Frequently Asked Questions
Not intended to be a one-stop source of information giving great detail about every conceivable topic; rather, these are just a few of the things I get asked about regularly. And some I just made up. More to come. If you find errors, or have suggestions for questions I can add, please email them to me.
- Should I upgrade my computer or just buy a new one?
- Should I switch to Linux?
- Are peer-to-peer file sharing programs like Limewire and Kazaa safe to use?
- Aren't expensive antivirus programs like Norton and McAfee better than the freebies?
- A friend said that if I get more memory, I can save more stuff to my computer. Is that true?
- What's the difference between memory and storage?
- Will adding more RAM make my computer faster?
- Should I worry about hackers?
- What kind of home computer should I buy?
- Why don't you have any of those certifications that IT people get?
- I called and called last night and you never answered! Why not?
QShould I upgrade my computer or just buy a new one?
AThis is too general a question to answer with a simple yes or no. It depends on several things - not least, what specifically you want to upgrade. The first thing I would ask is the age of the computer. I might want to know what it cost you. If it's a ten year old clunker, just replace the thing and donate your old one to the local library. Computers used to be expensive, but that isn't the case any more. It's not uncommon nowadays to find brand new computers - perfectly capable machines - on sale for $300. Paying someone to upgrade your hard drive and memory can possibly approach that figure. What makes more sense to you?
QShould I switch to Linux?
AProbably not. If you're used to Windows, and you consider yourself "computer illiterate", then Linux is not for you. There will be a steep learning curve as you have to learn new ways of installing software, for instance. Also, if you've become dependent on commercial software like Microsoft Office, TurboTax, and other programs that you can buy in the store (including games), and you are not interested in learning new ways of getting your work done, be aware that most commercial software will not run on Linux. On the other hand, if all you ever do is email and look at websites, it's possible that you could start using Linux tomorrow and never miss Microsoft's products.
QAre peer-to-peer file sharing programs like Limewire and Bearshare safe to use?
ANot really. For one, when someone uses such a program to download and share copyrighted music and video, they are breaking the law. Also, these programs usually come bundled with spyware and adware. And just because a file is named "popularsong.mp3" doesn't mean that it is actually that song. Anyone can name a virus-infected file "popularsong.mp3" and offer it for download. In other words, it is very, very common for people to unwittingly download viruses and malware to their computers when they think that they're only downloading music. I see this all the time!
If you don't understand why it is a bad idea to download an mp3 that is named after a popular song, but is only 25 kb in size, you should not use a file sharing program. If you don't understand what that last sentence means, you definitely should not use a file sharing program. You will almost certainly download malware to your computer.
QAren't expensive antivirus programs like Norton and McAfee better than the freebies?
ANo. Don't believe their hype.
Companies like McAfee would convince you that in order to be "safe", you need to install their suite of ten different programs, including antivirus, antispyware, antispam, antiscam, "SiteAdvisor", et cetera. All that junk is going to slow your computer noticeably, I can almost guarantee it. These security software companies will convince you that Internet cookies are evil incarnate and can eat your brain. Don't let them scare you into spending your money on their bloatware. On my links page you will find free products that should, along with your good practices, keep you safe on the Web.
QA friend said that if I get more memory, I can save more stuff to my computer. Is that true?
AYour friend is confusing memory with storage. If you add more storage to your computer, then yes, you will be able to save more stuff.
QWhat's the difference between memory and storage?
AImagine going to work and pulling from a filing cabinet all the files that you will need to work with that day. You spread all your files out onto the top of your desk. From your desktop, you read them, make changes to them, rename them, etc. You may create some new files on your desk. You retrieve other files as you need them from your filing cabinet and lay them onto your desk. When you're done working on your files, you place all of them back into your filing cabinet, leaving the surface of your desk clean.
Your filing cabinet is storage. The top of your desk is memory. A computer uses hard disk drives for storage and RAM for memory. When you start your computer, it copies the files it needs in order to run your programs from the hard disk to memory, where it can work with them much, much faster. When you shut the computer down, everything is moved from memory back to the hard drive for keeping.
QWill adding more RAM make my computer faster?
AProbably. If your desk had more surface area, you could place more files onto it, and work with them more easily because they wouldn't be all mashed together. It's about having more space to work with.
In the Windows XP days, computer companies sold a lot of new computers with insufficient memory, but that's not a big problem any more. If your computer seems very slow, memory is an obvious thing to look at for speeding it up. I recommend running XP on at least 512 MB of RAM, Vista on at least 3GB and Win7 on at least 2GB. That's at least. If you're looking for a new computer, 4GB is a good number to look for. Don't buy a new computer that has Vista or 7 with less than 4GB of RAM installed, and you should have plenty of RAM for most applications.
Compulsively adding memory to a computer is not a cure-all, though. Don't expect to change a ten year old computer into a speed demon by adding memory.
QWow! That really makes sense to me now.
