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Saturday, February 16, 2008

What is An Operating System or "OS" - A plain English explanation

What is an operating system? In this article I'm going to help you finally make sense of what for most people is one of the most confusing and least understood computer terms around: "operating system", or "OS".

This is actually a pretty easy idea to get when it's explained right.

Now what is an operating system, or OS? First off, it's is a type of software. To recap my explanation from my last newsletter article:

"Software" is all of the parts of the computer that you can't really see or touch. Software would include things like Microsoft Word, your email program, Windows or the Mac OS, plus all of your personal files like letters, photos, music, and more.

One way to think about it is like this: hardware is like your brain, the physical part of your body, while software is like your mind or your thoughts -- the non-physical part of yourself.

Software runs on hardware, just like your thoughts "run on" your brain.

Make sense? So let's get to the OS specifically.

First off, let me give a couple of examples: the two best known operating systems right now are Windows, and Mac OS X (pronounced "Oh Ess Ten" -- as in the Roman numeral ten).

Windows XP and Windows Vista are a couple different versions of the Windows operating system. While Mac OS 10.4 (also called "Tiger") and the newest Mac OS 10.5 (or "Leopard") are two different versions of Mac OS X.

So what *is* an OS?

Think of it this way: when a baby is born, they have the instinct to eat, breathe, and so on, and also the instinct to watch, listen, and absorb what's going on around them.

In time, a young child learns to talk and walk by learning from others, and as they get older, they also learn more fundamental skills like reading and writing, hand-eye coordination, and so on.

So in other words, they go from being able to do not a lot except eat, sleep, and fill diapers, to physical and mental maturity where they have all the general skills they need to learn more specific skills like driving a car, playing a sport like football, writing a paper for school, working a job, etc.

In many ways, when you turn a computer on, it's just like a newborn baby. It has the ability to turn on, and show an image on the screen, but that's about it.

The only other thing it can do is look at the hard drive, and if there is an operating system installed on it, the computer knows to start running the OS.

That process is called "booting", which is what happens between when you turn the computer on, and when you can actually start using it.

And the best way to think about it is that it's just like a child being born and growing up: the operating system contains the "life experiences" and lessons that give a child all the basic skills like walking, talking, reading, writing, and so on, that make everything else possible.

So in a sense, it's like your computer is born and "grows up" in the space of 30 seconds to a minute or so (or longer for some computers) that it takes to "boot" the operating system.

So in other words, the operating system is like those basic skills we all have and learned as children. More specifically, it's the software on the computer that creates the desktop, the icons on it, moves the little mouse pointer around on the screen when you move your mouse around, lets you view files and open, lets you type, and so on.

Without it, you couldn't do anything with the computer but turn it on and see an error message like "non system disk or disk error" on a Windows PC, or a flashing question mark on a Mac.

So even though a lot of people don't really understand what an OS is, or what it does, you couldn't use your computer without it.

Hope that makes sense.

Until next time, enjoy,

Worth Godwin

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Worth Godwin has been giving people computer help
professionally for over a decade and a half, and as a hobby for years
before that. In the last few years he has focussed on his easy,
plain English approach to help people learn computer basics.

Join Worth's free computer tips newsletter now and get easy to follow emails that give computer tips, make sense of
basic computer terms, and deliver free, Plain English
easy audio and video lessons right to your inbox.

 

Friday, February 15, 2008

What is RAM, What is a Hard Drive: A Plain English Explanation

When it comes to a computer, there are so many computer terms like RAM, megahertz, gigabytes, etc. that people can find confusing. Having a better understanding of some of these terms can help you feel more comfortable using your computer, and ultimately get more out of it.

A lot of people I talk to seem to be apologetic about their lack of knowledge. It's too bad people feel that way; they really shouldn't. What I tell them is that while they may not know as much as I do about computers, there's nothing wrong with that, and they probably know a lot of other things I don't know much about.

All you need is someone who takes the time to explain things to you in a way that makes sense.

One term many people confuse is memory or RAM, and hard drive storage space. RAM stands for Random Access Memory (don't worry, you don't need to remember that!).

It is a temporary working space the computer uses to get work done, which gets emptied when the computer is turned off.

Think of it like a work bench or table. You have a project you're working on and you do your project on the bench and when you're done, you clear it off.

