How to Actually Use Your Computer: Part 2

It’s been quite a while since I had part 1 of this series. However, here is part 2.

By this stage, you would almost definitely fit within the “Usage due to environmental pressure” or “Usage due to personal interest” groups. Both of these groups have similarity when it comes to end-user usage. This means that fundamentally, there are some things that everybody uses a computer for. I will go through each usage and explain in detail how you’re totally missing out. However due to space restraints, in this part of the series I will focus on two main ones.

Usage 1: Web browsing / Email & PIM / Instant Messaging

For web browsing, we all use a web browser. Such common examples are Internet Explorer on Windows, Apple’s Safari, the open-source Mozilla Firefox, Google’s newly released Chrome, and a variety of others, such as Opera, Flock, Konqueror, Epiphany, or CLI browsers like Lynx. What a web browser does is interpret a website’s source code so that it can be displayed to you in a way you understand it. This means that an important part of deciding which browser is best for you is how well it displays webpages. Here’s a summary of the list of features you should look for:

  • Size
    • How large is the application?
    • How long does it take to start up?
  • Does it display correctly?
    • Check your favourite web pages, do they work correctly?
    • Do certain webpages cause crashes?
    • Does it allow embedded animations, javascript, or shockwave?
    • Does text look nice on it? (Antialiasing)
    • How fast is it to load pages?
  • Does it have the features you use?
    • Does it have tabs?
    • How well is its bookmarks feature implemented?
    • Are you happy with text zooming, page history, caching, or download management?
  • Does it allow you to connect online? (proxies, etc)
  • Is it secure?
  • Does it allow for extensions? (Customisation, plugins, addons, etc)

Notice how what I’ve not done is said “This is the best browser, use it”, but instead told you what constitutes a good browser (which is mainly due to personal preference) and given some alternatives. What you should do now is check if your browser is up to date (Don’t use something like Internet Explorer 6), then start downloading alternatives and trying each of them out in turn. Here’s a list you might be interested in:

Firefox, Opera, Chrome, Flock, Konqueror, Epiphany

Alright, let’s move on towards Email and PIM. What’s PIM? It’s Personal Information Management. This covers everything from your email, contacts/address book, calendar/schedule, todo-lists, feed/newsreaders, notebooks, journals, and alarms. You’ll find that your handphone probably covers all of these, but you’ll find out that it’s about doubly as effective if you manage this on your computer (especially if you have quick access to your computer).

Let’s start with email. If you’re happy managing your email from websites like GMail, Hotmail, Yahoo, etc, then you can probably skip this. If not, and you prefer to use a client application (like me), then keep reading. If you do use a client, and it’s a Microsoft product, it’s probably Outlook Express. It’s probably the worst thing invented since Internet Explorer. It’s hopeless. Here is what you should use. Mozilla (the guys that brought you Firefox) have this nifty email client known as Mozilla Thunderbird. I don’t care much for different clients – for me it’s simply a matter of if it integrates with my system and works. However, another alternative is Evolution. There aren’t that many alternatives when it comes to email clients. What I use is KMail, which is part of the Kontact PIM suite, which I’ll cover next.

Aha, the PIM suite. Windows provides Windows Address book, which 99% of you have probably never even heard of. That’s right, it exists. Try searching in your accessibility menu or similar in your start menu. You’ll find it lurking there, and then you’ll wish you could remove it. I don’t know much about Mac’s PIM applications, so I’ll simply disregard them. The best PIM suite in my opinion is Kontact. It’s basically a merged interface of the entire suite including KMail, for an email client, Calendar, for scheduling (amazing application), To-do (for to-do lists), KAddressBook (for contacts), Akregator (for feedreader), KJots … journals, notebooks, Popup-notes, time tracking, and alarms. It’s amazingly polished, you can repeat tasks, have reminders, many different views, and if you’re on Linux and use KDE, it complements the entire system amazingly. It integrates with everything. Sending an email with KMail? It’ll check your KAddressBook. Using Plasma’s post-it notes? It’ll check your popup-notes. Your Calendar missing something? It’ll check your to-do list. Need I say more? Amazing. Definite recommendation from me to use it.

OK, let’s move onto Instant Messaging, or IM. Most of you use MSN messenger. Some use Skype, some use IRC, ICQ, Jabber protocols (including GTalk), etc. I don’t know of any other program that gives you Skype power other than Skype itself, so I’ll skip that. However, especially if you’re the kind that uses GTalk and MSN at the same time, whilst chatting on an IRC channel (don’t worry if you don’t know what IRC is!), you’d appreciate a more powerful program. Ths first alternative is Pidgin. Pidgin’s a pretty big penknife of protocols, and if you want a do-it-all client, that’s what you should check out. Kopete is another one, which is my personal favourite, especially because it integrates with KDE. I’ve heard Trillian is also pretty powerful, but I don’t know that much about it. In general, all those mentioned applications are pretty polished and can support all that you’d want to do (status messages, avatars, nudges, etc) but if you can’t live without spamming random “winks” on MSN messenger, you’d probably be better off without any client at all.

Usage 2: Document editing

I’m going to make this section a short one. Mainly because I believe it’s very much a case of “If you can use it, and it gets the job done, it’s good for you.” Most of you are using the Microsoft Office suite, either for Windows or Mac. (that’s Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, Excel, Access, Publisher, Frontpage, Visio, etc – for Mac, I can’t remember the names) Unless you’re running an illegal copy, you’ve probably broken your bank to run it. Here’s where I step in and say “hey guys! You could’ve got an office suite for FREE!“.

The first alternative that springs to mind is OpenOffice.org. This was developed by Sun Microsystems, and it’s their open source free version of the proprietary StarOffice suite. This technique of releasing open-source software with a commercial product to back it up is the ideal win-win situation. 1) The company gets money for those that prefer the commmercial alternative. 2) The open-source development is more organised with an actual incentive to improve it (as it tags behind the comemrcial product). 3) The users get the best of both worlds. OpenOffice provides a word processing application (OpenOffice.org Writer), presentation software (equivalent of Powerpoint – OpenOffice.org Impress), spreadsheet management (OpenOffice.org Calc), database management (OpenOffice.org Base), as well as a nifty mathematical formula tool called OpenOffice.org Math. Missing your Publisher (if you are, you need some serious mental help)? Simply use Scribus. It’s amazing. In fact, the first issue of Perspective was made with it (unfortuantely future issues will require Adobe InDesign, as our printer now wants the format in InDesign save files instead of .pdf). Missing Frontpage? (Similarly, you will require mental help if you do), simply use something like Quanta, Bluefish or Nvu.

Another alternative to OpenOffice is KOffice. This is built for KDE but works on Windows and Mac too. Though in my opinion not so developed as OpenOffice, they have some unique features that might be just what you need. They’re also pretty thorough, and even include an alternative for Visio (Kivio), and image editing programs like Karbon14. I will cover image editing in another part in this series.

Of course, if you don’t need a whole office suite, there are small alternatives, which work especially well on an old computer or if you just want to do something quickly. Such examples of this are Abiword (for word processing), or Gnumeric (for spreadsheets).

As a conclusion, I’m not trying to say that you shouldn’t use any Microsoft products, or you should only stick to open-source programs, I’m just trying to open up some alternatives. It is true that some of these alternatives are better than what most people use, and therefore I’m simply here so that you find out what works best for you. Want my personal “awesome” list? I use Firefox for web-browsing, Kontact as my PIM suite, Kopete as my IM program, and OpenOffice as my office suite.

Stay tuned for the next part in this series.

Dion Moult

I've been developing software for well over 10 years, work as an architect (not the computer kind, the regular sort), and am classically trained as a pianist. I try to do the right thing when I get the chance in my field, such as through contributing to open-source communities and promoting sustainable living.

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