So you have a computer. What is the next step? How do you accomplish anything with it? What if there is more than one computer in your household? A computer is not a self-contained entity; it is the heart of a system made up of input, output, storage, and communication devices. Putting the system together in the right way for you will make your experiences with it much more enjoyable and productive.

Input Devices
Granted, a computer comes with a keyboard and mouse, but that is only the beginning. There are many ways to get data into a computer. You can start by replacing the stock keyboard with an ergonomic version, one that puts your hands into a position easier on your wrists and arms to reduce the risk of carpel tunnel problems. You can also replace your mouse with an optical version that has no moving parts to clean or get jammed, is wireless so you’re not dragging a cable across your desk with every movement, or that includes additional buttons for hot key shortcuts. Another choice is the trackball, a device that is basically an upside-down mouse, with the ball on top. For some, this is easier on the hand and wrist, and it also allows you to use it in a confined desk area, as there is no movement of the device.

If you are into tactile feedback, you can get a mouse or a pen-like device that allows you to “feel” shapes and objects depicted on the screen. Artists use them to “sculpt” virtual clay, and others use them to add a dimension of reality to games and web navigation. To supplement the mouse (or trackball) and keyboard, you can also add a pen-based slate or pad that lets you draw and write information into the computer. Some of the new flat monitors have touchpads on them so you can write directly on the screen.

Let’s not forget that you can now use a digital camera and microphone too, for video emails, sending photographs, and teleconferencing. Many computers already have a microphone, for voice recognition applications like writing and talking to fellow participants in online games, so by adding a camera, you can add another dimension to your computing. Some PC cameras can also act as stand-alone digital cameras, and vice-versa. Speaking of photographs, a scanner is well worth adding to your system. Not only can you scan those old pictures into your computer with it, you can scan important documents, notes, and those cute pictures your kid drew at school. There are even small ones made just to scan snapshots, if you feel that a full-size machine is too much for your needs.

Output devices
The first thing that people think about when they think of computer output is a printer, but then the question becomes, what kind? At this point, the minimum level of device should be a color inkjet with photo printing capability. If it can print on transparencies and stiff cardboard to make business or calling cards, even better. It is also well worth it to make sure that the printer has separate cartridges for color and black ink, as any savings up front from a cheaper single-cartridge printer will translate into increased operating costs down the line as you throw out good ink to replace the cartridge to get more of the one color that ran out.

Don’t forget that output also involves sound and picture. A good monitor makes the computing experience much more enjoyable. Don’t automatically assume that a flat-panel monitor is the best; if you have the real estate available on your desk and can handle the bulk, a 19-inch CRT is still much cheaper, and will give you a bigger screen area than a more expensive 15- or 17-inch flat panel. Then again, a flat panel takes up much less space on your desk, weighs a lot less, and uses less power. A good set of speakers will make your games explode from the screen, make your web surfing more fun, and also allow you to enjoy some tunes while you work. You can buy a simple pair or a full five-speaker home theater-quality system with a powered subwoofer, depending upon your tastes. Even a pair of headphones can make a significant impression.

Storage
Storage is linked to output in that one of the ways you can transfer data to someone is to hand them a disk with the data on it. In case you haven’t heard, the floppy disk is dead. Really. At 1.4 megabytes, the only thing you can put on one of them is a text document, or one or two digital photographs of any real quality. Anything you used to do with a floppy can now be done more easily via Email, as even the cheesiest free email service will let you send a 1.5-meg file. To help put storage into perspective, a megabyte is viewed today the way a kilobyte was viewed in the past, with a gigabyte taking its place in people’s minds as a “large” chunk of data. To compare, a telephone modem transmitting data at 56 kilobits per second (maximum, it is usually slower) is over ONE HUNDRED TIMES slower than a megabit-speed cable modem or DSL line. For example, my current cable modem hookup is sending at 1,126 kilobits per second, so you do the math. (I used a free speed test from CNET.com, available at http://webservices.cnet.com/Bandwidth.)

The storage question today is whether to get a CD burner, a CD burner that also plays DVD, or a full-blown DVD/CD burner. For most desktop applications, a CD burner is fine. At pennies a disk in quantity, you can burn a CD with those wedding pictures on it for everyone in the family, or make multiple backups of important documents (like that picture your kid drew that you scanned in earlier), or mail a copy of that novel you finally managed to write to your agent. If you are into movies, and your computer is also your primary (or even a high-priority secondary) entertainment device, a DVD player/CD burner is in order. That way you can also watch your favorite movies on your machine. If you shoot a lot of video, then a DVD burner would be a great choice, because then you could send your movies to others in the mail. The other question involving storage deals with flash memory cards. At this point, there are readers for every type out there, so just make sure that you have a reader for your computer that can handle whatever flash memory is in your camera, MP-3 player, or laptop.

Communications
This is where the most choice exists, and the most confusion. There are three main ways to set up a local area network (LAN), with their own types of modem. The good thing is, they can all communicate with one another, provided you have the right adaptors. The first kind of modem is the oldest kind, the one based upon telephone lines. This is the slowest way to communicate. The second, digital subscriber link (DSL), uses the telephone lines, but is a digital link that is much faster. The third is based on your cable line, and is roughly as fast as the digital phone method. In each of them, the speed is also affected by how much traffic is on the system at the time you are trying to use it.

If you want more than one computer to use a single modem link, you need what is called a hub. There is a standard hub, one using wires, or a wireless hub, using an RF technology like 802.11b (also called WiFi). A relatively new method has been added called HomePlug, which is a system that uses your home’s power lines via the wall sockets to transmit data. Wireless LAN is the one to beat here. It may cost a little more than a wired solution (a little less than $100 for the hub, and the same for each computer you want to add to it), but it is the most flexible, especially if you have a laptop. In fact, for a laptop-based household, wireless is the only thing that makes sense. You can surf the web from any room in your house, including outdoors, at distances of several hundred feet from the base station.

If you have a couple of desktops, then a wired system makes the most sense, as you have a bunch of cables hooked up already, and one more won’t make much difference. It’s also cheaper, as most computers already have a basic Ethernet networking jack, with only the hub to add. The variation to explore here is HomePlug, as it doesn’t force you to run wires from room to room, since it uses the power wires already existing in the walls. Bluetooth is a wireless system, but it is more suited for inter-device communication, such as that between a PDA and a printer, for example. It is also being used in wireless devices like keyboards, and communications between cell phones and computers.

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