Monday, January 11, 2010

Computer Security

In Today's Society, Protecting Your Computer Is A Requirement

Advances in computer technology is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it affords us quick and easy access to numerous conveniences such as bank statements, favorite shopping centers, school and health records, and more. On the other hand, it can also grant the same access to those who aren't supposed to get it. Although it's a rare occurrence, hacking has become the biggest criminal nuisance in computer history.

Make no bones about it. There's nothing innocent or cute about the hacker. Today's hackers aren't the pimply-faced teen rebels that you might be thinking of. Instead, this generation of hackers are grown individuals who are more than likely earning a living by stealing the identities of innocent, law abiding individuals and then selling those identities to others who want to slip by the system. And the only protection against these seedy people is prevention.

Computer security couldn't be more important than it is today and that's why we've taken the time to introduce it to you. You can reduce the probability of experiencing identity theft by making your computer as hacker-proof as possible. All that's needed is a little software and a lot of common sense.

1. Install an anti-virus/anti-spyware program. Anti-virus/anti-spyware software will stop malicious code from downloading and installing onto your computer while you peruse the Internet. Known as viruses, worms, or spyware, this malicious code can destroy important files and render your computer good for only one thing: sending sensitive data back to the server of an identity thief.

2. Don't store sensitive data on your computer in the first place. Should your computer get infected with a virus, worm, or piece of spyware, you can thwart the individuals responsible by not storing your personal information on your PC so that when and if your computer does send back data - it won't be anything valuable. Hackers look for things like full names, social security numbers, phone numbers, home addresses, work-related information, and credit card numbers. If these things aren't saved onto a computer, there's nothing critical to worry about other than restoring your computer to a non-virus condition.

3. Don't open files without scanning them with an anti-virus/anti-spyware program. In the past, the warning was to avoid opening files from people that you don't know. Today it's really not safe to open files from anyone (without scanning the files) because that's how viruses get spread - through files - even by mistake. So even though your co-worker may have emailed a funny video, it's no more safe to open than a video downloaded from a complete stranger. Be safe and scan each and every file you download from the Internet or receive through email regardless of where it came from.

4. Create a barrier between your computer and prying eyes. Anti-virus/anti-spyware programs are only effective after the effect. But you can prevent identity theft from occurring by installing a firewall. A firewall is software that checks all data entering and exiting a computer and it then blocks that which doesn't meet specified security criteria (user-defined rules).1

5. Don't click on website links in spam messages. In an effort to obtain personal information, some spammers will send email that asks you to click on a link. The email messages are often disguised as important messages from well-known online establishments, and they often try to scare their readers into clicking links with threats of closing an account of some sort. Sometimes the links are harmless and attempt to con the reader into volunteering personal information (credit card number), but other times the links attempt to download harmful software onto a computer.

Your best protection against computer crimes is your own knowledge. Hopefully the suggestions above will prompt you into taking appropriate action and into protecting your computer with the suggested tools. In doing so, you'll not only protect yourself, you'll prevent the spread of these malicious activities and protect others at the same time.


Word count 664 1 Source: Copyright (c) 1996-1998 Mecklermedia Corp.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Programs Included With a New Computer

Are they good enough to stand on their own?

The Windows operating systems already comes with a useful collection of pre-installed programs and even some games. But one of the first things that people do is download a butt-load of new programs as soon as a brand new system is plugged in the wall and connected to the Internet. This article looks at some of the programs that are included with most new systems and then asks the reader to consider if they're sufficient.

NotePad and WordPad. All Windows systems include the two text editors, "NotePad," and "WordPad." Notepad is a plain text editor while WordPad is a rich text editor. Both files are capable of opening plain text, however WordPad can open Windows Write files (an earlier version of WordPad) as well as rich text files. WordPad can also save documents as plain text, rich text, and MS Word documents. So with WordPad having the ability to read and create rich text; embed objects (sound, pictures, and video); and manipulate fonts, we have to wonder if other word processors, which do the same thing, are really necessary. Although WordPad is certainly no match for Microsoft Word's internal spell and grammar checker or Word's Internet linking capabilities, we believe it's a great introduction to word processing in general for computer novices.

Address Book. There are hoards of advanced contact database programs floating around the Internet and on store shelves, but Windows provides a completely competent contact database of its own simply known as "Address Book." This small compact utility allows users to organize contacts by name, location, group, or number and it give users ample space to fully describe each. Compared to Microsoft's Access database program, its user-friendly Address Book is a Godsend to new computer users.

Calculator. Calculator has been a Windows accessory even from its first debut in Windows 1.0. For the life of us, we can't figure out why anyone other than a rocket scientist would want to install a different version than this free one that comes pre-installed. Windows calculator has two interfaces: an easy one, and a scientific one. So perhaps a rocket scientist could fare well with Windows Calculator after all!

Paint. Windows' Paint program allows users to make changes to existing graphics, or create brand new ones at no additional cost. Interestingly, we can count at least ten different graphics packages that are more popular and widely used than this free one. While it doesn't offer as many editing tools, it does provide the essentials and it can open/save graphics in .bmp, .gif, and.jpg format (the latter two being the most commonly format used for Internet eye candy).

Media Player. Real Player and QuickTime are the first programs we think of when we think about multimedia. But Windows Media Player, also free and pre-installed, does a fine job at transmitting Internet-bound sound and video. With this application, you can easily listen to .wav files, .midi files, and even tune into a little Internet radio if you like.

System Tools. Although there are too many to list here, Windows provides more than a handful of useful utilities that will monitor system resources, organize files, repair damaged disks, and more. Yet and still, you can easily find similar tools for sale at computer outlets and download libraries.

What's going on here?

The truth of the matter is that the programs pre-installed are great tools for the beginning computer user. At some point down the road, usage will dictate a need for more powerful applications. We may need a word processor that can convert a document into an HTML page or PDF document. We may need a calculator that solves geometric problems. Or we may need a multimedia tool that lets us create our own videos as well as watch them. These capabilities aren't included with new systems, but there's no reason why we can't exploit the tools that we're given to their fullest.


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Friday, January 08, 2010

Cheap and Fast Software

An Introduction to Shareware

Visit any computer store today and you'll find what seems like miles and miles of software on sale. Certainly enticing buys, there are a few problems with buying software off the shelves. On the shelf, software - otherwise known as "commercial software" - can be expensive, and incompatible, and outdated when compared to what's available online. Fortunately, there's an alternative to commercial software and although it isn't new, it's one of the most under-exploited opportunities in the computer industry.

We're talking about shareware - software that you can try before buying.

Shareware has a long history and was rather popular in the days where BBS (bulletin board systems) reigned the online industry. It hasn't gone anywhere, but its competition with commercial software is fierce - so fierce that it tends to fall on the back burner among new computer users. This is unfortunate because shareware has so many advantages over commercial software.

One of those advantages is its cost. On the whole, shareware is generally cheaper than commercial software. But don't misinterpret the cost. With shareware, cheap does not equal low-quality and there are plenty of examples that prove shareware often outperforms the quality of commercial software time and time again. How much savings are we talking about? You could purchase a quality word processor, spreadsheet, database program, or system utility anywhere from a mere $15 to under a hundred. This is almost unheard of in stores like Best Buy, Circuit City, or Egghead, yet the shareware programs offered within this price range rival even Microsoft's Office suite.

Another advantage that shareware has over commercial software is its compatibility. We're not saying that shareware is compatible with all operating systems. What we're saying is that since we can try shareware before paying for it, we can determine if the software is completely compatible with our systems first. In other words, we can discover whether the software performs the way we want them to and should anyone try to do the same with commercial software, they'll be in for a big disappointment.

Commercial software policy doesn't even allow for returns, let alone "borrowing" them to try them.

The last advantage that shareware has over commercial software (but certainly not the least) is its applicability. Plain and simple, shareware is the best bet when you want to keep on top of the latest release of a particular program. Sure, computer stores do their best to keep their inventory up to date, but when you can download version 5.6042 of a shareware program as opposed to buying a commercial 3.0 version from the local computer shop, there's just no comparison.

Which brings up our next point. Just where does one get shareware? Shareware is all over the Internet and it's really hard not to bump into it. The most popular places to find shareware is within thousands of download libraries, however the companies (and even independent programmers behind shareware) are increasingly offering shareware from their own websites. A simple Google or Yahoo search for a particular type of program will yield all sorts of results that point you toward items that you can try before you buy.

Be aware however, that because shareware is not commercial software, you may not experience a full program the way you would if you bought the software out of a box. Shareware may or may not be limited - meaning that some functions may not be available to you until the program is paid for. These limitations are often small and don't interfere with the way its full version operations. They're really just implemented as a way to prompt payment. Remember that shareware is not freeware. You shouldn't try to use shareware as commercial software without paying for it.

About the only thing that's similar between shareware and commercial software is the way in which they may be bought. With a credit card, you can be the new owner of your own software within minutes.


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Computer Help

Where and How to Get It

Well there's no denying it - No matter how new or how well maintained our computers are, we all encounter computer problems sooner or later. The good news is that we don't have to face them alone. There are a ton of resources available to walk us through computer issues but it may take a little knowledge in knowing how to access them. This article will show you how.

1. Remember help files. It's funny, but people seem to forget that every computer and every program installed on a computer comes with its own help file. Even the operating system of a computer has a help file and it really should be the first place to look for answers. Help files are designed not only to guide the usage of a computer, they're also designed to solve problems. Inside a help file, look for a section called, "Troubleshooting" (or something similar) when you need to resolve an issue. This section is reserved for solving problems specific to the software or hardware that you're using.

2. Product websites. If you're having a problem with a piece of software or with a hardware part, try the website of that software's or hardware's manufacturer. Most (if not all) manufacturer's reserve a portion of cyberspace and dedicate it to support the products that they build. Microsoft's help desk is good example.

3. Fan sites. Fan sites probably isn't a good name for this resource, but you can find websites that are dedicated toward supporting the users of a particular software program or piece of hardware. We've called them "fan sites" because the maintainers of these sites have no affiliation with the manufacturers that they support! Call them what you will, but their free help is immeasurable and without it, we wouldn't have some of the wonderful workarounds and unique problem solving techniques that we have today.

4. Usenet newsgroups. Another underused resource on the Internet, Usenet newsgroups have hundreds of discussion groups dedicated to some of the most popular computer systems, operating systems, hardware manufacturers, and individual software programs. Sometimes, the representatives of these companies participate, but most of the time, the support in this group is user to user, which is just as valid because you're working with a team of experienced people.

5. Support Lines. Another source for help that we shouldn't forget are the support systems of various manufacturers. You can reach these systems by calling the phone number associated with the product that you're having trouble with. Calls may be free (1-800 or 1-877 number), or they may cost a small fee (1-900).

6. PC support groups or user groups are another option for help. These are groups that meet in libraries, computer stores, or other local areas and they discuss all sorts of issues related with a particular product. Even if you aren't experiencing a computer or software problem, user groups are fun to participate in and they can help you network into other interests such as job or teaching opportunities.

7. Surprisingly, you may even get a helping hand from the salespersons at your local computer store. We don't recommend that you make this your first pit stop when you experience a problem, but we don't recommend that you rule this option out altogether either. Computer salespersons are hired for a reason - and that's their knowledge. Often, these kind folks can help you resolve an issue over the phone and prevent you form having to buy a costly solution.

As you can see, help is easy to find - You've just got to know where to look for it. Most of the contacts within these resources are extremely friendly and willing to take the time to walk you through a problem at little to no cost. From online discussion groups to the files on your own computer, help is often just a click away.


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Thursday, January 07, 2010

Dust Kills

Cleaning the Unit Fan is Essential Computer Care

Between taking care of the household, the kids, the pets, and the district PTA, computer care is probably one of the last things that you think of doing on a regular basis. Without a regular maintenance schedule however, you could find out (the hard way) that a neglected computer is an energy hog - one that works harder than it needs to and one that could be a financial burden to replace.

Let's talk about maintaining hardware. So much emphasis is put on maintaining a computer's operating system that we sometimes forget how important it is to maintain a computer's hardware components. Since there can be quite a few components to take care of, let's talk about the most important one.

The most important component of a computer's hardware system is its fan. The fan is located on the computer's CPU unit and when that thing gets clogged with dirt and dust, it can run down a computer faster than you can say, "Something's wrong with my computer and I don't know what it is!" In short, the fan is responsible for keeping a computer's motor cool and this motor is what keeps the computer's hard drive and peripherals functioning the way you need them to, which translates to "fast."

A dirty fan doesn't rotate fast enough to keep that motor cool and a completely clogged fan just stops rotating altogether. This causes the computer's motor to work harder - and a harder working motor can raise the electric bill! Worst case scenario: the motor can overheat and stop working as well. No motor equals no computer.

Keep your computer's fan clean by preventing the fan from getting dirty or dusty in the first place. Use the computer in a dust-free environment and never smoke around it. Nicotine and tar mean certain death when it comes to computer fans, however should you find a need to clean the fan, do so with extreme care.

It's quite easy to cause more damage from cleaning so if you're not comfortable with cleaning your PC yourself, take it to a shop for servicing. Otherwise, you can unplug and disassemble the computer to do it yourself.

You'll need a can of compressed air and an anti-static rag to remove stubborn clumps of dust. Hold the can perfectly vertical and spray the fan being careful not to spray the dust off the fan onto other sensitive parts of the computer like circuit boards or inside the motor casing. Wipe up remaining dust with your anti-static rag and then reassemble the computer.

One thing that you certainly don't want to use to remove computer dust is a vacuum cleaner. Although using a vacuum cleaner seems to make more sense, the strong suction of a vacuum cleaner can actually spark damaging static electricity or dislodge loose cables. You also don't want to use oil-based cleaners. Although Pledge may dust your wooden tables and cabinets to a perfect shine, the oil inside a cleaner like this will erode sensitive computer parts. Stick to a liquid-free dusting method and your dusting routine will be safe enough to repeat as often as you need.

As previously mentioned, preventing dust from entering the computer is extremely important and will reduce the need to open and dust your system in the first place. The severity of outside elements (smoking, humidity, pets, etc.) will ultimately determine how often you'll need to de-dust your machine. But as an average, you shouldn't need to perform this procedure any more than once or twice a year.

The entire exercise should take no more than twenty minutes tops and once complete, you'll immediately see and hear the difference in your machine. The computer's keyboard and mouse will run more smoothly, hardware won't take as long to connect, and the entire machine won't be as loud as one that's corroded with ugly dust bunnies.


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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Basic GUI Terminology

Knowing What You're Working With Helps Technicians

Getting help with your computer software can be easier when you know the correct terms to use. One of the biggest problems that new computer users have with technical support is not knowing how to correctly describe the problem that they're having. And it isn't fair to expect a tech support person to automatically know what a "thing-a-ma-jingy," or "whatcha-ma-call-it" is.

The following describes the correct names for common components of software so that when you experience a problem, you can effectively describe an issue that you're having and a technician can readily resolve it.

User interface - this is the visual design of a program. It may contain squares, boxes, words, icons, and buttons. If you're experiencing insufficient memory for example, you might see black rectangles across the user interface of your software programs.

Title bar - this is the top-most part of a program that displays its own name or it may describe the contents displayed in another part of the interface. If a program is incorrectly coded, you may see a wrong description in this part of its interface.

Menu bar - this part of a program displays menu items and menu options. Some of the most common parts of a menu bar grants access to File commands, Open commands, Save commands, and Print commands. An example of an error in this part of an interface would be if an option was missing or grayed out (lighter in color).

Tool bar - this part of a program displays small icons across the top which represent tools. Clicking an icon will open a tool or process a command that might also exist on a program's menu bar. Problems in this part of an interface are uncommon, however if you find yourself repeatedly clicking an icon with no results, you can correctly describe the problem by referring to the toolbar.

Minimize, Restore, and Exit buttons - these three buttons are usually located on the right-most upper part of a program's interface and each allow you to minimize a program's screen, restore it to its original size, or shut down the program completely.

Scroll bar - this convenient tool allows users to move data up and down the computer screen.

Status bar - this part of a program is located at the bottom-most part of its interface, and it usually displays small messages that indicate the progress of a command or task. If programmed incorrectly, an application might display the wrong information in this area.

Context menu - like the menu bar, a context menu displays when a user right-clicks on something. It displays commands just like what you see on a File menu or a Help menu.

Input box - input boxes are usually small rectangles that allow you to type data into a simple interfaces like a webpage or browser window. If you find that you can't type information into one of these, you can effectively resolve the issue with a technician by calling it an input box, rather than a "white rectangle," or "place to put in text."

Button - buttons perform a command after a user clicks them with a mouse. Problems occur when the text of a button is grayed out or if it doesn't appear to sink into the screen when clicked.

Check box - a check box is a small box that allows a user to indicate several choices among many. When clicked, a small "x" displays inside a box. Similar to the check box, a radio button allows a user to indicate a single choice among many. Problems with radio buttons and check boxes occur when a user makes one choice, but the interface reacts as if the user made many choices (or none at all). When describing a problem to a technician, be sure to indicate whether the problem occurs with a check box or a radio box. Computer novices mistakenly interchange the names of both of these controls.


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Customizing Your Computer with Preferences

Making Your Computer Work with You - Not Against You

Although you did not design or build your computer, you can turn it into a device that responds to your way of using it as if you were its original engineer or programmer. This is because the computer is a mere platform - a blank canvas, if you will - waiting for you to direct its operation or paint the picture of the perfect machine. All this is possible from making just a few changes in your computer's current configuration.

Your computer's main configurations are housed in Windows Control Panel. Within this small section of Windows, you can make some major changes from the way that your computer looks to the way that your computer responds to the people who use it. But your specifications don't just apply to Windows, they also apply to the many software programs that are installed onto the computer (not to mention that many software programs can be further customized through their own configurations). We aren't going to cover them all, but we will introduce some of the most popular so that you can get a feel of the control over your system that these configurations give you.

Users. Before we get into the individual settings, it's important that you understand that each set of configurations you make is specific to the users that sit down in front of a computer. Changes made to a system by one person will differ from the changes made by another. Enabled by a username and password, individual desktop settings (icons, background picture, and other settings) are available after logging onto Windows.

Display Properties. Through Display Properties, a user can change the background of the Windows Desktop, add a screensaver, change the overall color scheme and fonts of Windows, and adjust a computer's color depth and/or resolution (screen area). Not just a bunch of preference settings, display properties help individuals who have to deal with visual problems.

Accessibility Options. Speaking of visual problems, another setting that's useful is accessibility options. This setting allows people with disabilities to use a computer that accommodates vision and hearing problems.

Keyboard and Mouse Options. The keyboard and mouse controls give users the option of speeding up or slowing down the movements of both of these peripherals. For those entering the United States from a foreign country, users will appreciate how Windows grants use of keyboard layouts native to their original language. Other uses will appreciate the different selection of cursors and the ability to add additional ones.

Passwords. Since the computer in use may be shared with others, Passwords gives the almighty administrator the means to determine whether all users will share the same preferences and desktop settings or if users can customize preferences and desktop settings.

Regional Settings. Things get really personal in Regional Settings - as this configuration makes changes according to a user's location and language. Options available can accommodate a person's preference for the display of numbers, currency, time, and date format.

Sounds Properties. Multimedia fans can create a rich PC environment filled with sound through this setting. Sounds can be assigned to numerous events and they don't even need to be the default sounds installed by Windows. Users can download sounds from the Internet or create their own sounds with a microphone.

Dialing Properties. Even the way a user connects to the Internet can be customized. Through Dialing Properties, users can determine how a phone and modem dials into an Internet service provider.

From just these basic configuration options, you can create your own experience with a computer each time you sit down in front of one. Customizing your PC is what makes using a computer truly unique and enjoyable, so have fun and build a situation at home or a work in which you'll love to work with everyday. Should you feel a little nervous about it at first, remember that your computer's original configuration can be saved to a back up file should you ever want to restore it to the same state that it was in when you first bought it.


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