The hard drive is the main place your computer uses to store information. It looks like a rectangular metal box which contains a non-removable disk (as opposed to something like a CD Drive where you can take the disk out).

It is the disk inside the drive which stores everything on your computer -- every picture, every music file, every email, and every Word document. Not only that, but Windows or Mac OS X, the operating system that makes the computer run.

To continue our analogy, think of it as a set of shelves where you store the tools or materials for your project -- when you want to work on something you choose the things you need from the shelves, put them on the bench and work on the project.

This is like when you run a program; the computer loads the program from the hard drive into memory (the temporary working space).

So the larger the shelves, the more you can store -- i.e. the more programs you can have installed, the more songs or pictures or videos you can save on your computer.

Most people with a computer made in the last few years have far larger hard drives than they'll ever use. Few people ever fill them up, unless they are keeping a lot of large files such as sound files or pictures, or especially video files.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If that's true, video is worth at least a million words, and the files can be that much bigger!

If someone tells you you need more memory, or your computer gives you an error message about being low on memory, this usually means you don't have enough RAM. This can slow your computer down drastically.

Think of the bench idea again: if your bench is very small, you can't fit everything you need on it to get your work done, so you're constantly wasting time moving one piece of the project off the bench to make room for the next piece... if you can really work at all.

Both RAM and hard drive space are measured with the same terms: bytes, kilobytes (KB), megabytes (MB), gigabytes (GB), with newer drives even being measured in terabytes (TB). Since both RAM and hard drives are measured in the same way, this may be one reason people confuse the two terms.

You don't need to understand exactly what those terms mean, but understand that each one is basically a thousand times larger than the one before. So a kilobyte is 1,000 times larger than a byte, a megabyte is 1,000 times larger than a kilobyte, a gigabyte is a thousand times later than that, and so on.

The reason you buy a computer one year that has a lot of RAM, and two or three years go by and suddenly someone tells you you don't have enough memory, is because each year the average size of programs, and the amount of memory they need, gets larger.

It's as if the tools you use on your workbench keep growing every year so you eventually have to get a larger bench.

If your computer seems to be running more slowly recently, or you've been having odd errors, it could be that you need to upgrade your memory. This isn't always the source of these problems, but RAM is very inexpensive these days and adding to what your computer has can add life to your Mac or PC.

Hopefully this clears up the meaning of these basic computer terms for you, and made a lot more sense than it used to! To learn more about RAM and memory, read this related article that explains how RAM affects the speed of a computer, and more.

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Worth Godwin has been giving people computer help
professionally for over a decade and a half, and as a hobby for years
before that. In the last few years he has focussed on his easy,
plain English approach to help people learn computer basics.

Join Worth's free computer tips newsletter now and get easy to follow emails that give computer tips, make sense of
basic computer terms, and deliver free, Plain English
easy audio and video lessons right to your inbox.

 

What Is Spyware & Adware and What Is Malware

Has your computer been been running more slowly recently? Has it been crashing? Do you get pop-up ads for no apparent reason?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may have fallen victim to malicious types of programs called "malware", a term which includes both adware and spyware.

Adware (advertising software) is a type of program which delivers ads to your computer screen. These adware programs run in the background whenever your computer is on.

This can be annoying because the ads pop up from nowhere, and often contain offensive images, but can also cause conflicts and potentially crash your computer.

There are several ways these programs can get into your system. In some cases you find a shareware program which, for example, delivers up-to-date weather reports to your computer. You download the program and install it, and while it does give you weather reports, it also watches what websites you visit and based on the profile it builds about you delivers targeted ads to your computer screen.

In other cases, the adware program is a completely separate program which is attached to a a program you choose to install. This is almost universally the case with file-trading programs (see my article on file trading risks).

Many adware programs also get installed just by visiting certain websites, as the sites are designed to take advantage of security holes in your web browser, especially those in Internet Explorer.

An even bigger problem is that many of these hidden programs are also spyware — spyware gather information from your computer.

Most commonly they monitor web sites you visit, but some spyware programs are what is known as "keyloggers," which is short for "keystroke loggers." These programs literally record everything you type into your computer, harvesting passwords, credit card numbers, and social security numbers.

This personal information can then be sent off without your knowledge and can be used for identity theft, potentially embarrassing you or even robbing you of thousands of dollars and your good name and credit.

