a computer blueprint: every answer to every technology question I get

Source: lowendmac.com via Joseph on Pinterest

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Here’s the challenge I set for myself: a post answering the computer questions I get most often, covering everything a person would need to get “set up” (hardware & software). Applications, social networking…literally everything I use is here.

A few more rules: I never use the word “cloud,” because all it means is “on the Web.” I don’t get into the wide world of games; I don’t even mention that one. I don’t get into desktop publishing (e.g. Photoshop), music studio apps, or other niche programs.

I don’t talk about Android apps or home movies because, tragically, I don’t have an Android device or a video camera.

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PREFACE

Today, in 2012, most computers work pretty well most of the time. The interfaces are reasonably simple, and suitable for beginners. The system configurations work fine if you leave all the default settings in place, and they mostly work fine if you change the settings, too. Legal challenges to BitTorrent, Napster, and Gnutella have actually helped steer inexperienced people away from software that hurt their machines.

If you have a computer problem, it’s often a hardware problem, and there’s usually nothing you can do. There are exceptions, of course: for example, sometimes you just have a faulty piece of RAM memory. But the rest of the time, paying for somebody to fix your computer ends up costing nearly as much as buying a completely new machine. (Thanks, workers enduring miserable conditions in China!)

Even so, I get asked a lot of technology questions. Sometimes people ask about getting set up: buying a new computer, buying accessories for it, and such. Most of the time, they ask about the bewildering array of freeware and cheapware (if that’s even a word) that you can download and install. These are the programs that help you do trendy things like “social networking,” “blogging,” and “wasting time.” I’ve actually spent a mind-crushing number of hours digging through David Pogue’s reviews, CNET reviews, and user review sites to find good programs. It was time well-spent, but I want this page to serve as a shortcut. If you have alternate recommendations, disagree with any of what follows, or have follow-up questions, let me know in the comments.

The preliminary section is mostly hardware stuff: computers, tablets, e-readers.

PRELIMINARY

What kind of computer should I buy?
If you can afford a Mac, you should buy one. If you can’t, don’t sweat it. PCs work fine. My main computer is a PC. I’d definitely recommend buying a PC rather than the lowest-end Macs, because Apple makes a point of rendering its own slowest, cheapest machines obsolete.

If you do buy a PC, check out the user reviews on Amazon and Best Buy. None of the brands are that bad or that good. For example, you may have heard good things about Dell. Well, I have a Dell. The RAM they installed in that thing was manufactured by Fisher-Price in an abandoned Toys-R-Us.

What software do I need?
You need to buy Microsoft Office and a computer maintenance program. By “computer maintenance,” I mean something that blocks viruses, keeps your hard drive functional, and manages your backups. Yes, there are free programs that, together, accomplish all these things, but believe me, that’s more effort than it’s worth. You’ll cheat on updating your virus definitions, or you’ll cheat on making regular backups, or etc. And then one day all your nightmares will come true.

I use Norton 360, which works fine, but all of its competitors are also decent. Be warned: all of them try to lock you in to annual subscriptions. Even if you stick with the same company, you’re often best off buying the latest copy of the program instead of renewing your subscription.

Buy the basic version of Office. Outlook is overpriced, and as for “presentation programs” and such…if you can’t do it with PowerPoint, then in my opinion you should conscientiously object to doing it at all. Excel can mimic a database just fine.

What accessories do I need?
You need an external hard drive. I’d recommend something twice the size of your internal hard drive, so that you have plenty of space. You also need a “flash” USB drive, 2GB or larger. Video chat requires a webcam.

If your computer has Bluetooth, it’s better to buy Bluetooth mice and keyboards when possible. Your USB ports are precious. They are like tiny jewels. Never buy a mouse that isn’t either a trackball, a trackpad, or laser/optical.

What about tablets?
They’re awesome. They’re super fun. They don’t replace anything. The very cheapest ones, such as the Kindle Fire, definitely work, but they’re heavier and less of a joy.

What about e-readers?
For reading, get a Kindle or a Nook with a touchscreen. The only thing to really avoid is buying books from Apple. You can’t read them on a synced computer, and yet they’re the same price. What the hell, Apple? The other services let you read your books across many platforms simultaneously.

Headphones
The most consistent companies are Sennheiser, Audio Technica, Vibe, and Shure. Sony can have bad sound quality for the price. Skullcandy ‘phones are uncomfortable. Bose headphones are great but super overpriced and not durable. The other brands are either very expensive or merely awful.

Apple’s headphones look great but suck.

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BROWSING
The best browser is Google Chrome. Yes, it has issues with Flash. Yes, it sometimes slows down for no clear reason. It’s not the best downloader, either. But generally speaking, it’s got the best extensions (i.e. apps) and it’s compatible with most websites. It’s also fast, and not too demanding in terms of memory.

