I feel very lucky. My children gave me a Kindle Fire for Christmas in December 2011. It lets me browse the web when I am relaxing in my easy chair. I am amazed at how stunning photographs are on the Fire.
The Fire is also another sign of how fast technology is changing, and how easy it has become to use the World-Wide Web.
Sometimes it is very hard to tell what type of technology is the best to use. In spite of being someone who was born before 1950, I am not one of the people who has trouble with technology. Technology has been a big part of my life, so I feel qualified to make some recommendations to those haven’t had as much hands on experience as I have.
If you will bear with me through a little history, I am going make some specific suggestions that will help many people enjoy the technology that they already have, and some folks pick the right technology for their situation.
If you had to rank me in the world of technology, I would be one of those people whom most people like to have around when they get stuck with a computer problem. I manage to get by very well in the Windows, Macintosh, and Linux worlds. I am a happy Android phone user, and I understand “the Cloud” and servers. Having worked for an email company, I understand email very well. I am one of those people who is very comfortable manually filling in the settings on email programs. I know the difference between POP and IMAP mail.
However, I long ago adopted the practice of only helping family members with their technology problems. Once you start trying to solve technology problems from a long distance, you are hosed. What seems simple and logical to me on one end of the telephone might make no sense to another person on the other end of the phone. This post will summarize the advice that my family gets.
In 1983 I got one of my first lessons on trying to help from a distance when a client to whom I had sold a computer called to complain that their computer wasn’t working. After trying to solve the problem on the phone, I got in my car and drove sixty miles only to find out that the computer was unplugged.
The vast majority of people my age can do very well with technology if someone sets it up for them and regularly checks on it. However, while we have come a very long way since the days of my first computer, the Apple II+, things still aren’t as easy as they should be. Some others in the technology world would agree with me that it is questionable that we are solving complexity as fast as we are adding it.
It wasn’t that hard to set up an Apple II, but it was sometimes a challenge to get it to do what you wanted it to do. In the days of the Apple IIs, we often had to insert control characters into text in order to get them to print the way we wanted things printed. We didn’t have to worry about the Internet because in 1982 the protocols for the Internet were just then being formalized.
If we fast forward a couple of years to 1984 and the Macintosh, computers became a lot easier to use. Getting the printed word out of them was less of a challenge. WYSIWYG, “What you see is what you get,” became part of our vocabulary. With a little restraint and not too much use of the font menu, very nice printed documents could be created and by 1985 printed on a laser printer. In 2011 even the world of laser printers has dramatically changed to the point that they are consumer products and in essence almost disposable.
A lot of great technologies were developed as the computer world raced forward from 1985. Things like Ethernet and the World-Wide Web finally made it down to the world of consumers. While others might disagree with me, I think the introduction of the iMac on August 15, 1998 marked the first computer that was really designed to be easy to hook up to the Internet.
I can still remember the Apple commercials which showed a young boy and a dog getting their iMac up and on the Internet before a grown man could get all the Windows boxes unpacked, assembled, and running enough to make a connection. The iMac was a major victory for simplicity.
Unfortunately while devices such as the Kindle Fire, the iPad, and smartphones have made it very easy to get on the Internet, home networking and Internet access still haven’t made that quantum leap to the point where you can walk into a home and plug into the Internet like you would plug a toaster into a power outlet.
Granted there are places where hooking up to the Internet is much easier than it is in others. Some services are really very good. However, there are few places aside from college towns like Blacksburg, Va. and dorms all over the country where Ethernet jacks are nearly as functional as power outlets.
Today keeping a wireless network going in your home can be a challenge, and it is something most people find somewhat frustrating. While it is easy enough to hook up a cable modem, a lot of things can go wrong over time. On top of that, as your equipment ages, you can find it harder and harder to keep your network running without frequent restarts. There is a sweet spot for cable modems which is highly dependent on cable signal strength. It requires a cable technician to check it, but sometimes the effort to make that happen is well worth the trouble. One very good technician recently told me to get a new cable modem every three or four years.
When you are getting ready to jump into the world of broadband connections, my first recommendation is to find a friend who understands home networks and have that person help you make some intelligent decisions on the service you are going to use. As a general rule, cable modems are faster than DSL, but if you are relatively close to a main switch, DSL can be a very reasonable computing experience. It is one of those things you won’t know unless you ask some questions. Sometimes the only way to know is to try the service out.
