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Absolute Beginners I: Guidelines for the uninitiated

Welcome to Absolute Beginners. This is the place to come when you’re ready to take the first steps with your computer. Perhaps you’ve bought your first PC and are raring to go. Or maybe you’ve had one sitting on a desk for a while, but you’ve been too intimidated to do anything more than switch it on. Perhaps you’ve advanced as far as using a couple of programs, but find yourself reeling with all the new things you need to learn before you’ll feel competent.

Well, now’s the time to take the plunge. But before you even flick that ON switch, here are a few ground rules that will make you more comfortable while learning about the electronic beast in front of you.

1. Get some help for the hard parts

Get someone knowledgeable to help set up your computer for you.

If you’re a complete newcomer to computing, setting up a PC is not the place to start. Admittedly, many new PCs are much easier to set up than in years gone by and Windows itself is much easier to deal with. But even with new ‘easy-to-install’ PCs, there are all sorts of little things that can cause hiccoughs, especially if you want to get yourself connected to the Internet.

So, let someone else deal with this part – either the company that provides your computer or a knowledgeable relative or friend.

2. Take the pressure off

While you’re learning, don’t work on anything important or urgent. The last thing you need is the pressure of a deadline hanging over you or having others dependent on the fruits of your labor. Choose something innocuous to work on, such as a letter to a friend. Even better, start out by playing one of the simple games provided with Windows. Then, if something does go wrong, you won’t have to worry.

3. Save and save again

Get into the practice of saving your work at regular intervals. If you save your work early and often it doesn’t matter if you mess up. You can experiment and putter around exploring your programs without feeling a mistake will put you back at square one.

How often is ‘often’? When using a word processor, saving after each paragraph is not too frequently. When using another program, such as a graphics editor or a spreadsheet, save after each major change you make. It only takes a second to save a document, so if you turn it into a habit now, you’ll avoid heartache later.

A good way to measure whether it’s time to save is the ‘Agony of Loss’ indicator. Every now and then ask yourself “How upset would I be if there was a blackout right now and everything I’ve just done was lost?” If you wince at the thought, click the Save button. When I’m struggling to write the first paragraph to an article, I frequently save after each sentence.

Every program you work with will include an option to save the work in progress. In most programs, you’ll find a Save option in the File Menu (more about menus and the mechanics of saving later).

4. Make backups

A backup is a copy of your work. Just as saving ensures you don’t lose documents that you’re currently working on, creating regular backups ensures you don’t lose any of the files you have stored on your computer in case something goes wrong.

You can make backups on floppy disks or other removable disks or, if you have a CD Writer on your computer, on special writeable compact discs known as CD-Rs or CD-RWs. Backing up on floppy disk is useful if you’re saving small files (floppy disks can hold no more than 1.44 megabytes of data) or if you want to share a file with someone else. But it’s slow and exceedingly tedious, and is no solution at all if you want to back up all the information on your computer. That’s why companies have invented high-capacity alternatives to floppy disks, such as Zip, Jaz and LS-120 SuperDisks. Each of these disks holds many times the data you can shoehorn onto a floppy and they work faster, too. Writeable CDs hold even more information, making them very useful for backing up large amounts of information.

5. Keep your bearings

Usually when beginners run into strife, they have no idea how they got into their predicament. That’s because they fail to take notice of what’s going on in front of them. You’ll find plenty of information on the screen providing feedback. Take the time to examine each new element that’s displayed. Investigate the help menus you’ll find in almost all programs (including the one you’ll find if you click the Start button at the bottom-left of the Windows screen). Look at information displayed at the top and bottom of the screen. Open a couple of programs and notice the elements they have in common. You’ll find most programs share a whole pile of features, even though their functions are entirely different.

6. Learn the lingo

One of the hardest things about learning computers is that you not only have to learn many new techniques and processes, but you also have to learn an enormous number of new concepts. It’s those concepts that usually bring people unstuck. Once you get them in place, you’ll find everything else flows. To fix those concepts in your brain, read and re-read information about them. If you have no clue what the ‘operating system’ is, for example, read about it in as many different places as you can – in this series of online articles, in magazine articles, in a ‘Windows for beginners’-style book, in computer dictionaries, elsewhere on the Internet. Don’t worry if at first you don’t understand; after you’ve digested enough definitions, it’ll all gradually start to fall into place.

Follow the steps outlined above and it won’t matter if you make some mistakes. Everybody does. And if you can’t keep up with something in this column, rest easy. In most cases we’ll come back and explore technical subjects – such as how to save a file or how to back up – in a future issue, or point you to some useful resources on the Internet where you can find out more for yourself.

Straight on to Part II: Exploring the Desktop

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