5 Essentials to beef-up your home computing experience

by Paul Goodchild on July 1, 2009

I’ve become increasingly aware of the knowledge gap many people have when they work on their PCs and the little things that I might do/have that make a big difference for me for my home computing.

So, I thought it might be a nice idea to relay a few of the essentials that I think are important and I wouldn’t do without… all suggestions will cost not a single penny, and just a little bit of your bandwidth/time.  Here goes…

1) Web Browser [time taken: 5~10 minutes]

Just get the latest iteration of the Firefox web browser (v3.5 at the time of writing).  If you have never downloaded an alternative browser for your PC, you’re probably using IE v6.0, (or v7.0 if you’re on Windows Vista).  You need to do yourself a huge favour and install a top quality, fast, and highly customizable platform upon which to interact with the internet.

Go get it!

The installer is very simple, just hit ‘Next’ a few times and you’re done.  When it launches the browser itself, make sure and select to import all your settings from Internet Explorer.  There are some things you will want to do almost immediately to Firefox to make your experience as smooth as possible.

  • Download and install Flash Player: Get it here
  • Download and install JAVA: Get it here
  • Install the dictionary for your language as Firefox provides in-line spell checking: Get it here

That’s the basics sorted.  There are thousands of add-ons for Firefox to do all manner of things and you can search and browse what’s available on the official add-ons portal.

2) VoIP: Skype [time taken: 5~10minutes]

Skype is a VoIP service that through software installed on your PC you can make and receive free voice calls with other users of the service, or make phone calls to standard landlines/mobiles at low cost.

Version 4.0 of Skype was released recently with lots of improvements, and most significant for me was the ability to store multiple phone numbers per contact, and also your contact list is now stored server-side.

There are some other services provided as well as the basic voice calls and chatting, so it’s worth looking around the site to see if some of them are applicable to you.

Go get it! [mac]

3) Multimedia Player: VLC [time taken: 3~5minutes]

There’s nothing worse on Windows XP than not being able to just throw in a DVD movie and expect it to play, but experience nothing but problems.  I’ve gone through all this before and it was painful.  That was until I found the VideoLAN (VLC) multimedia player.  This little piece of kit plays everything!  You never need to worry any longer about DVD regions and whether your DVD drive supports the particular region of the disk – VLC ignores all that nonsense.

VLC performs a whole host of other functions besides playing just your video files, but I’ll leave that to you to figure out if you’re interested.

Go get it! [mac]

4) PC remote access from anywhere: LogMeIn [time taken: 10~15 minutes]

This one really depends on whether you keep your PC turned on our not.  Either way having it installed gives you the option to access your PC remotely now and again as you need it.  It installs a small piece of software that stays connected to the service provider so that when you need to access your PC for whatever reason, you simply log into the website and launch a portal to your home PC’s desktop.  It’s very quick, secure, and easy to use.

Go get it!

There is a Pro version of the LogMeIn software, but unless you need to transfer files, share files, or even stream music from your PC, there’s no need to pay for this.

5) Security: AntiVirus & Firewall [time taken: ~20 minutes]

If you’re currently paying for your antivirus software, then you’re spending money you don’t need to.  I’ve always used, and never had a problem with, AVG AntiVirus Free Edition.  It’s mature, light on resources, and fast .

Go get it!

Windows XP SP2 now comes with basic firewall protection so if you have this on, you’re in a much better position than having nothing.  However, I do recommend installing some dedicated software for this purpose and ZoneAlarm Basic does this job, and does it well.  After installation, as each program you launch starts up and initiates an internet connection, it will pop-up prompts for you to determine whether or not you would like that particular program to access the internet, or not.  If you trust it, just check the box to not ask you any longer and click  ‘Allow’.  It will automatically create your firewall rules for you while you work based on your preferences.

Go get it!

The next step

The 5 suggestions above are just some of the very basic essentials I have on any personal desktop computer and installation time all-in is well under an hour (including download time depending on your connection speed)… it typically takes longer to download the installation packages than it does to set-up and configure the software.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Charles August 17, 2009 at 15:29

I’d say step 1. goes to Get a Mac? 😛 (… waiting for the avalanche of hatemail)


Paul Goodchild August 17, 2009 at 15:31

I’ll go easy on ya… I understand, given my experience of your cooking, that ya don’t get the whole culinary experience concept at all 😉


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