Firefox is great, but it’s missing a lot of key apps. The public betas are interesting, but they’re incompatible with many sites. If you have a fast computer but no interest in apps at all, then it’s the best choice. It’s too demanding for older machines.

If you have an old, junky computer, you might get the best results with Opera. It’s very sleek and kinda fun. However, it is both app-deficient and sometimes incompatible with websites.

Safari is not good. It’s not bad either, but why use it? It’s less powerful than Chrome, less solid than Firefox, and uses more resources than Opera. (The native threading on a Mac still doesn’t make it as fast as Opera.) Apple likes to publicize its Safari speed tests, but that’s misleading. Now that everyone has hi-speed, we spend as much time manipulating the browser (e.g. typing in a search) as we do waiting for pages to load. The “reader” view is neat, but Readability does the same thing and saves the page for you.

What extensions?
Evernote Web Clipper, Readability, Chrome-To-Paper (Instapaper), Quick Pinterest, SocialBro & Hotot for Twitter, Tokonda for chat, Google Voice. Some of these (or their equivalents) are available for Firefox.

EMAIL, CHAT, AND SOCIAL NETWORKING

Facebook apps
I’m going to assume you already have a Facebook account.

If you have an iPhone or iPad, Flipboard is great. As of right now, there are lots of other Facebook-compatible programs, but none of them (how amazing is this) work very well, and I’ve probably tried 30 of them. (Seriously.) You always end up losing functionality.

It’s not that useful to have a combo program for Facebook and Twitter. The biggest reason for this has to do with links. On Twitter, you need shortened links. On Facebook, you want a thumbnail. The program can’t do both, so it produces a Twitter link, and nobody on Facebook will click on that (because they can’t see the little baby panda).

Also, the better you get at Twitter and Facebook, the less your tweets will resemble your status updates.

Things people occasionally don’t know about Facebook: you can now adjust the privacy settings any way you want (I mean, to limit what other people see. Facebook sees everything and stores it for all eternity and sells it.) You can set up Facebook Chat on other chat programs.

You can change your feed to show a selected “list” of specific friends. Otherwise your feed can turn into a blinding avalanche of “shares,” most of which are coming from people you hardly know. Facebook encourages shares and re-shares, by the way — they build it right into the structure — because it gives them user data that they can sell.

What’s there to know about email?
You need an email you can access from the web. Gmail is pretty good, but the other big companies (Yahoo!, Hotmail, iCloud, even AOL) are fine too.

Don’t exclusively use an email address from your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or some obscure website. Nobody will be able to remember it, and your archive will be at risk. That’s particularly true with ISP email, since your ISP will change.

EMAIL PROGRAMS
The best free programs are Mozilla Thunderbird, Apple Mail, and Sparrow Lite. They’re all powerful enough to handle 95% of the stuff you do.

The best paid programs are Sparrow for the iPhone, and Postbox for Mac/PC.

Why join Twitter?
You can keep current with a Twitter feed much faster than you can a Facebook feed. You can follow strangers, hilarious people, and famous people, and you can attempt to start conversations with them, which sometimes works. Twitter’s a good source of news, comedy, interesting links, and celebrity gossip.

There are a lot of spambots. Try to make sure you’re dealing with a real person before you reply to or follow someone.

If I was starting from scratch, I’d follow @robdelaney, @boingboing, @rortybomb, and @longreads. Don’t be shy about following people; unfollowing is just as easy. It’s not like Facebook at all in that regard.

TWITTER PROGRAMS
Using Twitter’s website gets pretty irritating after a while, because of all the sneak-attack advertising. Fortunately, there are good alternatives.

The best free programs are Twitter’s own app (Mac) and Echofon (PC). If you want a free program for the iPhone, go with Twitteriffic. TweetDeck is buggy, and shows few signs of getting better.

The best paid programs are all Mac. Osfoora is outstanding. Twitteriffic is clunkier than Osfoora, but prettier. Wren is distraction-free. The best paid iPhone program is TweetBot.

Why join Tumblr?
Tumblr is the best blogging platform for anything meant for general public consumption that is shorter than a long magazine article. It arranges data into a feed, something no other blogging platform really does, because there are so many.

As with Twitter, the best reason to join Tumblr is how many good Tumblrs now exist.

Unlike Twitter and Facebook, the webpage is really nice. If there are promoted feeds or ads, I haven’t noticed them yet. Tumblr has also released a free iPhone app. Tumblr does not play well with others, and the apps that have tried to combine it with Facebook and Twitter do a poor job.

Pinterest and the other web-sharing sites?
Pinterest is good for storing pictures; it’s much more convenient than saving photos, and it’s more responsible about attribution than Google Picasa or Instagram. Those two sites are good for personal photos. You can read my post on Pinterest here, and the update here.

Personally, I don’t do public bookmarking (Delicious, Reddit, Pinboard, etc.) If I really like a link, and want to share it, I put it on Twitter and Facebook. If I just want it around, I put it on ReadItLater or Readability. I respect that these sites have attracted whole communities of users, but I don’t see the gap they’d fill for me. I have a Pinboard account, and I never use it.

What about other social networking sites?
The only reason to use Google+ is for video chat. Every other useful innovation was quickly imitated by Facebook. LinkedIn is horrible, yet necessary, much like professional networking itself. Posterous has a nice interface but does nothing new. FourSquare is useful for bragging about where you hang out. The other sites just get half a bar, as Jay-Z would say. Universally bad.

CHAT PROGRAMS
Here, you really do want something that lets you chat on Facebook and Google simultaneously.

On a Mac, I’ve constantly come back to iChat, even though it lacks tabs. I like it better than Adium, mostly for aesthetic reasons.

The situation on PCs is pretty bad. Pidgin works, but it’s straight out of 1998. Other programs, such as MultiMi, do not work. (So far, anyway.) Many of the Chrome apps, such as imo.im, don’t work either.

As for video chat, use Google+ and Skype. You would not believe how terrible FaceTime is. Keep in mind that you don’t need to give Skype money in order to video chat, and you can stop Skype from auto-starting in the Preferences.

FILE STORAGE ON THE WEB
Dropbox is the best, and it’s free. SugarSync is a very close second, and it’s cheaper if you want to buy more space. Don’t bother with Box or Amazon’s Cloud Drive.

RSS
This is totally worth learning. It basically turns websites that update, such as blogs, into webmail. Start with Google Reader. Then find programs that sync with Google Reader, such as Readefine for text intensive sites like blogs, and Reeder/Flipboard on the iPhone.

Thanks to Google Reader and the new slideshow view (“Play”), I haven’t needed to find other RSS apps.

OTHER PRODUCTIVITY SITES
Evernote is really useful, because otherwise you have to make your email double as a notepad, which tends to clutter it up. The Evernote Web Clipper is smart and useful as well.

Readability is the best place to store articles, stripping out all the ads, “Related Articles,” and other things that make writing on the Web so hard to read. It is an Instapaper imitator that’s now better than Instapaper at handling text.

Instapaper isn’t the best for “reader view” anymore, but it’s a convenient place to store links short-term. If you just bookmark those links, they’re only available on your computer, and your bookmark situation quickly becomes ridiculous.

Zootools is trying to compete with these sites. It’s a better interface, but it’s built-in to fewer programs.

On a Mac, the ReadLater app does a nice job with both ReadItLater and Instapaper.

MUSIC AND MOVIES
Rdio works great. You can play music through the Web or through a stand-alone application.

Spotify has a slightly bigger selection, a cool “app” interface, and a free setup. Because it’s free, it’s better for sharing, as more people use it. However, it crashes approximately once every three hours. They update it constantly, somehow without ever fixing this. You can’t open it through a browser, which is silly.

I haven’t played around with MOG; have any of you?

Pandora continues to be the most fun and interesting Web version of radio. It has competitors, but their “music taste” engines aren’t great.

I’m doing everything I can to untangle myself from iTunes, even though it’s the best music player in terms of sound quality. It’s a bloated program, the copy protection is a pain (for everybody, not just pirates), sharing doesn’t work, and there’s no way to access it through a browser. The Windows version is buggy. To that end, I play most movies through VLC, and I upload all my albums to Google Music.

Avoid Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center. Basically, any time you see the words “Windows” and “Media” together, something bad is about to happen. Avoid RealPlayer: VLC is a better program and doesn’t force you to pass through a homepage full of sponsored content.

BLOGGING
Tumblr aside, the best free blogging platform is WordPress. The best paid one is TypePad. Google never really gave Blogspot the facelift it needed; the CAPTCHA tests are semi-broken, and the commenting interface looks silly.

If you write creative nonfiction, you might want to request an invite from Cowbird. It’s beautifully designed, and you get more visibility than you would just starting your own blog somewhere in endless space.

OTHER APPS
I really like the distraction-free word processors. On a Mac, I use & like Byword and CleanWriter Free. On the PC, WriteMonkey.

If you’re short on RAM, you can download programs that keep your RAM as free and clear as possible. I use MemoryFreer on the Mac and WinUtilities Free on PC.

GOOGLE
I’ve gotten exceptional functionality out of Google Reader, Google Maps, Google Docs, Google Voice, Google Books, Google+ “hangouts,” and Google Music. I don’t recommend their other stuff.

OTHER WEBSITES
The best site for criticism is Metacritic. Unlike Rotten Tomatoes, it gauges how much a critic liked a film, instead of just whether they liked it. It also collects music, TV, and video game reviews.

Timely.is allows you to time-delay your tweets and Facebook updates. It analyzes your networks, too. It’s pretty rad, and completely free.

Goodreads has become a fairly vibrant community of readers.

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That’s all, folks! I’ll update this post whenever the game changes, as it tends to do.

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