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Help and information:

Free and open source software:

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Computer Help - General Information

Where to find help and information

This section is a carefully selected set of pointers to some really good stuff.

The gold cup symbol indicates an outstandingly good site.

Absolute Beginners Guide from the BBC
This animated guide tells you (and shows you) the really basic stuff that everyone assumes you know (because you are psychic, presumably).
Have you every wondered where the "Enter" key was on a keyboard that doesn't have the word "Enter" written anywhere on it?
If so - run yourself through this animated guide!
Basics of computing or computer help for people over 50
This is exactly what it says it is.
Although it is aimed at over 50's, anyone who is mystified by computers will find this really helpful.
Gold Award symbol
Wiredguide - helps you to find help!
A beginner's guide to computer help, internet help and general computing interest from chat to shareware”.
Actually it is a comprehensive and carefully selected collection of very useful links - and not just for beginners. What you see when you first arrive at the site is just the tip of the iceberg!
Its section called Instruction is where you can find the knowledge you need about all kinds of things to do with general computing and using the internet, including browsers, downloading and e-mail.
PC resources or Mac resources is where you can find sources of help and information on anything to do with your type of computer (if you're not sure, assume it's a PC rather than a Mac). You can e-mail the site if you can't find something, and they'll do the research for you. And you will also find lots of good stuff on products (books), search engines, tips, and terms.
This web page would be much bigger if it weren't for the presence of this site. Great stuff.
Gold Award symbol
Wikipedia
If you want to know anything about computers or software, or anything else come to that, try looking it up here. This is the greatest free knowledge resource in the world.
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Black Viper's Operating System Guides
This is just part of a really useful site that provides great help on all kinds of software topics. Its home page is here.
XP users will find a vast amount of useful information if they start here.
Windows 7 Users (or prospective users) should also start here, and see also my notes on Windows 7 below. But there's lots more good stuff, including stuff on Vista and Windows 8.
Pilot's Assistant Directory
If you use your PC for flight simulation, this is a free information resource of my own that is full of stuff that may help you.
Even if you're not a flight simmer, you might still find some useful stuff there - particularly towards the end of the directory.

Free and open source software

You don't have to buy Microsoft Office software; you can get the equivalent for free from www.openoffice.org.

As well as doing everything that Microsoft Office does (and doing it better, in some cases), you can use it with any existing Microsoft Office documents that you have or that people send you.

You won't face a steep learning curve. If you are used to Microsoft Office then you will be quite at home with OpenOffice.

If you already have Microsoft Office, and you want to experiment with OpenOffice, then there is no problem. Installing OpenOffice does absolutely nothing to your existing Microsoft Office setup, and you can go on using the Microsoft software just as you did before.

This software runs not just on Microsoft Windows, but on a number of other platforms.

OpenOffice is part of the open source initiative, which seems to be gaining ground at present.

You will find lots more free programming resources, free webmasters' resources, free security resources and free utilities at www.thefreecountry.com.

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Windows 7

Windows 7 Logo In November 2010 I was more or less forced to move from Windows XP to Windows 7.

I really liked Windows XP, and had no wish to change - but having done so, I am a total convert to Windows 7 (and from what I hear, I am fairly lucky to have bypassed Vista - the consensus seems to be that Windows 7 is "Vista done right").

Since I am still getting into Windows 7, I thought it would be useful to capture some useful stuff as I go along. This section is likely to be updated frequently.

Where can I learn quickly about Windows 7?

A good place to start is here.

On the left hand side you'll see Browse A to Z and Browse categories. Click either one to get a quick way in to a lot of useful information, much of it accompanied by short videos.

Where can I really learn about Windows 7?

Windows 7 Book If you are an intermediate or advanced Windows user, or would like to learn to be one, then I can't recommend this book enough. It's comprehensive, accurate, clearly written and laid out - and massive.

I studied it for some time before making the actual transition, and I am very glad indeed that I did.

Click the image for more information.

(Info on the version of this book for Windows XP, which was my Windows "bible" for many years, can be found here.)

Gold Award symbol Also, for expert information on W7's nuts and bolts, and similar information for other operating systems, check out Black Viper's OS Guides, only part of a vast amount of good information on his site.

Which edition of Windows 7 do I need?

There is actually only one edition of W7 supplied by Microsoft. Whichever edition you pay for (most likely Home Premium or Professional) you actually get the most expensive edition (Ultimate), but with the features that you haven't paid for locked.

This is actually a smart move by Microsoft, and benefits both them and you. They only have to support one actual edition, and you can buy (say) Home Premium first and then upgrade very easily just by paying the extra to unlock the extra features using Windows Anytime Upgrade.

You can compare the features of the various editions quickly here.

The most likely question you'll have is:

"What do I get if I upgrade to Windows 7 Professional?"

and the answer isn't entirely obvious. My reason for choosing the Pro edition was to get these two capabilities:

