Personal computers can perform incredibly complex tasks, but sometimes doing a simple job well helps users the most.
Some examples are keeping track of your checkbook, maintaining a comprehensive telephone directory and placing phone calls. Others are printing pocket-sized lists of your most important data and reproducing disks of program and data files.
One of my favorite household computer tasks is maintaining my checking account using Quicken, a $50 program published by Intuit.
Quicken--which runs on IBM PCs and compatible computers along with Apple's Macintosh, IIe, IIc and IIGS machines--is the best checkbook software I've used. It is very fast and very well-designed, allowing you to automate as much of the work as you wish.
There are two ways to use the software. One turns your computer screen into an image of a check and you fill it out. Then, if you write enough checks to make it worth loading your printer with check forms, Quicken 2 will print the actual checks for you. If not, it simply will record the entry in its electronic check register, and let you make out your own check by hand.
I prefer the second mode, which displays the check register on the computer screen and lets you make entries there without filling out the electronic check. I write my checks by hand, but love having a computerized register to keep track of them.
Monthly payments with fixed amounts are memorized by the program and entered automatically. Checks can be categorized any way, and a single check can be split among several categories. That would apply to a credit card payment covering household expenses, groceries and car repairs. Getting a report at year's end for tax preparation is simple. Balancing the bank statement is equally simple.
Another great program for home or work is Hotline Two, which costs $99 and is published by General Information.
There are lots of programs that store telephone and address lists and will dial the numbers for you. The strength of Hotline Two is that it comes with 10,000 built-in business and government telephone numbers you might want to call.
If those aren't enough, you can buy additional lists of business numbers or create your own lists. You also can use the program to dial numbers in standard dBASE III data files.
General Information publishes a specialized telephone book, The National Directory, containing 150,000 listings. It created Hotline Two, a hit program, as a way to sell portions of that directory in electronic form.
Hotline Two tucks itself away in the memory of IBM and compatible computers but the tap of a couple of keys pops it into use, overriding whatever else is on at the time. Then you simply type the first few letters of whomever you want to call and within several seconds the listing is displayed. With one more keystroke, the computer dials the number.
The dialing is quite sophisticated, enabling you to accommodate virtually any special dialing scheme required to reach any number in the world that can be direct dialed. If the number is busy, Hotline Two will continue dialing it at whatever intervals you choose. In the meantime, you can resume your other program. Hotline Two will notify you when it is ready to dial again, giving you the choice of canceling.
Once you reach a number, Hotline Two can log the amount of time you are connected.
The additional telephone lists, called Info Packs, cost $50 each. So far there is one with numbers for travelers; another with advertising, public relations and news media numbers, and a third for computer and other high-tech companies. More are promised.
An unfortunate limitation of Hotline Two is that your access is limited to only two lists at a time, usually your private list and one of the prepared lists. The two lists are selected from a menu.
You can merge additional lists into the main "National Directory," but if you do, you'll probably want to call the technical support number, which is a toll call to Kirkland, Wash., for help. The only limitation on the length of the list is the size of the disk. A hard disk is required to use any of the accessory lists and to use the full 10,000-item general list that comes with the program.
MyBASE, $90, from Useful Software, is for people who want to carry their computerized lists around with them, but not the computer. It allows you to create and print lists of data in a variety of formats.
The package comes with special paper forms that let you print and staple together a 3 1/2-inch-by-6 1/2-inch booklet of data, complete with cover. Depending on how you entered the data into MyBASE, the booklet could have two cross-reference sections at the back plus a collection of alphabetized end notes up to 500 characters long for any or all of your data listings.
There are two standard formats for listing data in the program. One is a complete telephone and address list with room for three names, five phone numbers and two addresses for each entry.
The other is a quick reference guide, which several law enforcement agencies have used to create pocket-sized beat directories for their officers. You can tailor the format to meet most any need.
In addition to printing the pocket directory, MyBASE can print Day Timer, Filofax or Day Runner pages, Rolodex cards, billfold-sized lists, and mailing and shipping labels. Printing is very precise and takes good advantage of special type sizes available in dot matrix and laser printers.
The program is somewhat difficult to operate and you probably will have to go through some trial-and-error sessions to understand how to enter your data. It can import data from other databases, but the procedure is too cumbersome for casual computer users.
New software isn't the only thing that can make your use of a computer more enjoyable.
One of the greatest time savers I have discovered is Verbatim's DataLifePlus disks. Not only are they Teflon-coated, making them virtually spill-proof, they also come preformatted to work with the standard 360-kilobyte floppy disk drive in most IBM PC and compatible computers. The slightly higher cost is worth every penny to be able to grab a new disk and copy data onto it without having to interrupt my task to format it.
Quicken, $50. Published by Intuit, 540 University Ave., Palo Alto, Calif. 94301. In California call (800) 468-8481; elsewhere call (800) 624-8742.
Hotline Two, $99. Published by General Information, 401 Parkplace, Kirkland, Wash. 98033. (800) 722-3244. Additional telephone directory Info Packs cost $50 each.
MyBASE, $90. Published by Useful Software, 22704 Ventura Blvd., Suite 145, Woodland Hills, Calif. 91364. In California call (800) 321-7645; elsewhere call (800) 521-7225.
Verbatim DataLifePlus, produced by Verbatim Corp., 1200 W. T. Harris Blvd., Charlotte, N.C. 28213. Call (800) 538-8589.