Common technology questions and basic computer concepts

Basic computer concepts for the home userIn this section we are covering technology questions and basic computer concepts from the perspective of a typical home user.

The first question is obviously, "What computer should I buy?"

Anyone who answers your question "What computer should I buy?" without first asking a few questions back, does not understand the question.

How much computer do you need?

Too often people set out shopping for a computer without first making a list of what they expect the computer to do for them. This is the most common reason for unfulfilled expectations when it comes to technology.

Technology is ever changing, at a very rapid pace. Depending on your level of technical knowledge, expectations of what technology can do will vary widely. Even those who have been around technology for years will sometime make the most common of errors by buying individual devices, without planning how they fit into the total picture. In business today you hear a lot about the thirty thousand foot view. It's all about looking at the total picture, rather than any one thing.

Never lose sight of the fact that technology is just a tool. The finest tools do not turn a novice craftsman into a master. Your financial adviser will tell you the importance of sound financial planning, so if so if you view a computer as a tool to automate your life, it makes sense to plan your technology purchases. Planning involves some work, but all you need to get started is a pencil and paper.

Starting on a piece of paper, write down your thoughts on a few basic questions. What is in it for me, what benefits do you expect from the system? If you could have anything, what would it be? What would you like to have available to you?

What brand to buy? And where do you buy it?

If you think of a computer as a tool, to organize your life, or increase your productivity, then where you buy your computer should be more of an ongoing relationship, rather than a one time occurrence.

The best analogy I ever heard on defining value: if you knew you had to jump out of a plane, where would you buy a parachute? Someone who'd been in the business for awhile might be able to help. I know I'd try to find a place that specialized in parachutes. I know I wouldn't trust buying it from the Cheapo-mart.

Speaking strictly from the viewpoint of Windows computers, I stick with the major name brands like HP and Lenovo.  If you sign up for their mailing list on the HP and Lenovo websites they will bombard you with sales, but often have very good deals.

I stay away from the no-name brands, and the low end stuff.  I have years of experience on how the cheap stuff doesn't hold up.

Where do you go from here?

In this section we are covering concepts from the perspective of a typical home user. On computer basics we will go over the definitions of a personal computer system and then cover some common questions on your personal computer use such as setting up a wireless network and buying a printer.

If you want to learn more, the sections that follow will go into desktop computer troubleshooting and computer networking concepts.

Many of the articles written for this website were written many years ago, and get revised from time to time.  We purposely try not put anything in them which would age them quickly. Many of the concepts do not age over time as much as you would guess.

If you are not sure what is the best technology choice for you, and you need some ideas, check out the Guru 42 small business and technology blog where we share our views and comments on the technology news of the day.


Desktop personal computer system basic parts defined

Desktop ComputerIf you are studying personal computers as the beginning of your career in technology, or perhaps you are just trying to understand how things work on your home computer to better deal with problems and upgrades, you can't get away with not knowing some very basic definitions of the components of a desktop personal computer system.

Computer hardware is the collection of physical elements that make up a computer system such as a hard disk drive (HDD), monitor, mouse, keyboard, CD-ROM drive, network card, system board, power supply, case, and video card.

The main system board is sometimes called the motherboard. It is the central printed circuit board (PCB) in and holds many of the crucial components of the system, providing connectors for other peripherals.

The central processing unit (CPU)
, the brain of a computer system is the main component on the main system board. The CPU carries out the instructions of computer programs, performs the basic arithmetical, logical, and input/output operations of the system.

System boards will have expansion slots, a CPU socket or slot, location for memory cache and RAM, and a keyboard connector. Other components may also be present. A slot is a narrow notch, groove, or opening. A socket is a hollow piece or part into which something fits. Systemboards contain both sockets and slots, which are the points at which devices can be plugged in. A CPU slot is long and narrow while a CPU socket is square.

RAM (Random Access Memory), is the computer's primary storage which holds programming code and data that is being processed by the CPU.

A hard disk drive (HDD) is called secondary storage while memory is called primary storage because programs cannot be executed from secondary storage but must first be moved to primary storage. Basically, the CPU cannot "reach" the program still in secondary storage for execution.

ROM is read-only memory. ROM chips, located on circuit boards, are used to hold programming code that is permanently stored on the chip.

Flash ROM can be reprogrammed whereas regular ROM cannot be. In order to change the programming code of regular ROM, the chip must be replaced. Upgrades to Flash ROM can be downloaded from the Internet.

BIOS stands for basic input-output system.
It is used to manage the startup of the computer and ongoing input and output operations of basic components, such as a floppy disk or hard drive.

Computer software is a collection of computer programs and related data that provide the instructions for telling a computer what to do.

System software provides the basic functions for computer usage and helps run the computer hardware. An operating system is a type of software that controls a computers output and input operations, such as saving files and managing memory. Common operating systems are typically Windows based, but personal computers can also use an Apple or Linux based operating system as well.

Application software is computer software designed to perform specific tasks. Common applications include word processing such as Writer, a spread sheet such as Microsoft Excel, and business accounting such as Quick Books by Intuit.

What is the difference between a PC (personal computer) and a workstation

In a business environment you may have a computer on your desk that is very similar to the computer you have at home, but there is one major difference, the work computer is managed as part of a LAN (local area network) that contains many other computers. In the next section we define networking terms and go into a bit more detail on the concept of a LAN.

Some definitions will state that a workstation computer is faster and more powerful than a personal computer. Not necessarily. Terms like "faster and more powerful" are pretty ambiguous. The difference is a bit more clear-cut, it is a point of reference in how they are used.

In your home you have a personal computer, it is the center of your personal technology universe. When you open up an application, it is on that computer. When you create a data file, like a Word document, you save it to that computer.

When you open up an application, it may be installed on your local computer, or it may be installed on an application server somewhere on your LAN. When you create a data file on your workstation, like a Word document, you save it to your personal directory on a file server that is on your LAN.

Many years ago when computer systems were expensive, all the work was done on a mainframe, a huge computer surrounded by geeks in a special room. The end users had dumb terminals, meaning there was a keyboard and a monitor at your desk, but the box they attached to on your desk was called a dumb terminal because it did not do any work, it was dumb!

The concept of the workstation is that some of the "work" is done locally at your desktop, but some of the work could also be done on a computer somewhere else, in the case of the LAN, that somewhere else would be a server.

Wireless Networks in Simple Terms WLAN and Wi-Fi defined

Wi-FiThe term Wi-Fi is often used as a synonym for wireless local area network (WLAN). Specifically the term "Wi-Fi" is a trademark of a trade association known as the Wi-Fi Alliance. From a technical perspective WLAN technology is defined by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

In computer networking everything starts with the physical layer, which for many years was a copper wire. The physical layer was expanded to include anything that represent the wire, such as fiber optic cable, infrared or radio spectrum technology.

Wireless network refers to any type of computer network that is not connected by cables of any kind. While cell phone technology is often discussed as a form of wireless networking, it is not the same as the wireless local area network (WLAN) technology discussed here.

What is Wi-Fi?

The term Wi-Fi has often been used as a technical term to describe wireless networking. Wi-Fi is actually a trademark of the Wi-Fi Alliance, a global non-profit trade association formed in 1999 to promotes WLAN technology. Manufacturers may use the Wi-Fi trademark to brand products if they are certified by The Wi-Fi Alliance to conform to certain standards.

A common misconception is that Wi-Fi is an acronym of Wireless fidelity, it is not. The Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance wanted a cooler name for the new technology as the IEEE 802.11b Alliance was not all that catchy. The marketing company Interbrand, known for creating brand names, was hired to create a brand name to market the new technology, and the name Wi-Fi was chosen. The term 'Wi-Fi' with the dash, is a trademark of the Wi-Fi Alliance.

IEEE 802.11 defines WLAN technology

The actual technical standards for wireless local area network (WLAN) computer communication are know as IEEE 802.11. IEEE refers to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers a non-profit professional association formed in 1963 by the merger of the Institute of Radio Engineers and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.

