PC Survival Guide 1995
by Alan Zisman
(c) 1995. First
published in Our Computer Player, November 1995
So you've bought that new computer... now what?
Even though, for many families, a computer is one of
the biggest purchases
they'll make... not on a scale with the house or the car, but a biggie
none the less, it can be a disappointing experience. And in too many
it can end up in the closet, or a glorified games machine... at ten
the cost of a Super-Nintendo.
How can you avoid those disappointments?
By having realistic expectations about your new
purchase, and by taking
the time to learn to use it.
That Out of Box Experience
Today, you can buy a computer in a department store or
an office or
electronics superstore-- just across from home stereos, refrigerators,
and toasters. Often, the salesperson will have been selling home
just last week. Unfortunately, even though they are being marketed like
appliances, computers aren't quite that easy to use. There are reasons
why there are computer user groups, but no toaster user groups (at
that I know of).
Still, computer manufacturers have tried to work on
the "Out of Box
Experience"... you can buy a computer, get it home, and find that it
be set up and turned on, all without requiring an advanced engineering
degree. This has always been true for Macintosh models, and is
the case with the more common, but more complex, PCs. Even the later,
typically coming with plugs and cables that can only be inserted one
and with software pre-installed. It should be possible to set it up,
it on, and have a series of icons appear, showing what software is
ready to work.
Before you go any further, take a quick inventory.
Make a list of what
you got-- hardware and software. Note manufacturer, model, and serial
Did you get original floppy disks and manuals for your system software
(Mac OS, or DOS and Windows), and for any applications pre-installed on
your hard drive? Some manufacturers, in order to save a few dollars,
give you original floppy disks, but give you manuals... in these cases,
there is often a program on the hard drive to let you make backup
of the software onto floppy disks. Use it-- hard drives fail, and
be grateful for the backup diskettes. If you don't have manuals for
software, you may not have legitimate copies, which could pose problems
later on if you try to get technical support or upgrade to a newer
Some dealers offer multi-megabytes of shareware on
your hard drive.
Shareware programs are free for you to try out, or to copy, and share
your friends. Be aware that if you want to keep using shareware
you are expected to register with the program's creator, paying a
fee. You'll notice that many shareware programs will nag you, either
you start or when you close them-- until you do register.
Make That New Printer Work for You
In most cases, the first technical problem you'll have
to face will
be telling your computer what sort of printer is attached. If you have
Windows 95, and a recent printer model, it may be able to find out this
information for itself-- but otherwise, it your computer has no way of
knowing what sort of printer you're using unless you tell it. Try
with the wrong information, and you may find pages of meaningless
and text spewing out of your printer.
In the bad-old DOS days, you had to do this separately
for each piece
of software installed. Now with Windows, or on a Macintosh, you only
to do this once... and all your software will be able to make use of
information. In Windows, double-click on the Main program group, and
for the icon that says Control Panel. Double-click on it.
(If phrases like 'double-click' and 'icon' are
meaningless to you, find
a child-- they all intuitively understand these concepts).
Control Panel will open up, showing another window
full of icons...
find the one labeled Printer, and double-click on it. (Get it--
opens up an icon, running a program). It will give you a 'dialogue
a standard way for your computer to get information from you. You may
very lucky, and see your actual make and model of printer listed in the
top left-corner, as the 'default'... the printer that will be used
you say otherwise. More likely, no printers are listed there, or some
incorrect model. If so, click once on the button labeled Add. (See,
is some logic to this process, at least some of the time).
This will get you another box, with a list of several
makes and models, listed alphabetically. Inevitably, your model will be
far down the list, out of sight. Time to practice a new skill,
'scroll bars'. On the right-hand edge of the list, you'll see a long,
grey band, with arrows on top and bottom. Clicking on the down arrow
your mouse, moves you down the list, one line at a time. The up arrow
you up. But that's too slow... Notice that there is a lighter grey
at the top of the tube. Think of it as an elevator in a shaft. Clicking
below the elevator, in the shaft, will move you down the list more
a page at a time. Clicking above the elevator moves you back up. Here's
a trick-- type the first letter of your printer's name ("H" for a
Packard Deskjet, for example), will jump you to the first item with a
starting with that letter.
If you find your exact model, click on the Okay button
(or press Enter,
which does the same thing). But if your printer isn't on the list, it's
time to crack open the printer manual. Most printers will emulate
more popular, or older model... imitating the other model, so it
can still be used, even with software that was written before your
came out onto the market. The manual should tell you what other printer
models can be used instead... often a popular Epson or Hewlett Packard
model, or an older printer from the same manufacturer.
Once you've found a printer driver that will work with
your actual model,
you need to tell your computer how it is attached. Windows will assume
that your printer is attached to something called, in computer jargon,
LPT1: -- the first printer port. Luckily, in most cases, that's
so you can leave this setting alone. Click Okay, and your printer is
Assuming the cable is connected between the computer and the printer,
the printer is plugged in, and you've added paper and toner... you can
print! (Note that many printers are shipped with plastic pieces (often
some bright colour like orange) that help prevent damage in shipping...
you will need to remove them before using the printer. Again, when in
consult the manual).
Congratulations! You've successfully worked with both
and hardware, to make your system work for you. You are now a computer
user-- hear you roar!
Manage a File or Two
Try out a few basic file management tasks. Learn how
to use your computer
to format a floppy diskette (not your hard drive!), and to copy and
files. (Hint-- in Windows 3.something, look for a program called File
(in your Main group) to do this). If you have a PC, get used to trying
to cram descriptive and unique filenames into a mere 8 letters (no
allowed). If you have a Mac, you're allowed to gloat, at least until
your PC-using friends get Windows 95 or OS/2, and get to use long
like you. Try to make sense of the way your computer organizes files
folders or directories.
