In the conventional office, where a secretary's job involves a lot more than typing letters, word-processing systems can have uses a first-time buyer wouldn't suspect:

Communications is the most important extra function the systems provide. With a modem ($300) and a communications software package ($500), a word processor can communicate with a compatible system anywhere in the world. Using telephone lines, you can send a report from New York to San Francisco in minutes.

"This is where you really start to see the savings in productivity," says Mark Nigberg, whose ad agency, the Nigberg Corp., in Framingham, Mass., uses its word-processing equipment as a link with its clients, sending and receiving advertising copy and other paperwork.

Word processors can also be linked to data bases that may hold valuable marketing, financial, and research information. (See "Getting the Information You Need," January, page 83.) And some can be linked directly to typesetting equipment, so the manuscript of an annual report, for example, can be set in type automatically, without having someone sit down at a keyboard to copy it.

Though there's much talk about "electronic mail" these days, it's not yet practical for stand-alone word-processing systems. Word processors must be linked to larger computers that can handle the networking functions. But as such networks become more common, smaller systems that can handle electronic mail will be developed.

List/records processing functions allow word processors to send out letters to large groups of people in which only names and addresses vary. Software that allows filing and sorting of records makes word processors useful for purchasing and inventory control and for maintaining lists of customers.

Math functions make the word processor useful for sales forecasts, budgeting, and other financial work.

Though added functions cost you extra, they will often be what it takes to justify the cost of a word processor for your company. But don't load up with options when you buy the system, unless you need them immediately. Spend the first few months getting comfortable with the hardware, then add the software later on.