In 2011 if you already have cable television or a phone line and you order Internet service, you will likely get mailed the equipment. If that happens, and computers make you uncomfortable, find someone to help with the installation. If you get someone who knows what they are doing, it can be relatively painless.
Sometimes the gear sent out includes a wireless networking device. If you have an option of NOT getting the wireless gear that the cable company or phone company sends out, take that option. Just get them to send you their best cable modem. You are better off going to Staples, SAMs or Best Buy and getting one of the newer wireless networking devices that let you press a button or use a reasonable password to get your computers on the network instead of entering a long numerical pass code. I have gotten functional wireless networking devices that are easy to hook up for as low as $29.95. However, you are likely better off spending more and getting a fully featured unit that is also a router with some Ethernet ports. I recently had a very good experience setting up a CISCO Linksys E2500 Wireless Dual-Band N Router which I picked up on sale at Staples for $79.95.
I do recommend that people rent their cable modems so that getting a new one is as easy as making a phone call. Technology changes rapidly in the cable modem world so if you buy your own, don’t expect it to last forever.
Whatever you do, make certain that you do not create an open wireless network. Your wireless network needs to be password protected and secure. If you don’t know how to do that, get someone who does.
Getting a Windows 7 or a Macintosh OS X system on a wireless network is pretty simple, but hopelessly complex to deal with in a simple document like this. There are just too many options. Both Macs and Windows 7 machines have decent intelligent assistants that do a good job of making simple wireless network connections. However, if those don’t work for you, don’t be embarrassed to go find that friend who understands networks.
If you don’t need wireless, don’t do it. It always adds a layer of complexity. If your digital life revolves around one computer that doesn’t move, you don’t really need wireless unless you want to be nice to your guests. However, if you have other digital devices that need an Internet connection, you likely don’t have a choice other than going wireless. Just keep a printed copy of your pass code in a safe spot.
If you end up with a wireless network with an Internet connection, learn how to properly reset it. It will be the first thing that tech support asks you to do if you are having problems.
I use Windows 7 and Mac OS X Snow Leopard daily. I run Linux almost as much, but I don’t have a portable Linux device. When I travel, my Linux computer stays at home. This advice pretty well covers computers running Windows 7 and Macintosh OS X . If you have a Windows XP system, get rid of it. If you don’t an Intel Mac, you are living on borrowed time.
There are some items that I will recommend which are platform specific, but a lot of what I will suggest makes sense no matter which platform you use.
The absolute first thing you should do is install either Firefox, Chrome, or Opera as your default browser on your computer. Windows Internet Explorer and Safari are not as good as any of the previous three. A good browser makes a huge difference in your computing experience. There is nothing wrong with having both Firefox and Chrome on your system at the same time. You will have to choose one as the default browser, but you can still use the second one.
One of the next things that I recommend to people is to get a Gmail account. It’s free, it works, and is very reliable. It also offers you an entryway into a number of other services that are very valuable.
You can configure your Gmail account to work from a computer based mail program, or you can use it through a browser which lets you access it from any computer. You just need to be careful with your password. Never have a public computer remember your password. Always make sure you log completely out of your email or any websites before you leave a public computer. It is a good idea to close any open browsers if you can.
With your Gmail account, you get access to Picasa Web Albums which is great place in the Cloud to store photos which you really like and want to share. Whether you use the application Picasa on your computer or some other program to get photos onto to your computer, Picasa Web Albums is still a good secure place to store them for free. If you need more storage, it is very reasonably priced.
One of the things that technology-literate people appreciate is not getting a dozen photos as attachments in an email. Picasa Web Albums provides a very easy way to share your Cloud-based photos with friends and family without eating up their hard drives. Your friends get a link they can click which will take them to your photos in the Cloud where they can see them all and usually can download any that they like. Google has made Picasa Web Albums a little more confusing through its forced connection with Google+, but just remember that you now post to your web albums with Google+, but if you visit your Picasa Web Albums site, you still can do lots of neat non-Google+ stuff.
