Choosing a Printer

Printers are the bane of tech support people. “Why can’t I print?” we are continually asked. Check out this meme:

What makes the meme funny is it’s actually pretty accurate!

I thought today we could discuss printers, and that way when you need to purchase a new one you will pick just the right model for your needs and budget.

Printers can be roughly divided into two groups: inkjet printers and laser printers.

Inkjet printers use cartridges filled with liquid ink. When you print, the printhead squirts tiny dots of the liquid ink onto the paper. Inkjet printers are almost always color printers. Inkjet printers are also on the lower end of the price scale initially; the printer itself tends to be lower priced. The manufacturers make their profits on the ink. One website lists black inkjet printer ink as the 8th most expensive liquid in the world. A gallon of black ink costs $2700, ahead of a gallon of human blood ($1500/gallon)!

That same liquid ink is the cause of one of the major issues with inkjet printers: clogged print heads. If you don’t use an inkjet printer with regularity, the ink inside the printhead will congeal, and the printhead will clog. If you have ever printed and gotten a blank page out of your printer, you know about clogged printheads. Inkjet printers have cleaning cycles that are designed specifically for cleaning a clogged printhead. The humidity here on the coast doesn’t help matters. And, if you are a seasonal resident and your printer will be dormant for many months, the odds of printhead clogging increases. If you are an inkjet printer owner you should consider printing something every week or so, just to make sure the ink is flowing properly.

Laser printers work using technology similar to a photocopier. A powdered ink (toner) is applied to the paper and then a fuser heats and smushes (a highly technical term) the toner onto the paper. Laser printers, using powdered toner, don’t use print heads at all; you don’t have to worry about clogged print head ever! Powdered toner is also less expensive per page. A laser printer toner cartridge will last for thousands of pages. The quality of a laser printer also tends to be better than a consumer inkjet printer.

The benefits of a laser printer come with a price, though. Laser printers have a higher initial cost. A black and white laser printer will sell for the price of a good inkjet printer; you’ll spend a couple hundred dollars on an entry-level laser printer and only print in black and white. A color laser printer will sell for 2-3X the price of a color inkjet. That higher upfront cost will net you cheaper per page cost, though, and less maintenance.

Perhaps this handy flow chart will help. Does your printer need to be color? If no, a laser printer is your best choice. If it does need to be color, is price a concern? If no, get a color laser printer. If yes, a color inkjet. If you choose a color inkjet, remember to print a color page every week or so just to maintain the free flow of ink.

Choosing a Laptop

Hard to believe back-to-school time is approaching, eh? With as much rain as we’ve had it has hardly felt like we have had any summer at all. And yet the calendar says school starts in four weeks! Maybe you are headed back to college. Perhaps you are taking a few classes in the evenings. Maybe you have a grandchild matriculating at your alma mater, and you want to make sure they have a good laptop for all those papers they will be writing. This article will help you determine what the right laptop is for you!

My first question for someone looking to buy a laptop would be: Does it have to be mobile? If you answer “No, it will just be at my desk,” I would tell you to buy a desktop computer. Desktop computers—dollar for dollar—are more powerful, more flexible, easier to upgrade, and easier and cheaper to repair. The only advantage a laptop has over a desktop is its mobility; and if it does not have to move, there is no good reason to opt for a laptop. Perhaps though you travel a lot, or are a seasonal resident. Being able to move your computer quickly and easily is the primary reason for having a laptop. Since this is a back-to-school article, it would make sense that a student will need a portable solution.

After determining that you do in fact need mobility, my next question would be: What operating system are you most familiar with? That is, do you want a Mac or a Windows laptop? (Or maybe you’d consider a Chromebook? If so, see last month’s article!) I tell people “Macs are the Lexus’ of the computer world. They are well built, extremely reliable, and hold their value well. They are also expensive to purchase and expensive to repair.” Go into your Mac purchase knowing that. I am a big fan of refurbished computers, and my Apple purchases have all been refurbs. A Windows laptop will give you more options. All Mac laptops are manufactured by Apple, so you must buy what they have available. Windows will be available on Dell, Lenovo, HP, Acer, Asus, and on and on. And because multiple Windows laptop companies are vying for your business, competition will tend to drive their prices DOWN. A Mac laptop starts at about $1000. A similar thousand dollars would get you a very well-appointed Windows laptop.

The operating system choice can be somewhat determined by how the laptop will be used. Are you going to use the computer to run Quickbooks? You want a PC. Are you a student in college for architecture or CAD? Again, probably a Windows laptop—and a powerful one! Perhaps you are going to study art or music; traditionally, the Mac operating system has proved popular in those fields. If you are selecting a laptop for college, it might be wise to see if the college has a suggested laptop with minimum recommended requirements.