Windows XP Mode
I had several programs on my old XP system that won't run under Windows 7.
The Pro edition lets me download and install (free) a Virtual Machine running Windows XP, as described here - you need to check that your PC's CPU has the necessary features (which in a modern PC it probably does).
Once you have done this, you can run what is effectively another PC with its own software within the Windows 7 environment. It's a virtual PC, but it behaves just like a real one. With the simple legacy applications that I run on my PC I haven't encountered any performance problems, but there is bound to be some performance penalty compared to the real PC (less penalty if you have plenty of memory).
If you haven't run a Virtual PC before, it takes some getting used to, if only because you might not believe it is possible. For example, there is a real copy of Windows XP running inside it, which means you will get asked the usual stuff about automatic upgrades to XP, virus checkers and so on. Don't worry - just treat it like a real XP machine, and accept all the updates to XP that Microsoft offers.
The Virtual PC can see all the disk drives that the real PC has. The Virtual PC shares the same internet connection as the real one, and you can copy and paste stuff between the two machines, which is very handy.
  • A tip for using the Windows XP Mode Virtual Machine
  • Always run it with its window maximised. Otherwise it is really easy to close the Virtual Machine by mistake, when you really meant to close one of the programs inside it - which can cause problems.
File Encryption
Another (less advertised) feature that the Pro edition offers is file encryption.
This allows you to apply a strong encryption to any hierarchy of folders and files, or to a single file, providing that the disk is running the NTFS file system.
With Windows 7, your normal hard drive is almost certainly running NTFS; if you are offered a choice as to which file system you want on an external drive, you should format it for NTFS.
You encrypt files by right-clicking a folder or a file and selecting Advanced on the General tab. Tick the box Encrypt contents to secure data, then OK, then OK again.
When you first do this, a digital encryption certificate is generated, which you need to back up to a very safe place. The only person who can read the files is you, as represented by the W7 account from which you did the encrypting (which you password-protected, yes?).
In normal use, you are unaware that the files are encrypted - you can access them just like any other files. You can tell which files are encrypted because by default their icons appear in green.
If you lose the PC or the external drive, nobody else using a different account (including you) can read those files without the encryption certificate, so keep it safe!

What's different about Windows 7?

I am really comparing Windows 7 with Windows XP (having skipped Vista, a good thing by most accounts). I moved from XP to W7 on the same hardware, an Intel dual-core i5 CPU based machine with 4G memory.

What has struck me so far about Windows 7, as a replacement for Windows XP, is:

Usability
Compared to Windows XP, almost everything you need to get to is more logically and compactly laid out.
For example, the Taskbar is greatly improved, and how to personalize all kinds of stuff from folder options to desktop options can be found in one place via the Control Panel (under "Personalization").
Search options everywhere make it unnecessary to dig down hierarchies to find stuff. For example, if you want to defragment the disk, just type a few letters "defr" into the Control Panel search box and you're there (and you can set up a schedule for defragmenting in the same place as actually doing the job).
Libraries make it really easy to find related stuff (for example, everything in various folders that I need to maintain this web site) and get to it all from one place. A library is actually a set of one or more pointers (shortcuts) to actual folders, but you can use a library as if all of its related folders were actually contained within it.
  • A hidden benefit of libraries...
  • If you use Windows 7 Backup, as I recommend that you do, then any folder that you add to any library will automatically be backed up when your scheduled backup runs.
Picture of cross owl One thing that I had trouble with was the whereabouts of My Network Places, which I use for getting easy access to my Web Site files using FTP.
More about that here on my page about creating web sites.
Backup and Recovery
The bad news is that Windows 7's Backup facility will NOT recover files from .bkf files created by Window XP's backup facility.
The good news is that Window 7's backup and restore facility really rocks. This is something that you really need to learn to use properly (I recommend learning from this book).
Performance and reliability
Windows 7 is significantly faster than Windows XP on my PC, partly because it takes more advantage of the dual-core processor. Microsoft summarises some other reasons for performance improvement here.
My only experience of trouble (and troubleshooting) so far was the PC coming out of a sleep state with the router connection dropped out. I right-clicked the connection, took up Window 7's invitation to fix the problem, and Windows 7 identified the problem and fixed it.
 
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Some additional tips for Windows users

Here are a few tips that I find many people don't know, even people who have used Windows a lot.

Dragging items to a hidden window
If you want to drag information between windows, and the destination window (or the part of it that you want) is not visible, drag the source information to the icon on the taskbar that represents the destination window, but don't release the mouse button.
The destination window will then appear on top, you can continue moving the mouse and drop the information where you want.
As usual, if you hold the right mouse button down as you drag, you'll get different options (move, copy, cancel) when you let go.
Increasing the screen font size
One easy way to magnify (or shrink) the screen font size is to hold down the Control key while rolling the mouse wheel. This works for many applications.
Deep refresh
Sometimes you don't see what you expect to see on a web page... in which case what you are looking at could be coming from a "cache" in your computer, or somewhere between your computer and the actual web site.
In order to refresh all the way from the original source, press Control+F5 - this works in Internet Explorer and Firefox and may work in other browsers.
Taking a screenshot
Most people know that the badly-named PrintScrn key puts a copy of the screen contents onto the clipboard - but it's surprising how many people don't.
You can then open a program that will accept images (e.g. a Paint program, or a word processor) and paste the image into it.
Even fewer people know that Alt+PrintScrn copies just the active window, which is handy for reporting errors and writing user guides.
  • Lots more tips...
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The Kindle Fire HD

One of many screensavers on the Kindle Fire HD (with the ad-free option), each screensaver representing a different kind of content. The real display is much sharper than I can make it appear here. Click the image for my full review with notes.

This was my first touch-screen device (my mobile phone is appreciating in value as an antique!). I bought it because I wanted an affordable entertainment and Skype device that would also connect to a TV and let me try services like LOVEFiLM, as well as being a big-enough tablet to browse the web and get me familiar with Android and touch screen stuff.

The other selling point, for me, was the advertised dual-antenna Wi-Fi connection, as our existing non-touch Kindles sometimes struggle with our router signal. I already have a whole library of Kindle books, and other free documents that we read our existing Kindles, and I was interested in seeing the difference on the Kindle Fire HD with colour, different navigation and a white background.

For anyone interested, I have posted a full review on Amazon, which you will find here, including some hopefully useful information on problems and solutions encountered.

If anyone out there has one of these devices, I would be very interested in knowing about your experiences!

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Some important technical definitions (just for fun)

Thanks to my StumbleUpon friend Alison for finding this!

Cartoon Cartoon

We still don't know who the original author of this cartoon is - if anyone does, please let me know!

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