It may come as a shock to our readers, but one of our bloggers is “of a certain age” and can remember back into pre-historic times when homes had NO computers at all. These days multiple computers, tablets, smartphones, television connections, and high-speed Internet, usually operating wirelessly, are not uncommon. Even folks who have only one computer might enjoy the convenience of being able to access the Internet in various parts of the house without dragging wires behind them. The advantage of portability first became apparent back in the early 2000s when laptops began to outsell desktops, and the computer became liberated from the office desk. Now almost all devices, including desktops, have wireless capability. Alas, sometimes there are dead spots in the wifi coverage in our houses, and it is uncanny how often that dead spot is precisely the place where we would like to be connected. This could be a job for a range extender.
Anyone who has been shopping for a laptop computer lately has been surprised at least momentarily when they have stumbled across a couple of machines that are much cheaper than most of the others on the shelf. Most laptops of even moderate specifications are $400 and up, but there are these few particular exceptions that start in the low $200s and top out at less than $400. Is this too good to be true? Not necessarily. For many people, the pros and cons of a Chromebook are worth considering.
WHAT IS IT?
Simply put, a Chromebook is a laptop that runs on Google’s Chrome OS (Operating System). Although this OS has certain limitations in comparison with Microsoft Windows or an Apple OS, it does have surprising capabilities in today’s web-based computing world. Google itself sells models of Chromebooks, but other well-known manufacturers such as Acer, Asus and Hewlett-Packard have their own offerings, in ranges of speed and power. Some versions are even convertible to tablets.
WHAT CAN IT DO?
When you start up a Chromebook, the first (and almost the only) thing that you will be offered is the Chrome browser. This, with a wifi connection (but probably not Ethernet) will allow you access to any function that the web provides such as web-based email, banking, research, booking a hotel, checking your calendar, planning a route on a map, and so on. A set of very basic apps will also be available, so that you can do rudimentary photo editing, enjoy some games, or play back music and videos. Most important for some people is access to Google Drive, which is basically an online office suite that is integrated with cloud file storage. This allows creation, storage and sharing of documents, spreadsheets, photos, presentations, music and even (with April looming) tax records. Google Drive offers 15 Gigabytes of cloud storage free, and you can buy additional increments.
One nifty feature of most Chromebooks is to allow various user accounts, so that everyone can log into their own established preferences, look and shortcuts.
WHAT CAN’T IT DO?
You may have noticed that nowhere above did we mention a hard disk for local storage of files and programs. That is because there isn’t one – at least not really. Most Chromebooks do have a miniscule solid-state disk to hold the OS, a few apps, and very little else. In fact, many smartphones have a larger hard disk than many Chromebooks. This is why there is such emphasis on web-based apps and cloud storage. That having been said, most models do have at least one USB 3.0 port and many have a slot for an SD camera card. Although these are external storage solutions, the modern-day speed of these devices does allow you to approximate an internal hard disk, in a clunky sort of way.
For once, we are going to go out on a limb and offer some concrete advice: A Chromebook will probably not be satisfactory as the only computer in the house. On the other hand, the speed and low cost make the Chromebook a serious contender as a second or later machine for carrying to class, lugging back and forth to the office, or even for keeping you up to date on a vacation.
Month after month we are here, pestering you with advice about how to use your computer. This time, we’re taking a different approach. All too often people call us and ask for help with problems that would have been avoided if they had NOT done something.
DON’T be flippant with passwords. Someday there may be a more sophisticated alternative, but for now your password is an important line of defense against the bad guys. Don’t constantly reuse the same password for different sites. Don’t make it something obvious like your address or telephone number, or even your birthday. Of all of the criteria of a good password, length is the most important. Yes, it’s going to be a challenge to remember the dozens of passwords that active users need; use your ingenuity to find a safe way to record and retrieve them when necessary.
DON’T Google the telephone number when you need help from your Internet Service Provider or other utilities. Clever scam artists set up websites with similar names, and sometimes they even pay to have them listed above the legitimate sites. You may think you are calling Rogers or Bell, but you may actually be contacting a crook who will do his best to bilk you of hundreds of dollars. Get the correct telephone number from your monthly statement, or make a list and keep it handy.
DON’T open an attachment to an email, even from a friend, if you are not actually expecting it. If your friend’s email account has been hacked, and bogus messages are being sent out under their name, that attachment may contain a serious virus. The word “Invoice” in an attachment is a dead giveaway that you should be on the alert.
