Chapter 12 - Software

So who's the brains of this operation, anyway?

As we mentioned in Chapter 4, the microprocessor is not really the computer's brain. It's more like a whiz kid that spends all its waking hours working on math problems.

Software is not really the brain either, but it does make your computer smarter. You could consider software to be your computer's educator and motivator. Software tells the computer parts what to do and when to do it. Without software, your components would be useless.

The one piece of software everyone must run is the operating system - typically Windows or MacOS. The additional programs you install are what give your computer additional functionality, turning a one-trick pony into a powerful and versatile tool. Adding new software is kind of like moving your computer beyond its grammar school education to high school, college, graduate school, etc.

Individual pieces of software that perform specific functions are called programs or applications. Word processors, spreadsheets, MP3 players, photo editors and action games are all examples of software.

We'll talk about the different categories of applications later in this section, but let's first talk about software in general.

Buying software

The first key to buying software is making sure that what you get will work on your computer.

The majority of software on the market is written for PCs. That's nothing personal to Mac owners. It's just that the majority of computer users own PCs. You can usually find some Mac software in your local computer or electronics store, but it will usually be relegated to a separate section while PC programs dominate the sales displays.

Some programs, most commonly children's software, include versions for both the Mac and PC on one disc, but the majority will be either/or.

Once you've got found software for your platform, it's then important to read the box label to check for minimum requirements. These will typically read something like "Pentium 3, 256 MB RAM, 1 MB video card, mouse, sound card."

Just match the requirements up to your system's specs to see if your computer is up to the task.

Remember that these are "minimum" requirements, so in this case if you had 512 megabytes or 1 gigabyte of RAM, you'd be fine. You'd also be OK if you had a Pentium 4 or Core 2 Duo, as nearly all programs are "backward compatible" with older systems. That phrase means it'll work with older stuff.

What do you need?

Before shopping for software, it's best to precisely identify your needs. What do you want your computer to do for you? Do you already have software that can perform that function?

If you'd like to use your computer to track finances and balance your checkbook, then you'll want to add financial software such as Microsoft Money or Quicken. But if you just want to write letters and Microsoft Word was included with your original computer package, you might have all you need for now.

You can always add new software at any time, so just buy what you need for the immediate future. Also, check the bundled software that came with your computer to see if it can serve your needs.

Your best source for unbiased information about software is others. If you're looking to purchase a photo editor, ask around to see what your friends or co-workers are using. Read reviews in magazines and on the Internet. Remember that most stores will not accept returns on opened software, so it's best to do as much research as possible before buying.

What you get when you buy software

Nearly all programs now ship on one or more CD-ROM discs, although some older programs are loaded onto multiple floppy disks. The CDs often comes in a paper sleeve because the price you paid apparently didn't cover the cost of a 10-cent jewel case.

Inside the box, you'll also typically find a manual, quick installation guide, registration card and a bunch of marketing materials. For starters, you'll need the disc and either the manual or quick installation guide to walk you through installation.

You can often save money by downloading software from the Internet, as the company can save on packaging and shipping costs. Check a company's Web site when looking for a program.

Installation

Software installation is a one-time process to set up a particular program to run on your computer. Although you still might need to pop in a CD-ROM to run a program, you must first perform this initial setup to transfer necessary files to your hard drive.

Installing new computer software might seem overwhelming at first, but once you do it a few times, you'll realize that it's a pretty standard operation. It's best to follow a particular program's instructions (either in the manual or quick installation guide), but we'll talk briefly about the process in general.

Popping the CD-ROM of an uninstalled program will typically bring up a dialog box or asking if you want to install the software. If it doesn't, you'll have to double click on the CD icon (in My Computer on a PC; on the desktop on a Mac) and find the install icon.

If you're installing an old program that comes on floppy disks, put the one marked "Disk 1" in the floppy drive and double click the disk (On a PC, you'll find it in My Computer; on a Mac, it'll appear on the desktop when the disk is inserted). Find the file called Setup or Install and double-click it.

Whether you're installing from a CD, floppies or a downloaded file, the routine will take you through a bunch of questions, which usually involve just clicking Next, but it's important to at least read what it's doing before telling it to do it.

It will ask for your name, company name (which usually can be left blank) and serial number. Serial numbers are often long combinations of letters, numbers and hyphens and can be found on the registration card or manual.

I usually write my serial numbers with a permanent marker on the CDs so they're never separated from the programs. If you lose your card with your serial number, you might not be able to install it again.

There also might be some options to select during the installation process. Choosing the "Typical" or "Default" option is like walking into a bar and ordering "the usual." If you're particular and know what you're doing, you can choose "Custom" to gain a little more control over the process.

The remainder of the process, in which you do nothing, involves copying files from the CD (or floppy disks) to your hard drive. If the program is on multiple floppies, it'll prompt you to insert Disk 2, Disk 3, etc.

Sometimes software will copy all the files on the hard drive so you'll never need the CD again unless you need to reinstall it. Often, it will copy some of the more commonly used files so you'll still need to have the CD in the drive when using the program.

Registration

Most computer books tell you to always register your software. I don't necessarily subscribe to that philosophy, and there's no law requiring you do so. You bought it; it's your decision.

Software companies' motives for encouraging registration are usually self-serving. They want to know who has bought their product so they can contact you in the future, and it also helps them fight software piracy.

However, there are some benefits to registration. Most companies will require you to register before granting you access to their technical support or product updates. Companies also will typically promise to notify you of bugs in their software, although I've found that they more often use your contact information to solicit you to buy other programs or paid upgrades.

Many programs offer several ways to register software, either through the Internet, regular mail, telephone or fax.

Licensing

Somewhere in the box (it could be in the manual or a separate paper) you'll find a legal sounding document that's doesn't exactly read like an exciting novel.

It's the license agreement, and it's essentially telling you that you don't actually own the program you've just bought. The software company is just granting you a license to install and use their program on one computer.

If you want to run Microsoft Office on both your computer and your child's computer, you're expected to buy two copies of that software. If you loan the CD to a friend so he or she can install that program on their computer, you and your friend are breaking the law.

If you can suffer through the less-than-poetic prose, the license agreement could offer some tidbits of information. For instance, some companies allow for concurrent use of software. I bought a script-writing program that allows me to install the software on both my desktop and laptop, as long as I don't intend on using them at the same time. I believe some versions of Adobe Photoshop have a similar arrangement.

Updates

In a perfect world, software would not be sold until every possible bug was worked out, making it near impossible to crash. Since that's clearly not the case, software companies release periodic updates to their programs.

It's important here to differentiate between updates and upgrades. Upgrades to new versions, which we'll talk about next, add additional features and typically come at an extra cost.

Updates - also called service packs - are released to fix minor (or major) bugs in software that should have been caught before the program was released. They're usually offered for free (And they should be!), although some companies will require that you register for access to these.

The most common way to receive an update is to go to the company's Web site and download the new files. If you want the files mailed to you on a CD-ROM or floppy disk, you'll typically have to pay for shipping and handling.

Updated versions are usually identified by "point something," or a number after the version. For instance, you might be using Adobe Photoshop 6, but the actual version number could be 6.0.1, which shows the update. Microsoft Office 2000 might be identified as "Microsoft Office 2000, Service Pack 2," showing that two updates have been installed.

Upgrading to a new version

If a movie experiences any commercial success, a sequel is a practically a given. (With the possible exception of "Titanic II.")

It's the same in the software industry. If software sells, programmers will instantly start working on a new version with added features and improvements. Many popular programs have undergone dozens of version changes since their initial releases.

Again, though, it's important to consider your needs. If you're happy with the version you're using, don't upgrade just because you feel you have to.

For instance, just two months after I bought Corel Draw 9, version 10 was released. I checked out the new version on someone else's computer and didn't find any new functions I needed immediately, so I decided to stand pat. Perhaps I'll consider upgrading down the road, but some four years later, version 9 is still serving me well.

Software manufactures, taking a cue from the old "Match Game" shows of the 1970s, have become year-happy, naming new versions of their software after the year. The obvious goal here is to give the impression that's it's important to buy a new version every year. If you're happy with your older version, then stick with it.

Device drivers

A device driver is software that tells your computer how to communicate with a piece of hardware, such as a modem or printer.

If you install a new "Plug-and-Play" device, Windows should recognize it and either install the software for you or prompt you to put in a floppy disk or CD so it can do so. Just follow the on-screen instructions.

If the installation program says "I can not find the file…," it usually means that it needs your Windows installation disk to complete the process, place your Windows disc into your CD drive and continue. It might then ask you to put the device's install disc back in to complete the installation.

Mac hardware installations tend to be pretty straightforward. Just open the installation CD folder, double click on the installer and follow the on screen instructions.

For most devices, driver installation will be a one-time task. But drivers sometimes become corrupted and you might have to reinstall them. To do so in Windows, go to the Device Manager

(In Windows 2000 or XP, right click on My Computer, choose Properties, click on the Hardware tab and click the Device Manager button. In Windows, 95, 98 and ME, right click on My Computer, choose Properties and click on the Device Manager tab.)

Once you find the device you need to update, right click and select Properties. Click the Update driver button and the Update Driver Wizard will start (a "wizard" is short questionnaire that helps you through a process).

The computer will try to find an updated driver, but it will often come up empty, leaving you to tell it where to look. If the driver is from on original install disc, you'll need to tell it to look on a CD or floppy disk. If you've downloaded new drivers from the Internet, you'll need to tell the wizard where it can find the files on your hard drive. Once the installation is complete, Windows will usually prompt you to reboot your computer to start using the new drivers.

On a Mac, pop in the disc with the drivers (or download them from and Internet site) and run the installer. It will guide you through the process.

Correct drivers play an important role in making your hardware work properly. This is especially important with video cards. Improper video drivers can cause your display to show limited colors or strange characters, but I've also seen them cause seemingly unrelated problems such as crashing Internet Explorer or locking up the entire computer.

With video and other device drivers, always check for updates from the manufacturer's Web site. You also might need to download new drivers for your hardware if you're upgrading to a new operating system version.

Upgrading your operating system

Your operating system is the mother of all software, so upgrading it If new operating systems were 100 percent bug free when shipped, buying the new version would be an easier decision.

Windows 95 was a huge improvement over Windows 3.1

Many people didn't upgrade from Windows 95 to Windows 98 until Windows 98 Second Edition was released. They figured that Windows 95 had already established its stability and 98 was a little shaky in its initial release.

For Windows 98, Windows 2000, Windows ME and Windows XP, Microsoft has added an automated feature called Windows Update. Once you register, it'll allow the operating system to check to see if there are updates for itself.

Shareware, freeware and trial versions

Most computer stores don't allow you to return software, so if you buy a program and hate it, you're usually out of luck. That's what makes shareware such a wonderful concept. It's try before you buy.

Shareware programs offer a short trial period, typically 15 or 30 days, to test the software and see if it's worth purchasing. Some will stop working after the trial period, others will keep reminding you to buy it after the 30 days and trust that you'll eventually comply.

You can commonly download shareware programs, or trial versions of commercial software, off the Internet.

My favorite shareware site is Tucows (www.tucows.com), which offers programs for both PCs and Macs. It also adds as well as more obscure operating systems such as Linux and the PalmOS for handheld devices.

Even better than shareware is freeware, which gives you a free license to use it guilt-free whenever you wish.

Lite versions

Another way to try before you buy is to test drive a "lite" program, which is a stripped-down version of software offering just the basic features.

If you think you might be interested in Adobe Photoshop but don't want to shell out hundreds of dollars, try Adobe Photoshop Elements. It's essentially a lite version of Photoshop, available for about $80 and often packaged for free with scanners and printers and computers.

Many people use the free RealPlayer program to listen to live Internet audio, but the company also sells a RealPlayer Plus (about $20), which offers better quality and more options.

NEXT - Chapter 13 - The write stuff