QShould I worry about hackers?
ADon't lose any sleep worrying about being hacked. If you're just a typical home computer user, i.e. you're not NASA or the World Bank, why is someone going to hack you? If I or another competent technician has set up your computer or network, there should be plenty of protection in place for your computers. If you are using a router, that is one form of firewall, and the software firewall that comes with Windows is another layer of protection. If your accounts are passworded as well, and you are not using the default password that came with your router, then a hacker has got his work cut out for him. Remotely hacking into a computer is time consuming. Imagine someone using all his skill and knowledge to access your home network from afar, just so that he can get into your computer and then... then what? Read your email? Look at your pictures? Can you really imagine that anyone will go to the trouble? My point is that unless you have sensitive data stored on your computer, it's not likely that you'll ever be hacked by anyone who knows what they're doing.
Software companies want you to be paranoid about things like that so that you'll buy their "protection" products. Don't worry about it too much. For your home computer, a properly configured router plus the software firewall included in XP SP2 and Vista is plenty. If you want to be sure that you're reasonably secure, give me a call and I'll be happy to check it out.
QWhat kind of home computer should I buy?
AFor just a budget, limited-use home computer, you can wait for Dell to run a special and call me to set it up after it arrives. I'll want to uninstall all the superfluous programs that they preinstall at the factory, and install free antivirus and antispyware programs. I think that Dell still builds pretty good computers.
New Compaq or HP computers seem to run pretty well too. Truth is, there's not one brand of computer out there that is the greatest and always runs without problems. I hate to recommend one or the other, because if they send you a lemon, you might blame me! You might wish to have your computer built locally by a shop. Expect it to be a little more expensive, but the local service should be better. Just don't ever buy a computer from WalMart. The computers I've worked on that came from that store have been the worst I've seen. In particular, the power supplies and motherboards that manufacturers use for these discount machines seem to die like light bulbs.
If you're looking to buy, check out pcworld.com's hardware reviews to see what's currently getting high marks. They're probably as reliable a source as there is for information like that.
Whatever you order, remember to demand an OEM copy of your operating system! You're paying for it; part of the cost of that computer is the copy of Windows that they install on it. Make sure they include this disk, because they probably won't unless you request it specifically. You might need it one day. Don't accept "restore" disks in place of the actual operating system. If they refuse to supply a copy of the operating system that you're paying for, do business elsewhere.
QWhy don't you have any of those certifications that IT people get?
AHere I'll quote a passage from Start Your Own Computer Business, an invaluable book by Morris Rosenthal.
How do you establish credentials and why should anybody trust you? Well, it turns out that the best way to convince somebody that you're a computer expert is to show up and do something for them. Outside of the human resources departments of bland companies, nobody knows or cares what an A+ certified technician or a certified Microsoft or Novell engineer is. When you're in business for yourself, people will buy PCs from you because you show up and sell them. Nobody will ask you where you learned to put them together (or to buy them cheap), anymore than you ask the person who comes and installs the phone lines where they learned to do it. It's enough that they show up. In small business, your credentials are your honest face, your word of mouth, your Yellow Pages listing, your website, and your storefront if you have one. You're going to need all the cash you can get your hands on. Don't waste it on pieces of paper that nobody will read to frame and stick on the wall. That's a game for the people who want to be somebody else's employee.”
I have personally witnessed an A+ certified individual who did not know how to replace a hard drive. I want to believe that the majority of the people who have various certifications truly know their stuff, but all certification really proves is that they took a difficult multiple-choice exam, and answered correctly a high enough percentage of questions in order to pass. As my anecdote demonstrates, there's no substitute for hands-on experience.
The short answer to the question is that I've never taken any of the certification exams. Maybe one day I will study up and get the A+ and the MCSE or Linux+. Or maybe not. Certifications are not a priority to me.
Thanks to Morris Rosenthal for permission to use an excerpt from his book.
Addendum April 1, 2011: (No, it's not an April Fool's joke!) While I still stand by my position as written above, circumstances have changed. Life changes dictate that I find better full-time work, and the only thing employers look for any more is degrees and/or certifications. For this reason, I've recently tested for and earned CompTIA A+ certification, and I'm preparing to test for Network+ and then Security+ certifications. I'm going to get at least these three. I am also enrolled BACK in school to finish up an Associate's, as I've found that mere diplomas from technical schools are all but worthless in the real world. That was time well spent.
QI called and called last night and you never answered! Why not?
AWas it Sunday? Was it ten o'clock at night? Please understand that this is a one-man operation, and I cannot be available to take support calls 24/7. I have a full-time "regular" job in addition to my business, and a family. Don't waste your time trying to call me at nine o'clock in the evening, because I won't answer. Send an email instead, or wait until the morning. Whatever your computer problem is, trust me - it can probably wait until business hours. If you think you really can't wait, there's always Geek Squad, but you'll have to pay a premium for those guys. Those black suits must be expensive!