Many readers are wising up when it comes to computer shopping. Budget watchers now get several opinions on what to buy.

That works fine when a second opinion confirms the first one. But what do you do about contradictory advice? Just last week, prompted by our column on minicomputers vs. micros, two readers wrote with exactly that problem.The first letter, from South Carolina, was peppered with acronyms. It began, `Dear Frank & Judi,

`We are trying to decide on accounting/MIS (an accounting and management information system) for an apparel manufacturing plant. We need 80M hard disk storage, tape backup, four terminals, three printers, laser input devices for recording piece work tickets, and enough RAM to give us a true multitasking, multiuser system.

`We sent out a number of RFPs (Requests for Proposal). IBM's System 36 and PC 36 were the most popular suggestions. But a few proposals called for 80386-based LANs (Local Area Networks).

`The people selling the 80386-based network say their system is fast enough to handle our normal data throughput. The people selling the System 36 and PC 36-based systems claim that multiprocessor architecture allows their hardware sufficient data throughput.

`Since we can't compare systems short of installing them side by side, is there anything we can compare?'

The second letter, from a wholesale distributor in Wisconsin, begins, `In considering a new computer, we are overwhelmed by conflicting information.

`One consultant viewing our operation recommended a minicomputer. Others claimed that a powerful 386 micro UNIX-multiuser would do a better job. We're caught between the high cost and rigidity of a mini vs. our fear of being underpowered with a micro system.

`What are the real performance and maintenance differences between micro-based and mini-based systems? Is UNIX the wave of the future?'

We'll answer both letters with a point we've been trying to hammer home since we first syndicated our column in 1983. It's an issue few hardware dealers or `consultants' understand or care about, since the high-profit sale is the hardware. It's this: Before you worry about hardware, find the best software for your business.

Software is the brains that makes computers work. Without the right programs, there is no good computer.

If you're paying attention, your next question is how to find the software. If your time's not worth big money, you can do it yourself.

Start with your trade guild or association. Its members include companies like yours that are computerized. Get on the phone. Find out what they like about their systems. Make sure to ask what they don't like, and what they'd do differently if they could computerize again. Get the names and makers of any software they're using that sounds right for you.

Also look at publications read by people in your trade. You'll find articles and ads naming software for your industry.

Business Software Directory from Information Sources (1173 Colusa Avenue, Berkeley Cal. 94707) describes thousands of programs for micros and minis. You can search an updated version of this fine directory online via Dialog, where it's called Business Software Database. (Call 800-227-1927 for Dialog information).

Send to likely looking software makers for product descriptions. Speak to their customers. Ask about demonstrations and demo disks. Are they available for mini- or 80386 hardware? Do they run on UNIX or MS DOS, or another operating system entirely? The software you choose will govern what hardware you need. You'll end up with a very short list of likely programs and viable hardware.

If your time's not worth big money, find out yourself who sells the hardware. Start with local vendors. If you're 85 percent satisfied with the intelligence, courtesy, price quotes, and warranties you get, buy there. If you're spending over $10,000, don't ignore vendors 100 miles away. After the first month's shakedown, most hardware problems can be solved on the phone.

If your budget's over $20,000 or it otherwise makes economic sense, hire outside smarts. Pick an independent consultant who knows the importance of the right software and understands your business-or takes pains to understand it.

Let her do the software and hardware legwork. But have your own lawyer draft the purchase contracts specifying the performance you've been promised.

The consultant you hire should be up on the industry. But don't hire anyone who takes referral fees from a company that provides products or services.

Avoid any `consultant' who's a dealer, whether in hardware, software, training, or repairs. Find someone whose advice isn't influenced by kickbacks or commissions. Ask for references and check them out!

This shopping process eliminates most of our two letter writers' questions. But let's prick three pet balloons they've been handed.

On a per-user basis, only sometimes do minis cost less than micros.

Some micro software is as inflexible as some mini software.

Anyway, fundamental distinctions between minis and micros, and between them and networks, have already blurred. Don't get hypnotized by these vast sounding names with only half vast meanings.

As a service to readers, the columnists answer questions and send a checklist of back issues if you enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope. Comparative facts about features are included in a 5,000-word special report plus chart, `Word Processor Buyer's and User's Guide.' For your copy send a $4.50 check and stamped self-addressed envelope for Report FP09 to, TBC, 4343 W Beltline Hwy, Madison WI 53711. Copyright 1988 P/K Associates, Inc.