Tips for New Computer Users & New Internet Surfers

So you've finally made the plunge and gotten yourself a computer and hooked up to the Internet. Good for you! You'll be embarking on an adventure into a bold new medium still just in its infancy. We are currently in the World Wide Web's Golden Age; enjoy it! You may soon find as many already have that the Internet becomes an indispensable part of your daily life; many everyday activities are either less expensive or more convenient through it.

General Computer Tips

The first thing for new computer users to get over is the fear of breaking something. A good computer need be no more fragile than a cheap TV. One of the best uses of computer games is as a tool to get around computer fear and just become more used to it as an appliance. The second thing for new computer users to get over is the fear of deleting something or messing something up. This one is a little harder to get over, because on many popular computer systems it is actually easy for a beginner to delete something that shouldn't be deleted and/or mess things up. With time you'll get experience on your system and it shouldn't be a problem.

One of the first things people notice once they start looking at computers is that they come in different flavors and people talk a lot about "compatibility" with one flavor or another. The proper term for "flavor" here is actually "platform", and it is a combination of both the underlying hardware that make up the machine and the lowest level software (called its Operating System, or OS) running on top of it. If any of these terms are unfamiliar to you, you may want to take a quick scan of the basic section of the Computer Terms Glossary or specifically look up the terms that you don't understand with its Search Interface. In any case, the truth of the matter is that there are two different kinds of compatibility between different platforms: binary compatibility and data compatibility. In this day and age, it doesn't matter whether you have a PC or a Mac or a UNIX machine -- data compatibility is close to a reality and binary compatibility is fantasy (with the possible exception of Java programs). In fact, the situation on binary compatibility is worse than the average person realizes: there are several different operating systems in common usage just on PCs (in fact there are over half a dozen different types of just MS-Windows alone) that all lack full binary compatibility with each other. Fortunately in practice it's the data compatibility that matters; you want to be able to exchange documents with co-workers and typically you can even if they're all using PCs or UNIX systems and you're using a Mac.

Once you've mastered one platform it's pretty easy to move to another. As time goes on the look and feel of all computers is tending toward a common area; already the differences between using two different computers for common functions are not all that much greater than the differences between driving two different cars. The layout of the dash will change, but with a little driving experience you'll know what to look for and have good guesses as to where. Different platforms are good for different things just as different cars are good at different things. Macs have the reputation for being the easiest to use; UNIX systems have the reputation for being the most difficult. UNIX systems have the reputation for being the most stable and professional; Windows XP has the most games. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses. Prior to a computer purchase it makes sense to think about what you want to do with it and choose one that performs that task well. It also makes sense to check out the reputations of the different companies involved; people are often surprised to find out that some of the most heavily advertised companies in the world of computers are also the most notorious. In fact, the best software is often available for free and does not get advertised at all. The Computer Terms Glossary covers all of the major platforms and considers a bit of what is good and bad about each.

Most people connect to the Internet using some sort of modem and a phone line (although cable hook-ups are also starting to become popular). When the computer is connected the phone line is busy (remember to disable call waiting prior to making the call!) and information is passed over it in a similar manner to the way FAX machines operate (in fact most modern computer modems can also send and receive FAXes). The number called depends on the company providing the Internet connectivity; many companies offer this service to the Saugus area. Once you're connected through any of these companies, it's possible to access all the materials on the Internet.

General Internet Tips

Regardless of what kind of computer you're using the Internet will still have most of the same resources available to you. The key ones are the World Wide Web, e-mail, FTP, Usenet news, telnet, gopher, and finger. In fact, although officially the Internet consists of a network of computers spanning the globe, in common usage people often use it to mean the group of resources mentioned above.

The World Wide Web (or the WWW or even the Web for short) consists of millions of documents (like the one you're now reading) connected by millions of links. It can contain text, pictures, sounds, animation clips, etc.

