My 7/13/08 Missoulian column
There are some helpful books you should have on your desk next to your laptop or personal computer, and I know from experience they’ll make computer work easier for you. Two or three manuals could come to just under $100 altogether, but they’ll be worth it in terms of time saved – and if you use your computer for work, they might even be tax-deductible. That may sound like a chunk of change, but if you’re fighting with a computer problem, what’s your time and frustration worth?
Computers ship with extensive “help” systems on the hard drive, and almost every application has a help menu, too, but there’s still something about an open book on the desk that makes it easier to peruse for that bit of information you’re looking for. Many computer books are, of course, also published in different electronic formats – the most popular being Adobe’s PDF format – which can be handy because you can download them without making a trip to the bookstore. But the problem remains that you’re trying to read the screen while also trying to figure out a problem on the screen.
The first book you need is one for your operating system, be it Windows or Apple Macintosh. The second is a book of extra tips and tricks for that OS or help dealing with the special annoyances and problems. The third is a book for the application you use the most, be it a Microsoft Office-like suite of applications or one word processor. The fourth should be on general computer security and should complement the OS or application book.
For the first book, check the version of your operating system – likely Windows XP or Vista, or Apple’s OS X – before you buy. For Windows XP, you’re using either the Home edition – which is very common – or Pro, which has more security and networking capabilities. You probably already know from seeing the startup screen.
Books for Apple’s OS X are written for each major revision of the operating system and can include the name of a big cat in the title. To find your version, select “About this Mac” from the apple menu in the upper left corner of the screen. Any version of 10.2 is known as Jaguar, 10.3 is Panther, 10.4 is Tiger and 10.5 is Leopard. Be sure to get the correct book for your system; although many features and the basic “look and feel” of the various versions are the same, the systems do have differences.
For OS books (and many others), a good series to consider is “The Missing Manual” published by Pogue Press-O’Reilly. David Pogue of the New York Times has written many of them, and they’re just what the title says: a book that should have come with your computer. They’re clear and helpful, and offer tips, warnings and online resources. You can even preview books at the Web site before you buy.
Once you have a book for your OS, think about getting another book to complement it. All operating systems have annoying traits and more in-depth tips and tricks can be useful. For Windows, one of the titles in the “Annoyances” series of books is a good investment. “Windows XP Annoyances” offers tips on installing XP, running it faster, troubleshooting drivers and more. The series began as a Web site which still operates forums, and is now published by O’Reilly.
For Macs, the “Pocket Guide” or “Running Mac OS X” series, also published by O’Reilly, offer fast access to tips, features and examples. Yes, I’m biased toward O’Reilly – it’s known for publishing very geeky and highly technical books, but it has many user-friendly titles, too.
The third book you should consider is one for the application you use the most, such as the Office software suite or the Firefox Web browser. Microsoft and Apple publish their own books on the Office suites and the iLife and iWork suites of music, movie, photo, word processing and spreadsheet programs. When you run into a problem working with photos, MP3s or a Word document, it’s nice to have a book on the desk that can help figure it out. Microsoft Press and Apple also publish books on Windows and OS X, and O’Reilly covers Firefox and other programs not from major high-tech companies.
A good thing to do is preview books at Web sites and at brick-and-mortar bookstores to find a series that seems most helpful to you and your level of use. Libraries also often keep up with new technology books. (Many used bookstores don’t handle computer books at all due to their short life span.)
I’d stay away from the “Dummies” books or similar series; they’re helpful and clear, but you’ll outgrow them quickly. Don’t underestimate your ability to work through the technical descriptions in a good user manual.
I haven’t forgotten computer security books – that’s the fourth type you should have. Each OS or program book you get will cover security that’s relevant to that OS or application, but an extra book that focuses on overall security is a good idea. A good, recent title is “Essential Computer Security: Everyone’s Guide to Email, Internet and Wireless Security,” by Tony Bradley. Between a book dedicated to security and a book that covers the specifics of your OS and favorite programs, you’ll be able to handle security concerns and look up and understand the issues and buzzwords in the news and apply them to your own work.