Maybe now you should take stock and think about what
you hope to accomplish
with your new tool.
Have I Got Some Software For You!
Almost everyone with a computer uses it for word
processing. What else
do you hope to use it for? Bookkeeping for home or a small business?
out the much-hyped Internet or other on-line resources? Creating
or page designs for brochures or posters? Keeping track of customers,
sales? Playing games?
Computers are multi-purpose machines... they can
perform multiple functions,
depending on the software that is loaded. Often, computer owners find
collecting software, or compulsively upgrading, to make sure they
have the latest-- and presumably greatest. This isn't always necessary,
and can involve unneeded expense, as well as making sure that you never
really learn to do anything very well.
A simpler, less expensive program may be more
effective that the 'biggest
and the best' in any given product category-- in many cases, these are
loaded with lots of extra functions that, if you don't need them, make
the program bigger, slower, and more complex (as well as more
Many students, home, and small business users will find, for example,
one of the integrated 'Works'-type packages provides all the word
power they need, as well as basic spreadsheet and database functions...
all at a fraction of the cost (and hard drive space) of one of the
'Suites'-- collections of power-packed word processors, spreadsheets,
As well, simple home finance packages, such as the
wildly popular Quicken,
may provide all the bookkeeping help an individual will need (though a
business will probably need something more formally structured
to accounting principles-- Quicken's cousin, QuickBooks may do the
Inevitably, as you try to use software, you're going
to have questions...
some of us have more questions, sooner, than others. How to get help?
best way is going to be different for each of us-- we all learn in
ways. And in some ways, it's become harder to get help, while in
it has become easier. Here are some options:
-- ask a friend. People with computer skills (like
people who own small
trucks) find they are always in demand, with friends and acquaintances
wanting assistance. For many of them, this has become quite a bother...
if you are asking for help, be prepared to put up with some amount of
and offer some sort of reward-- food, particularly chocolate is almost
-- read a book. Software traditionally comes with
manuals, which are
typically ignored by users. (A cliché among the
is to tell novices to "RTFM"... Read The Something Manual). Often,
because software manuals are virtually unreadable, unless you already
so much that you don't need to read the manual... old DOS manuals were
classics of this sort. Instead, a large segment of the publishing
has become devoted to helping people with computers. Recently, books
names like "_______ for Dummies", "________ for Idiots" (insert your
name in the blank) have become wildly popular, combining advice for
with jokes and cartoons. Surprisingly, these books can be quite
even if the cartoons are frequently dumb.
Recently, many software manufacturers have started
providing less and
less printed documentation, both to save costs, and because they
suspect that most users ignore the manuals, anyway. In some cases,
now find a slim 'Getting Started' guide in the box-- which may be more
readable than an old style manual. Or some or all of the documentation
may be on a CD-disk or installed onto your hard drive. Try clicking on
the menu item labeled Help, in your program, and see what's available.
-- run a tutorial. Some of us can't learn very well
from a book, even
one aimed at 'dummies'. Some of us, however, can learn by practicing on
the computer. More and more programs include some sort of on-disk
If available, this will probably be accessed from that same Help menu.
Give it a try-- some people find it very useful.
Other companies offer software or even video
cassettes, with more tutorials
than are included with the program. In some cases, you can even find
of these in your public library.
-- take a class. School boards, community colleges,
several private companies have found that they can offer a wide range
computer and software night-school classes. Make sure, however, that
sign up for a class that's appropriate to your needs... I know a couple
who bought a computer, and immediately signed up for a community
introductory class, only to find themselves learning to convert numbers
into binary and hexadecimal (base 16) notation, when they actually
to learn about how to use their word processor. Make sure that the
you take includes hand-on experience working with the software that you
want to learn.
-- join a users group. Many communities, and even some
organizations, have volunteer users groups. These may be large and
such as Vancouver's massive PC Users' Group, or smaller, focusing on a
special interest piece of hardware or software. Group meetings often
open-ended time for users to help one-another. (And users group members
often get discounts on buying hardware or software).
-- phone the company. Support from companies is
becoming harder and
harder to get... companies have found that it is a major cost, and one
that they are trying to cut back on. A few years ago, many companies
unlimited free phone support, in some cases, with 1-800 numbers. The
numbers are almost all gone, and unlimited free support is
Instead, most companies offer limited time free support (often 90 days
from your first phone call). And be prepared to spend a long time on
(at your long-distance expense) waiting to speak to a support person.
companies are offering a variety of pay-for-support plans, ranging from
1-900 added cost phone calls, to prepaid plans providing support over a
longer period of time.
In place of speaking to a technical support person,
many companies are
expanding alternatives-- free fax-back services, for example, where you
phone an automated system that faxes you a document focusing on one of
a number of common questions, are increasingly popular. So are company
run phone-in bulletin board services to get software updates and fixes.
More and more companies are also using the Internet as a way to
technical advice, ranging from sending e-mail to a technician, to
documents and software.
Inevitable, most of us learn something (in whatever
style works best
for us), when there's a reason-- you're more likely to learn to use
word processor, when you have some project that you want to write. I
to use a spreadsheet one Spring Break after someone suggested I could
one to manage my class marks.
And that's the key-- computers are a powerful tool,
but only a tool.
Get one when you have a need for it, and you'll be motivated to find a
way to use it successfully. If you get one without a clearly-defined
it's too easy to become frustrated, and end up with an expensive
of boxes in the basement.