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Cheapskate's guide to software for bargain PCs
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
Simple gray rule


Cheapskate's guide to software for bargain PCs


Technofile for Dec. 6, 1998

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers

Looking for the right software for that new PC? I have some advice for cheapskates.

Keep two things in mind:

  • The "free" software that comes with a cheap PC isn't worth much.
  • Good software doesn't have to cost anything.

Those seem like mutually incompatible things, so let's see what this is all about.

First, manufacturers of PCs love to pack a bunch of CD-ROMs in the box to make you feel like you're getting something for nothing. Usually, you're getting next to nothing for nothing. You get a boring game or two, a useless suite of pointless programs, a financial program that will soak up half your free time just getting it to work with your local bank, and maybe a truly dumb CD like a karaoke collection. (If you don't know what karaoke is, you're sunk. Your teenagers will never forgive you. Let's just say it's a way of singing along with a bad orchestra and let it go at that.)

We'll come back to the first point shortly.

Second, never, ever (and I mean never) buy Internet software. Don't do it. I know stores sell Internet software. Don't buy it. It's all over the Internet and it's free. There may come a time when you absolutely have to buy some sort of Internet software, but that can come later. Don't buy Internet software for your new PC. Period.

Second, Part Two: Don't buy a second-rate word processor. A second-rate word processor comes free with Windows. There are only two kinds of word processors—Microsoft Word and all the rest. If you want a good word processor, get Word 97. Otherwise, use the free one that comes with Windows (called WordPad) or get an even better free one off the Internet. (I'll tell you where to get it later.)

Ready for the details? Clip this out or print it out and keep it handy.

"Free software" that comes with a PC

Do you think Honda would give away cabin cruisers when you buy a Civic? What makes you think PC manufacturers would give away valuable software when you buy a cheap computer? I'm not saying all the software that comes with a cheap PC is useless. But usually it's too close to call.

Take Microsoft Works. Please take Microsoft Works! Microsoft Works comes "free" with hundreds of thousands of PCs each year. Maybe millions. A lot of computer users think Microsoft Works is some sort of junior partner to Microsoft Office. It's actually an invention of the devil. It's not powerful enough to do really important things, it has a word processor that gives a bad name to the word "keyboard," it has a horrible interface that hides what's really going on—and, friends, if you don't know what's going on in Windows you're really in trouble—and it wastes your time by keeping you from using Microsoft Office itself.

(Microsoft Works users, please don't write to tell me how wrong I am. I'll stick with my prejudices, thank you.)

The moral here is that Microsoft Office is the standard suite of important programs for PCs, and nothing can beat it. Beg, wheedle and cajole the store into giving you Microsoft Office at a bargain price (anything under $200 would be fine), or just give your Microsoft Works CD to Uncle Henry (especially if he doesn't have a PC) and buy Office on your own. It will cost you more than $200. (Stores can do things you can't.)

The standard version of Microsoft Office comes with Word 97, Excel (a wonderfully easy-to-use and yet powerful spreadsheet program), PowerPoint (a program that creates what are called presentation graphics—if you know what they are, you need PowerPoint) and Outlook 97. Don't install Outlook 97. Get Outlook 98 from Microsoft's Web site. It's free if you have Office and much, much, much better.

But you need to listen up. Even if you buy Microsoft Office 97 right now, about two years after it first came out, you'll get the old, buggy version. Microsoft never updates its software the sensible way. You have to update it yourself. You'll need two updates, or what Microsoft calls "service releases." First you install Office 97 without Outlook (97 or 98), then you install the first service release, then you install Outlook 98, and finally you install the second service release.

You'd think Microsoft would consider this so important that you'd find instructions pasted to the PC monitor. Fat chance, bud. You need to do all the important stuff yourself. Make it a little easier by using your Web browser to go to http://www.winfiles.com/bugs/offsr.html, a site that helps you get the updates. To get Outlook 98 free, go to http://www.slipstick.com/outlook98/index.html, a site specializing in Outlook, and follow the instructions.

Another moral: Office 97 is a pig. It oinks and soaks up enough memory to hide Nicaragua every time you run one of the programs in this suite. (Somebody with a sense of humor called it a "suite." It should have been called a "sour.") So your PC will need a lot of memory, as I mentioned in the first part of this series.

Office is a pig in two other ways: It slops up your PC's reserve speed by installing the world's biggest slowdown program, unfittingly called "FindFast" (read about it at my site and weep, at http://www.dreamscape.com/afasoldt/texts/tec051798.html), so make sure you follow the instructions on my site and remove it. And it includes the memory-and-time wasting Office Shortcut Bar, an ancient, buggy and badly designed program launcher made superfluous by the Windows 98 launch bar. (Don't install the Shortcut Bar, or remove it if you've already installed it.)

If this is scaring you away from Office and you're just interested in Word 97, don't buy Word 97. It's too expensive by itself. Buy Microsoft Home Essentials 98, a CD-ROM that has Word 97 and some other programs you might find helpful. It's about $100.

Never buy Internet software

Guess where all the world is heading these days? You're only half right if you say the World Wide Web on the Internet. The real answer is Web-based advertising. That's a big audience out there. So how do you make sure people who have computers get to see your ads? You make sure they have Web browsers. And that means you make sure they are free.

King Gillette said it first and said it best: Give away the razors, sell the blades. Microsoft, the king of buck-rakers on the Web, wants you to cruise through its many sites as soon as you figure out how to get Windows to behave. So it gives you a very good Web browser free with Windows. (Microsoft would explain this another way, but we all know what sells, right?) It also hands you a free e-mail program and a free newsgroup program, both equally good.

What other Internet software would you like? Chat? Free from Microsoft. Audio-and-video conferencing? Ditto. Fancier chatting and messaging, along with file transfers and a kind of while-you-were-out messaging? Get ICQ, also free (http://www.icq.com/). A really good ftp (file transfer) program? Free: http://cnyweb.com/nonags/ftpc.html. An image viewer and editor? Free: http://members.home.com/rsimmons/irfanview/.

Don't buy a second-rate word processor

You already know how I feel about Microsoft Word 97. It could be the single best piece of software on the planet. But if you're out to save every penny, don't buy Word 97 or any other word processor. If you have a Windows PC, you have a word processor already. It's called WordPad, and you can read what I really think about it at http://www.dreamscape.com/afasoldt/texts/bkwordpad97.html.

WordPad is a great little word processor, but it doesn't have a spelling checker. So go to http://www.cetussoft.com/ and download a free upgrade to WordPad that has a spelling checker built in.

Karaoke

My conscience will not rest until I explain what karaoke is. It's vocal music without the vocals. You sing along with the band. The Japanese—the same folks who invented raw fish and big swords—go crazy over karaoke. They get drunk and sing along with CDs at nightclubs. Americans are a sober lot, I guess. Karaoke is just another weird thing here.


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