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THE CUTTING EDGE: CONSUMER’S COMPUTER GUIDE : Resources for PC Users Seeking Deliverance : Instructions: How-to books, CD-ROM tutorials, college courses and on-line services are available.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Denise Villasenor remembers sitting on her living room floor, staring blankly at the brand-new Packard Bell computer she’d just brought home and wondering what she was supposed to do to make it work.

Fortunately for her, help arrived that afternoon. Her 10-year-old nephew came over, casually fired up the computer and proceeded to give her an afternoon tutorial.

“I was just amazed,” Villasenor, 23, said. “I sat there for a couple hours while he showed me which icon to go to, which side of the mouse to click and how to use the tool bar.”

Thousands of first-time PC buyers this holiday season are bound to be just as confused as Villasenor was. And odds are that only a few will be able to rely on the guidance of a 10-year-old nephew.

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That means most computer neophytes will have to turn to other sources of information.

As computers have grown in popularity, making their way into a third of American households, the resources available have multiplied. There are how-to books, CD-ROM tutorials, college courses, training centers and on-line services.

Some resources are free, such as help offered by computer users’ groups. And others can cost hundreds of dollars, such as private in-home lessons from a computer guru.

But despite the plethora of resources, good help can still be hard to find, especially for first-time buyers. Perhaps the best source is a knowledgeable friend or relative, as Villasenor discovered. But even she ultimately decided to enroll in a couple of computer classes at Golden West College in Huntington Beach after she had finished wringing information from her nephew.

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She spent $49 for each four-hour course. In them, she learned how to maneuver in Windows, the operating system that runs most computers, and in Microsoft Word, a popular word processing program. Now Villasenor rates her computer skills as “way above average.”

“All my girlfriends now come and ask me how to work a computer,” she said. “It’s great.”

Community college courses offer a number of advantages for beginners: Enrollees can generally count on getting a knowledgeable instructor working from a carefully designed lesson plan. The classes are usually small enough so that students can get one-on-one help. Many of these courses are taught in classrooms equipped with rows of desktop computers and with overhead projectors, so that students can see what the instructor is doing on his or her PC and follow along step-by-step. Usually, students get to take home workbooks that contain all the information covered in the class.

Omid Pourzan, a computer science instructor at Golden West, encourages consumers to take a broad introductory course even before they buy a new computer.

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“People are paying a lot of money for computers, sometimes up to $4,000, but they rely on information from here and there,” he said. By taking a class first, he said, “you know what a computer does, what you’re going to use it for” and, therefore, what you need to buy.

Scheduling can sometimes be a problem at community colleges, which offer a limited number of computer courses each year, often just one class per topic each semester.

But colleges aren’t the only institutions teaching computer courses. Private computer training centers are popping up all over, and though they can be pricey compared to a community college, they generally offer popular courses several times each week.

CompUSA, a well-known computer chain, has training centers at all 13 of its Southern California locations. The course list ranges from brief introductory classes for $39 to weeklong training on the latest graphics packages for $2,000, said Randy Benson, who oversees the chain’s Southern California stores.

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“Each class has no more than 10 people, so students can get individual attention,” he said. “And if they don’t understand how to use the program thoroughly, they can repeat the class for free.”

Consumers who want even more hand-holding can pay $25 to $75 an hour to have personal instructors come directly to their homes. Some of these instructors advertise in computer magazines--such as MicroTimes--that are available for free at most computer retail outlets.

But experts urge caution. Some private instructors are very knowledgeable and others aren’t, so consumers should check an instructor’s references thoroughly before making a decision.

Computer training doesn’t always have to cost money. One of the best bargains for new PC owners is to tap into one of the dozens of computer users groups that dot the Southland.

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The Orange Coast IBM PC User Group, for instance, has dozens of free discussion groups each month, and many of its 1,000 members routinely make themselves available by phone to answer questions about a wide array of hardware or software products.

Michael Moore, a 26-year-old purchasing agent who bought his first computer in September, said he considers the Orange Coast College group his best source of information.

Though he uses a computer nearly every day in his job, his experience logging transactions into a computer network didn’t prepare him for word processing, sending e-mail and surfing the Internet--the reasons he bought his machine.

He ran into trouble early on when he tried to use his modem to dial up a local bulletin board. “I just got a blank screen,” he said. “I called tech support, but I was on hold for an hour, and they just caused more problems.”

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A friend told him about the Orange Coast group, and he attended the next monthly modem meeting at the group’s classroom-like facility in Santa Ana. “They gave me step-by-step instructions on how to do it,” he said. “That evening it worked great.”

Some groups require people to spend $40 or $50 to join before they can attend sessions, but many, including the Orange Coast organization, do not.

Moore joined anyway, and he says it has been worth it. By flashing his group membership card, he gets 15% discounts on software and supplies at local computer stores, plus access to the free software group members distribute among themselves. He also gets a monthly newsletter loaded with tips and a schedule of discussion groups on everything from setting up a PC to navigating the Internet.

Another large group in Southern California is the Los Angeles Computer Society, which meets in Culver City.

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Dozens of groups are listed in MicroTimes, and there is a national directory of groups on the Internet at https://www.melbpc.org.au/others/index.htm. However, the information on that Internet site is sometimes out of date.

Despite the availability of classes and users groups, books remain the most popular resource for new users. The challenge is wading through the sea of titles to find what’s right for you.

Borders Books and Music in Westwood claims to have the largest selection of computer books in Los Angeles, with nearly 1,000 titles. Josh Borenzweig, who oversees the computer reference section, said prices range from $20 to $100 and that the most popular series for new users remains “For Dummies,” published by IDG Books.

Borenzweig and others said the best way to shop is to pick a topic, then thumb through books that cover that subject until you find one written in a style that appeals to you. “PCs for Dummies” and others in the series are popular because they use plain language and humor, in stark contrast to the stupefying prose prevalent in most computer manuals.

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There is also a growing list of CD-ROM tutorials available, with dozens of releases tied to the recent launch of the Windows 95 operating system. Some, such as Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, teach users very basic computer skills.

Steve Boegeman, software manager at CompUSA in Fountain Valley, said the advantage of books and CD-ROMs is that they allow people to learn while sitting “in front of their computers in a relaxed environment. It’s not like going to a class.” The disadvantage, he said, “is that you can’t ask it a question.”


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