IEEE 802 refers to a family of IEEE standards dealing with networks carrying variable size packets, which makes it different from cell phone based networks, 802.11 is a subset of the family specific to WLAN technology. Victor "Vic" Hayes was the first chair of the IEEE 802.11 group which finalized the wireless standard in 1997.

How fast is Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi speed is rated according to maximum theoretical network bandwidth defined in the IEEE 802.11 standards.

For example:

IEEE 802.11b - up to 11 Mbps

IEEE 802.11a - up to 54 Mbps

IEEE 802.11n - up to 300 Mbps

IEEE 802.11ac - up to 1 Gbps

IEEE 802.11ad - up to 7 Gbps

Wi-Fi is defined by the IEEE 802.11 Wireless LANs standards: This link takes you to the 802.11 specification that contains all the geek speak on how it works. --> IEEE-SA -IEEE Get 802 Program

If you look at the IEEE 802.11 Wireless LANs standards you will see the ongoing evolution with several standards under development at this time to increase speeds even more.

Keep in mind that WiFi speed is how fast your internal network is, as in wireless LANs (Local Area Network)

Fast Wi-Fi does not mean fast internet connection, it has nothing to do with the speed or bandwidth of you internet access.

How does Wi-Fi work?

A Wi-Fi enabled device such as a personal computer or video game console can connect to the Internet when within range of a device such as a wireless router connected to the Internet. wireless local area network (WLAN) technology allows your device to connect to the router, which in turn connects you to the internet.

In order to connect to the internet, you need a unique IP (internet protocol) address. On your home network, when your router is connected to the internet, it has a public address, that is the one that faces the internet, and is unique in relationship of other routers on the internet.

Your router also has a local IP Address of something like and this is a private IP address space. Addresses beginning with 192.168 cannot be transmitted onto the public Internet and are typically used for home local area networks (LANs).

If you have four home computers, your router creates a home network and the four home computers have a unique number in relationship to each other. Your local computers connect to the router, either by a wire plugged into the router, or through a wireless signal.

Routers are used to create logical borders between networks, and in this allow a gateway, such as an access point to the internet to be shared. In geek speak terms subnetting can be very complex, but what is happening here is the process know as subnetting.


See Also:

Wi-Fi concepts: WAP, wireless adapters, and ad hoc

Understanding Home Wireless Network Security


Wi-Fi Alliance

Wi-Fi Stands for...Nothing

Living Legend: Vic Hayes 802.11 wireless is stimulating innovation worldwide







Understanding Home Wireless Network Security

Wi-Fi SecurityWould you allow a total stranger into your house and have him use your personal computer? 

Your reply back to that may be, I have a lot of bandwidth to spare, what do I care if the guy in the apartment next to me steals a piece of my network connection. Stealing internet access is only one part of the picture in wireless security.  

The other part, as our question suggests, is giving someone access to your wireless router is like allowing them access to your house.  If you have a home network, you probably have Microsoft file sharing turned on to share files between your computers.  Do you want your files shared with total strangers?

There are thieves cruising apartment complexes not because they are looking to steal a little internet bandwidth, but because they are looking to steal your identity.  They want those files on your computer with you account numbers, and the user names and passwords to access those accounts.

You need to enable some type of wireless security on your router to keep strangers from accessing your personal network.

Secure your wireless network router

First and foremost, make sure you change the default password on your router.  Typically the router is set to default settings, with the user admin and the password is admin. Change the admin password!

The next step is to choose a type of wireless security mode.  You'll see a few choices on your router, here's a quick run down of the basics. 

Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) is a security protocol released in the late 1990s as a way to provide security in a wireless network comparable to that of a traditional wired network. 

The more recent and more secure protocols are Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) and Wi-Fi Protected Access II (WPA2). Both were developed by the Wi-Fi Alliance to secure wireless computer networks. The current recommendation of the Wi-Fi Alliance is the use of  WPA2 encryption.

If the Wi-Fi Alliance recommends WPA2 encryption, you might ask, why is there even a choice.  If you have multiple wireless devices, you have to drop back to the lowest common denominator. From best to worst is WPA2, WPA, and WEP.  Use WPA2 if your device allows it.  If you have one device that can only work with WEP, then all the devices must be set to WEP.  The newer equipment can drop back to the old encryption schemes, but the older equipment can not use the newer schemes.

