Q. I am being offered a 38620 computer with a printer for $350. Is this is a good buy?
A. This is a computer with a 386 processor, the really hot item in the late '80s. The "20" denotes the computer's speed in megahertz, but it might as well stand for what the thing is worth -- 20 bucks. Well, maybe with a printer a bit more than that, but nowhere near $350.
There's no shortage of used machines on the market, but how is the average person supposed to figure out what they're worth?
One way is to check prices at the World Wide Web sites of some of the larger dealers in used computers. Two that come to mind are the American Computer Exchange (www.amcoex.com ) and the Boston Computer Exchange (www.bocoex.com). Also, The Washington Post has a classified section with a wide range of equipment.
Another way to keep sellers honest is to call a few used equipment dealers in the area to see what an equivalent machine would sell for. Computer Renaissance is a chain of used equipment stores that you can visit to see what in the real estate business are called "comps," or comparables.
Q. I use Windows 95 and Microsoft Explorer. How do I type e-mail in Spanish and French?
A. With today's Netscape and Internet Explorer Web browsers, you can use the Net as well as send and receive e-mail. Bundled in with the browser is a small software package that handles the mail. You will get points among computer types if you call this the "e-mail client."
With Internet Explorer, the client is called Outlook Express. If you stay within the realm of common Western European languages (French, Italian, German, Spanish), Outlook Express can use the fonts built into Windows 95. Each font includes special characters used in writing foreign languages, such as the tilde in Spanish.
But to compose using these marks, you have to use the proper keyboard layout for that language. So, go to Control Panel, Keyboard, Language. Add the language in which you wish to compose. For some special characters, however, you'll have to type out specific codes. The grid of numeric codes for these characters is called the Character Map applet and can be found in your Windows 95 documentation.
Outlook Express handles more than 25 languages. Once you stray from the standard Western languages, however, it becomes rather tricky. You can find more details at www.microsoft.com/ie/intlhome.htm .
Q. I just bought a game that requires DirectX 5.0 compatibility. When I try to run the game, I get a blank screen.
A. Computer game players have long complained about troubles running many games under Windows. DirectX is a software interface from Microsoft that's designed to let them run games under Windows 95, 98 and NT 4 as well as they run under good old DOS. The next version, 6.0, is waiting in the wings.
You may have hardware that was manufactured during the reign of DirectX 3.0. When your hardware was sold, it came with software drivers that today don't support all of the new version's features. You can go to the Web site for your video card (www.diamondmm.com ) or sound card (www.creativelabs.com ) and download the most current drivers. That may solve the problem, but not always.
Microsoft has an organization called the Windows Hardware Quality Laboratory, to which companies making video and sound cards submit drivers to have them certified that they can run with the various versions of DirectX. If they pass this test, they get "logo certified" to say they are compatible.
However, it is possible that an individual driver may work well alone, but that problems arise as you add other software to your computer and change the configuration. One solution is to go to www.microsoft.com/directx/resources/enddl.htm and download the most recent release of DirectX. This is a rather large file (3.5 megabytes) that contains the current drivers.
Send your questions to John Gilroy of Item Inc. in care of The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071-5302 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.