basic computing menu

Absolute Beginners II: Start it up

The first time I sat down in front of a personal computer was at programming school, where we were tossed in the deep end with minimal instruction. For a good five minutes (after I’d finally figured out where the On switch was located!) I did nothing, fearing that if I typed in the wrong command the whole machine might self-destruct or do something else nasty that would call attention to my ignorance.
It’s a pretty common fear. Fortunately, it’s one that is largely unfounded.

Yes, you can erase all the information stored on your computer, but doing so really takes an awful lot of effort. Doing so accidentally is close to impossible. And I’ve yet to see a personal computer (commonly called a PC) self destruct.

It’s certainly possible to cause more limited havoc, but if you stick to basic safe computing practices – save your work frequently, make backups, use anti-virus protection, store your original program discs carefully in an accessible place – there’s really nothing you can do that will lose you more than an hour or so’s work.

The greatest problem most beginners encounter is losing their bearings. Why’s that window open? Where did the rest of my text go? How do I get out of here? Those are the sort of difficulties you’re likely to encounter when you start using your computer and they’re the very things we’ll start to explore in this article.

Switch it on

Let’s start at the very beginning: turning the PC on.

Your computer’s instruction manual or the person who sold it to you can show you the location of your PC’s power switch. Each of the major components – monitor, printer, modem, speakers, scanner and so on – is likely to have its own power switch as well.

To facilitate getting your computer up and running and to protect it from electricity fluctuations, it’s well worth getting yourself a surge protection power strip with its own on/off switch. If possible, buy a strip which includes a connection for the phone cord from your modem.

Into this power strip you can plug your computer, monitor, printer, modem and any other component with its own power supply. Once you’ve done that, you can leave each component’s on/off switch in the On position and power everything up simply by switching the power strip on. You may still need to press the PC’s power switch to turn it on, as many modern PCs turn themselves off automatically when you close down Windows.

When you turn the computer on, it will go through a process called booting. That’s short for bootstrapping. When you flick the On switch, a small program called a bootstrap loader runs. This program, in turn, loads the operating system which controls your PC’s functions. The process is, in effect, the computer‘pulling itself up by its own bootstraps’.

During bootup, you’ll normally see a black screen with text summaries as the system checks itself over. After a half a minute or more, you’ll see the Windows startup screen displayed and then Windows itself will start and you’ll be presented with the Windows Desktop, your working – and playing – environment.

Introducing the Desktop

The Windows Desktop is a metaphor for your real-world desk, although it’s more like an office-top than a desktop. The Desktop is highly customizable, so no two Windows Desktops look exactly the same. However, if you’re starting off on a new computer or a cleanly installed version of Windows, you’ll see something very similar to the Desktop displayed in Figure 1.

Windows Me Desktop thumbnail

Figure 1. A standard Windows Me Desktop (click the image to see a larger version)

Figure 1 shows an unsullied Windows Me Desktop with the Start Menu open (you open it by clicking the Start button in the bottom right corner). Windows Me, also known as Windows Millennium, is the latest in the line of Microsoft operating systems which includes Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows 98 Second Edition. If you’re using any of Windows Me’s predecessors, or even the business-oriented Windows 2000, your Desktop will look a little different but all the key features and functions will be present.

Get to know the Desktop. It is, essentially, Windows Central, and once you become comfortable with the Desktop’s features, it’ll be much harder to lose your bearings.

Here’s a quick guide to the features you can see in Figure 1:

A. The Start button. This is where everything springs from. Click this button to display the Start Menu.

B. The Start Menu. The Start Menu provides access to all your programs and Windows settings, a Help guide, a Search facility for locating documents and other items on your computer or on the Internet, and several other options. Notice how some menu items have a small black arrow to the right of their name. Selecting any of these options will display a sub-menu (also known as a cascading menu) of related items. Selecting any item without an arrow beside it will immediately activate that item.

To select an item, click the Start button, move the mouse pointer up the list of options until you find the one you want, and then click once more. (See the article on Basic Mousing Technique for details on using the mouse.)

C. Icons. The little pictures you see are called icons. Each icon represents a function, program or document on your computer. To open an icon, double-click it. You can move icons around the Desktop by dragging and dropping them with the mouse.

D. Recycle Bin. This is the equivalent of the wastepaper bin in your office. Dump unwanted documents and programs in here either by dragging and dropping them with the mouse or by selecting them and then pressing the Delete (or Del) key on your keyboard. If you accidentally delete a file, you can ‘undelete’ it by opening the Recycle Bin, selecting the item and choosing Restore from the File Menu.

E. My Documents. The icon that looks like a folder bulging with documents provides central storage for all the documents you create or store on your computer. Think of it as a huge filing cabinet, which you can fill with documents neatly sorted into their own folders for easy retrieval.

F. My Computer. My Computer stores information about your computer system. It contains icons which give you access to your disk drives. It also provides access to the Control Panel, where you can adjust settings for your system.

G. Internet Explorer. This is a Web browser, a program which lets you surf the World Wide Web. Internet Explorer is supplied as part of the Windows operating system.

H. Outlook Express. Outlook Express is also supplied as part of the operating system. This is an e-mail program, which you use to create, send and receive e-mail.

I. Program Menu. Sprouting from the Start Menu is the Program Menu. Here’s where you’ll find all the programs – such as a word processor, graphics program, games and so on – which you have installed on your system.

J. Desktop. The vast expanse of blue space is the Desktop itself. You can rearrange the items on the Desktop by dragging the icons to new positions, and you can change the look of the Desktop by adding a background image, called Desktop wallpaper. You can also change the Desktop’s color. To see some of the options for changing the Desktop, right-click any vacant space on the Desktop; you’ll see a pop-up menu displayed. Choose Properties from the menu and a Display Properties dialog box (an information box which requires feedback or input from you) will appear containing settings. Once you’ve finished with the Display Properties box, click the OK button at the bottom of the box to close it.

K. System tray. This section of the screen not only houses the time, it also contains icons for handy little programs which run all the time your computer is on. As you install more applications on your computer, you’ll find the System Tray filling up with more icons. You can usually discover an icon’s purpose by letting the mouse pointer linger on top of it; after a few seconds, a tooltip will pop up telling you its purpose. Right-click or double-click an icon to display its functions.

L. The Taskbar. This is the long gray strip at the bottom of the computer which contains the Start button, Quick Launch bar and System Tray. The Taskbar lets you quickly switch between any programs you have running (you can run more than one program at a time). So, if you have a Web browser and a word processor open at the same time and the word processor window is currently obscuring your view of the Web browser, you can click the Web browser’s button in the Taskbar to have it spring into view.

M. The Quick Launch bar. The Quick Launch bar provides a quick way to start programs you use frequently. It comes populated with icons for your Web browser, e-mail program and – in Windows Me – the Windows Media Player. You can drag shortcuts to other programs, such as your word processor or personal finance manager, into the Quick Launch bar to gain quick access to them as well. The icon that looks like a desk blotter with a writing pad and pen on top is a little different. It’s called the Show Desktop icon, and clicking it quickly hides all open program windows so you can get a clear view of your Desktop.

Customizing the Desktop

Chances are your Desktop looks a little different from the one in the example. That's because Windows is designed to be tailored to your needs. You can make all sorts of changes to Windows, some cosmetic and some functional.

We'll delve into customizing the Desktop more in later articles in this series. In the meantime, take a look at Figure 2 below to see just how different your Desktop can look.

A customised Windows Me Desktop

Figure 2. One example of a customized Desktop (click the image to see a larger version).

This customized Desktop features a background image, additional shortcuts, carefully positioned icons, and a plethora of programs running in the System Tray and accessible via the Quick Launch bar. Note that two programs are running, even though their windows are not visible on the Desktop. You can tell this because there are two program buttons (one for a Microsoft Word document, the other for a Paint Shop Pro graphic) showing in the Taskbar.

Shutting down

We’ll look at the Taskbar and other parts of the Desktop in more detail in future articles. For now, we’ll finish up with one of the most important techniques: shutting your computer down.

It’s important you turn your computer off correctly. Simply hitting the power switch without closing down properly is a sure way to lose documents you’ve been working on or even to scramble data or programs on your system.

Here’s how to exit from Windows in an orderly fashion:

  1. Close any open programs or documents. Do so by clicking the little X in the top right-hand corner of each open window. If there appear to be two Xs one above the other in a window, click the topmost X.
  2. Click the Start button and select Shut Down. A Shut Down Windows dialog box will appear.
  3. If you’re using Windows 95 or Windows 98, click beside the Shut Down option in the list (so there’s a dot beside that option) and then click OK. If you’re using Windows Me, you should see the option Shut Down displayed in the box underneath the words ‘What do you want your computer to do?’ If it isn’t displayed, click the small downward arrow at the right-hand end of that box and select Shut Down from the list. Then click OK.
  4. A colored screen will appear indicating that Windows is shutting down. After a little while, you’ll see a black screen with the words ‘It’s now safe to turn off your computer’. Switch the computer off (using the power strip switch, if you have one). Some computers switch themselves off automatically; if yours does so, make sure you still switch off all components using the power strip. If the ‘It’s now safe to turn off your computer’ message fails to appear, wait 30 seconds or so and then switch your computer off at the power strip.
  5. Unplug the power strip or computer from the power outlet and disconnect the modem cord from the telephone outlet. It’s important you do this, as your computer can be damaged by lightning strikes even while it is not switched on.


top home basic computing menu