NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article
That New Holiday Computer
by Ira Wilsker, March 2002
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This holiday season, many of you are giving or receiving a computer as a gift. They make great, but pricey, gifts. Generally, they work fine out of the box, but are lacking many useful software products and peripherals. With many of the local retailers having both pre- and post-Christmas sales, there will likely be some useful goodies available to go along with the new holiday computer (or the not-so-new one previously owned).

Most new computers do not come with any meaningful virus protection. Viruses, and their cousins worms and Trojans, have been the most frequent topic in this column. At COMDEX last month, one of the leading publishers of antivirus software stated to our group that fully 40% of household PCs totally lack any virus protection, and another 40% have antivirus software that is more than a month out of date. Since dangerous viruses are becoming an even greater threat, good antivirus software is imperative. Some of the better programs can be scheduled to auto-update as often as daily (strongly recommended). I use Panda Antivirus Platinum, which is available from some of the local stores or online (http://www.pandasoftware.com), and have it scheduled to auto-update at 8 p.m. every evening. As I have stated many times before, check the Sunday sale books for bargains on the software, as the major titles are frequently available very reasonably, or for free, after rebates.

Another very useful item for a new computer is good Internet access. Locally, broadband (high speed) Internet service is available, along with some excellent local Internet service providers (ISPs). We have DSL service widely (but not universally) available from most of our local ISPs, and the new cable Internet service is being heavily advertised. While somewhat pricey, broadband can easily spoil anyone who has ever tried it. Despite the growing availability of broadband, traditional dialup service is still far more popular due to typical price advantages, and the fact that broadband is still not universally available. The local ISPs generally offer superior and faster service than the heavily advertised national providers, usually at a much lower price. Even in the same price range, the local ISPs typically offer better service than the big national providers, which is well worth it. Consider signing up the new computer and its owner with a local ISP or broadband provider, and enhance the users computing experience. If broadband is purchased, then also get a firewall. This restricts unauthorized access from hackers. Several commercial titles are available in the local stores, and some new antivirus software includes a firewall, but also consider ZoneAlarm, from http://www.zonelabs.com. It is available for free for personal use.

Good peripherals do not have to cost a lot of money. There is nothing more frustrating for a computer user than having a balky mouse. Most of the time it is not the mouse, but the mouse pad, or lack of a mouse pad. Some of the mouse pads included with new computers are terrible. Buy the new computer a decent mouse pad, preferably one with a wrist pad. My personal favorite is the Belkin mouse pad with the "gel" wrist pad. It is comfortable, and works very well. The gel pad reduces strain and stress on the wrist, and is typically available for under $10. Again, watch the Sunday sale books; they are often in there with a substantial rebate, even free after rebate. I bought one for myself and each of my children.

Most mice are mechanical, and contain a ball and some rollers. A little preventative or routine maintenance can avoid a common frustration. If the mouse pad is dirty, or picks up moisture and body oils from the user, the mouse will work erratically. For under a dollar, a bottle of alcohol and some cotton swabs can be used to clean the ball and rollers in a few minutes, restoring the mouse to pristine operating condition. Look at the bottom of a mechanical mouse, and there will be an arrow showing how to remove the ball. Clean the ball with an alcohol-dampened paper towel, and then use some alcohol-dampened swabs to remove the obvious debris off the rollers. When dry, reassemble the mouse. Finish up by cleaning the pad with the alcohol-dampened paper towel. For less than a dollar, the user now has a gift that will enhance the joy of computing.

Almost everyone has a printer attached to his computer. Some new computers come bundled with a printer, but most do not. Most new printers on the market are color ink-jet models, and all will do satisfactory printing for most household and small business tasks. If printing photos may become a common task, then look at printers with higher resolution (more dots per inch, or "dpi"). If the printer is to be used for business purposes, then print speed may be an issue. One factor that should also be considered is the cost of printer accouterments, such as paper and ink. While regular copy paper may be fine for routine work, ink-jet capable paper tends to be not much more expensive, and often results in a sharper output. Photo grade paper comes in a variety of weights and qualities, but tends to be expensive. When printing photos, a good tip is to print first on plain paper in draft mode (minimize ink usage) and verify the desired output. When satisfied, print in high quality on the more expensive ink-jet photo paper. Ink cartridge cost is another significant factor in printing. Note the cost of ink cartridges and their capacity before buying any printer. If the user is likely to be doing a lot of printing, the availability of generic or third party ink cartridges can significantly lower printing costs. Personally, I will not purchase a printer for which I cannot buy reasonably priced ink cartridges. One of the decent quality universal refill kits may be a good gift as well.

There is no restriction against any non-profit group using the article as long as it is kept in context, with proper credit given to the author. This article is brought to you by the Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an International organization to which this user group belongs. Ira Wilsker is a member of the LIT Computer Resources Group and is on the Board of Advisors for APCUG.. He writes a weekly column for the Examiner. Please let him know if you use this article.

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