There are two types of people: There are those who—when they receive a high-tech gadget gift—tear off the packaging, throw away the instructions, plug it in and then start playing with their new toy.

The other types find themselves examining the item from all angles, and anxiously asking the family nerd: How does this thing work? What does it do? Does it come with batteries? And then, it takes two more days to carefully read the instructions.

These next paragraphs are intended for those in the latter group. The first thing you’ll encounter is the packaging. Everything today is wrapped as if it belonged to Fort Knox and contained state secrets. A tip: Use a can opener from the kitchen to unravel the thick plastic that often sits as a frustrating barrier to your new toy.

The Computer

Let’s say you have a new computer (some people may wonder why, but still). First find out, what kind of computer is it? A Windows PC? And Apple? OK, so maybe it’s a Windows-based PC—maybe a Dell, or a HP. Well, the brand is not that important. They are all pretty much the same. Is this a ‘hot’ PC? Or is it an old, slow one? How can you tell?

Start with the mouse. The mouse allows you to hover over an icon. Often, it creates a ‘yellow sticker” effect by showing the function of the icon you are hovering over. You can ‘right-click’ and ‘left-click’ on icons. Right-click gives you a menu of options, and left-click corresponds to ‘Enter,’ that is, Do it! There also is a scroll function that lets you scroll up and down.

You’ll see a whole menu rise up from the Start button. One of the options says My PC. When you see this, right-click and then select Properties. This will take you to the ‘birth certificate’ of the computer. It may look something like this:

There is a lot you can tell about the PC here: What operating system do I have? How much RAM do I have? What kind of processor do I have? Is this a touch computer or not?

A word about RAM and memory. Many folks confuse RAM/memory with hard disk space. (RAM, by the way, stands for Random Access Memory, and it is what we mortals call ‘memory.’)

What I used to tell my students is this: Imagine you have a desk and a file cabinet next to your desk. What you have on your desk is what you optimally think you can handle working on at the same time. If it is an ‘archive’ item you’re not currently using, you stick it in the file cabinet behind your desk. That’s the same with RAM/memory and hard disk space. Your RAM/memory is what you handle currently, while hard disk space is your file cabinet where you can store much more than would fit on your desk.

In the image above the RAM/memory is listed as 4 GB (Giga Byte). It doesn’t tell you how much hard disk space you have. In order to see that, click on an icon called My Computer that you can find on the desktop or by using the Start button (left-click and open it).

Always leave a minimum of 20 percent free space on each drive.

Next, you want to know what applications are loaded. Some computers come preloaded with applications, like word processing, Internet browsers, spreadsheets, and many other programs. With some computers, you add the applications you want and need. It is more economical to get a computer already preloaded with the most commonly used applications, and then pay for and add the extras as you need them.

Many computers come with anti-virus software. This is key. What an anti-virus package does is help you protect your PC from viruses, spam, worms and other so-called malware that primarily may enter your computer via the Internet or email. The most reputable anti-virus software packages are McAfee, AVG, Norton/Symantec, and the one we use at our office: Trend-Micro, which we’ve found to be the most effective.

There are only two things you need to remember with ant-virus software: 1.Install them! 2. Keep them up to date. There are new threats out there every day. An obsolete anti-virus program is worse than none at all (as it gives you a false sense of security).

One last thing about your computer: Back it up! But It won’t happen to me! (that you lose your information). Well, everyone has said that at one time or another. But it happens to everybody! You might as well get into the habit of backing up your information on a regular basis.

How do I back up? The easiest way is to use an external hard disk.

Prices vary from $54 to $80. Each one holds 1 to 2 TB (Tera Byte, equal to 1,000 to 2,000 GB), which will hold you over for a long a time. Also, there are so-called thumb drives. These can store so much nowadays, you can save a lot of regular files on them.

In future columns, we’ll address similar basic concerns for laptops, tablets, smart phones and other new ‘toys.’

Longtime computer trainer and editor Richard Gavatin can be reached at

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