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INTRODUCTION: THE NEW ELECTRONIC HEARTH

The latest PCs offer goodies for the whole family--and choosing one can be tough

Politicians aren't the only ones selling family values this year. The personal-computer industry is embracing them like never before. Forget the geeks--for '96, the industry's icons are Mom and apple pie. The reason for the shift of attention from corporate desktops to your den? This year, the number of U.S. households with a computer is expected to break 40%--making the device, almost 20 years after its debut, a bona fide mass-market product.

If you're just joining the home-PC parade--or if you're shopping for an upgrade--you'll find a huge array of products to choose from. And you're bound to notice how hardware and software companies are working hard to make whatever they sell more consumer-friendly. Software companies are pushing out games and educational programs that the whole family can enjoy. There are $200 color inkjet printers to produce copies of Junior's digital handiwork. Internet-access companies--including the recently relaunched Microsoft Network--are trying to entice subscribers with family-friendly content.

SLEEKER STYLE. PC makers are even changing the way their products look. No longer are you stuck with that bland, putty-colored box--computers now come in basic black, the home-electronics color of choice. IBM's Aptiva has a new design that clears your desk of everything except the monitor, keyboard, and mouse. If even that seems like too much clutter, prices for feature-rich laptop computers are coming close to desktop models.

Looks are the least of the innovations. The PC industry is coming to grips with the fact that their devices are too hard for most techno-neophytes to master. New models such as the Toshiba Infinia use the familiar knobs and buttons of hi-fi equipment instead of on-screen icons to control sound, video, or E-mail access.

All of this is part of a larger movement: To make the personal computer as easy to use as the television, and just as essential for day-to-day living. Price remains a barrier. You'll still pay at least $2,000 for a fully-configured system. But Cybernauts can take hope. This holiday season brings the first so-called Net cruisers, machines that give you an alternative to the PC for going online. Ranging from souped-up video-game players to computer-TV combinations, they can be had for as little as a few hundred dollars. Most of them can't run fancy software, but if you want to leave the spreadsheet at work and relax with a few hours of Web-crawling with the kids, these new boxes are ideal.

Software makers are doing their part to make the PC a welcome addition to any family. There are office ''suites'' tailored specifically for home-office workers. And there are loads of educational programs designed to make learning math or history, say, as much fun as a video game. Kids may still prefer the latest shoot-'em-up game, but now parents can get in on the fun with a slew of new brain-teaser games aimed at adults.

Getting back to family values, what could be homier than sitting around the PC, sharing those precious moments you've captured on film? That's the promise of digital photography--the computer industry's answer to the one-hour photo shop. Using a digital camera, you can snap away at family gatherings. Or, run your old snaps through a scanner. Then, with special software you can improve the color, apply special effects, or edit out that cousin you never liked anyway.

Selecting and buying all this gear, though, is no one's idea of family fun. But even there, help is on the way. There are alternatives to the computer store or mass-merchandise chain, including online services and mail-order outlets. To help you in your browsing, the BUSINESS WEEK Computer Buying Guide offers assessments of everything from computers to auxiliary storage devices. So settle down with the family and read on.

By Catherine Arnst



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