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THE CUTTING EDGE: CONSUMER’S COMPUTER GUIDE : New PC Owners: Expect a Struggle : Operation: Hardware may be complex. Memory may be lacking. But perseverance can pay off.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you’re in the market for a personal computer this holiday season, the experiences of those who bought PCs last year provide a cautionary tale. Be sure to do your homework, say the veterans. Be prepared for frustration.

Randy Horwitz, a quality control manager at Nabisco Foods, purchased a PC from Taiwanese manufacturer Acer last December as a Hanukkah gift for his 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter.

When he installed Math Blaster, a popular CD-ROM that teaches children the principles of mathematics, the video froze. Horwitz promptly called Acer’s customer support line. For three hours, he hung on the line listening to Muzak and taped messages asking him to be patient. Minutes after finally reaching a customer service representative, he was disconnected.

“There was lots of screaming and yelling at that point,” he recalled. “My son was angry that it wouldn’t work, and I was angry that I couldn’t get it to work.”

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Horwitz boxed up the machine and returned it. “I was afraid to let the kids near it, so there was no use having it,” he said.

PC manufacturers were flooded with calls from angry customers like Horwitz in the days after Christmas. David McWilliams, a senior technical support specialist for Packard-Bell, worked the phone line on Christmas Day last year. “It was call after call after call,” McWilliams said. “I didn’t get the criers, but I got the yellers.”

Although the volume of calls eventually dropped off, they have remained far higher than pre-holiday levels as first-time PC buyers continue struggling with their machines. About 85% of callers to Dell Computer in the days after Christmas were novices, and they still make up the vast majority of callers.

“There’s a certain amount of craziness that comes in,” McWilliams said. “One guy called me after trying to stick five CD-ROMs into his PC, thinking it was just like his stereo CD player.” Some blame the problem on the fabled American reluctance to read manuals.

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But what PC makers are loath to admit is that these machines are often too difficult for the average person--even with Microsoft’s new operating system, Windows 95.

Even experienced hands can run into trouble. Mark Scopinker, a Toronto software entrepreneur, was one of the many victims of the Lion King, a Walt Disney Co. CD-ROM that bit the hands of many consumers who purchased it last holiday season. When Scopinker loaded the Lion King on the PC for his 6-year-old son, a terse message declaring “insufficient memory” appeared, and the smile began to fade from his son’s face. A computer programmer by training, he labored fruitlessly on the machine.

“I went out and bought him a Sega game player with the Lion King on it instead,” Scopinker said. “It cost me some money, but at least he was happy.”

Anne Bubnic, president of San Francisco-based Custom Computers for Kids, has had her hands full with well-meaning parents who have bought PCs and then found themselves stymied. Bubnic blames the problem on a lethal mix: uneducated consumers meeting less-than-responsible retailers.

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“People bought software based on whether their kids would know the main character, like the Lion King,” Bubnic said. “They didn’t know what constituted good software. The picture on the box has nothing to do with the quality of what’s inside. And there’s nothing worse than buying a $50 software package and having your kid tell you it’s stupid.”

Another common problem is machines sold without enough memory, she said. This holiday season, most machines will be sold with 8 megabytes of memory--double that of last year. But with all the pre-loaded software--"stuff you wouldn’t buy on your own because it’s really not that useful"--PC owners are finding that the machine is overloaded.

“New users are afraid to erase the pre-installed software from the hard drive because they don’t want to hurt the machine,” she said.

Lee Ann King of Palos Verdes, who bought a PC last year as a gift to herself, made the opposite mistake: She accidentally deleted the entire contents of her hard disk.

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“I was trying to delete some files and I went to the wrong place,” she recalled. “It didn’t tell me, ‘You are about to destroy your system.’ That’s what’s hard in the beginning--undoing your mistakes.”

But with perseverance and creativity, most PC problems are eventually solvable. King, a business consultant, uses the Internet to chat with her son in San Francisco. When she hits any snags, she’s found a secret weapon: a 16-year-old who lives across the street and is the neighborhood’s computer whiz.

“As long as Dalton doesn’t go to college, I’ll be OK,” she said.

Horwitz, who replaced his Acer with a Compaq, said his family now spends an average of two hours a night on the PC. Nine-year-old Jeffrey has his own Internet address and sends mail to cousins in Sacramento and Los Angeles, and his 6-year-old sister has become an expert at Math Blaster, the program that started all their PC problems. Horwitz has since purchased a color printer so the family can make its own greeting cards--just in time for a new holiday season.

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