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THE BASICS


What Can A Computer Do For You?



Does your desk look like this?

Making the most out of a personal computer (PC) can eliminate the clutter and confusion of everyday life. It can replace the daily planner, address book, phone book, calendar, notepad, files, folders, papers and more. You can use your PC to watch TV and DVDs, listen to music or the radio, organize your photographs, send mail and even call long distance. It is the goal of the Senior's Guide to Computers to show you how to do all of this with the least amount of strain and frustration and in plain English. Before we do that, let's compare the different parts of a personal computer to their real-life counterparts found in most offices.

The CPU
"If I Only Had a Brain"


The Central Processing Unit (CPU) is the computer's brain. It is not as fast or as powerful as the human brain but it does something that the human brain cannot do. It blindly processes millions of instructions per second consistently and correctly and remembers the results. In this respect, the computer is a rather dumb machine. It processes all of this information but has no idea what it all means.

The two major manufacturers of CPUs are Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). Both make excellent integrated circuits (chips) and feature outstanding performance.


"Two Heads Are Better Than One"


Many computers today are coming equipped with dual core CPUs. A dual core CPU refers to a CPU that includes two complete processors in a single integrated circuit (chip). Dual core processors are well-suited for multitasking environments because there are two complete execution cores (brains) instead of one.

Are two heads better than one? In this case, absolutely. Especially if you're doing extensive video work or playing demanding games. Do you really need a dual core CPU to perform the majority of PC tasks? No, probably not. It all depends on what you use your computer for.

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RAM
"Thanks for the Memories"


Random Access Memory (RAM) refers to data storage that can be accessed in any order or randomly. RAM in a computer is considered main memory or the working area used for displaying and working with data...sort of like your desk. You open up all of your files, papers, reports, etc. and place them on your desk to work on. RAM performs the same function.

This type of memory comes in sticks and are about the size of a few sticks of gum. Most PCs have slots for adding and replacing RAM. RAM can be both written to and read from. RAM is erased when a computer is shut down effectively clearing your desk.

How much RAM do you need? Next to the CPU, RAM is the most important factor in computer performance. If you are running Windows XP, Microsoft recommends 128MB (megabytes) as the minimum RAM requirement. This is not really an adequate amount for Windows XP. For optimal performance with standard desktop applications, 512MB is recommended. If you are running Windows 95/98 (and you shouldn't be), you need a bare minimum of 128MB. Again, video-intensive work or gaming requires more than normal amounts of RAM perhaps 1-2GB (gigabytes).

What does all this byte stuff mean?
Here's the deal (and it applies to both RAM and hard drives):

  • The smallest unit of memory storage is called a BIT. A bit either contains a ONE or a ZERO. That's it.
  • Eight bits is one BYTE ("bite"). That's enough storage for about one letter of the alphabet.
  • 1,024 bytes is one KILOBYTE (KB) or about one page of text.
  • 1,024 kilobytes is one MEGABYTE (MB) or about 1,000 pages of text.
  • 1,024 megabytes is one GIGABYTE (GB) or about 1,000,000 pages of text.

OK, so now everybody understands about bits and bytes, right? No? Hey, you know what? It doesn't matter! Forget about it. All you need to know is that you have enough MEGABYTES of RAM (which for Windows XP is 512 MB). Hard drive storage is measured in gigabytes (GB) and we'll discuss that in the next section.

Other types of computer memory that we don't really need to care about:
ROM stands for Read Only Memory". This memory holds all the basic instructions the computer needs to do very simple stuff, such as making the letter "X" appear on the monitor when you press the "X" key. This memory cannot be changed, so losing power does not affect it.

CMOS stands for Complementary-symmetry/Metal-Oxide Semiconductor! Sounds impressive, huh? Don't even try to remember that. It stores information about your computer system as well as the current date and time. Like RAM, this memory needs electricity to keep working, but it only needs a very small amount. A small battery will keep it running for 4-5 years. If the CMOS battery dies, your computer may not start up correctly. You will have to have the battery replaced, and, you will probably have to re-enter the setup information about your computer system. But by that time computers will probably cost about $9.99 so just buy a new one.

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HARD DRIVES
"Now Where Did I File That?"


Every item on your computer -- documents, photos, videos, music, email, programs, etc. -- is made up of one or more files. These files are always grouped in folders and make up your directory. Groups of folders, called sub-folders, are often filed together in another folder -- just like your filing cabinet. This "filing cabinet" on your computer is called a hard drive.

Figure 1-1

You can see how this looks on your hard drive in several ways. One way is to use your mouse and right-click on the START button in the lower left corner of your screen and then left-click on "Explore" (see Figure 1-1).

What you will see is a tree-like diagram similar to Figure 1-2. We have clicked on a folder called "Program Files" and then clicked on folders called "Adobe", "Acrobat 7.0", and finally "Acrobat". The left side of Explorer shows all the folders and the right side shows us the contents of the highlighted folder ("Acrobat"). As you can see, the contents of the "Acrobat" folder contains even more sub-folders and individual files.

Click here to see an animated demonstration of the "Explore" button. - The directory structure on your computer will probably look different but the Explore button works the same way.



Figure 1-2

The hard drive is a permanent storage device. It's called permanent because, unlike RAM, the data remains on the hard drive even if your computer is turned off. However, hard drives will eventually fail. That's why it's so important that you make copies of your important data. This is called backing up and we have a whole section devoted to that topic.

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PRINTERS
"I'll Have the Combination Plate"


There are literally hundreds of printers available today. Unless you have a compelling need for a separate printer, fax machine, scanner and photocopier, I recommend one of the fine multi-function printers available. I personally use the Canon MX850 all-in-one printer. It serves as a printer, fax machine, scanner and photocopier. All you need is a PC and a phone line.

Some other reliable printer manufacturers are Epson, HP and Lexmark.

For detailed information on printers, visit our hardware page.

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KEYBOARD
"What's a "QWERTY"?"


Basic keyboard layouts haven't really changed in the last 100 years. If you "hunt-and-pecked" on a typewriter, then you'll "hunt-and-peck" on a computer keyboard. You'll be glad to know that this entire web site was created using only four fingers (some of them even mine).

For a detailed outline of the keyboard, visit our hardware page.

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MODEM
"The World Wide Wait"

A modem allows your computer to connect to another computer using the normal telephone line. (Usually, you can't use the telephone when the computer is using the line, or the other way around.) Modems can send data at up to 56,000 bits per second. That's more than 5,000 bytes (or letters) per second. Many people still connect to the Internet home through a modem using dial-up although this is not recommended. More and more people are now accessing the Internet via a high-speed broadband connection such as a cable modem or a Digital Subscriber Line (DSL). A broadband connection is necessary to fully enjoy all of the multimedia features available on the Internet. DSL and cable modem service is available today at prices that are extremely competitive with dial-up service.

File this under "who cares?" - Modem stands for Modulator-Demodulator.

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