Now that we know what operating system you want, I would ask you what size screen do you need? Laptop screens, like TVs and projector screens, are measured diagonally from corner to corner. Smaller screens have the advantage of being extremely portable. My old Macbook Air had an 11” screen. That computer was so light and handy, I took it almost everywhere. My current Macbook has a 13” screen, and though it too is handy to carry, I miss my little 11”. For a student who will be moving their laptop from class to class, smaller and lighter is better. The 15.6” screen is the most popular size. With the bigger size you will get more screen real estate, and probably more connections and features—like more USB ports, multiple video outputs, things like that. The big 17.3” screen is nice for people who maybe don’t see as well as they used to. It wasn’t very many years ago a 17” monitor was used with a desktop, so there’s lots of viewable area on a 17.3” screen. That big screen means a bigger overall size, though. They also tend to be heavier. If you are not moving your laptop frequently, the bigger size is nice. If you will be moving the laptop a lot though, consider something towards the smaller end of the spectrum.

With those major questions out of the way, we can focus on some smaller concerns. Do you need a backlit keyboard? Do you need a number keypad (sometimes called a 10-key keyboard)? If you need the number keypad, you will have to shop for laptops 15.6” and bigger. Smaller laptops don’t have room for the 10 keys. Do you need a DVD drive? Most laptops don’t include them anymore. If you need one built in, again you will need to look at 15.6” or bigger. (Probably though you will need to invest in an external USB DVD drive–$25-35.) Will you be doing video editing or gaming, or CAD/CAM or other extensive video work? Look for a laptop with discrete video processing. If that is your need, be prepared to spend some cash, as laptops that can do that high end work are expensive.

I hope these tips will help you shop for just the right laptop. If you know whether you want a Mac or a Windows machine, and what size screen you need, then you have the biggest considerations covered.

The Allure of the Chromebook

Dear reader, let me explain a Chromebook. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.  Chromebooks make great computers if you are willing to work within their significant limitations. If you want a full featured computer that will do everything a Windows computer or Mac will do—and not be willing to compromise or adjust how you do it—then a Chromebook is not for you.

Continue reading for the longer explanation.

Let us pretend you are looking for a new laptop. We will assume you are a “regular” computer user; you use your laptop to check email, watch some videos, do some shopping, maybe write a letter or a recipe. You know there is something called a “gaming computer,” and you know you do not need one of those. You start eyeing the Staples sale flyer and notice a laptop, a Chromebook, for $199! Yowza that’s a sweet price! Why wouldn’t you buy a $199 Google Chromebook as opposed to a $600 Windows laptop, or a $1000 Macbook Air? Well, if you are an informed consumer, and you realize what a Chromebook WILL and WON’T do, you could save yourself a bunch of cash. If you are not informed though, you may bring upon yourself a heaping helping of frustration.

We need to start by defining some terms. Google (the company, i.e. Alphabet Inc.) offers many different products. To many consumers, though, they are all referred to as Google. In addition to the company named Google, there is a search engine of the same name. There is also a web browser that is technically named Google Chrome, but many just call it “Google.” The Google Chrome web browser can also—with a couple extra features—turn into a full-fledged operating system. Windows is the operating system installed on most PCs. The Macintosh OS is installed on Apple computers. With a Google Chromebook, the Google Chrome OS installed as your operating system.

The Chrome OS offers some great advantages. One, if you are used to the look and feel of the Google Chrome web browser, that is essentially what you will be using on a Chromebook. The learning curve will be very low. Two, because Chrome OS is not as popular as Windows or Mac, virus writers don’t bother writing viruses for Chromebooks. They are virtually virus free. Three, Chromebooks are inexpensive. Good models can be had for less than $300.

There are significant differences between the Windows and Macintosh OS, though, and the Chrome OS. And if you are not prepared going in it can be very frustrating. The Google Chrome OS uses Google’s cloud-based apps. You don’t buy “programs” and then load them into your computer the way you would a Windows machine or a Mac. Want to run Photoshop*? That doesn’t work on a Chromebook. You will need to use Google Photos. Quickbooks? Nope; that won’t work. You’ll have to use the cloud-based version of Quickbooks. Microsoft Word? Nope. Instead, Google wants you to use their Google Docs app. Powerpoint? No. Google Slides is kind of like Powerpoint—but not exactly.

Don’t think I’m dumping on Chromebooks. I’m not. And for most people, if you are willing to be flexible, a Chromebook will work fine. Google Docs is a fine rudimentary word processor. Google Photos is great for organizing and storing photos—even if it is not great for hardcore photo editing. Google Sheets is a great spreadsheet program; I use it myself for minor spreadsheets. Google also owns Youtube, and Youtube Music will let you have 100,000 songs stored for free. So almost everything you can do on a laptop you can do on a Chromebook. You just have to do it the way Google wants you to do it. And, if you are willing to run a laptop where everything is stored in the cloud, a Chromebook may be a good solution. Me? I still run a cheap Macbook Air.

*Technically speaking, many software companies will make “cloud” based versions of their popular titles. Microsoft offers a web-based Office product called Microsoft 365, and that will give you the feel of the traditional Microsoft Office. Adobe offers a web-based photo editing program. Intuit offers Quickbooks Online. Using those cloud-based apps will give you the feel of the programs you have used in the past, but they are stored in the cloud, and not on your computer.

Driver Update Utility Scam

Have you ever had an issue with your computer, and you Google the symptoms, and you are told to “update your drivers”? Maybe you have had a pop-up window telling you your drivers are “out of date.” Perhaps you saw an online advertisement for “Windows Driver Medic” or some other software. What should you do? What is a driver, anyway?

Simply put, a driver is a piece of software that controls how a piece of hardware runs. Let us use a video card for our example. A video card is a piece of hardware that controls how video gets out of your computer and on to your monitor. In this scenario, pretend your computer has a video card manufactured by NVIDIA. How does this card, manufactured by NVIDIA, know how to operate within the Windows environment made by Microsoft? And what if your computer’s CPU (the central processing unit—your computer’s “brain”) is made by Intel? Your NVIDIA video card needs to understand how to work with these two variables (a CPU and the operating system), made by two different manufacturers. The driver controls how the video card will communicate and act with these other pieces.

In most instances, updating drivers is not something you should worry about. Is your computer working fine? Great. Leave it as is. There is no need for you to download “Driver Easy” or “PC Driver Medic” or any other driver snake oil to keep your machine running well. In some circumstances, you might run into an issue where a driver is causing a conflict, and causing bad things to happen. Bad graphics drivers could cause your screen to flicker, freeze, or even your computer to reboot. Bad CPU drivers could also cause your machine to reboot or crash. So if you are experiencing some problem, then you should consider looking for a more up-to-date driver. In my opinion, though, if you are not having issues, you do not need to be concerned about out-of-date drivers. Downloading a piece of free software that will supposedly download fresh drivers for you will probably create more problems than it solves.

PS: Apple users do not have to be concerned with updating their drivers. Because Apple manufactures their own computers and operating systems (and even processor chips), they automatically know how these pieces need to communicate with each other. When Mac drivers need to be updated, they happen automatically as the Apple operating system is updated. You need do nothing to your Mac. The variability of manufactures within the Windows environment is what makes driver updating more important to PC users.

Got a tech question you would like to see answered? Feel free to submit a question to

Computer Passwords are a Pain!

Passwords are a pain to everyone. Here are some tips in dealing with these necessary pests:

1) Do not share your passwords! Google will not ask you for your password. Microsoft will not call you and ask for it. The Facebook message from your sister-in-law asking for help and asking you to share your password with her is most probably a scammer. Do not give it out!
2) Ideally, you should not write your passwords in a book. Many of us resort to this, and it’s understandable. A book of passwords, however, can be lost or stolen. Better is to choose a password you can remember. Remembering passwords is also good for your brain!
3) Use a memory aid to help remember passwords. How do you remember the password to your Fleet bank account? Fleet, like fast–fleet of foot. Mercury was the Roman messenger god with the winged helmet. Mercury Falling was a record by Sting I like. I could use “MercuryFalling” for my Fleet bank password. Or maybe “fleet” makes you think of a fleet of boats. Your uncle was a lobsterman, and his boat was named “Monica B.” So maybe “TheMonicaB” is a password you can remember.
4) Adding special characters adds security to passwords. Consider adding an exclamation point (or other character) to your password. “MercuryFalling!” could now my Fleet bank password. Or “TheMonicaB.” (See, I added a period to my password.)
5) Don’t use the same password for multiple sites. That way, should something happen and one of your passwords is divulged, it is only one website/account that a hacker/thief could get into. If you use the same password everywhere, and you fall for a scammer, now the scammer can get into ALL of your accounts.

Perhaps a longer article on computer/online security will be forthcoming. Would it be of interest to you? Let know. Or, let us know of other tech questions you might have.

Computer Cookies

Cookies. Oh yes! Those golden buttery ones with the big ol’ chunks of dark chocolate—those are my favorite. I like them thin with crispy edges and a little gooey still in the middle.

Computer cookies are another variety altogether. While not the topic of conversation they once were, every so often I get asked about cookies. Or, someone will bring them up to me: “It’s been a while since I cleaned my cookies.”

In computer terms, a cookie is a small file that a website leaves in your web browser. (Your web browser is the program you use to “browse” the “web.” Aptly named, no?) Websites will leave these tiny files to identify your computer and your browsing habits.

Have you ever been looking at a product on Amazon (let us say a new calculator), and then you log into Facebook and suddenly there is an ad for that same calculator you were just looking at? Amazon placed a cookie on your computer identifying you as a possible calculator purchaser. Then, when you log into Facebook, they will serve you an ad from Amazon with that same product, based on the cookie that was stored earlier.

In general, cookies are beneficial. Automatic logins to web sites can be stored by cookies. The contents of your shopping card can be saved via cookies. A website showing you the current temperature based on your location? Could be a cookie generating that content based on your location.

Some people who are especially sensitive to privacy might have an issue with cookies. Generally, businesses are not going to single you out personally based on cookies. Amazon “knows” they have a customer named Bill Batty in Spruce Head Maine. Their servers know this “Bill Batty” guy uses a Mac laptop and likes to look at drums. I do not believe Amazon employees are looking at their web server logs, adding up all the various bits, and will be wondering “Who is this guy?” It is far more impersonal than that. Based on all the time cookies save me, I do not worry about them.

Some people might worry that all these cookies are slowing their computer down, so they clean them out periodically. Cookies are very small files, and take almost no space. Your hard drive is not going to fill up because of cookies. The presence of cookies on your computer is not going to make it slow down. If you want to block cookies or erase them for privacy reasons, go ahead. Otherwise, don’t worry about them. They do more good than harm.

Reducing Junk Email

Many people are concerned about the amount of junk mail they receive in their email box. Like your post office mailbox, you cannot control who sends you an email; you can only throw it away after you receive it.

Some emails will offer you an “unsubscribe” function. If the junk email you are receiving is from a “legitimate” business, feel free to unsubscribe. The WalMarts and LL Beans and Dunkin’ Dounuts of the business world will honor your request and remove you from their marketing list.

Other emailers—those who send nasty and persistent emails—do not function in the same way. DO NOT “unsubscribe” from those emails. Clicking the unsubscribe link in the “Camp Lejeune bad water” emails (or those like it) will not get you off the spammer’s list, and will probably increase the amount of junk you receive. Why? When you “unsubscribe” from those illegitimate business emails, you tell the spammer 1) The email address they used to reach you is still valid, and 2) Someone at that address is actively reading the email. Once they know they have a good address with a live person on the other end, they will sell that address to other spam emailers, and the bulk junk mail you receive will increase!To sum up: There is very little you can do to reduce junk email. A legitimate business will honor their unsubscribe link. Don’t bother “unsubscribing” from the really gross stuff—you’ll probably make matters worse.

Don’t fall for the “1-800” scam!

A very “popular” scam on the Internet is known colloquially as the “1-800” scam. It works something like this…

You’re browsing the Internet, and everything is going fine, when all of a sudden a quacking siren and a voice tell you “Your computer has been hacked! Don’t turn it off or you will lose all of your important data!” Or, you may see something that looks like a Microsoft “blue screen” error, with the text telling you to call a 1-800 number to let a “Microsoft technician” fix the issue. Don’t fall for it–it’s a scam!

Should you call those 800 numbers, you’ll be connected–not to Microsoft–but to a con man! They will sound convincing. They will be urgent that you MUST let them log into your computer remotely, and then they’ll “fix it” for you. They will show you all kinds of “errors” or “IP addresses from all over the world of people who are spying on you.” These tactics are very misleading. They will try to get you to give them a credit card number, and offer you a yearly maintenance plan–usually costing several hundred dollars.

Should you get one of these blue screens or other screens requesting you call an 800 number, don’t do it! At that point, you haven’t opened yourself up to trouble. Restart your web browser, or restart your computer. ONLY AFTER you’ve called the number and let the scammer take remote control of your computer are you in danger. Once they’ve logged in, they have access to everything on your computer. At that point, you are best served contacting your computer pro and asking them to do a clean up. If you go deeper, and give the scammer your credit card or bank account info, then you need to take bigger steps, and cancel the card and/or alert the bank. It’s better to not get in too deep to begin with. Don’t fall for the scam. Don’t call. Just reboot and start again.

Town Tech Tips

Last August 8th I started a new position as a town clerk for St. George. As part of those duties I contribute to the town’s newsletter. I offer the “Town Tech Tip” every month. The way our town website works, however, means the articles are only posted for a month. Once the new newsletter is posted the old ones go into the archives where no one can get at it. I’m going to archive them here in case they may be useful to someone.