compatibles are more expandable, and that means you stand a better chance of updating them later on. For another, they're generally less expensive than comparable Macs.

In short, here's our best advice: Examine programs, find the ones you'd buy, and buy a computer they run on!

Dear Frank and Judi,

Do you know any educational PC software that can augment textbooks for college courses? I am interested in a college freshman introductory chemistry tool to provide insight into basic principles and also offer self-testing mechanisms to measure learning.

Cambridge, OH, Collegiate

Dear Prof,

Our thick catalog from Queue Inc., who distribute educational software, includes 20 pages of chemistry courseware for high schools and colleges. For your own catalog, phone Queue at 800-232-2224.

Dear Judi and Frank,

I have a Commodore 128 and would like software to help me study for a high school SAT test.

Striver of Shively, KY

Dear SOS,

Mindscape (800-221-9884) is distributing CBS's nice old programs Mastering the SAT and Mastering the ACT. They cost $80 apiece for Commodores and $100 for IBM and Apple II. Mindscape's own The Perfect Score: Computer Preparation for the SAT costs $70 for Commodores and is also out for IBM, Mac, and Apple II.

Dear Frank and Judi,

PC Week mentioned MicroChurch church accounting software but didn't say who makes it or how to contact the company.

Can you help?

Kalamazoo, MI, reader of your column in the South Bend Tribune

Dear Reader,

We appreciate how far you're going to catch our column. MicroChurch isn't listed in our handy Business Software Directory, but ten other church-related programs are. They do everything from church accounting to contribution recording.

You can compare their features in the latest (1986) issue of Business Software Directory from Information Sources Inc. (800-433-6107). If you have a modem connected to your computer, you can search a continually updated version of the same directory, called Business Software Database online, via Dialog and other online database vendors. For information, phone Dialog (800-). Or check at your nearest public library. Many of them offer computerized search services.

As a service to readers, the columnists answer questions and send a checklist of back issues if you enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope. Comparative facts about features are included in a 5,000-word special report plus chart, `Word Processor Buyer's and User's Guide.' For your copy send a $3.50 check and stamped self-addressed envelope for Report FP09 to, TBC, 4343 W Beltline Hwy, Madison WI 53711. Copyright 1988 P/K Associates Inc.