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What you need to know before buying a computer

At last the secret of what you need to know before buying a computer is revealed, there is no one size fits all answer. But you don’t need to be a world class geek to learn computer buzzwords and understand some basic concepts before you shop for your next computer.

I usually try to stay out of the Apple versus Microsoft debates. Since I am updating some content on desktop operating systems on Computerguru.net I thought I would use this blog post to address the often asked question of "what computer should I buy" and add this perspective. I will also  introduce a few new articles to answer some frequently asked questions relevant to someone shopping for a computer.

Recently on an online forum the question of "what computer should I buy" was asked based on the idea that a MacBook Pro is inherently the best laptop out there. The person asking the question was looking for reasons to buy a MacBook Pro, but gave no clues on how they are going to use it. That is a very important factor in answering the question! I never answer any questions on "what computer should I buy" for friends and family until I ask several questions.

I laughed as I read one of the answers that stated, "If all you are going to do is web surfing, social media, and email you don’t need a MacBook Pro." Yea, that's right. There are Chromebooks as well as cheap Windows notebooks that could do that for a lot less money!

My best advice to anyone looking to buy a computer, think long and hard about how you are going to use it, and find other people with the same wants and needs, and ask them what they own, what they like and not like about it.

I am not a graphics designer or an artist, those are the type of users who are typically the Apple fans. I have been working in enterprise computer networking for more than 20 years, started working on desktop computers in the 1980s. I look at the computer as a tool, and I look at what is the best tool for the task at hand. I have no loyalties to any specific brands.

Many answers comparing Microsoft to Apple often use various luxury car to cheap foreign comparisons, implying if you could afford the expensive luxury car, but choose otherwise, you must be a fool. So let me run with that analogy.

Take a step back and look at the history of Apple versus Microsoft.  In the 1990s when Windows 95 dominated the desktop, Microsoft was the Ford F-150 pick up truck.  Not many people would describe the Ford F-150 pick up truck as a sexy luxury vehicle, but many would describe it as the work horse vehicle that gets the job done.  There's a good case to be made that the folks marketing to the pick up truck users have a different plan than those looking to sell the sexy luxury vehicle.

A computer is a tool I use for work, as well as recreation. I work in a business world that is Microsoft based. We are required to purchase a specific brand of Windows based computers, not my favorite brand, but that's my environment. My problems are no so much with Windows as it is the vendors that support our users create applications that run on old Microsoft operating systems. I have to deal with home cooked applications that are designed for last generation Windows computers. That's my world.

I have had iPads and various other Apple products in my home, and they never got used. Even if the interface is slightly different, I don't have time to deal with it. I have had access to Kindles and Nooks, and they never got used. I can put an application on my Windows notebook that reads the books, so why do I need to learn a new interface? It's called being lazy, I know it is, but I have no personal reason to care about Apple products. It's nothing personal.

If one of my family members wants to buy a luxury car, I will be happy to ride in it. If money were no object, tomorrow I would go out and buy a new Ford F-150 pick up truck that best suited my needs.

I don't get emotionally attached to my computers or automobiles. They are tools. Nothing more.

You too can understand computer buzzwords

Since 1998, ComputerGuru.net has attempted to provide self help and tutorials for learning basic computer and networking technology concepts, maintaining the theme, "Geek Speak Made Simple." Recently I updated the Drupal content management software for Computerguru and updated a few pages.

Based on commonly asked questions, I have added several new pages to the section Common technology questions and basic computer concepts. On computer operating systems we have added an article that explains the major differences between desktop computer operating systems and one on installing Linux and understanding all the different Linux distributions.

I get a lot a questions on computer cables and finally finished up this article on Ethernet computer network cable frequently asked questions answered and an article explaining computer network modular connectors and telephone registered jacks.

And based on many questions on printers, we had some fun coming up with this article, the ugly truth about computer printers.

Yes, I know that sounds like a lot of geek speak, but we do our best to break it all down into small bite sized chunks, so it is easy to digest.  Please take a few minutes to check out the new content, and please share it with your geek friends on social media.

Any topics need covered? Any questions missing?

Are there any buzzwords bothering you?  Something else you would like us to cover here at the Guru 42 Universe?  Let us know: Guru 42 on Twitter -|- Guru 42 on Facebook -|- Guru 42 on Google+ -|- Tom Peracchio on Google  

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Singularity futurist predicts when humans and machines merge

As we study Geek History we explore the visionaries who have an idea and see what is possible, often before the technology exists to make it real. Ray Kurzweil has been a technology visionary since the 1970s when he invented a reading machine for the blind with a text-to-speech synthesizer. In the 1980s Kurzweil created the first electronic musical instrument which produced sound derived from sampled sounds burned onto integrated circuits.

Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil believes the day that artificial intelligence becomes infinitely more powerful than all human intelligence combined is not that far off in the future. In his book, "The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology" written in 2006, Kurzweil predicts when this new phase of artificial super intelligence takes place. "I set the date for the Singularity—representing a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability—as 2045"

Is singularity a destination?

So how far is it from here to infinity? How long will it take us to get to eternity?

I often say that the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. The phrase "You don't know what you don't know" has been said many ways. It is a play on a well-known saying that is derived from Plato's account of the Greek philosopher Socrates, "I know one thing; that I know nothing."

Maybe I am looking at this from my simple minded human perspective, but three decades is a pretty short time period in the evolution of humans and technology. I have the experience of having worked in the field of technology for more than four decades.

I sound like a real old fart when I talk about using radios with tubes in the 1970s and working as various forms of technology as it transitioned to solid state electronics. I remember back in the 1980s when I tried to explain to people how they would be using personal computers as tools in their business plugging them into phone lines. The concept of the internet was not widely known back then.

No one can predict the future with any certainty. Of course, if you want to debate, there were always those visionaries ahead of their time. Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps the greatest visionary to have ever lived. Leonardo saw the possibilities of flying machines in the 1500s, and designed in theory many examples of flying machines, centuries before the Wright Brothers launched their plane at Kitty Hawk. Relatively few of his designs were constructed or even feasible during his lifetime, the scope and depth of his interests were without precedent in recorded history.

There were many people who could look into the future and see what was possible, such as a true visionary Jules Verne, who was quoted in 1865 as saying, "In spite of the opinions of certain narrow-minded people who would shut up the human race upon this globe, we shall one day travel to the moon, the planets, and the stars with the same facility, rapidity and certainty as we now make the ocean voyage from Liverpool to New York."

One of my favorite science fiction authors I read growing up was Isaac Asimov who told amazing stories of robotics and artificial intelligence. The technology of the 1940s and 1950s could not create the robots in the stories of Asimov. Today the stories of intelligent robots are no longer fiction.

Maybe I've read too many science fiction novels about the utopias and the dystopias? When I say, "You don't know what you don't know," I look at the examples given here. With every generation we are amazed with how far we have come as we look back to the past. But we also see the long journey ahead and are equally amazed as we look towards the future.

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When the internet is down my radio still works

From time to time events in the world remind us that modern technology has limits, as we recently saw with the problems with Amazon Web Services, that took down many major web sites. People were having panic attacks because they were having issues getting to their favorite website.

Theoretically the internet was created to be a better more fault tolerant communications system. As the internet has exploded commercially it has become the exactly the opposite of the original goal. It has created the biggest single point of failure in our world. People forget there are other ways of doing things without using the internet, like using traditional broadcast radio for news and entertainment.

It scares me that some people think that we should use the internet for everything. Instead of making any more comments based on my subjective opinion, I felt inspired to do a little research.

It would appear that traditional radio is still alive and well.

Here are some snippets from Pew Research on radio broadcasting:

"... terrestrial radio continues to reach the overwhelming majority of the public."

As far as using radio for a source of news and information:

"Pew Research Center’s own survey work adds insight here, finding radio to be a common source of news among adults in the U.S. In research asking about how people are learning about the U.S. presidential election, 44% of adults said they learned about it from radio in the past week. "

Source: Pew Research Center Audio: Fact Sheet

To those who say terrestrial radio (traditional broadcast radio) is dead, might be surprised to see that the Pew research numbers show that the percentage of Americans ages 12 or older who listen to terrestrial radio weekly has remained pretty steady at over 90% for the years 2009 through 2015.

Source: Audio: Weekly radio listenership (terrestrial)

Why not always use the internet?

You use the simplest tool you need to solve a problem, why make things more complicated than they need to be?

I want to kick back after dinner, and unwind watching some mindless entertainment. I watch television. The internet can be a pain at times. Connections are slow, websites are take too long to load. Sometimes the alternatives to using the internet are more efficient.

I want to sit on the porch, enjoy a beverage, and relax. I listen to the radio. It is quick and simple. Why would I use anything else?

I am driving in the car, I want some background music to pass the time. I listen to the radio. Why do I need the internet?

What if the power goes out? What happens then? Will my wi-fi work? Or I just could listen to my battery powered radio to connect to the world.

Need any more examples?

Why it makes sense to receive FM Radio on your cell phone

Does it makes sense to eliminate FM radio in favor of digital?
 

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Net Neutrality and the myth that the internet is free

One argument over net neutrality is the fear that the large Cable TV providers like Comcast controlling internet access as ISPs could charge for various levels of service on the internet in tiers, like they do with Cable TV services. Some people object to that because they believe "the internet should be free."

Entertainment such as radio and television started out as broadcast media, in that you had a receiver in your home to receive the signals broadcast by the local stations. Television grew out of radio. In the early days of television, the 1930s and 1940s, the successful television networks were the ones that started with radio networks.

There are still "free" televisions stations in that you can find many local stations that broadcast a signal through the air that you can receive. Cable TV was initially created to provide television service to areas that did not receive a good broadcast signal. As cable TV expanded in the 1960s and 1970s the Cable TV operators began to add extra channels to their systems that were not derived from broadcast signals.

The internet of today is the next step in the evolution of entertainment. The internet is new way to deliver various content to your homes through wires provided by your Cable TV company that were once used just to deliver television service. Satellite services once developed to compete with cable TV services now also deliver internet access. Radio has also expanded beyond the traditional through the air broadcasting to satellite radio and internet radio.

Broadcast radio is only free in the sense that you do not pay an ongoing fee to listen to the radio. But you pay for in the sense that you listen to advertising that is paid for by someone else. With cable television you are paying for the convenience of having a clear television signal delivered to your home through a wire. The programming is paid for in various ways, sometimes strictly by advertising, just like in the days of broadcasting. Sometimes the programming is paid for by fees through the cable services provider for carrying the channel. In the case of premium services like HBO or Showtime, you get to watch them commercial free, but you pay a premium, as in a charge to view them, that offsets the revenue that the commercials would raise.

Right now internet service providers are providing you with a connection to the services and you are paying for the access just like in the early days of cable TV. There are also premium services on the internet like NetFlix, where you pay a premium to access content, just like you would with premium services like HBO or Showtime.

Gratis versus libre free speech not the same as free beer

I stumbled upon an article about American software freedom activist and programmer Richard Stallman drawing attention to the concept of gratis versus libre and had a massive "ah-huh" moment regarding how this concept of "free" gets twisted in the net neutrality debate.

Richard Stallman is considered the father of the Open Source software movement. Stallman explains that Open Source refers to the preservation of the freedoms to use, study, distribute and modify that software not zero-cost. In illustrating the concept of Gratis versus Libre, Stallman is famous for using the sentence, "free as in free speech not as in free beer."

This dual definition of free can cause issues where the distinction is important, as it often is in dealing with laws concerning the use of information, such as copyright and patents.

There's no such thing as a free lunch but you are free to eat your lunch anywhere you want.

The use of the English adjective free often gets twisted because it can be used in one of two meanings. When you say there's no such thing as a free lunch you are using the word free meaning "for zero price" (gratis). When you say you are free to eat your lunch anywhere you want you are using the word free to mean "with little or no restriction" (libre).

The myth that the internet is free

Some people don't like the possibility of the large cable TV providers like Comcast controlling internet access as ISPs where they could charge for various levels of service on the internet in tiers, like they do with Cable TV services. That is part of the battle over net neutrality. Nothing is free.

Traditional radio and television are evolving and expanding and becoming a part of the big picture of media and the internet. If you don't pay an upfront fee to use something, you will pay for it in having to tolerate some form of advertising. If you want a better quality signal someone needs to pay to build up the highway to provide the services, and you will pay for that in service fees. If you want to watch programming or listen to music without commercials, there needs to be a way to license it and collect fees in the form of subscriptions so the content providers get paid for their work.

Part of the debate on a "free" internet is that the concept of free is two fold. You may be free to choose what services you want to use on the internet, but access to use those services is not free from cost or payment.

Graphic: American software freedom activist and programmer Richard Stallman (right) illustrating his famous sentence "free as in free speech not as in free beer", with a beer glass. Brussels, RMLL, 9 July 2013

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Why it makes sense to receive FM Radio on your cell phone

Most smartphones come with FM radio receivers already built in, and the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission wants you to know that your wireless carrier may be keeping you from using the technology.

Why should you care about using FM Radio on your cell phone?

Emergency management professionals will tell you that traditional radio is a great source for news during times of emergency.

There are people in the cell phone industry that would call the public safety argument for using cell phone FM radio just a marketing ploy by traditional radio, but I would disagree. I know from first hand experience how fickle cell phone service can be.

During an earthquake on the east coast a few years ago everyone picked up their cellphones and began calling everyone they know to see what had happened. The cell phone circuits were overloaded. Thankfully the earthquake was just some rumbling and no major damage was done. But we all saw how vulnerable we are if we rely on cellular phone circuits for information during a time of emergency.

It happened again with Hurricane Sandy, and the problem was compounded by actual damage to cell towers and power outages in addition to increased phone volume. Cell phone users experienced various communications issues.

What is the issue with using FM Radio on your cell phone?

This article from Wired back in July pretty much sums up the issue…("Your Phone Has an FM Chip. So Why Can’t You Listen to the Radio?")

"Broadcasters and public safety officials have long urged handset manufacturers and wireless carriers to universally activate the FM chip, and recently brought the campaign to Canada. Carriers have little financial incentive to do so because they profit from streaming data, says Barry Rooke of the National Campus and Community Radio Association."

It's funny that the question being discussed from a Apple leaning publication such as MacRumors (FCC Chairman Encourages Activation of the FM Radio Receiver Built Into Your iPhone) states, "Apple's stance on the activation of FM receivers in iPhones is uncertain."

Other articles such as this one from The Verge ( FCC chief wants smartphones’ hidden FM radios turned on, but won’t do anything about it ) have a different slant on why, "Giving consumers the chance to pick free FM radio also means fewer track sales on iTunes and fewer new subscribers to services like Apple Music. ... That’d be a major downside for Apple, which is probably why it hasn’t embraced FM radio on the iPhone yet."

FM radio alive and well

We recently asked the question, "Does it makes sense to eliminate FM radio in favor of digital?" because in 2017 Norway will become the first country in the world to start shutting down its national FM radio network in favor of digital radio.

Our conclusion was that it makes no sense at all because broadcast radio is alive and well in the United States. There are currently over 6700 commercial FM stations. Not only is traditional FM radio alive and well, traditional FM radio provides a valuable service in time of emergency.
 

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