A to Z of computing

someone's hand on a laptop 

Baffled by broadband? Vexed by viruses. Kate Williamson helps you to get the most out of your computer with our 26-part guide

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A is for accessibility

Companies are legally obliged to consider disabled people when designing their websites. They should allow users to boost text size and support screen-reading software.

B is for broadband

‘If you intend to download movies, you will need a limit higher than 10GB and a speel of up to 8MB,’ says Michael Phillips of independent comparison site Broadband Choices. ‘For basic surfing, email, banking and sharing photos you require a download limit of 2 to 4GB and a speed of 2MB – although 8MB is becoming the standard.’

Decide whether it’s worth getting a ‘bundle’, where you get landline and digital TV with your broadband. ‘If you don’t use your landline then take a stand alone broadband package.’ says Michael.

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C is for computer courses

The BBC offers Computer Tutor and Website courses, and Learn Direct also offers a range of home and office IT subjects.

If you’d rather have face-to-face tuition, most local authorities offer plenty of articles and free advice online. Try your service provider, but bear in mind that customer service lines can be costly.

D is for downloading music

Downloads can be an extremely convenient way to buy music. Digital music comes in three main formats: MP3 is free and universal but Microsoft’s MWA and Apple’s (maker of the ubiquitous iPod) AAC offer far better sound in smaller files. The downside is that both include digital rights management (DRM) codes that control what you can do  with purchased music, stopping you from transferring it to non-approved devices or burning more than a set number of CDs. Another big annoyance for iPod fans is that it will not play WMA files, severely limiting choice. The going rate for tracks is currently 79p.

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E is for email

Should you use your internet service providers' (ISP) email service or a web based service such as Hotmail or Gmail?

It depends whether you use broadband or dial-up says Sue Price, author of Computing for Seniors in Easy Steps. ‘If you get email from your ISP, most use Outlook or Outlook Express. This only connects when you send or receive mail, which is ideal with a dial-up connection. You can take as long as you like reading or writing emails and only pay when you connect.’

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F is for finding the right equipment

‘Check the screen size, especially if you have problems with your eyesight. Look for at least a 17-inch screen to view things comfortably,’ says author Sue Price.

The surest way to get the computer you want is to make a list of everything you want it to do and take it to the shop with you. If you want to use your computer to store digital photos and videos you’ll need a better graphics card – at least 128MB of memory.

G is for Google

The key to effective web searching with the likes of Google, says Dan Gookin, author of PCs for Dummies, is to stick with key words and use the most important ones first.

‘If you’re looking for an efficient toaster you should type in toaster efficient instead of efficient toaster. Also, use double quotes to keep words together. They can also help you search for the little words. For example, to find fire and ice use: “fire and ice” .’ He adds: ‘Use the minus sign (-) to remove references. For example, if the cheese you’re searching for is also the name of a boy band, typing stilton-music directs the search engine to look for stilton but not list pages with the word music.’

H is for Homepage

The first or main page of a website, usually containing more detailed links to other sections or content. You can normally get to a Homepage by clicking on a site's logo at the top of the page.

I is for internet entrepreneurs

Business consultant Nick James runs a support group for online entrepreneurs where a significant proportion of the members are over 50. ‘They’re not looking to become dotcom millionaires but just use their free time to add a little extra to their pensions,’ he says.

Ebay is a good place to start selling stuff, or you can sell your second-hand books or DVDs via Amazon.

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J is for jargon

Dont know your megabytes from your motherboard? Or your URL from your USB? Using a computer means learning another language. But don’t panic – online jargon lists will spell everything out for you, and explain what to do, in plain English.

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K is for keeping in touch

More than 100,000 Facebook users are ages 64 and older. The social networking website enables you to build a profile, keep in touch with friends, view photos, and so on.

There are downsides: your profile is your billboard to the world, so never give details that might allow criminals to steal your identity – such as your exact address, home phone number or your bank account details. Check your privacy settings, or your profile could appear in search engines.

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L is for learning

The BBC website offers some great resources to brush up on most European languages, plus Mandarin Chinese and Urdu.

The University of the Third Age runs online courses on a range of subjects, from botany to Renaissance Italy, and the Open University has online components in most courses.

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M is for mobiles

Mobile phones are morphing into a universal source of information, help and advice, thanks to their ability to surf the web easily.

For comfortable surfing, you need a smartphone with a big, sharp screen such as Nokia’s popular N95, with a brilliant display and 8GB of memory, Sony Ericsson’s P1 or Apple's iPhone.

The networks are introducing ‘all you can eat’ mobile web tariffs that make surfing much cheaper. T-mobile’s Web’n’walk, for example, starts at £22 a month including 170 minutes of talk and ‘unlimited’ surfing. Orange and Three both offer a days surfing for £1. Watch the terms and conditions however.

N is for news

RSS feeds help you to filter the news so you are alerted to the stories that interest you without having to plough through the sources yourself. They allow you to see when your favourite websites have added new content and you can get the latest stories straight to your desktop free. Look for the orange RSS logo.

O is for open access

Don't have a computer at home? The People’s Network provides free internet access in public libraries across the UK. UK Online centres can help you to learn the basic computing skills that can get you online. Call 0800 771 234 for further details.

However, public computers may not be suitable for internet banking or shopping, so make sure you log off any sites you visit and always wipe your history. To do this, open the internet link and click on the ‘tools’ menu, then ‘internet options’, then ‘clear history’.

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P is for photos

Organising the photos from you digital camera on your computer makes them easy to store and share. With many shops, including Snappy Snaps and Kodak, you can email pictures in and get prints by post. Back up your images to a CD or an external hard drive.

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Q is for quick tips

In the help section of most programs you will find a list of keyboard shortcuts that will help you to copy, paste, quit and so on which cuts down switching from keyboard to mouse and back.

R is for RSI

Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is an umbrella term for injury to the muscles of the hands, wrists, arms or shoulders by overuse, particularly from typing.

Symptoms include numbness and tingling in hand and fingers. The RSI Awareness campaign offers advice on how to avoid and treat the condition.

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S is for safe online shopping

Roger Shaw, author of The Silver Surfers’ Guide to Online Shopping, has a few tips for wary shoppers. ‘When giving your card details make sure the page has a yellow padlock,’ he says. ‘This indicates a secure page. You could also apply for another card and ask your provider to set you a low credit limit and use this for internet transactions.’

Another option is PayPal, which enables you to shop online with your debit or credit card or bank account without sharing financial details with the seller. Apacs, the UK payments accociation, advises signing up for Verified by Visa and MasterCard SecureCode, which allow you to register a private password with your debit or credit card company. Join online or ask your bank for details.

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T is for talking

Talk is cheap – and online it can even be free. By downloading software from providers such as Skype or GoogleTalk you can call other users all over the world for free, and all you need to buy is a headset, which costs around £5.

If you both have webcams you can make free video calls – great if you have relatives abroad. But you can’t make emergency calls on Skype of GoogleTalk.

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U is for upkeep

To keep your PC in top condition, you need to keep it clean – both on the outside, by cleaning screens and keyboards, and inside.

Dan Gookin says: ‘First, do have Windows automatically update itself. Back up the files and keeping that copy in a safe place. Perform disk maintenance every so often: check the hard drive for errors and run a disk defragmentation programme.’

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V is for virus protection

It’s quite easy to install protection. Sue Price says: ‘Most PCs will offer you free virus protection, possibly with a 30-day trial for upgrades such as Norton or Zone Alarm. AVG has a free virus protection download from its website.’

She adds: ‘Windows has a built-in firewall, which is adequate for most purposes.’ To check yours is turned on, see your control panel under ‘start’.

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W is for wi-fi

Nearly all modern laptops have wi-fi (wireless internet connection) capabilities and many locations, such as cafes, railway stations and airports, have wireless access points.

But is wi-fi secure? Dan Gookin says: ‘For a home network set-up, especially if it's password protected or allows limited access, security is fine.’ But you should think twice about sending sensitive information over the internet in a public area where it could be intercepted.

X is for warning

Apacs, the main industry voice on e-banking fraud, advises people to be wary of unsolicited emails – called ‘phishing’ – or calls asking for personal details or card numbers.

Always access banking websites by typing the web addresses into your web browser. Never go to a website from a link in an email. Forward phishing emails to reports@banksafeonline.org.uk (this helps to track new scams).

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Y is for YouTube

YouTube allows everyone to upload and view video clips online.

One of its main attractions last year was Geriatric1927, a 79-year-old man from the Peak District who recounted his wartime experiences and everyday grumbles on his online video posts.

If fame doesnt appeal, you can set privacy settings so that only family and friends can see your videos.

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Z is for Zzzzzz

Remember to turn off your computer at night. The energy used by office equipment left on standby over Christmas is, apparently, enough to roast 4.4 million turkeys.

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