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Programs can help with taxing chores

Fred T. Goldberg Jr. wants you!

Well, part of you, at least.

Goldberg is commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service. Between now and April 15 he and his IRS colleagues arise from the gloom of the federal bureaucracy and walk among the living in search of blood.

They're followed closely by legions of computerized tax preparation programs that promise to make the process painless, almost fun.

Don't believe them.

Even the best of the software requires lots of work from the computer between your ears, and none of them is any better than the quality of the data you give them.

Still, there are advantages:

The programs won't make math errors.

Data need be entered only once to appear in the correct place on multiple forms _ your social security number, for example, or your gross income.

Hooked to a printer, the programs will generate IRS-accepted forms ready for signature.

The programs will alert you to tax-saving strategies you might otherwise overlook and will flag things that might generate an IRS audit.

Good programs allow transfer of data from common spread sheet and budgeting programs and into state tax returns.

But remember:

GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) is the unbreakable law of computing. If you don't have the data and have it organized, the programs can't help.

Beware of overkill. If your income is small and your lifestyle simple, a pencil, scratch pad and $5 calculator will probably do the tax chores as well as programs costing more than $50.

If the IRS disputes your version of reality, computers won't help you convince the auditor, but human tax preparers will face the music with you.

That said, there are two programs that lead the field: TurboTax by ChipSoft of San Diego, Calif., and Andrew Tobias' TaxCut 1040 by MECA Software of Fairfield, Conn. Both have versions for IBM PCs and compatibles running under DOS or Microsoft Windows. For either system, the minimum requirements are a hard disk, 512,000 characters of desktop memory and a printer.

The pricing: For TurboTax, the DOS version is $79.95, the Windows version $99.95. TurboTax DOS state returns cost $39.95 each, Windows version $69.95. TaxCut 1040 costs $59.95 for either DOS or Windows versions, and state forms are $39.95 each.

Both programs are widely available at software outlets, and you should look for discounting, especially by mail-order firms.

To order direct, call ChipSoft at (619) 453-8722 and MECA Software at (800) 288-6322.

Sorting out bits, bytes, ROMs, RAMs

Here's a quick tour of the basic buzzwords:

First, we have 286, 386, 486. That's what their friends call CPUs made by Intel that power most IBM and compatible PCs. Their formal names are 80286, 80386, 80486. CPUs (central processing units) are the silicon souls of PCs. Sometimes you'll see 386SX, mutant lovechild of a 286 and a 386. Generally the higher the number, the faster the chip speed in megahertz, the greater the cost.

Megahertz means millions of cycles per second. It's a rough way of measuring performance. Common speeds today run from 8 MHZ to 33 MHZ. Most of us want something at least 10 MHZ (the Intel 80286), and faster is always better.

Check out CGA, EGA, VGA and SVGA. Those refer to ascending standards of color graphics displays and monitors, each with more resolution and colors (and cost) than the one before. Most of the better software wants to see at least EGA, which will handle 16 colors at a resolution of 640 x 350 horizontal and vertical dots per screen. (VGA resolution is 640 x 480, SVGA is 1,024 x 768.)

Mega-confused or k-crazy? Not to worry. Mega is used to denote a million-plus of anything, as in "megabyte," to mean a million characters. K means a thousand-plus of anything, as in "640 K RAM."

Ah, RAM. That's Random Access Memory, the computer's temporary storage area. Whatever's stored there disappears when the electricity stops. Lots of RAM is good. At least 640K RAM for an IBM-PC, 2 meg of RAM is better.

ROM is Read Only Memory. It contains instructions that hang around to be read whether or not there's electricity. ROM is how a PC knows it's not a vacuum cleaner.

DOS is Disk Operating System, by Microsoft. Besides disk drives, DOS coordinates the function of all different parts of the PC. The latest version of DOS is 5.0 and is reasonably user-friendly.

Disk drives store and retrieve information. They are generally either floppy or hard. Floppy disks are removable, like records.

Hard drives aren't removable. They're in sealed metal boxes. If the box is on a long card that plugs directly into a PC's internal expansion slot, it's a hard card. Storage capacities these days start from 20 megabytes and go into the thousand-plus megabyte range.