Taming the Power of a PC

Taming the Power of a PC
By Reid Goldsborough

Like many machines, personal computers have the ability to both empower and alienate. Only they do it better. On the one hand, PCs enable you to accomplish several tasks — what previously took many people — boosting your productivity and freeing you from needing to work with others. With the right hardware and software and with preferably a fast Internet connection, you can be your own company.

On the other hand, PCs promote an electronic shut-in mentality that, at its dehumanizing extreme, can lead to the pathology of teen-agers playing out in real life the killing contests glorified by video games.

Still, computer hardware continues to get smarter, cheaper and better.

Multifunction printers have been around for a while, combining three or four devices into one, but the latest are the greatest, letting you do more for less.

The well-regarded Lexmark X5150 , for instance, which at $150 costs no more than a decent ink jet printer, prints black-and-white text and color photos, scans in black and white or color, converts scanned text into words that can be edited, faxes documents created on your computer or freestanding pages, and copies in black-and-white or color. And it does all this at impressive speeds.

You’ll still get slightly better quality from a dedicated printer or scanner compared with using an all-in-one device. And if one component malfunctions, you won’t be able to use the other components until you get the machine fixed. But you can’t beat the versatility.

Computer software has taken a similar path, with individual programs combining multiple tasks that previously took multiple programs. Office software goes by this name because it lets you perform most of the computing tasks you need to run a typical office.

Microsoft Office continues to be the standard bearer here, performing well in carrying out its word churning, number crunching, data keeping, and communication and presentation chores. Only it costs a pretty penny, about $225 for an individual just to upgrade to the Office XP standard package from a previous version of the suite.

Microsoft archrival Sun Microsystems would really like to see you use its products instead, and it sells a competing and largely compatible office suite for a lot less. StarOffice costs about $75 for a small office or home user and from $60 to $25 per user for businesses, with larger orders getting a bigger discount. Educational use is scot-free.

The Internet lets you be even more independent. With a fast cable or DSL connection, you can act as your own support and research staff, getting answers quickly.

Have a question about your computer setup? Check out one of the support forums at Computing.Net . Want advice about buying products and services ranging from autos and cameras to hotels and telephones? Read others’ views at Epinions.com . Need to check a fact or figure? Use the almanacs, atlas, dictionary or encyclopedia at InfoPlease.com .

To help prevent the bad guys from getting to your data or taking control of your PC via the Internet, you need protection, and software for this has also applied the bundled approach.

The leading package, Symantec Internet Security , includes tools to automatically ward off computer viruses, keep hackers at bay, protect your personal information, keep spam from sapping your productivity, and prevent information of a salacious or gratuitously violent nature from reaching children. The program unfortunately forces you to upgrade it annually to obtain the latest antivirus and security data, though these subscriptions have become a necessary expense to avoid problems in today’s computing environment.

There’s a downside to all this computing versatility and the independence it can provide. In the ethereal glow of the screen, smitten with the machine’s power, you can potentially become enslaved and crippled. If you cede control to the technology rather than controlling it, you’ll become its fodder.

The Columbine disaster and more recent Oaklyn near-disaster, in which teen-agers treated their world as a giant shoot-’em-up video game, are just the most extreme results when an over-reliance on technology intersects with other problems. On an everyday level, interacting too much with a PC can cause you to interact too little with people, which can cause problems in your professional, academic or personal life.

The “I can do it myself” epiphany is enticing. But without the fellowship of others in the flesh and the stabilizing effect of community, we risk letting our demons out. As Dr. Joyce Brothers told me once, “Computers don’t replace face-to-face contact, the touch of a hand.”

As with much else, balance is key.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or .



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