DON’T assume automatically that you need a new computer when problems arise. Even some critical parts like a hard disk, RAM, a fan or a monitor are surprisingly inexpensive. A reputable service company will tell you clearly if the cost of a repair would be inadvisable because that money would be better spent on a replacement. If that happens, listen to their advice so that you don’t spend too much or too little on a new machine.
DON’T avoid updates to your software. Some updates are simply nice-to-have, but others are critical and you should not continually reject them out of fear of being scammed. Get Safe Online is a very helpful site, with lots of advice for parents, teens and general users. They address the subject of safe updates at: http://tinyurl.com/zok94h7
DON’T assume that because you bought and plugged in an external backup device, that your data will be there when you need it. There are several things that can go wrong in the backup process, and the only way to be sure that your data is safe is to make certain that you understand exactly what is supposed to happen and test frequently to be sure that it is.
DON’T waste your time (and certainly not your money) on registry cleaner or tune-up software. Put simply: They don’t work, and they almost always cause far more problems than they solve.
DON’T accept calls from anyone who claims to be with “Microsoft” or “Windows” and who wants to take over your computer remotely to help you get rid of dozens and dozens of so-called “threats.” Don’t talk to them and certainly don’t EVER give them a credit card number. They are criminals. Just hang up.
It may surprise some people for us to say that this program is going very well. After a few days of grumpiness at having to become accustomed to things being in different places, most users are having to admit that the Windows 10 Operating System is very stable, reliable, and often just a tiny bit faster than their older Operating System. If you feel pretty comfortable with a medium-level computer challenge we would suggest that you go ahead and do the upgrade yourself. Otherwise, a technician can do it for you at a charge of about an hour to an hour and a half and your computer will have to be in the workshop for a day or two. A very important caveat is that you really must have a backup of your data before starting the project. Most of the time the upgrade goes without a hitch but if a problem does crop up there is an outside chance that your hard disk will have to be erased (and your data along with it) before you can go back to the old Operating System or forward to Windows 10. (Of course you always keep an up-to-date backup of your data, don’t you!?!) Contrary to our earlier predictions, there is no indication so far that Microsoft is going to extend the free upgrade program beyond July 29 2016, and so time is beginning to dwindle.
If your answer to that question is, “I just click on that icon on my desktop,” then we would recommend that you give it a bit more thought and perhaps research. It is safe to say that the majority of calls to us for help are related to email. Quite often the problems could be corrected quickly with Remote Assistance, or simply with some suggestions over the telephone but we really must be able to start with some basics about the mechanics of your email access.
Many people these days use “web-based” access to their messages. This simply means that they use a web browser: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari or Google Chrome for example, and they go straight to the web site of their email provider. This allows them to compose, read, reply to, save, forward and delete their messages remotely, right on their provider’s mail server. Webmail systems allow you to make folders for messages, and they can have an address book and calendar synchronized with the mail. One of the most useful advantages is that users can access their mail from any computer anywhere, just by knowing their email address and password; they don’t need a special computer or a bunch of cryptic settings. Many people have a shortcut icon on their computer desktop that allows them to go straight to that email website with a single click.
The other and more traditional way to handle email is by using a special program that is installed and set up on your computer. This kind of program is called an “email client” and there are many available: Windows Live Mail, Thunderbird, the Macintosh Mail program, and Outlook are just a few examples. When you view your email or address book or calendar in a client, the messages and information are actually downloaded and stored permanently right on your computer’s hard disk. They can be part of your backup system and they will always be available to you, even if you change your email address or your email provider.
These two strategies for using your email are just about equally convenient and safe. It is a bit of a challenge to set up an email client in the first place, because you have to enter all of the details of your email account and one mistake in the setup can obstruct the entire process. The upside of most email clients is that once properly configured they are usually easier to use than webmail. On the other hand, the remote nature of web-based access means that if you are cautious, spam with its associated dangers can be kept at arm’s length and deleted without ever being deposited on your computer. conversely, most prudent users have a robust and updated virus protection utility that can step in and protect them if malware sneaks into their client Inbox.
It is worth remembering that even if you prefer to use an email client day-to-day it is worthwhile to be familiar also with your webmail site because that is where you will have to go to change your password or to update various aspects of your account profile and these are things that you should do regularly, or at least any time that suspicious activity occurs in your account.
It is unfortunate how many people do not remember or understand which of these two methods of using their email they use and they therefore cannot give us the answers that we need when we are trying to help over the phone. As you can imagine there are huge numbers of versions of all of the browsers and clients and so we really do need to have some basics before we can start to visualize remotely the malfunctioning program that you are coping with, and be able to offer you some quick advice.