You may see other choices other than the three mentioned here, but they are for more advanced business use. The focus of this article is for home use, or small business use. 

The last step in securing your wireless router is choosing a secure shared key.  This is the password, sometimes called a pass phase, will be entered on the router, and entered again on each device as it is configured.  Use a strong password, that is something that is at least 8 digits long that is a combination of letters and numbers.  The less easy the password can be guessed, the more secure you are.  If your network name is MyBusiness make your pass phase something much more complex than MyBusiness1.
Other Settings on Your Wireless Network Router

One additional method of security that is often mentioned is disabling the broadcast of SSID.  This means that the name of your network will not be visible to wireless devices.

While you can make the argument that selecting disable on the Wireless SSID Broadcast is an additional layer of security.  If you have secured your wireless router as we have discussed in the previous section, someone being able to see the network will not be able to easily access it, and in many cases disabling the broadcast of SSID is more of a pain than a security enhancement.

You may also see some settings for the Wireless MAC Filter on your router, and it is also sometimes mentioned as another layer of security.  For the typical home or small business network this feature is another case of minimal extra protection, with the possibility of creating problems, rather than resolving them.

The most basic, and easiest, way to secure your router is to use the strongest encryption method possible, and use the most complex password you can.  As with the analogy of the thieves cruising your apartment complex looking for a network with an open door, they will most likely pass on the locked door if they can find one close by that is unlocked.

Wireless local area network concepts WAP and ad hoc defined

Wi-Fi concepts

People get confused because many small technology appliances made for home use are actually several devices in one. One of my pet peeves on is when people use the term "Wireless Router" to describe a device that is both a wireless access point and a router.

What is a wireless access point?

A Wireless Access Point (WAP) is a networking hardware device which, as the name describes, gives you wireless access to your LAN (local area network).You have a wired connection, an RJ 45 port in your wall, that is wired access. You want to convert that to a wireless access point. It has nothing to do with routing or switching.

Depending on the type and complexity of the network, the WAP (Wireless access point) could be something simple similar to a network switch which is simply a management device that connects the wireless part of the network to the network as a whole.

In a very small home network the WAP could be part of the router where one appliance has multiple features to in in the management of the network. What you might call a router in your home may actually be a router, and a switch, and a wireless access point.

What are wireless access points used for?

In the business world Wireless Access Points (WAP) are fairly common. On a business network your desktop computers (workstations) are connected via wire, but you probably have several WAPs (Wireless Access Points) for your laptop users.

If you are a visitor to a business network you may notice WAPs set up for office staff as well as visitors. This is becoming very common. You see this in government locations, perhaps even where you get your car serviced you can take your notebook into a lounge where you can use a "guest network" to connect to the internet.

Let's say you have a large home, and it is wired for data, as in it has ethernet ports through out your home. You have a wired connection, an RJ 45 port in your wall, that is wired access. You want to convert that to a wireless access point. It has nothing to do with routing or switching. In wireless communications the "media" is a type of radio wave that communicates from your wireless adapter to the Wireless Access Point.

If your home office is in the basement, and that is the location of your current connection device (router, switch, wireless access point) where everything plugs in. On the second floor of your house you have an ethernet port in your bedroom, but you want to use a tablet to surf the web, or perhaps use some internet appliance with your bedroom television. The signal from the wireless access point in your basement is too weak. You don't need to purchase another device that is a router and switch and WAP, all you need is the WAP (wireless access point). So you simply buy a device that is ONLY a WAP, and plug it into your ethernet connection.

What is a wireless adapter?

Comparing a wireless network to a wired one, in a wired network your computer workstation has a NIC (Network Interface Card) which in a typical Ethernet network has an RJ-45 jack on it where the network cable plugs into your computer. From your computer the other end of the network cable plugs into some other type of device such as a switch or router, where traffic on your network is managed and distributed. On a wireless network the wireless adapter takes the place of the NIC.

How do I use ad hoc on a wireless network?

Ad hoc networks refer to networks created for a particular purpose. They are often created on-the-fly and for one-time or temporary use. If you don’t have a crossover cable to connect two notebooks or netbooks you can use their wireless capabilities to exchange files between without the need for any other than the computer itself. Instead of configuring your wireless adapter to connect to a wireless access point or router, you configure your wireless adapter to connect to another computer.

In the wireless world an ad hoc network is the equivalent of a peer to peer network. In very small home networks, you may have two or three computers where you share resources between them, and to do so you set up a "peer to peer" network. Much like peer to peer networks in the wired world, ad hoc networks have management and security issues beyond that of the typical infrastructure network.

If your computer never leaves your house, having it set up to share files with another computer in your home may not be an issue you have to worry about. On the other hand, if you travel with your computer, having ad hoc set up on your portable computer could create issues. Wireless devices in ad hoc mode offer minimal security against unwanted incoming connections, and there is a large security risk in using an ad hoc connection to an unknown computer, as you are exposing your computer to file sharing with strangers.

In some cases computers in public are purposely set up to look for and connect to other computers in ad hoc mode in order to steal information from them. When using your computer in public hotspots you typically will be looking for a Wireless Network Connection, and ignore an attempt to connect with a strange computer using an ad hoc connection.

What is a Wi-Fi access point?

The term Wi-Fi is often used as a synonym for wireless local area network (WLAN), but the terms "wireless access point" and "Wi-Fi" are not synonyms. Specifically the term "Wi-Fi" is a trademark of a trade association known as the Wi-Fi Alliance. The marketing company Interbrand, known for creating brand names, was hired to create a brand name to market the new technology, and the name Wi-Fi was chosen. The term "Wi-Fi" with the dash, is a trademark of the Wi-Fi Alliance.

From a technical perspective WLAN technology is defined by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). IEEE 802 refers to a family of IEEE standards dealing with networks carrying variable size packets, which makes it different from cell phone based networks, 802.11 is a subset of the family specific to WLAN technology. Victor "Vic" Hayes was the first chair of the IEEE 802.11 group which finalized the wireless standard in 1997.

In computer networking you would use the term Wireless Access Point (WAP) rather than Wi-Fi access point. A Wireless Access Point (WAP) is a device that offers, as the name suggests, wireless access to a wireless local area network (WLAN). While cell phone technology is often discussed as a form of wireless networking, it is not the same as the wireless local area network (WLAN) technology discussed here.



Related article:

Wireless Networks in Simple Terms WLAN and Wi-Fi defined

Learn more:

This link takes you to the 802.11 specification that contains all the geek speak on how it works. --> IEEE-SA -IEEE Get 802 Program

Living Legend: Vic Hayes 802.11 wireless is stimulating innovation worldwide

Basic computer networking terms defined





Understanding the True Cost of an Inkjet Printer

Is it Cheaper to Buy a New Printer Than it is to Just Replace the Ink?

Throwing away money?Throughout the internet you will find many articles asking the question, is it cheaper to buy a new printer than it is to just replace the ink cartridges. We will explore the various aspects and angles of this question.

Proving the Premise

For the sake of proving the premise of the question, we shopped the website, and selected an inexpensive printer, the HP Deskjet 1000 Printer which sells for $29.99. 

According to the product specifications the printer comes with one HP 61 black cartridge with a yield of approximately 190 pages and one HP 61 tri-color cartridge with a yield of  approximately 165 pages.

On the very same website we can order a new HP 61 Black Ink Cartridge which according to the specifications the cartridge yield is approx. 190 pages, for a price of  $13.99. Also the HP 61 Tricolor Ink Cartridge with a yield of approx. 165 pages, costs $19.99.  The cost to replace both ink cartridges is $33.98.

So at least on the surface, we have proven the basic premise that is it cheaper to buy a new printer than it is to just replace the ink cartridges. But now let us explore some other issues.

The Myth of the Unfilled Ink Cartridge

Many articles on the internet claim that the new printer comes with starter ink cartridges that are nearly empty, that they are not as filled as the ones you buy to replace them.  In the case of our shopping example this is not the case.

The Myth of Inkjet Refills

There are many places selling refilled cartridges with the claims of saving money over buying the manufacturers brands. There are also various kits sold for refilling ink cartridges. I have worked in various capacities as a technician representing both companies that sold printers and copiers, as well as supported them as an employee working for the company using the printers. Refilling ink cartridges or using cartridges from companies that refill them is a very mixed bag. 

I have not seen consistent results from refilled cartridges. Because of numerous problems, I urge companies not to use refilled cartridges, or try filling them on their own. If you are looking to save money on ink cartridges, there are other things to consider, and that I would recommend, instead of using refilled cartridges.

Always print in Black

If you do the math on the ink cartridges in our example you will see that that the cost per copy on the color cartridge is about 12 cents per copy, while the black costs around 7 cents per copy. The cartridge yields are based on printing a standard test page.  A densely colored document will use ink even faster. How many times do you print a  multicolor page just for the sake of some text data that does not need to be in color?

Consider printing text documents only in black, and save color only for photos.  If you look at the printing preferences on the printer set up of your printer in the operating system, you will find the option "Grayscale Printing" which will disable the color printing and have your output from the printer only use the black cartridge. While you are looking at your print settings you might also want to look to see if your printer offers a less than standard print quality.  Sometimes you will see a fast or economy mode,  while decreasing the quality of the output, it also uses less ink.

Of course the easiest way to cut down on printing costs is to carefully choose what you print. Do you print e-mails with just a few lines of text just so you can read them later?

Consider a Laser Printer Instead of an InkJet.

The price of a black Laser Printer costs several times that of an inkjet, and the price of a toner cartridge will cost a lot more than an inkjet printer. Don't let the initial sticker shock scare you.  If you calculate the actual cost per copy of laser printer, you are looking at something closer to the 2 to 4 cents per copy price range, which is significantly cheaper than the inkjet.  Calculate the cost per copy savings over time, and figure out how long it will take to recover the initial upfront costs. It may not take all that long at all.

There are other advantages of a Laser Printer over an Ink Jet.  Laser Printer documents hold up better than ink jet documents. Some Ink Jet documents smear if exposed to water or moisture, and fade over time. Ink cartridges may dry up, while toner cartridges have a longer life span if not in use.

In a business environment I strongly urge folks to focus on cost per copy, rather than cost per printer.  The price of laserjets have dropped dramatically in recent years. If you have multiple workstations each having their own inkjet printer attached to them, it does not take long at all to justify the cost of a shared laser printer. If you are printing more than a few hundred pages a month, you should be looking at a laser printer.

Why not just replace the printer, instead of buying ink cartridges?

The analogy most often used to explain why the low end printers seem to cost so little is that of giving away the razor to sell the razor blades. In that sense, it does seem that every year there is a new razor being made that uses a new type of razor blade that is different than any other.

In the simplest scenario replacing the printer instead of buying ink cartridges may seem to make sense, but only at the very low end of the spectrum. A copier, fax, printer combination unit will cost a lot more than the simple printer, but still use the same ink cartridges.  In this case it does not make sense to replace it when the ink runs out, so the other tips here come into play.

A very minor consideration, but potential issue, is that with every new printer you buy, that requires new drivers and software to be installed on your computer. Anytime you install a new printer you have the possibility of formatting issues with documents created for the old printer, using the old printer's drivers.

One more consideration, that comes up quite a bit in our world today is the waste in our world. How environmentally friendly is it to throw away a fully functional printer for the sake of saving a dollar on an ink cartridge?

Shop Wisely

With any device such as a printer or copier, that uses consumable supplies, like toner or ink, do some homework before buying.  The cost of the device itself is only a small part of the total picture. Even on more expensive devices, what appears to be a bargain, because the cost of the device appears cheaper, may not be a great deal because of the price of supplies. Check out the price of the device, as well as the price and yield of supplies. Estimate your usage over time and calculate true costs,

Models of devices change often. The product chosen in this example was simply to illustrate the point and no endorsement is intended. The author has no connection to HP in anyway, prices and and information was taken from the website at the time the article was written.