- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 30, 2010

It’s that time of year again - and for readers of this space, I have exactly four weeks to dispense buying advice/tips before Dec. 25. (Readers who celebrate Hanukkah are less fortunate advicewise: The Jewish festival begins at sundown Wednesday and ends Dec. 9.)

For those interested in giving a new computer this year, or perhaps passing on a more recent model to someone else, some general suggestions:

First, when buying new, be sure you’re getting the latest model of the hardware and the most recent version of software. I don’t know of too many stores that would try to pass off last year’s gear as this year’s gifts, but if a price seems too good to be true, double-check things. Of all the things to avoid, Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Vista, long succeeded by Windows 7, tops the list.

Do not avoid the updating process when setting up a computer for the first time. Regardless of the manufacturer or operating system, you’re almost guaranteed to encounter a message asking you to update the software installed on your machine, presuming you connected the device to the Internet during setup. Do not pass “go,” do not collect $200, just do it. Cliches aside, updating your software is of critical importance to keeping your system functioning well.

The same goes for anti-virus/anti-spam software protection. While Windows-based systems are exponentially more likely to be hit by computer viruses and “spambots,” Mac systems are not immune. Most Windows PCs come with at least a trial version of antivirus software. Mac users can choose from several suppliers. Whatever the cost, it’s cheap insurance.

Before you pass along an old computer to someone else, either a child or sibling, or, especially before giving it to charity, there are several steps you should take. The first is to make sure all software is updated. For example, not running the latest (10.5 or, better still, 10.6.x) versions of Apple’s Mac OS X operating system means you’re missing out on “Time Machine,” automatic file backup software that, with an external drive attached to your machine, could save your data in event of a disaster. Not having the latest version of Windows will mean you miss out on several improvements there.

If you’re giving away the computer, especially to a charity, be sure to “scrub” your data. That might mean doing a low-level format of the hard drive, which would remove everything there, and then reinstalling the operating system and any software applications you are allowed, under license, to pass along. It’s extra work, to be sure, but the private information you save will be your own.

Another thing new computer owners should do (along with many who’ve had their systems for a while) is “read,” or at least carefully skim, the instruction manuals that come with your system. They are there for a reason, and that reason is to help you understand your computer better. If the manuals are totally incomprehensible, any of the “For Dummies” books (Hungry Minds/Wiley) or “Missing Manual” series (Pogue Press/O’Reilly) are well worth the effort. Yes, it involves some careful attention and learning new words and phrases, but the rewards are many.

For example, I was speaking with a friend last night who wanted to add the company e-mail to the Mail.app software on her MacBook. I mentioned that you can add multiple mail accounts to Mail.app by pressing the “plus” sign in a certain dialog box. “I didn’t know that,” my friend said. Such information is abundant in the “Dummies” books and tech manuals. Another friend didn’t know a common trick for selecting “all” the files in a given area. Again, the books hold the key.

Social browser update: Rock Melt (www.rockmelt.com) and Flock (www.flock.com) have released updates to the browsers mentioned here three weeks ago. Of the two, Flock’s release is much more significant, more of an improvement over its previous version and doesn’t require an “invite” to participate. Check ‘em out, and watch this space for more news going forward.

c E-mail mkellner@ washingtontimes.com.