Having spyware on your system is like inviting a stranger into your home and never noticing as he snoops through your drawers, writes down your credit card numbers, and watches your every move.

Most Windows PCs with internet access turn up one or more of these programs lurking unseen. I would personally estimate 80% or more of the Windows machines I look at have adware or spyware installed. According to Symantec, maker of Norton Internet Security, it may be 91% or more. In most cases, the computer users have absolutely no idea their machine is infected.

Fortunately, there are ways to clean up your system if it is infected, and ways to protect yourself from future infections. There are a number of anti-spyware programs out there, but be warned: many of them are scams which actually install more spyware and adware on your system!

Most people find the easiest way to learn how to get more out of their computer and be safe at the same time, is to be shown, step by step, how to do it. Aside from spyware, there are a lot of threats to Windows users that can be very complicated.

But it can be a lot easier than you think with the right help.

My free computer tips email newsletter explains a lot of this in plain English articles, plus when I made my easy computer lesson CDs, I made a big point of including a lot of my quick, easy step by step video lessons on making it easy to protect your computer whether it's a Mac or Windows PC.

Take a look if you feel you need more help.

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Worth Godwin has been giving people computer help
professionally for over a decade and a half, and as a hobby for years
before that. In the last few years he has focussed on his easy,
plain English approach to help people learn computer basics.

Join Worth's free computer tips newsletter now and get easy to follow emails that give computer tips, make sense of
basic computer terms, and deliver free, Plain English
easy audio and video lessons right to your inbox.

 

What is Shareware & Freeware - Understanding Different Types of Software

There is a huge variety of software available to run on personal computers, from business applications, to games, to screensavers.

Most people are aware of commercial software — software you buy in a box at a store — but many internet users have also heard of shareware and freeware programs.

Freeware, as the name implies, is software you can use for free. It can usually be copied to anyone as long as it’s not changed.

More common is shareware: software that you can also copy freely, but which comes with a trial period after which you are supposed to either pay for it or stop using it.

Some shareware programs will allow only limited features during the trial period to give you a taste of what you can get for the full price, others give you all features but you must wait through a time-delayed message asking you to register. Many of the full-featured shareware programs stop working if you keep trying to use them afer the trial period.

Commercial software tends to be written by a group of professionals with a lot of testing done before release to ensure quality and compatibility. Shareware and freeware, on the other hand, often tends to be written by one or two people in their spare time to make some extra money, to practice their software writing skills, or even as a way to show their skills off to get a job.

Because of these factors, there is a large difference in quality from one program to another, which sometimes means they can cause problems on your system if your download and install them, especially screensavers and programs that are always running in the background.

Downloading, as you may know, is the process of copying a file from a different computer to yours over a network.

It is always important to scan any software you download for viruses — some copies of legitimate programs can be infected by viruses, and creators of viruses sometimes disguise their malicious programs as useful ones.

You also should scan programs to make sure they aren't adware or spyware. If you're not aware of adware and spyware programs, they are malicious programs which can cause problems as serious as viruses and worms. I suggest you read my article on adware and spyware which is elsewhere on this site.

There are, however, some very high quality programs available for download. These include, among many many others, WinZip, Stuffit Expander, GraphicConverter, Apple's iTunes (which runs on both Macs and PCs) and Ad-Aware (a spyware & adware removal tool).

If you're looking for software to download, you can find different programs, rated by other computer users on Shareware.com and Versiontracker.com, and other sites. �

For help on downloading and installing programs, plus tips on avoiding installing risky software, take a look at my basic computer lesson CDs for Windows and Mac.

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Worth Godwin has been giving people computer help
professionally for over a decade and a half, and as a hobby for years
before that. In the last few years he has focussed on his easy,
plain English approach to help people learn computer basics.

Join Worth's free computer tips newsletter now and get easy to follow emails that give computer tips, make sense of
basic computer terms, and deliver free, Plain English
easy audio and video lessons right to your inbox.

 

What is Spam & What Does Spam Stand For - Tips to Avoid Email Spam

I find a lot of people asking me questions like "What is spam?" "What does spam stand for?" In this article, I'm going to explain the term spam where it comes from (what it stands for) and give you a few tips to avoid email spam.

Do you hate spam? I’m not talking about the food, but the seemingly endless stream of annoying commercial emails that flood most people’s inboxes. The content of the messages range from mortgage rates to enlarging various body parts, to pornography, and their numbers grow every day — up to 500 percent in the eighteen months prior to March, 2003. As of April, 2004, over eighty percent of all email was spam. Since then, it's risen as high as 95%!

Spam is named after a classic skit from Monty Python's Flying Circus, which took place in a diner where everything on the menu had spam in it. During the whole skit, a chorus of vikings keeps chanting a song about spam, drowning out conversations.

Yes, it's a little random (that's Monty Python for you) but it's very funny. Years later, the skit reminded someone of how email in your inbox can get lost in all of the junk mail (the conversation gets drowned out by "Spam! Spam! Spam!"), so they started calling junk email "spam" and the name stuck.

It can be hard to avoid getting your email address on somebody’s list. It’s not uncommon for many people to receive 50 to 100 pieces of spam in a single day -- some people get hundreds a day! -- and the problem is growing worse.

Fortunately there are ways for individuals to reduce the amount of spam they get. Here are a few good tips:

  • Never try to unsubscribe or ask to be removed. Those emails may include a link or a reply address to unsubscribe, but 95% either simply don’t work, or you confirm to the spammers that they have a live one.

  • Never order anything advertised in spam, visit the website, or in any way respond to the ad. Every order or inquiry encourages the spammers to send thousands of more ads.

  • Try to avoid entering your email address on dubious websites as much as possible, and if you do, consider getting a second email account with Yahoo mail or a similar service and enter that address instead of your main email. Most websites offering contests, joke lists, free greeting cards, etc. harvest and sell your email address.

  • Never sign an online guestbook. As an experiment a while back, I created a new email address and entered it on about five guestbooks. Within 24 hours I was getting spam, and it grew to dozens a day within a week.

  • Try to avoid opening an unsolicited ad while connected to the internet -- this can alert spammers that they have a live address, so if your email application has a “work offline” option, often found in the file menu, select it before opening suspect emails, or disconnect from the internet entirely.
    If you use a web-based email service like Yahoo Mail, check your mail options for a setting to turn off graphics in emails, or to display mail in plain text only. This keeps the spammers from knowing you've opened the message.

  • Avoid forwarding emails to large numbers of people: Not everyone realizes that when you forward a message, the email addresses of everyone who receives the message is visible to every person who reads it.

    If any of the recipients is a spammer, or if one of a friend's computer is infected by certain viruses, they can harvest all of those addresses, including yours.

    If you do send an email to multiple recipients you can avoid revealing email addresses by entering addresses in the BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) area instead of To or CC — this will hide the list of addresses from everyone else.

    You should also copy and paste just the message into a new message window rather than hitting the forward button — this trims the message down and protects the privacy of others.
As for dealing with the spam you already receive, most email programs allow you to create “filters” or “rules” that move incoming email into a specified folder or even right into the trash.

Setting filters up can be complicated, but the newer versions of many email programs, including Mozilla Thunderbird and Mac OS X Mail make it much easier. The programs have a free spam blocker built right in, and recognize patterns in spam, and use your address book as a white list of legit senders.

Any spam that shows up in your inbox can be marked (and automatically deleted) with a click, and the more spam you mark, the better the program gets at automatically taking care of them so you end up seeing a lot less junk than you used to.

Many internet providers also provide a free spam blocker which filters email before it gets to your computer. The problem with this is that they often block legitimate mail and you may never know about it. Because of this, I recommend using filtering software on your own computer, such as the above mentioned programs.

Ultimately, spam is a fact of modern life, and isn't entirely avoidable. If your current email address is about to collapse from the amount of spam you get, you might be forced to get a new one. After that, if you follow the tips above, you'll have a good chance of keeping it under control.

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Worth Godwin has been giving people computer help
professionally for over a decade and a half, and as a hobby for years
before that. In the last few years he has focussed on his easy,
plain English approach to help people learn computer basics.

Join Worth's free computer tips newsletter now and get easy to follow emails that give computer tips, make sense of
basic computer terms, and deliver free, Plain English
easy audio and video lessons right to your inbox.

 

How Does Wifi Work - Wireless Internet Access Comparision & Security Explained

Not too long ago, most people hadn't heard of wireless Internet access, but these days, it's commonplace.

There are two basic types of wireless Internet connections. The first is through a cell phone network, which is used by a growing number of people for browsing the web and checking email through smart phones and PDA devices such as a Blackberry or an iPhone.

This works pretty much anywhere you get cell reception.

If you're using a computer to browse the web or check your email, it's more common to use a Wi-Fi connection -- what most people think of as wireless internet.

It basically works like a portable phone in your home. You have the cradle that you plug into the phone line, and the handset works anywhere within range of the radio signal it's sending.

This is exactly how a wireless router works -- the router is hooked up to an internet connection, and broadcasts the signal to a wireless card in your computer (or sometimes a little device you plug into the computer).

So the router is like the portable phone's cradle, and the wireless card is like the handset.

Does that make sense?

There are a lot of advantages to using wireless internet. Using wireless internet lets you put your computer in a different room of the house from where the internet connection is, or roam from room to room if you have a laptop. It also lets you have more than one computer share the internet connection.

And of course, if you have a laptop, you can take it with you during the day or on a trip, and can find a lot of places where you can use the internet, often for free.

But there are some risks to using wireless internet. Using wireless internet can open your computer up to a lot of possible risks.

Whenever you connect to a router, either through wires or wirelessly, you are connecting to a network, which is then connected to the internet (which is just a very very big network).

With a wired network, if someone wants to join the network, they have to plug in. With wireless networks, unless the network is protected by security, anybody nearby can connect.

From time to time, I use a program to "sniff" out unprotected networks. There are many programs like this that anyone with a little knowledge can download for free. I simply drive around town with my laptop in the passenger seat running the program, and it constantly looks for any open networks.

When my computer finds one, it beeps at me and I can get instantly in with a couple of clicks.

This is something called "Wardriving" and people do it all the time. Most are doing it just to check their email quickly while on the road without having to pay at an internet cafe, but some are doing it for more sinister purposes.

Leaving your network open is just as dangerous as keeping filing cabinets full of personal or business information sitting open on the street next to a sign reading: “Take what you want.”

With a traditional wired network, a person needs to physically plug in a cable inside your home or office to get into your network. With a wireless network, unless it’s protected, anyone within range can get into your network with a click of a mouse. Once they’re in they could:

  • Use your internet connection for free

  • Look at the contents of your hard drive and read, change, or delete email, pictures, Word documents and other personal files, business information, and confidential client information including social security numbers, credit card numbers, etc.

  • Use the information collected about you or your customers for identity theft. This could cost you thousands of dollars in lost credit and time rebuilding your name, or thousands more if a customer sues you for giving out their information

  • Send spam (junk email) to thousands or millions of people while making it seem to come from you

  • Take control of your network, locking you out of it and the internet (both email and web pages)

  • Install a virus, worm, or a backdoor program giving them control of your computer

  • Do illegal music trading over the internet, drastically slowing down your connection and making it look like you are the file trader. The recording industry is currently suing file traders for an average of $3,000 per lawsuit

  • View porn sites, including potentially child porn, which could get you arrested if it's traced back to your network.

You must realize by now how important it is to act now to protect your network. If you don’t you risk losing your name, your reputation, and even thousands of dollars. Fact is, if you have a wireless router (most routers sold these days are wireless even if you aren't using them wirelessly) and you just plugged it in and started using it then 99% likely you are not safe.

Your home or office wireless network should always have "encryption" turned on, which is like a home security system that only gives access to someone with the right password. They're not impossible to break into, but they make it too hard for most people.

If you use your laptop in a public network like at an internet cafe or other public wireless hotspot (whether or not you have to pay to use it), you run many of the same risks, especially if you don't have a firewall turned on, aren't using good enough (or any) antivirus software, and more.

Understanding all the important factors in protecting your computer's security is absolutely critical these days. Most people using computers are in danger without even knowing it. Make sure to educate yourself and keep yourself safe.

One way to do that is to subscribe to my free computer tips newsletter, or go one step better and learn from my easy computer tutorial CDs that show you step by step the basics of using your computer and keeping it secure from a variety of threats.

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Worth Godwin has been giving people computer help
professionally for over a decade and a half, and as a hobby for years
before that. In the last few years he has focussed on his easy,
plain English approach to help people learn computer basics.

Join Worth's free computer tips newsletter now and get easy to follow emails that give computer tips, make sense of
basic computer terms, and deliver free, Plain English
easy audio and video lessons right to your inbox.

 

Sunday, November 11, 2007

What is a definition of the World Wide Web & who started the phrase World Wide Web

What is a definition of the World Wide Web & who started the phrase World Wide Web

In this article I'm going to address two related questions I've gotten: "what is a definition of the world wide web" and "who started the phrase world wide web".

First off, let me give you a definition of the World Wide Web -- which these days is usually just called The Web.

The Web is made up of millions and millions of pages of information that are linked together across the globe.

When you look at a web page, which you're probably doing right now (unless you're reading this in my free computer email newsletter and not on my archive of my computer articles or on one of the free article sites I've submitted the article to) you'll find that the page has "links" that you click on to take you to different pages.

If you could see a picture of all of the web pages on the Internet, you could imagine that it might look like a spider web, with many strands connecting one point to another.

This is just how a guy named Tim Berners-Lee imagined it when he came up with the phrase World Wide Web. The links are the strands, and the web pages are the points where the strands come together.

Tim Berners-Lee, with help from a man named Robert Cailliau, created the Web based on something called "hypertext".

Hypertext was an idea where you could have "hyperlinks" (which we now just call "links") that would allow you to read information and easily move between related topics.

So if you were reading about, for example, the first printing press, the Gutenberg Bible would probably be mentioned because it's one of the best-known books to be printed on the first printing presses.

With hypertext, when you saw the words Gutenberg Bible, they would be a link to an article that would go into more detail about that book.

Berners-Lee wanted to bring this idea to the Internet, allowing people to "browse" around, using these links to move from one place to another.

Before this, you had to go to a specific address, then go to another specific address, and not browse the way we are used to today.

And as you've probably guessed by now, Berners-Lee was the person who started the phrase World Wide Web in the first place.

So another way to explain what is a definition of the World Wide Web is a way of looking at the Internet as a series of "pages" of information -- words, pictures, sounds, or video -- that link from one to another to another, forming a giant "web" of information that covers and connects the world.

One more point, to clarify a common misunderstanding. The Web is *part* of the Internet, just like email is *part* of the Internet -- a lot of people think the Internet is exactly the same thing as the Web, and that email is somehow completely separate from the Internet. This is not the case.

I have another article, available by clicking the following link which explains the computer terms Internet and email, if you need more help with those computer terms.

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Worth Godwin has been giving people computer help
professionally for over a decade and a half, and as a hobby for years
before that. In the last few years he has focussed on his easy,
plain English approach to help people learn computer basics.

Join Worth's free computer tips newsletter now and get easy to follow emails that give computer tips, make sense of
basic computer terms, and deliver free, Plain English
easy audio and video lessons right to your inbox.

 

Monday, October 29, 2007

Computer terms explained: Understanding what a "OS" or "Operating System" is

OK, in this article I'm going to help you finally make sense of what for most people is one of the most confusing and least understood computer terms around: "operating system", or "OS".

This is actually a pretty easy idea to get when it's explained right.

Now an operating system, or OS, is a type of software.

To recap my explanation from my last newsletter article:

"Software" is all of the parts of the computer that you can't really see or touch. Software would include things like Microsoft Word, your email program, Windows or the Mac OS, plus all of your personal files like letters, photos, music, and more.

One way to think about it is like this: hardware is like your brain, the physical part of your body, while software is like your mind or your thoughts -- the non-physical part of yourself.

Software runs on hardware, just like your thoughts "run on" your brain.

Make sense? So let's get to the OS specifically.

First off, let me give a couple of examples: the two best known operating systems right now are Windows, and Mac OS X (pronounced "Oh Ess Ten" -- as in the Roman numeral ten).

Windows XP and Windows Vista are a couple different versions of the Windows operating system. While Mac OS 10.4 (also called "Tiger") and the brand new Mac OS 10.5 (or "Leopard") are two different versions of Mac OS X.

So what *is* an OS?

Think of it this way: when a baby is born, they have the instinct to eat, breathe, and so on, and also the instinct to watch, listen, and absorb what's going on around them.

