by Donnie Jenkins
I was very surprised and pleased to get so many emails so quickly after my last column. I was especially surprised to get so many questions from people with their own businesses needing basic advice on such things as choosing software, buying a new computer, etc. There are a lot of choices for any need out there for both business and personal use, and I'll try to cover as much of each as I can.
This month I want to answer a few emails I received. My email address is email@example.com. I'll try to answer any question I can, and I always appreciate hearing from you. Here are some of the questions I received:
I am shopping for a new computer, and need to know if you have any tips on buying one. I can spend no more than $650-$700.
There are many excellent buys out there at that price and below. The simplest answer is to shop around, compare deals and be sure that you include the price of the software you'll need in your computer budget. Many systems come with excellent software bundles. Try to get a system with at least 256k of memory, more if you can afford it, and a hard drive of at least 60-80 megabytes. More is better when it comes to hard drives and memory. If possible get a good look at the computer when it's running - be sure the monitor is crisp and easy to see and work with. This is often the last thing we think of but the first to drive you crazy if the display is hard to read or fuzzy. Decide if you will need to upgrade your system at some point - if so, be sure that the system you buy allows this. For example, many computer under $700 rely upon what is called integrated motherboard functions for graphics and sound. What this means is that the manufacturer has kept the price low by sacrificing more expensive parts in the system. For most people this is no problem, but if you later need more functionality, you'll have to spend more money. If you plan to do intensive graphics or audio work, you need a system that can handle it, and most inexpensive ones won't. If you even remotely think you may someday want to upgrade your computer, be sure it has at least one or two PCI slots and an AGP slot empty to make this possible. (A slot is a place on the main circuit board of your computer that allows you to expand your computer by adding what are called cards - a card is a dedicated circuit board that usually adds one particular function to your computer, such as video or sound capability. Many low-end computers cut corners by not having an AGP slot. It is true that most new computers have USB 2.0 ports, and can be expanded that way, but this is almost always more expensive. (USB stands for Universal Serial Bus, and allows you to plug in hard drives, external sound cards, etc. USB 2.0 is the newest incarnation and is much faster and more desirable than the older 1.0 spec) Next, as silly as this may sound, be sure that your system allows you to add another hard drive for more storage if you think you'll need it. I recently worked on a friend's brand new computer and was amazed to find that it did not allow the addition of another hard drive. This is a relatively new trick to keep prices down. We ended up having to add a USB hard drive, very expensive at that time. Finally, study, study, study - read everything you can on buying computers. Go to zdnet.com, cnet.com, about.com or one of many other excellent web sites which offer reviews and tutorials on buying and using computers. The more you learn, the more you can choose wisely. And don't worry that "what I buy today will soon be obsolete", a common fear. No tool that is useful is ever obsolete, even if it becomes outdated.
Which type of computer is better, a PC or a MacIntosh?
The answer is, both and neither. They are both excellent platforms, and each one has its strengths and weaknesses. The PC is used more widely, but the Mac is still very popular, especially with graphics professionals, and very powerful. Generally speaking, the PC platform is less expensive, but Macs are so good that Mac users wouldn't have anything else at any price, and the new Mac Mini is priced under $600 - very cool. Use the one that does the work at hand best.
I want to download music on the Internet, but I hear it's illegal.
Not anymore. The original downloading monster was Napster, very popular with many of us, but eventually shut down by the RIAA and other music interests. The recording industry fought downloading tooth and nail, but finally gave in and began to allow music to be legally downloaded. Apple's ITunes download service was the first to break the dam, but now you have several choices, including Wal-Mart, the new legal Napster, and many more. Go to google.com and type in "download music", including the quotation marks and have a ball. To research the various download services, go to the reviews section of zdnet.com or cnet.com and do a search for online music. Another quick note - I get a lot of questions asking me what the difference is between an MP3 and a regular sound file, such as a CD track. The quick answer is that an MP3 is a sound file that has been compressed or pared down to a smaller size so that it can be quickly downloaded or transferred. Think of a regular sound file as a accordion opened all the way out, and an MP3 as the accordion closed all the way. Same thing, just compressed. Keep in mind that MP3 is not the only way to compress sound files, but it is presently the most popular. By the way, a brief warning. It's true that you can still download music free illegally through some services, but because of viruses, trojan horses, and prosecutions from the RIAA and other music industry entities, it's just not worth it to the average computer user. Most download services price their songs at less than a dollar, which is quite reasonable.
What is a firewall - do I need it?
You'd better believe it, mama. A firewall protects your computer from being attacked when you are online. The newest version of Windows XP has a built in firewall that you can activate, although I prefer a product called Zone Alarm available for download at zonelabs.com. They offer a free version as well as a more extensive product called Zone Alarm Pro. You can also purchase a hardware firewall, although most people prefer simply using software. To give you an example why you need it, I recently re-did an older computer and wanted to find out how long it would take for a hacker to try to attack it online. I installed the free Zone Alarm, went online and within three seconds was being attacked, probably by an automated hacking program. Three seconds! So, yes you need a firewall and an anti-virus program such as Norton Anti-Virus or the free AVG antivirus program. Also, you should download a spyware checker such as Ad-Aware or Spybot - Search and Destroy. In case you don't know what spyware is, it is usually a program you accidentally download by clicking on a pop-up ad or logging into a new Web site. Sometimes you can get it simply by downloading a program you want to try out. Spyware at the least reports your online activities back to a web site, and at worst can be what's called a Trojan Horse - a sneaky, low-down spy that tries to damage your computer or turn it into an emailing zombie. I have a friend who's Internet provider recently turned off his ability to send email because he had unknowingly downloaded spyware or a trojan horse that was sending over a thousand emails in a short time from his computer without his knowledge. Lately there is no clear boundary between spyware, trojan horses and some viruses and worms. They are getting more sneaky and harder to clean up once you have them. So be careful, use a firewall and antivirus program, and check often for spyware.
Thanks for reading-see you next time.
Donnie Jenkins can be contacted at: