On Our Own of Prince George's County

Computer Tips



I just got a new computer.  What will I need?  (Revised Aug. 31, 2015)

by David (Webmaster, OOOPG)

A word processing program

You will probably want a word processing program for letters and other documents.  If your computer came with an office suite*, such as Microsoft Office, then you already have a word processor.  Microsoft's is called Microsoft Word (also known as MS Word or just Word).  There is also WordPerfect, but it's not nearly as popular.  If you don't have a word processing program, don't worry, you have some options.  You can buy yourself a copy of Microsoft Office (or a similar product) and install it on your computer, but if that's too expensive for you, there are some very good word processors and entire office suites that are absolutely free.

You can just go to the product website and download the programs or go to CNET Download.com.  The two most popular and best free office suites are OpenOffice and the similar LibreOffice, which is based on OpenOffice but a little bit more up to date.  (Both are highly compatible with Microsoft Office).

The major benefits of Microsoft Office are that it works well (better than the free products) and is very widely used.  The major benefit of the free ones, besides not costing you anything, is that you can get updates for free products when they become available.  You have to pay for new versions of Microsoft Office.

One thing that is great about learning to use a word processing program is that it is probably the very best way to learn computer concepts.  You open, save, and name files, use the menu, and use the same formatting and editing techniques that apply to most programs -- all in one place.  And the basics are not very difficult to master.

* An office suite is a set of productivity programs that are sold together and work in a similar way.  The programs will usually work together.  A suite may include a word processing program, an accounting spreadsheet, a database program, a slideshow program like PowerPoint, and perhaps programs for drawing and photo viewing and editing.

Security software

Another type of program that you must have is a security program (or programs).  These programs are usually sold as a subscription (generally for one year).  Your computer may have one already installed, but it might have a 30 or 60-day trial version*, or possibly nothing at all.  A security program is designed to block viruses, spyware, and other dangerous programs from infecting your computer (and they can help keep hackers out, too).  If you go onto the Internet to surf the Web or read your email, you are very vulnerable to infections of one kind or another, and they can be very destructive.

Fortunately for you, if you get a security suite or antivirus program and also learn how to be careful online, you have a good chance of avoiding problems.  Good paid for programs are available from Norton (Symantec), Kasperky Lab, Bitdefender, and others .  There are also good free products.  They tend to offer fewer features, but the performance of the top ones are actually better than many of the paid ones (though not the top paid ones).  Top free antivirus programs include Avast!, AVG, and Panda.  (Look for the free versions rather than the paid or free trial versions.)  Security products do many things, and no product is the best at everything, but some are better overall than others.  You may need help picking a product if you're a novice.  Not every product works well with every computer.

Reading about security software can be very confusing, but there are articles on the Internet that summarize the information very well.  One thing you do have to consider is the system requirements of the software.  System requirements refers to what your computer must have in order for the program to work on it.  This includes the minimum processor (CPU) speed, the minimum amount of memory (or RAM), the amount of free space on your hard drive, and the type and version of your Internet browser program (such as Internet Explorer, Firefox, Google Chrome, or Opera).

Some programs only work or work well on faster computers.  A program that gets great reviews but slows your computer to a crawl won't be right for you.  When you see "performance" mentioned in a review of security programs, it usually refers to how quickly the program can scan for viruses, how much it affects the amount of time it takes your computer to boot up, and how much it affects the speed of certain actions.  You want your security program to be thorough and effective, but not if your computer hangs or freezes when you use it.

* Don't let your security software subscription or trial period expire.  Either update your subscription or find a different program.  Your computer should have active protection at all times.

Additional comments about security software

Never have more than one antivirus program or more than one firewall program running at the same time.  That will make your computer less secure and run poorly.

If you are a beginner, it's best to buy a security suite (a program with an antivirus plus a firewall and other modules).  A free antivirus is usually just an antivirus program.  It's best if you use one together with a different kind of security software.  Some people use two or three programs that can work together.  Unless you get help or learn a lot yourself, don't do it this way.  But if you have to go with a free antivirus program, be sure to pick one of the top ones.

If you change to a different security program (not just update an expiring one), you have to first uninstall the old one.


Firewall: a software firewall is a program used to prevent unauthorized access to a computer or network.  A two-way firewall can also prevent malware (any dangerous program) on an infected computer from communicating back to the Internet.  Security suites usually have firewalls included.

Host intrusion prevention system: some firewall programs have an additional security feature called a host intrusion prevention system (HIPS), which alerts users when a program attempts to make changes to systems or settings.  Computer expertise is required to use the HIPS component of a firewall safely, but the feature can usually be turned off if desired.

Malware: short for malicious or malevolent software - collective term for viruses, spyware, and other hostile programs.  Today's security programs are designed to help prevent all types.

Note about choosing and downloading application software

There's one good tip that will save you a lot of trouble.  Do some research before putting programs on your computer -- whether you buy them or download them for free.  The number of programs you can get is enormous, but it's probably safe to say that most of them aren't very good -- and many of them are fake and contain viruses or spyware.  The best programs are generally very popular and get lots of reviews online.  But be careful when you want to download a program, even after you decide what you want.  You have to make sure you're getting the program from the real product website or the downloads section of a safe website, such as CNET, PC World, or PC Magazine.  Unfortunately, there are many bogus sites and similar sounding programs.  You could be tricked into downloading spyware instead of the program you want.

It is good practice to scan downloaded software with your antivirus program (if you have one) before installing it.  Select the downloaded file with your mouse and right-click on it.  One of the menu options should be to scan the file.

Surge Protectors

Surge protectors (also called a surge suppressor) protect electrical devices from surges in electrical power.  It is recommended that you always connect your computer equipment to a surge protector.  Portable surge protectors are available for laptops.  APC, Tripp Lite, and Belkin are among the better manufacturers.

Back up Your Data

Sometimes things go wrong, so back up your files.  A very easy to use type of storage device is a USB flash drive.  Just plug it into a one of your computer's USB ports and copy files to it.  You can also use an external hard drive or copy to CDs or DVDs.


How to install a computer program from a CD or DVD

How to activate or register Microsoft programs

How to register Avast! Free Antivirus

When is a computer too old or too or underpowered to be worth owning?  (Revised Apr. 7, 2014)

The answer depends on what you want to do with the computer, but for the most part, a functioning computer is too old (or too underpowered) when it won't allow you to run the programs and use the connected devices (peripherals) you want it to.   The Internet browsers that were popular several years ago won't work well with the Internet content that's available today, and the latest browsers may not work on that old machine.

When this article was first written (in 2012), the availability of good second-hand computers was not as good as it is now.  This year, it is easier to find an old PC that will continue to be useful.

One very important thing to consider is the operating system (version of Windows) the computer has installed on it.  Microsoft has ended its support for Windows XP.  That means that security updates will no longer be available.  Computers running XP should be considered less safe from hackers and viruses than they had been (and XP lacked good security before).  That leaves Windows 7, 8, and 10 as the only good options if you're acquiring a Windows computer.  Windows Vista, which came out after XP (2006), is acceptable but not recommended.  It's okay if you don't have to pay much.  The machine itself may be fine, but using Vista may not be a good experience.  (Most computers that came with Windows XP installed on them can't run newer versions of Windows.  Many computer that came with Windows Vista can.)

Some other considerations are memory (RAM), CPU power, and hard drive space.  The more memory you have, the better.  4 GB is currently a good minimum to consider.  CPU power is important, but there is no simple measure for comparing performance.  The hard drive capacity should be whatever is enough to suit your current and anticipated future needs.

Getting an old computer for free or cheap can be very good.  Just don't expect a computer that can't run modern programs or provide reasonable security to meet your needs.  Look for computers that were manufactured around 2006 or later -- after Windows XP.


If you want to keep your XP computer but don't want to stick with Windows XP, there is one practical option -- you can use an operating system called Linux.  You can obtain Linux for free and either install it or run it from a "live CD" (slower but doesn't change anything on your computer).  You can get versions of Linux that come with many programs included, such as the Firefox Web browser.

Microsoft support for Windows XP ends on April 8, 2014.  After that date, there will be no new security updates or bug fixes.


Operating system: the main program on a computer - performs basic operations and runs other programs (e.g., Microsoft Windows).

CPU: central processing unit, also referred to as the processor - carries out instructions of programs (it's the brains of the computer).

GHz: gigahertz or billion cycles per second - refers to the clock speed of a processor.

RAM: random-access memory - stores information that the computer is currently working on.  The more RAM available, the more information the computer can work on at the same time.


How to create an online email account

How to send an email with an attachment

Some great free programs for your computer  (Jan. 9, 2013)

CutePDF Writer from Acro Software: lets you convert many types of files to PDF (Portable Document Format).  With PDF (developed by Adobe), documents print the way they appear regardless of the software, operating system, or printer used.  There are other programs that you could choose, and some have more features, but CutePDF Writer is reliable and simple to use.

Use CutePDF as if you were printing the document.  It appears in your list of printers.  Give the document a name, and choose a location to save it to.

PDF files are great when you need to email a document because you know how it's going to look and how many pages it's going to have.  With a word processing document, you can't tell.  The installation of CutePDF Writer can be tricky, so read the instructions carefully.

Note: Microsoft Office programs since the 2007 version can save documents as PDF files.  OpenOffice and LibreOffice can, also.

Flash Player
from Adobe: player for watching video and listening to audio on the Internet.  Find and uncheck boxes for optional offers, such as McAfee Security Scan Plus before downloading. (Flash Player is gradually giving way to the HTML5 media player, which is included in Web browsers.)

Free software often comes with an option to install toolbars or additional programs from other companies.  They could be from Google, Yahoo!, Ask, McAfee, or others.  These options are selected by default.  If you don't want these products, be sure to uncheck the boxes for them before you install the software.


How to Update Software (for Beginners)

Is there a computer topic that you would like to see discussed here?

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