In time, a young child learns to talk and walk by learning from others, and as they get older, they also learn more fundamental skills like reading and writing, hand-eye coordination, and so on.

So in other words, they go from being able to do not a lot except eat, sleep, and fill diapers, to physical and mental maturity where they have all the general skills they need to learn more specific skills like driving a car, playing a sport like football, writing a paper for school, working a job, etc.

In many ways, when you turn a computer on, it's just like a newborn baby. It has the ability to turn on, and show an image on the screen, but that's about it.

The only other thing it can do is look at the hard drive, and if there is an operating system installed on it, the computer knows to start running the OS.

That process is called "booting", which is what happens between when you turn the computer on, and when you can actually start using it.

And the best way to think about it is that it's just like a child being born and growing up: the operating system contains the "life experiences" and lessons that give a child all the basic skills like walking, talking, reading, writing, and so on, that make everything else possible.

So in a sense, it's like your computer is born and "grows up" in the space of 30 seconds to a minute or so (or longer for some computers) that it takes to "boot" the operating system.

So in other words, the operating system is like those basic skills we all have and learned as children. More specifically, it's the software on the computer that creates the desktop, the icons on it, moves the little mouse pointer around on the screen when you move your mouse around, lets you view files and open, lets you type, and so on.

Without it, you couldn't do anything with the computer but turn it on and see an error message like "non system disk or disk error" on a Windows PC, or a flashing question mark on a Mac.

So even though a lot of people don't really understand what an OS is, or what it does, you couldn't use your computer without it.

Hope that makes sense.

Until next time, enjoy,

Worth Godwin

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Worth Godwin has been giving people computer help
professionally for over a decade and a half, and as a hobby for years
before that. In the last few years he has focussed on his easy,
plain English approach to help people learn computer basics.

Join Worth's free computer tips newsletter now and get easy to follow emails that give computer tips, make sense of
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Monday, October 22, 2007

Understanding the Computer Term: A Driver

In this issue of my computer tips newsletter, I'm going to explain a computer term that, like so many computer terms, isn't very well understood by most people. And in many cases, isn't understood at all.

Of course, as always, remember that's not a criticism -- if you didn't understand what a driver was before this, it's just because it was never explained to you the right way before.

Let's see what I can do to fix that.

A driver is a special type of software that's needed to get different pieces of hardware to work right with your computer.

Didn't make sense yet? Bear with me.

First off, just to make sure we're all on the same page, let me briefly explain the difference between the two basic computer terms "hardware" and "software".

It's actually pretty simple -- "hardware" refers to all of the physical pieces of equipment, like your mouse, your computer's screen (or monitor), the hard drive, etc.

"Software" is all of the parts of the computer that you can't really see or touch. Software would include things like Microsoft Word, your email program, Windows or the Mac OS, plus all of your personal files like letters, photos, music, and more.

One way to think about it is like this: hardware is like your brain, the physical part of your body, while software is like your mind or your thoughts -- the non-physical part of yourself.

Software runs on hardware, just like your thoughts "run on" your brain.

Make sense?

Now let's talk more specifically about drivers. Here's the easy way to think about the computer term driver:

Imagine that every piece of hardware, including your printer, your mouse, and so on, speaks a different language. So one speaks French, another one speaks Italian, another one Cantonese, and so on.

So when you plug in a new printer and turns it on, your computer says "hi" and the printer answers in a foreign language the computer doesn't understand.

So it needs an interpreter.

And when I say interpreter, I mean just like in the real world, like if a foreign diplomat comes to the country but doesn't speak the local language. They need an interpreter to help them communicate with the locals.

That, basically speaking, is what a driver is -- an interpreter that helps your computer talk to a specific piece of equipment. And you need a different interpreter for each piece of equipment (or each general type) that you hook up to the computer.

Make sense?

Now in some cases, the driver may be "preinstalled" on your computer (in other words, the computer already has the interpreter ready and waiting in case it's needed) and in other cases, it needs to either be installed from a CD, or downloaded off the Internet, and then installed on the computer.

But either way, the computer needs that driver before it can talk to the printer or whatever other type of device you may have hooked up to the computer.

Hope that makes sense.

Until next time, enjoy,

Worth Godwin

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Worth Godwin has been giving people computer help
professionally for over a decade and a half, and as a hobby for years
before that. In the last few years he has focussed on his easy,
plain English approach to help people learn computer basics.

Join Worth's free computer tips newsletter now and get easy to follow emails that give computer tips, make sense of
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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Understanding the Computer Terms Web, Internet & Email

In this article I want to help you understand the computer terms Web, Internet, and Email.

Now you may think you know what these computer terms mean, but I've found that in fact, most people misuse and misunderstand 2 or 3 of those words every day!

Now please understand me -- it's not your fault if you sometimes get computer terminology wrong. It's just never been explained to you the right way for you to really get it, and chances are, you've been hearing other people misuse the terms too, since it's pretty common to mix them up.

Let me see if I can make it easier for you.

Let's start with email -- this is the one that most people get basically right, although they still misunderstand one important thing about it (more on that in a minute).

Email is, of course, "electronic mail" -- a pretty simple concept to get. Its the computer equivalent of a traditional letter. Traditional mail through the post office is often called "snail mail" these days because it takes days to get to the person you're sending it to, unlike email which can take seconds (although sometimes can take hours).

Even snail mail is pretty amazingly fast compared to how it used to be back in the day, when it could take weeks or months to get to someone.

Just like regular mail, email has a sort of post office that it goes through - something called a "mail server".

There are two types of mail server - POP and SMTP. But I prefer to use the terms incoming and outgoing because it makes more sense than the technical terms.

Don't worry about what the letters POP and SMTP stand for. Just remember:

POP = incoming, for mail that's coming in to you

and

SMTP = outgoing, for the email you're sending out.

Let's talk about the word "Web" now.

The Web is what most people think of as "the Internet" -- it's the web pages, or pages of words, pictures, and sometimes sounds and videos even, which you go and visit using your "web browser".

A web browser is just a program that lets you look at web pages -- most Windows people click on the blue E, which is Internet Explorer (made by Microsoft and given away with every copy of Windows, which is why most people use it. NOT because it's the best option).

Most Mac people with fairly new Macs use Apple's web browser Safari, which looks like a little compass.

Other people, both Mac users and Windows users, use a different program called Mozilla Firefox.

For a lot of good reasons, I strongly strongly recommend that Windows users do NOT use "the blue E" -- Internet Explorer -- the main reason is because it is very unsafe and is almost a guarantee that your PC will get infected with something nasty.

Mac users should not use "the blue E" (Internet Explorer) either, but more because it's very out of date and just doesn't work with many modern websites anymore.

One way to think of a web browser is like a car that lets you drive around on the "information super-highway" as they used to call the Web back in the 90s.

Some brands of cars are safer than others -- you could almost think of Internet Explorer as one of those old Poison Pintos, and Mozilla Firefox as a Volvo -- not a guarantee to save you from harm, but a lot safer than a Pinto!

One point of confusion some people have is that sometimes you can use web browsers to read your email. Like if you use Yahoo mail or Hotmail.

In that case, you are looking at your email through what's called "webmail" because you are using Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, or Apple's Safari to view your mail.

It's kind of like going to the post office and reading your mail there. Throwing some of it away, and then putting the stuff you want to keep back in the post office box for storage.

Using an email program like Outlook, Mozilla Thunderbird, Eudora, or Apple's OS X Mail, is more like reading your mail at home, and storing the stuff you want to keep at home instead of at the post office.

Now let's talk about the last term: the Internet.

This may be, out of the three terms I've been talking about, the one that is most mis-used.

Here's the thing: the Internet contains BOTH the Web AND email.

But many many people, probably most people in fact, talk as if the Internet was a separate thing from email or the web, when in fact the web and email are both just *parts* of the Internet.

Or another way to put it is that the web and email are just certain ways of looking at all of the information that's available on the Internet as a whole.

The Internet is really just a big "network" of interconnected computers that talk to each other and share information. Some of it is presented as web pages, some of it as email, and so on.

Hope that all makes sense.

Thanks for reading,

Worth Godwin

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Worth Godwin has been giving people computer help
professionally for over a decade and a half, and as a hobby for years
before that. In the last few years he has focussed on his easy,
plain English approach to help people learn computer basics.

Join Worth's free computer tips newsletter now and get easy to follow emails that give computer tips, make sense of
basic computer terms, and deliver free, Plain English
easy audio and video lessons right to your inbox.