Don't let computer frighten you; it's easy as programming your VCR

By Riley Gay

“It’s just too complicated.” “I could never figure it all out.” “I’m afraid I’ll break it.”

Sound familiar? These are some of the reasons you’ll hear from folks as to why they don’t own a personal computer.

The fact is, though, that learning to operate a personal computer isn’t much more complicated than learning to use a microwave oven, a DVD player or VCR. All of these are just simple computers.

The difference is that your microwave oven is designed to do just one task, so learning to use it seems like a relatively simple and straightforward process.

The personal computer, by contrast, is capable of performing a wide variety of tasks, but the same learning strategy applies: Choose the task you want to do, then learn to do that one task. Once you’ve mastered that you can move on to another, and so on.

Whether you want to e-mail your aunt in Altoona, surf the Internet, edit and share your digital photos, or manage your finances online, you can learn to do it.

Unlike your VCR, though, a personal computer needs an operating system that lets the user interact with the various programs and applications it uses to perform these tasks. So, the first step in “learning the computer” involves getting to know some basic things about how your operating system works.

For most people, that means becoming familiar with one or another version of Microsoft Windows. The same applies, however, if you have an Apple computer with its Macintosh operating system.

Fortunately, there are a number of resources available to help you to get to know your operating system, starting with one that’s already on your computer--your system’s “Help” files. Also, be sure to check out any demos and tutorials (much like practice lessons) that may be included along with the help files.

Just as you need to learn which buttons to push to operate your microwave oven, learning to operate a personal computer involves knowing how to use a keyboard and mouse--the basic “input devices” for your computer.

Though using a computer mouse may seem odd at first, after a little practice and a lot of “trial and error”, you’ll be mousing around with the best of them.

And don’t worry too much about damaging something in the process. It’s much harder to “break the computer” than you might imagine, and a lot easier to fix if something does happen to go awry.

One of the biggest problems facing most first-time computer users is getting used to and learning all the jargon used by application developers and hardware manufacturers.

For many, it’s like learning a whole new language. In fact, because it’s the engineers who often write them, even the “Help” files often aren’t much help to someone new to computers.

If that sounds like you, then give your local bookstore a try--there are a host of publications available that will explain it all in terms that are easy to understand--even if you’re not a rocket scientist.

For basic instruction in using your computer and the Windows operating system, check out PC’s for Dummies by Dan Gookin.

Even if the book’s title doesn’t necessarily apply to you, there is a lot of good information written expressly with the uninitiated user in mind.

If having lots of pictures to illustrate the concepts you’re trying to learn is helpful for you, then try one of the Teach yourself…visually and …simplified series of books by Ruth Maran.

There are also a number of interactive learning programs you can install on your computer that offer a more “hands-on” approach. You may see these types of programs advertised on TV and in magazines, or they can be found at stores that carry computer software, such as CompUSA.

Third-party tutorials such as these may prove helpful, not only in learning to operate the computer but covering a number of basic programs, such as MS Office applications, Quicken and many others.

Most software developers today recognize the need to make their programs more “user friendly”, so they often include “wizards” in the program to walk you through the processes needed to use the application. This step-by-step approach lets you learn the program as you go, and allows you to successfully use an otherwise complex application virtually right out of the box.

Those who learn best in a classroom environment can find adult education classes at Mesa Community College that address computer basics, or try the onsite training classes offered through your local CompUSA store.

Finally, once you’re connected to the Internet (call your service provider for help in getting connected), you’ll be able to find answers to many of your computer questions right online, and order a whole range of interactive learning programs.

For starters, you might try one of these sites: Computer Training 2000 (http://www.computertim.com), The Newbie Club (http://newbieclub.com/) or Learn2.com (http://www.tutorials.com/).

So if you’ve been putting off getting a personal computer because you think the learning curve may be a bit too steep, or you’re just a little wary of the technology, never fear--all the help you’ll need is just a few mouse clicks away.

Riley Gay is Wrangler News’ director of technical services.