E-mail behaves like ordinary mail only it typically takes just minutes for an e-mailed document to cross the globe instead of weeks. While e-mail is capable of sending more than just text, users are strongly cautioned against sending anything else until they have established a text communication and have verified that the type of thing they want to send can be received by the intended recipient; most people will be unable to use at least some document types. See the File Extensions List for some clues on what kinds of files might be read where. It should also be noted that almost all the resources available via the WWW or FTP or news can also be obtained strictly through e-mail; the methods involved are beyond the scope of this document, but it is possible.

FTP stands for "File Transfer Protocol" and is used only to send files from one place to another. It is also optimized for this purpose and is preferable to either e-mail or the WWW when it comes to getting files.

Usenet news is like a giant world wide community bulletin board. In many respects it behaves like e-mail and sometimes e-mail and news functionality will be integrated together.

Telnet allows a person to "log in" to a computer and work with it more or less as if it were local. Many reference searches on the Internet are implemented through dedicated telnet accounts.

Gopher behaves a little like the Web in some respects and a little like FTP in others. It is less versatile than the Web for displaying online viewable information, and is less efficient than FTP for file transfer. It is gradually getting phased out, but there is still lots of information available only via gopher.

Finger generally makes it possible to check on when a specific person was last logged on to a specific machine. It is not implemented everywhere, but has been made to do some pretty interesting things. In some of the local universities finger is used to report the current vending machine / soft drink machine inventories to save graduate students disappointing trips.

A general tutorial on using some basic Internet utilities can be found on LiveJournal.

General Web Tips

The World Wide Web can be navigated with a program called a "browser". The most popular browser is Netscape, but there are several others available. Most browsers are available for multiple platforms; Netscape on the Mac behaves more or less like Netscape on the PC and like Netscape on a UNIX system.

Most browsers offer similar interfaces. Underlined things (and many images) can normally be pointed at and clicked to bring up either another WWW document or a different section of the current WWW document. Note though that clicking on a link to a later section of the current document before that section has loaded will produce unpredictable results. Most browsers support FTP in addition to ordinary WWW files, and often underlined items will actually be FTP resources rather than ordinary WWW resources. Most browsers support the notion of a "home page", a fixed starting place every time the browser is run; and the idea of "bookmarks", explicitly remembered pages that can be easily accessed again. Every browser has different methods for setting home pages and bookmarks; see How to Set Home Pages and Bookmarks How-To for information on how to use these important features on your browser. A few more esoteric features are described in the Special Features How-To. Most browsers will also occasionally show a "broken" image; a broken image can either be the result of a poorly written web page, the transient effect of heavy network traffic, or even an interrupted page download.

Finding Resources on the Web

The World Wide Web contains information on almost every topic imaginable. The usual problem is finding it. has a few different pages to help make the navigation of the WWW easier. Perhaps the most important is the general-purpose Search the Internet page that will allow the look-up of arbitrary words and phrases (if you've got Mac OS 8.5 or later or a Newton with Hemlock be sure to check out the Sherlock Plug-in; if you have Firefox, Mozilla, or SeaMonkey, be sure to check out the Mozilla Plug-in; and if you have MSIE, be sure to check out the MSIE Plug-in). Other resources include all manner of weather information and an atomic clock (see the General Information page) to ZIP codes and phone number look-ups (see the Miscellaneous Information page). Current sports scores as well as TV and movie schedules can be obtained through the Entertainment page while current public transportation schedules can be found on the Transportation page and current news can be found on the News page. Government documents can be found through the Government page and online books (both fact and fiction) can be found through the Education page.

Writing Web Pages

Writing your own web page is a little beyond the scope of this document. However, there are a couple of bits of advice to start with: learn HTML and CSS, and test your pages on as many different browsers and as many different platforms as you can. It is not okay to just test on one browser on one machine, and the automated web page generators all leave a lot to be desired (although if you must use an automated web page generator Amaya and KompoZer are both good choices). A couple of good guides to help you get started include the W3C Mark-up Guide and the W3C CSS Guide. Once you've designed your web page, you can see the Linking How-To to get the HTML to link back to Finally, there's a bit more to web page color than you may realize; in particular only a relatively small number of colors are "web safe" in that they view the same on all computers. This color chart shows which colors are safe; it's one of a handful of tests we have currently available online.


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