While I have used Apple’s .Mac and MobileMe online services since their inception, I don’t recommend them. I have had too many photos that I stored there over the years shuttled off to unintelligible folders. No one has convinced me that iCloud will be any better.
If you are a real Microsoft fan, you might try their free SkyDrive Cloud service. While SkyDrive hasn’t been around in its present form terribly long, it does seem to work very well. I love the speed, and the online versions of Microsoft’s office software that are available there. The online versions of Microsoft’s software are a free way to work with MS files. Skydrive works well from Windows, Linux, and Macintosh computers running Firefox. It is also a great way to share photos without actually sending the photos.
Of course your Gmail account also gives you access to Google’s online document tools.
If you have multiple computers and want to sync files between them, the absolute best way is through Dropbox. It creates a folder on your computer which is synced with a secure Cloud version of the folder. A decent amount of free storage comes just from signing up, and if you get other people to sign up via a link like the one I have provided, you get additional free storage. Dropbox works on everything, Windows, Mac, Linux, and Android. It is also available for the iPhone. With Dropbox, you never leave home without that important file.
My next recommendation is that everyone bite the bullet and pay the $120 or so for the Microsoft Office Home and Student 2010 version. You can get some free software that lets you do the same thing, but the Office stuff is a standard, and it is a lot of software for $120. Both their Windows and Macintosh versions are very good.
Of course, the Home and Student version of Office doesn’t include Outlook for email, but I consider that a benefit and a great way to save some money. There are better alternatives to Outlook that are either free or cost very little. I am an email package’s worst nightmare. If it survives me, it will do a great job for the average person. I have tried Outlook and Windows Live Mail. Neither did very well by me.
However, I can highly recommend the free Thunderbird for Windows, and it you are willing to pay a modest $29.95, I think you will find Postbox a wonderful email experience. If you have Macs and Windows computers, the money you pay for Postbox covers licenses for both platforms.
If you are Mac user, you might be happy with Apple’s Mail, but I like Postbox better. The Mac version still has a way to go before it is as stable as the Windows version, but it has a lot of promise.
If pictures are a big thing for you, download Picasa and use it to get pictures from your camera to your computer. It will also help you edit them. If you need more editing than Picasa provides, try the built-in free version of Picnik. Picnik is photo editing in the Cloud.
I actually subscribe to the enhanced version which costs $24.95 per year. Picnik can be accessed from a browser on any machine. (Update) Unfortunately Google has announced the death of Picnik as of April 2012, but some of the tools have been added to other Google services, and they have given everyone their money back for this year.
Picasa works well on Windows machines and on Intel Macs. On the Mac it has the advantage of not putting your photos into a strange library that might get corrupted over time. That does happen with iPhoto.
Another of my recommendations is don’t pay for an anti-virus program. If you are running a Windows computer, take advantage of Microsoft’s free Security Essentials. It works great, and in two years of using it, I have never had a problem. It is much less intrusive than other security programs that will cost you money each year.
Another great free program which will help with the maintenance of your computer is CCleaner which cleans out a lot of stuff that you don’t need on your computer. The program has been around for many years, and seems to work well. My computer typically runs faster after I use it.
If you take screen shots frequently and like to annotate them, I highly recommend Snagit from TechSmith. It costs about $29.95 and is another program where your payment covers both the Macintosh and Windows version. It will also do scrolling web page captures.
There are two other things that I recommend which are little more complicated, but I think both are well worth the effort. One is OpenDNS. OpenDNS provides access to much faster and more reliable Domain Name Servers than the typical cable service provider. In layman’s terms, it means that your Internet searches are much faster. It also has a very easy way to keep unsuspecting Internet users from ending up on sites where you would rather they not visit. OpenDNS is also free.
The other free service is LastPass. It will securely store your passwords and fill them in when you need them. It isn’t as simple as I would like it to be, but I really like the fact that it will generate one time use passwords for shopping sites so I don’t have to use the same good passwords for places that I use rarely.
Here are some final recommendations that might help with your computing needs.
If you have an old Windows computer around, and if you need a second functional computer but don’t want the hassle of buying a new operating system or a new computer, try Ubuntu Linux. It is truly easy to install, and it is free. All you have to do is download an image to a CD. The installer takes care of everything.
I have a seven-year old Dell Pentium 3 running Ubuntu that boots faster than my one year old I5 iMac running Snow Leopard. Ubuntu has done an amazing job of making Linux simple. Linux is much faster on older machines than current operating systems which I sometimes suspect are designed just to keep us buying new computers. I wasn’t sure that it would ever be possible with Linux, but Ubuntu now even installs printers as easy or easier than a Mac.
If all of this seems like too much to handle, you might be better off with an iPad or a Kindle Fire. Which you buy depends on your budget, and who you would rather control your life, Amazon or Apple.
There is no lower cost entry point into the World-Wide Web than the Kindle Fire. At $199 it gives you email, the web, and much more media access than I will ever use. Of course with a Kindle, you will still need access to a wireless network, but you can hire people to do that.
I have no complaints about my Kindle Fire. It is a great value. It is a much better browsing experience than my smart phone. I would love to see the email client improve, but I am sure that it will over time. It is perfectly serviceable now, but as I said, I am a demanding email user.
As to what platform or computer you should choose, most of it is personal preference these days. It is rare in 2011 that there would be an application that would require a specific platform. You can also run Windows on a Mac though I would argue that you are better off just buying an inexpensive Windows PC instead of making your Mac more complex.
I have been a Mac user since 1984 when they were first introduced. I actually started selling MS/DOS machines close to the same time. Apple makes some very nice products, but you will pay more and perhaps get a less flexible environment. With Apple there is only one way to do things, and it is the Apple way. Apple loves to run things through iTunes, and it seems to crop up in places that I would rather not use it. I personally like being able to plug my Android phone into my computer and easily move files to the computer. I have been told you can do that with an iPhone, but I don’t have one to check.
Recently my trusty MacBook which was in use since July of 2006 died. When that happened, I was already considering passing on my current Windows laptop to my youngest daughter who is stuck using an ancient white half-moon (lamp tower) G4 iMac with a 80 gig drive.
In shopping for a new laptop, I found that Apple continues to be a much more expensive proposition especially if your old eyes need a 15″ screen like mine do. You can read the details of my shopping for a new laptop in this post on my Applepeels blog. I ended up making the decision to order a new Windows laptop and start looking for a used Mac laptop to meet my traveling Mac needs. I was appalled to find that the entry-level $999 MacBook air doesn’t even have a SD slot for getting photos from your camera to the computer.
However, if you can afford a Mac, and it feels like your life will be better with one, don’t hesitate to buy one. You will likely love it. There are no products out there that match the fit and finish of Macs. You might get some technology that is so leading edge like Thunderbolt that you don’t know what to do with it. However, there are some technologies like Blu-ray that won’t be there. In the Apple world, Apple decides what you need.
However, it you cannot afford a Mac, you can do quite well with Windows 7 running on one of Intel’s new I series processors. Given a minimum of 4 gigs of ram, they are very fast, and Windows 7 is a very stable operating system. I actually like it better than OS X for several things. Of course Mac OSX has it strengths also. It just depends on what you do with your computer as to which OS is the best for you.
If you are buying a Windows system, read the reviews and try to buy from a company that has a good hardware reputation. I have had good luck with Dell and HP. For my next system I am trying Lenovo. I was pleased that their customer service rep who handled my order was actually located in North Carolina.
Your life on the web with Windows 7 will not be any different from that of a Mac user. You might have a little more choice in a number of areas, and maybe like me, you will be able to say that your Windows computer only cost you $1.38 per day and still has some residual value.
My Mac laptops come in at only $1.52 per day which really is only pennies more per day. The difference is that all of the Mac laptops that I have bought in the last eight years are dead and usable only for parts. Two of my three Windows laptop computers bought in the same period are still working. The one that is dead got a cracked screen from one of my daughter’s dogs sitting on it.
Of course with a generic Windows machine, you won’t have the image that goes with using a Mac, but in 2012 many people just want stuff to work, and these days a lot of this stuff works pretty well especially if you can humanize it a little with a local expert to help you with your questions.
Five years ago if you had asked me what computer to buy, it would have taken a lot of questions to figure that out. Today you are pretty safe either with a Windows 7 computer or a Macintosh computer.