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 cases, it can end up in the closet, or a glorified games machine... at ten times 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 appliances 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 least 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 can be set up and turned on, all without requiring an advanced engineering degree. This has always been true for Macintosh models, and is increasingly the case with the more common, but more complex, PCs. Even the later, are typically coming with plugs and cables that can only be inserted one way, and with software pre-installed. It should be possible to set it up, turn it on, and have a series of icons appear, showing what software is available, 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 numbers. 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, don't 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 copies of the software onto floppy disks. Use it-- hard drives fail, and you'll be grateful for the backup diskettes. If you don't have manuals for your 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 version.

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 with your friends. Be aware that if you want to keep using shareware programs, you are expected to register with the program's creator, paying a registration fee. You'll notice that many shareware programs will nag you, either when 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 printing with the wrong information, and you may find pages of meaningless symbols 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 have to do this once... and all your software will be able to make use of the information. In Windows, double-click on the Main program group, and look 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-- double-clicking opens up an icon, running a program). It will give you a 'dialogue box'... a standard way for your computer to get information from you. You may be 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 unless you say otherwise. More likely, no printers are listed there, or some random, incorrect model. If so, click once on the button labeled Add. (See, there is some logic to this process, at least some of the time).

This will get you another box, with a list of several hundred printer makes and models, listed alphabetically. Inevitably, your model will be far down the list, out of sight. Time to practice a new skill, manipulating 'scroll bars'. On the right-hand edge of the list, you'll see a long, narrow, grey band, with arrows on top and bottom. Clicking on the down arrow with your mouse, moves you down the list, one line at a time. The up arrow moves you up. But that's too slow... Notice that there is a lighter grey square, 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 quickly-- 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 Hewlett Packard Deskjet, for example), will jump you to the first item with a name 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 another, more popular, or older model... imitating  the other model, so it can still be used, even with software that was written before your printer 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 correct, so you can leave this setting alone. Click Okay, and your printer is configured. Assuming the cable is connected between the computer and the printer, and 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 doubt, consult the manual).

Congratulations! You've successfully worked with both your software 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 rename files. (Hint-- in Windows 3.something, look for a program called File Manager (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 spaces allowed). If you have a Mac, you're allowed to gloat, at least until all your PC-using friends get Windows 95 or OS/2, and get to use long filenames like you. Try to make sense of the way your computer organizes files into 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? Checking out the much-hyped Internet or other on-line resources? Creating artwork or page designs for brochures or posters? Keeping track of customers, inventory, sales? Playing games?

Computers are multi-purpose machines... they can perform multiple functions, depending on the software that is loaded. Often, computer owners find themselves collecting software, or compulsively upgrading, to make sure they always 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 expensive). Many students, home, and small business users will find, for example, that one of the integrated 'Works'-type packages provides all the word processing 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 major 'Suites'-- collections of power-packed word processors, spreadsheets, and more.

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 according to accounting principles-- Quicken's cousin, QuickBooks may do the trick).

Help? Help!

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? The best way is going to be different for each of us-- we all learn in different ways. And in some ways, it's become harder to get help, while in others, 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 grumbling, and offer some sort of reward-- food, particularly chocolate is almost always appreciated.

-- read a book. Software traditionally comes with manuals, which are typically ignored by users. (A cliché among the computer-skilled, is to tell novices to "RTFM"... Read The Something Manual). Often, that's because software manuals are virtually unreadable, unless you already know 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 industry has become devoted to helping people with computers. Recently, books with names like "_______ for Dummies", "________ for Idiots" (insert your software name in the blank) have become wildly popular, combining advice for beginners with jokes and cartoons. Surprisingly, these books can be quite effective, 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 rightly suspect that most users ignore the manuals, anyway. In some cases, you'll 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 tutorial. 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 some of these in your public library.

-- take a class. School boards, community colleges, universities, and several private companies have found that they can offer a wide range of computer and software night-school classes. Make sure, however, that you 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 college's introductory class, only to find themselves learning to convert numbers into binary and hexadecimal (base 16) notation, when they actually wanted to learn about how to use their word processor. Make sure that the class you take includes hand-on experience working with the software that you want to learn.

-- join a users group. Many communities, and even some companies and organizations, have volunteer users groups. These may be large and generalized, such as Vancouver's massive PC Users' Group, or smaller, focusing on a special interest piece of hardware or software. Group meetings often include 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 provided unlimited free phone support, in some cases, with 1-800 numbers. The 1-800 numbers are almost all gone, and unlimited free support is disappearing. 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 hold (at your long-distance expense) waiting to speak to a support person. Instead, 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 distribute technical advice, ranging from sending e-mail to a technician, to getting 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 your word processor, when you have some project that you want to write. I learned to use a spreadsheet one Spring Break after someone suggested I could use 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 need, it's too easy to become frustrated, and end up with an expensive collection of boxes in the basement.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan