Do PC’s still have a place in a world of laptops and tablets?

Over the last few years, a lot of people have replaced PCs (consisting of system unit, monitor, keyboard, and mouse) with laptops. The reasons aren’t hard to find:

  • Laptops are much neater and take up less room than PCs.
  • The price differential has disappeared.
  • Laptops are more versatile. Would you rather watch a film on a PC at your desk or on a laptop wherever you wish to place it?
  • We don’t often need to open up computers any more to add the latest gizmo.

Laptop vs Desktop

Laptop vs Desktop. This image is from http://computerdawn.com/desktop-vs-laptop/

A lot of my computer support clients ask whether the desktop PC is disappearing. They would probably be surprised to learn that, although PC sales have been falling in recent years, the figures may have bottomed out. Worldwide shipments of PCs in the second quarter of 2014 were actually 0.1% up on the the same period last year (source: Gartner).

One theory to explain this mini-revival is that a lot of people have probably replaced desktop computers running Windows XP during the second quarter of this year (as Microsoft stopped support for XP in April). I suspect that a high proportion of such replacements will have been in the business sector. I’m certainly surprised at the number of home users that I encounter who are sticking with XP machines (at least for the time being). It’s true that I haven’t yet heard of any “killer malware” that is frightening people out of using their XP machines. Nevertheless, it could happen any day and that would probably boost Windows 8 desktop sales for another few months.

Another theory that reconciles falling PC sales (over the last couple of years) with optimism about their future is that, generally speaking, we are replacing PCs less often than we used to simply because they are now good enough to run whatever is thrown at them for longer. As computers get older we notice them slowing down. Many people can’t help anthropomorphising about this: they think that computers “slow down in their old age” just as we do.

Sony All-In-One

Sony All-in-One. Less visible hardware, more visible screen.

That’s not the case. It is true that Windows computers do tend to accrete a load of rubbish over time that doesn’t help performance (eg temporary internet files, any number of different fonts, redundant programs), but a bit of housekeeping can help in this respect (I recommend CCleaner but avoid registry cleaners unless there’s a known problem). The main thing that makes a computer seem slower over time has been that software gets ever more bloated. We are forever installing newer versions of browsers and other programs that are written with modern hardware capabilities in mind. Therefore, as time goes on, your hardware starts to struggle a bit with newer programs. However, Windows 7 and Windows 8 have bucked that trend by being designed to run on hardware that would run Vista. So, there’s reason to think that we need to replace computers less often because they are not being outpaced by software demands in the same way as they used to be. We’re still buying PCs – just not as often. Have a look at this link for more on this.

Another thing that may be helping desktops sales (and laptop sales as well) is that people don’t seem to be upgrading their tablets. It seems as if developments and improvements to tablets are just not sufficient to make users think they are missing something. That being the case, funds are probably more likely to be available to replace the ageing workhorse PC in the office or home. If you’d like some overkill on figures about Tablets, have a look at this link.

HP Hybrid Laptop

Devices like this HP Hybrid are blurring the distinctions. Is it a laptop? Is it a tablet?

It is true that tablets may have taken a big chunk of users’ budgets in the last couple of years, but that doesn’t mean that tablets are displacing PCs. Despite improvements in tablet software (eg Word, Excel, and Powerpoint are now available on the iPad and other tablets – see this recent blog on Office 365), it seems that most people prefer to use their tablets and smartphones for data CONSUMPTION – eg watching films, checking Facebook and Twitter, listening to music, viewing photos and so on. However, when it comes to data PRODUCTION (eg report writing, PowerPoint creation, database work, photo editing) most people head back to their laptops and desktops.

OK, so tablets haven’t knocked desktop PCs out of the game, but why haven’t laptops finished the job off?

I’m not really sure. In an office situation, I can see that a desktop PC still has certain advantages:

  • There are usually more ports (eg USB ports) than on a laptop.
  • A desktop PC can actually take up less desk space as the monitor can be permanently fixed above the desk, the system unit placed beneath the desk, and a wireless keyboard can easily be moved aside if you need all your deskspace.
  • Despite the need to get inside a computer’s case being less obvious than it used to be, a desktop PC is still more versatile in this respect.

So, there may be clear reasons why desktop PCs are holding on against laptops in an office situation, but I’m not really sure that those reasons aren’t outweighted by the flexibility of laptops in the home.

It’s clear, though, that there are plenty of reasons why “laptops/desktops” considered together should be holding their own against tablets. When my computer support clients ask me whether they should replace ageing desktops with another desktop or with a laptop, there’s no “one size fits all” answer. In giving computer advice on this, I usually stress the flexibility of the laptop over the PC. I also point out that my own experience and that of others is that tablets are probably not versatile enough to replace their bigger siblings but the choice between laptop and desktop is much less clearcut.

In conclusion, I would say that – as far as functionality is concerned – a laptop is probably as good as a desktop PC and also the “all-in-ones” that are becoming increasingly popular (possibly because they take up less space than a desktop but offer the screen size of a desktop). Don’t worry that desktops are disappearing and that you may be the last person ever to buy one! There’s no real sign that that’s going to happen any time soon. Buy whatever you prefer: the basic functionality and power is comparable between all three formats. And by all means have a tablet: they have lots of uses but they are not replacing “proper” computers.

Why would you upgrade to Office 365?

A while ago, I blogged about Office 365, pointing out that in this version you no longer purchase the software outright, but license the use of it via a monthly or annual subscription.

Office 365I have no doubt that this change is intended to increase Microsoft’s sales. Let’s face it, Microsoft Office probably does pretty well everything that you want it to do by now. My experience with my own computer support clients suggests strongly that individual users (as opposed to medium-sized or large corporations) probably don’t use more than a small fraction of the functionality already built into Office. Why buy the product again with even more bells and whistles that you don’t care about? By persuading users to take out a subscription instead of buying the software outright, Microsoft don’t need to make another sale to get more money out of you. They know that once you’ve set up a direct debit or agreed to let them charge your credit/debit card when the time comes, then you will keep paying them money. It’s much, much easier to get money out of you this way as they don’t have to sell you anything again or persuade you to take any action at all. As Del Boy used to say, “lovely jubbly”.

And, since the version of Office that you currently receive when you opt for Office 365 is, in fact, Office 2013, then why would you make the switch?

Well, I’ve looked into it again and I have now signed up for Office 365. It may or may not be a good decision for you, but here are the advantages that make it worthwhile for me – an IT Support Consultant – to make the change:

  • It’s the only way to install the latest Office on several machines with one licence. Up to, and including, Office 2010 you could buy a three-user licence of Office Home and Student for only about £10 more than a single-user version. Microsoft have removed this option from Office 2013. With Office 365 Home you can install on five different machines and can even split that between Mac and PC machines. Previously, you had to buy separate versions to install on different operating systems. There is also a version that is less expensive that includes a licence for just one computer and one tablet.
  • There are now tablet versions (iPad, Android, Windows) of Office and you can install on up to five devices as part of the same licence if you opt for the Office 365 Home version of the product. Only Word, Excel and PowerPoint are available for tablets, but this is still a very welcome enhancement.
  • There is now no distinction between “Home and Student”, “Small Business” and “Professional” versions. With Office 365 you get all the modules (including Outlook, Access, and Publisher) automatically. Lots of users might never want these modules but for those who do (including me), then the monthly (or annual) subscription suddenly becomes a much more appealing deal than if we were just talking about the “Home and Student” version.
  • Updates to the software are automatic. This is a bit of a two-edged sword. It’s nice to know you won’t have to fork out anything extra for newer versions, but it can be very disconcerting for software to suddenly change without either asking for it or wanting it.
  • CashCowThe prices are quite good. Office Professional 2013 currently costs £389.99 for a single user. A subscription to Office 365 Personal (one user plus one tablet) costs £5.99 per month (about £72 per annum) or £59.99 for a single annual subscription. So, it would actually take 6.5 years of use for an outright purchase of 2013 to be a better bet than Office 365 Personal. And, if you really want to be pedantic, there are cashflow benefits to paying for it by an ongoing subscription and you are even reducing the risk of making the purchase as you could always choose not to renew an annual subscription. The best value is probably to be found in the Office 365 Home version. This includes a licence to install on five Macs and/or PCs and five tablets.It costs £7.99 per month or £79.99 for an annual subscription.
  • Depending on which version you choose, you can also receive up to 1tb (one terabyte – ie 1000 gigabytes) of Cloud storage with an Office 365 subscription. My computer support clients currently seem to be split about 50:50 on whether they think cloud storage is a good idea. The two main benefits it holds are that you have a remote backup of your data (so if your entire house and belongings suffered devastation by fire, theft, or flood, you would still have a copy of your data) and data created on one computer or device is immediately available to your other computers or devices (iPads etc).

Filing cabinet in the clouds

I seem to be gradually migrating all of my data to the Cloud

I only installed 365 this week, but so far I’ve not found any reason to regret the decision. The installation even seamlessly transferred my Outlook to the 365 version – including email accounts, contacts, calendar, email messages, email signatures, email rules, and add-ins.

If you only use Word, Excel and PowerPoint (of the available modules in Microsoft Office) and only use a single computer, then my previous advice still stands – you are probably better off with Office 2013. If your needs are greater than that then it may pay to investigate Office 365 the next time you want or need to change the software.

By the way, in my earlier blog entitled Buying Office 2013 I originally said that you use the software online rather than installing it on your own computer. That was wrong and I apologise. In fact, the software installs in the normal way onto your own computer.

Recently, I decided to tidy up my Outlook email folders

Microsoft Outlook 2010 logo

Outlook 2010 logo

This entailed moving lots of sub-folders between folders. You can move a folder (or sub-folder – which simply means a folder that is within another folder) either by “cutting and pasting” it or by simply dragging it from one location to another. The latter is usually easier, but if the list of folders that you have to “drag past” is longer than the screen height available then you have to drag the folder to the bottom of screen and then hope you can keep control as the list of folders scrolls upwards in front of your eyes. Tricky to explain and even trickier to perform.

Exactly the same thing applies, of course, if you need to drag upwards past the top of the screen rather than down past the bottom. The speed at which the column scrolls down or up is, I think, a function of exactly where you stop moving the folder being dragged and also a function of just how long the column is that is being scrolled. All of this makes dragging a folder past the top or bottom of the screen a bit of a hairy process. It’s very easy to let go of the mouse button at the wrong moment – dropping the folder in the wrong place.

If this only happened when moving folders around in Outlook then I wouldn’t bother telling you all this, but it also happens in other programs, so this bit of advice will, hopefully, have wider use (in Windows Explorer, for instance).

So, is there an easier way to re-organise files and folders when the list is longer than the screen?

Well, the answer seems to be “maybe” – depending on the program you are using. If you can open two windows, side by side, with each showing the same thing, then there is probably an easier way:

  • Start in the “destination” window by displaying the part of the list where you wish to deposit the folder (or file)
  • Click on the other window and navigate to the folder (or file) to be moved
  • Drag the folder or file across the boundary between the two windows and let go at the appropriate position

2 Microsoft Outlook Windows side by side

It is easier to drag between windows than dragging off the bottom of a single window.

Using this method, the scrolling to the destination has been completely separated from the dragging of the file/folder. Much easier. It probably wouldn’t be worth setting up windows side by side if you are only intending to move one or two folders or files around, but it’s definitely worth it if you are doing some more substantial re-organising.

How do you open the second window?

  • Start by opening the first “instance” of the program in the usual way
  • Right-click on the icon of the program that is now present on the task bar (the bar at the bottom of the screen)
  • Left-click on the program name that appears in the list

Alternatively:

  • Start by opening the first “instance” of the program in the usual way
  • Shift-click on the icon of the program that is now present on the task bar (the bar at the bottom of the screen)

Microsoft Outlook 2013 logo

Outlook 2013 logo. Why did they change it from yellow to blue?

Whether you can open the same program in two different windows at the same time seems to depend on the program. The above works for Outlook, but I couldn’t get Windows Mail to open in two different windows. Every time I tried to open a second window, the focus (ie the cursor) just moved into the existing window. I wondered if it would work in Gmail (webmail), but you can’t drag anything out of the original window.

I haven’t yet experimented to see if this tip is useful when using a Mac, but it’s my guess that it’s likely to be useful in that parallel universe also.

By the way, at the same time as playing around with multiple windows, I also had another look to see if there is any way of selecting more than one folder at once in Outlook so that they could be moved in a single action. Not only could I not find a method, but I came across a special utility that appears to be written solely to solve this problem. This suggests, of course, that there isn’t an obvious method within Outlook that I am missing. The utility can be found at http://pandali.com/pfm.html. It costs $29 but there’s a 30 day free trial.

One more tip when cleaning up Outlook folders

If you wish to delete a complete folder of emails in Outlook then the program gets a bit solicitous and asks whether you are sure. This can get tedious after a while so, if you are doing a major clean-up involving the deletion of lots of folders then a more efficient way is to drag those folders into a special folder (that I call “Doomed” because it sounds so wonderfully dramatic – yes, I need to get out more). When the re-organising is complete, just delete the “Doomed” folder. That way, you only need to confirm the action once. This tip would also work when cleaning up normal files and folders in Windows Explorer.

We can exercise a (tiny) bit of control over Microsoft programs!

Individual programs in the Microsoft Office suite (Word, Excel, Access, Outlook, PowerPoint and OneNote) have their own set of “Options” that can be used to help you to use the programs in the way that you want.

Here is a guide as to how these work by giving some examples of configuring some options in Word 2010. The 2007 and 2013 versions of Microsoft Office programs work in a similar way. If you are still using a version of Office that is older than 2007 then it would be a good idea to upgrade as older versions are inherently less secure and more likely to harbour viruses and other such nasties.

There are several ways to access the “Options” for Word. The easiest way is to select the “File” tab and then click on “Options” near the bottom of the menu. The screen that opens shows the options grouped down the lefthand side and the individual settings for the selected group of options are displayed to the right of the options menu.

Word Options

Figure 1 – Word Options

For instance, in the “General” group (see figure 1) there is an option that turns on or off the “Live Preview” throughout the use of Word. In some cases, as here, there is a small letter “i” in a circle that shows some more information about a particular option if you hover your mouse pointer over that letter “i”. “Live preview” is the feature that shows you what would happen if you actually chose the option you are currently hovering your mouse pointer over (eg the “styles” options on the “Home” tab). Some people find the “live preview” a bit confusing and intimidating, whereas others find it useful. So, here in “Options” is the ability to turn it on or off.

OK, don’t worry – I am most definitely not going to go through every item that can be changed in “Options”! Let’s just look at a few others that you might find useful in the hope that you might be encouraged to have the occasional look at “Options” to see if you can “tweak” Word to work more closely to your own wishes.

Click on the “Proofing” group (lefthand side of screen) to show the “AutoCorrect Options”. The dialog box that pops up is very useful in showing what text replacements are already configured. For instance, if you type “(c)” (without the quotes) then Word will automatically change this to the copyright symbol (a letter “c” in a circle). You can add your own replacement text in the empty boxes above the current replacement list (see figure 2).

For instance, I get niggled at having to try and remember how the word PowerPoint is capitalised to make it appear the way Microsoft would like. Therefore, I have created replacement text so that when I type “ppoint” (without the quotes), Word replaces it with “PowerPoint”. Likewise, my fingers seem to insist on typing “Microsoft” as “Microsfot”, so I have instructed “AutoCorrect” to replace the wrong spelling with the right one.

Click the “OK” button at the bottom of the dialog window if you wish to save any changes made.

Word AutoCorrect Options

Figure 2 – Word AutoCorrect Options

Also in the “proofing” group is the option to “check spelling as you type”. This is another option that seems to polarise users into those who like the program to help them out with their spelling and the others (like me) who are disproportionately indignant at the idea that a computer program could possibly have anything to teach them about spelling (especially an American program teaching us how to spell English!) Well, here is the option to turn realtime spell-checking on or off.

In the “Save” group is the option to change the “default file location”. If Word assumes that you open and save your documents from/to a different folder than your preferred one, then you can change it here. Whenever you have the option to either type in a location or “browse” to it (as here), then I would always recommend “browsing” to it as there is much less chance of making an error in specifying the location.

Also in this group is the option to change the type of file that is created by default when you save a document. There is just a chance that you may wish to save as a Word document (1997-2003) if you habitually share documents with someone using a very old version of Word (as versions earlier than 2007 can not normally read documents made in Word 2007 or later).

So, if you find that you consistently need to change a setting that Word assumes you want, it may be worth spending a few minutes scanning through “Options” to see if there is a way of changing that particular setting to the default that you would prefer.

The Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover for the iPad Mini

iPad Mini Logitech Keyboard Cover - WhiteI recently blogged about the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover for the iPad Mini. Well, it has now arrived in the shops (John Lewis and Apple, for instance). From what I had previously read, there were some minor gripes about some keys being too small to hit automatically if you are a touch typist. Well, I’m not a touch typist and the key placement and action is everything a messy typist like me could want in a keyboard of this size. I think it’s a very real enhancement to the iPad Mini. Last week I spent a very productive 20 minutes on a train between Ilford and Liverpool Street with it on my lap, writing the beginnings of last week’s blog. As far as I am concerned, that’s 20 more minutes available to my working week. For some reason, I could never be bothered firing up a netbook for just 20 minutes, even if it had been in sleep mode in my bag. The iPad is up and running in a flash. And here I am now, writing this blog in Cafe Nerd (as my sister calls it).

The design, build and quality match the iPad itself very well and there’s one other advantage – cursor keys! The lack of cursor keys on iPads drives me bonkers. Now I can cursor up, down, left, and right, accurately positioning the cursor before adding, deleting or amending. It’s almost worth the £69.99 price for this alone!

The only minor gripe I have is that the cover doesn’t close against the iPad quite as firmly or convincingly as it’s big brother on the full-sized iPad. A couple of times I’ve taken it out of my bag to discover that it feels warm and, yes, the display is on. The auto shut-off hasn’t worked. Not a big issue, but it’s tempting to play the game of opening the fridge door to see if the light’s still on.


Computer Fairs

Computer FairA while ago, I wrote that I thought that the Tottenham Court Road Computer Fair seemed to be “dying on its feet”. I popped in two weeks ago and was told that they’ve re-introduced an admission charge. After I’d performed my Victor Meldrew Tribute Act and pointed out that there seemed to be few enough punters already without putting us off with an admission charge, I was told – perhaps inadvisedly – that the fair would have to close if the admission charge didn’t work (no, I can’t figure that one out, either). Cutting my nose off to spite my face, I refused to pay it.

I’m going back today (rather sheepishly, but I’ll hide behind my cool new shades), to see if they’re still open as I think it’s time to get some contact details from the better dealers in there. I must also get some broadband filters as they’re about a quarter the price in there that they are elsewhere. These are needed for a client with a property on several floors who has, of course, got lots of telephone points. You must have a broadband filter (also called a “splitter”) on ALL telephone points, irrespective of whether they’re connected either to a telephone handset or the incoming broadband line.

Readers’ Comments

Woman Touching iPhone to NoseI recently mentioned seeing a lady on a 37 bus operating her iPhone with her nose. This prompted a response from a reader who says that this was commonplace in Russia when the iPhone first came out. Perhaps the lady I saw was part of the Russian diaspora. She certainly looked more elegantly dressed against the cold weather than the average Londoner.

The Ted Talks LogoAnother reader responded to my mention of Ted Talks recently by suggesting that I might like to “look under the hood”. He says they have a “right-wing, US Evangelical” agenda. I agree that I have definitely seen a couple of very odd talks, but I’ve simply stopped watching them. I did a Google search to see if there is any evidence for his viewpoint. I couldn’t find any and, anyway, I would like to credit my readers with the same ability to discriminate as I credit myself with. On the other hand, I’d be the last person to wish to promote right-wing or evangelical organisations, so I’m grateful to that reader for marking my card.

Office 365Finally, I should have delved deeper into Microsoft Office 365 before writing last week’s blog. Some versions of Office 365 do include full desktop applications. This is definitely not the impression I gave last week. Sorry. I obviously need to do a lot more work unravelling the complexities of Microsoft’s new product range.

Have Microsoft released a product they don’t want us to buy?

Years ago it was usual to buy Microsoft Office “bundled in” with a new computer. You acquired the package cheaper than buying it separately but it was only licensed for that specific computer: you couldn’t transfer it to a new computer later on. Fair enough, you got it for a good price.

Office 2010 LogoThings then changed and it became the norm to buy Office separately. If you wanted the “Home and Student” version (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and OneNote) then the best option was to buy a package that explicity said on the packaging that it was licensed for three machines. This only cost about £10 more than the same package licensed for only a single machine. In both cases you could move the package to another machine(s) simply by installing on a new machine and uninstalling from the original. This was perfectly acceptable as far as the licensing was concerned and meant that you didn’t subsequently have to buy Office again when you bought a new computer.

No problem and all very reasonable – especially as the price of Office has come down considerably over the years. I remember paying about £400 for a version of Office (’95?) that came on about 26 floppy discs! Things have certainly improved since then.
Office Home and Student 2013
Anyway, back to the present.
If you are thinking of buying the new Office 2013 then be aware that Microsoft have changed the licensing. The three user package is no longer available and, much more importantly, the licence is only valid for the machine upon which the package is first installed. Initially. you could not move it to a new or different computer. This, not surprisingly, caused a bit of a to-do. What happens, you may ask, if your computer dies a month after installing your shiny new Office 2013? To start with, Microsoft made some kind of woolly-headed concession whereby they will help you out if the computer is still under warranty. This, of course, was still rubbish. They have now conceded – up to a point – and will allow you to move your Office installation, but no more often than every 90 days. How nice of them.

And what’s behind this insanity? Office 365, that’s what. Office 365 is Microsoft’s new version of Office. Instead of paying an outright price, you pay an annual subscription. And that, of course, is nirvana for a software manufacturer. Lovely jubbly. Keep the money rolling in on an annual basis instead of convincing the punter to upgrade to a newer, better, version every three to five years. What’s more, they have no costs or hassle in distributing the product. No problems in having to disseminate upgrades and bug fixes: they just change the versions on their own servers. All this is wonderful for them but means that we, the users, are losing control of the programs we buy and use.

Office 365I confess that I haven’t used either Office 2013 or Office 365 yet so I can’t comment on their merits. I’m not the only one, however, who suspects that the dreadful licensing terms on Office 2013 are there solely to hamper sales of this product in favour of its sibling. As part of my research for this article, I was looking to find Microsoft’s main web page selling Office 2013 so I tried the obvious search term “microsoft office 2013” expecting to find Microsoft’s own site come very high in the results (as you would). The first Microsoft site that comes up doesn’t even mention Office 2013 – just Office 365. So I tried narrowing the search by using the term “buy microsoft 2013”. The first three results that came up were punting Office 365. Finally, the fourth related to Office Home and Business 2013. Not for the first time, I feel as if I’m being bullied by Microsoft.

Office 2010 is still available to buy in the usual way and is a good product. However, the cheapest I can find Office Home and Student 2010 today (30/03/2013) via Amazon is £182. Unless I’m losing the plot, this is considerably more expensive than it used to be. Amazon are selling Office 2013 Home and Student at just £92.99 today. But this is definitely a case of caveat emptor. If you are tempted to go for this (single user) deal, be sure that you are happy with the licensing (that restricts its use to a single machine and is transferable to different machines no more often than every 90 days).

By the way, if you are one of the millions of happy campers still using Office 2003 then please be aware that Microsoft will cease support for this product in April 2014, at the same time that Windows XP is officially being buried. As with that product, security updates will not be issued after that date so it will become increasingly vulnerable to attack by hackers and ne’er-do-wells.

STOP PRESS: Argos are currently (30/03/2013) selling Office 2013 Home and Student for £109.99

A lot of business users and home computer users automatically turn to Microsoft Word every time they want to create text that needs to be saved. Word is a great fully-featured “word processing package” but using it often seems like using a sledge-hammer to crack a walnut, and it doesn’t necessarily offer a good solution in terms of organising snippets of information and finding them again in a hurry. Indeed, a lot of people would argue that Word has now become too clever and complicated for its own good, confusing average users with a plethora of options while not answering the real-world needs of data storage and retrieval.

Think, for example, of wanting to record notes about household things such as car maintenance records, or recipes, or anything else where you want to record information that you might just need to find again in the future. It seems to me that the trick is to make it as easy as possible to do the recording while, at the same time, making it as easy as possible to find something in, say, a year’s time.

Let’s take this a bit further by adding the possibility of including images (including screen captures), links to web pages, and links to files on your own computer. What we are beginning to see now is not just a program for recording text but an entire “information management system”.

Microsoft does have its own program for this kind of need. It’s called OneNote and it’s included in Microsoft Office packages. However, in all the years that I’ve been providing computer support in London I have never heard a single client mention it. I’ve been testing it for myself for the last three months or so. If I decide it’s worth using I’ll write a blog post on it, but I have to say that so far I’m finding it a bit irritating and possibly resource-hungry. On the other hand, it does seem quite powerful and useful.

In the meantime, the program I use for this kind of thing is one called “Treepad”. Indeed, I write these blog posts using Treepad and then copy and paste them onto my website. The reasons for using Treepad in this context are:

  • I can concentrate on creating the text without worrying about formatting etc.
  • I can easily drop images into the text that I might want to include in the blog post.

I also use Treepad for all kinds of computer technical notes that I may never need again or that I might just need one day. I have found that the really important thing is that the effort of writing down and saving information like this is only repaid if it’s easy to find it again. That also means that it has to be easy to do the recording. Treepad is excellent in these respects.

Treepad - showing the tree and part of an article

Figure 1 - Treepad - showing the tree structure on the left and part of an article (the contents of a node) on the right

Treepad is basically a text manager that allows you to organise content in a “tree structure”. On the left of the screen is the structure, and on the right is the content of the particular “node” that is currently selected. Nodes can be “nested” inside nodes in much the same way that Windows organises folders within folders (see Figure 1). By the by, you can see from the top of Figure 1 that I keep my Treepad files in my Dropbox folder so that they are always available on all my computers – see my blog about Dropbox.

But it is not only text that can entered into a node. We can also paste images, hyperlinks to programs or data files on the same computer, hyperlinks to websites, and links to other nodes in the same Treepad data file. It’s very easy to use and it’s powerful.

The only major gripe that I have with Treepad is that there is no inbuilt “tagging”. By that, I mean the ability to define each node as belonging to one or several user-defined “definitions” or “groups”. For instance, I might want to tag the content of nodes with “computer support London” or “silver surfer pc training” or “one-to-one computer training” or “blog ideas” so that all nodes with one or more specific tags can be selected easily. This is not absolutely critical, though, as there is a search routine, so I try to remember to add the words that I would like to treat as tags to the top line of the content of nodes. If I then search for a specific word it will list all nodes that include that word.

Treepad search results

Figure 2 - Treepad Search Results

Figure 2 shows the results of searching my Treepad file for “AVG”:

I can then click on any selected node to see it in its entirety.

Treepad is available in several versions. There is a free version so it costs nothing except a bit of time to give it a try. If you are the sort of person who is forever mislaying bits of information that you think should be easily accessible on your computer then it could pay you to have a look at it. I’ve been using the “Business” version for several years.

I started looking at Microsoft’s OneNote because it appears to be a more sophisticated program (you can scan documents directly into OneNote for instance), but I find its text handling a bit, shall we say, idiosyncratic (ie annoying) so I don’t know yet whether I would recommend it. Treepad is beginning to look a bit long in the tooth but it’s easy to use and repays the minimal effort required to use it.

I’m going to have a look at how good Treepad might be as a password manager program as I know that most of my IT clients do not have a simple, effective, consistent way of storing these and could do with a bit of well-aimed computer advice on the subject. Watch this space….

Remote Support may be suitable for this topic

Many people have Microsoft Office but have never used the spreadsheet application (Excel) that is part of it. Every now and again someone asks me what a spreadsheet is, so I’d like to give an overview. This is not a tutorial for financial or computer geeks: it’s just to give you an idea of whether you think spreadsheets could be worth investigating further.

A spreadsheet is a computer application that stores and calculates text and figures on documents that are like sheets of paper divided into rows and columns. These “sheets of paper” can then be saved in much the same way as Word documents.

Excel spreadsheet example with data

Excel Spreadsheet - figure 1

Each row and each column of the spreadsheet is labelled (with letters for columns and numbers for rows). Therefore, each individual box formed by the conjunction of a row and a column (called a cell) will have its own unique address – eg C2 or F19. Rows go down the page and columns go across the page.

Looking at Figure 1:-

  • The cell that is labelled C2 contains a piece of text (“Year 1”). It is actually possible to perform calculations on pieces of text but in most cases – as here – the text in the cell C2 simply labels the data that appears below it.
  • The cell C3 has a number in it (200), as do the rows below it.
  • The cell C7 contains a calculation. In this case, the calculation tells the spreadsheet to add up the contents of the cells in the rows above and to place the answer in the cell C7. The actual calculation placed in the cell in this case is “=sum(C3:C6)”.
  • The calculation in cell E3 tells the spreadsheet to subtract the contents of C3 from the contents of D3. The actual calculation is “C3-D3”.

For the sake of clarity I have colour-coded the cells in this example. Blue cells are text, orange cells are numbers, green cells are calculations. We enter text, numbers and dates just by typing in the data. To enter a calculation we begin by typing the “=” sign and then enter the formula.

Now, the beauty of spreadsheets is that having created this structure we can change any of the data and all of the formulae will be re-calculated immediately. So, for example, if we change the 200 in C3 to 500, then the totals immediately change as highlighted in yellow in figure 2 below:

Excel spreadsheet example with changed data

Excel Spreadsheet - figure 2

This means that we can create a structure that we want to use time and time again but only have to create that structure once. So, I might create the following structure (figure 3) and save it with the name of “expenditure template”:

Excel spreadsheet example with of template

Excel Spreadsheet - figure 3

This template has the text and calculations in place but no actual figures. When I want to put in figures I open this spreadsheet, enter my figures, and then save it with a different name (using the “save as” command) so that I still have my empty template available to repeat the process in the future and also have a saved copy of the spreadsheets that include my figures. I can, of course, do this as often as necessary (eg monthly).

Spreadsheets can range from the very simple to the enormously complicated. The calculations I showed above include just the instruction (known as a function) to “SUM” (ie “add”) the contents of some specified cells, and the simple arithmetic operation of substracting the contents of one cell from another. There are many in-built functions and operators that can handle, for instance, date arithmetic, statistical functions, logical comparisons etc, but you don’t need to be intimidated by all this power. It is fairly simple to grasp enough of the concepts and techniques to handle most daily requirements.

Something it’s difficult to appreciate in this static article is that it is easier to create the structure and the calculations than you might think at first. This is mainly for three reasons:

  • We can select the cells we wish to include in the calculation by “pointing” at them rather than manually typing in the cell co-ordinates.
  • Once we have created an initial calculation we can “copy” that calculation to other rows or columns where that makes sense. For instance, having created the calculation in E3 (where the calculation is “D3-C3”) we can just copy that calculation down to the next four rows. The program will automatically adjust the cell references (eg “D4-C4”, “D5-C5” etc) as it makes the copies.
  • Rows and cells can be inserted and deleted and the contents can be moved around as well as copied. The spreadsheet will automatically make changes in the calculations to adjust for these changes. This means that the design process can be very fluid: we don’t have to get it right first time.

A slightly different use of spreadsheets is to keep a kind of “database” of information (although I hesitate to use the word database as that has a more specifc meaning in computer terms). For instance, you could have a list of names, addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses etc in which each record (each person) is contained on one row and each different piece of information is in a different column (eg name, landline number, mobile number). This kind of list also has the advantage that in a modern spreadsheet application such as Excel, email addresses and website addresses are automatically recognised as links so you can click on them to create emails or go directly to websites (actually, the email part of that statement won’t work if you only have webmail on your computer).

Some of the different spreadsheets that I have cover the following uses:

  • Comparing budget (or target) figures with actual figures.
  • Comparing expenditure between different time periods.
  • Keeping simple lists of items with values and their totals.
  • Analysing the results of Google AdWords advertising.
  • Computer support logs.
  • Costings.
  • Price lists.
  • Sales figures.

Some of these spreadsheets are “one-offs” that help with specific individual projects and others are repeated on a regular basis, with the structure evolving over time.

If you have requirements that you think could be helped by using the Excel spreadsheet program just give me a call. I can offer 1:1 basic computer training so that you can then develop your own spreadsheets and/or help with developing specific spreadsheet structures.

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
Privacy Policy Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha