Basic Computer Skills


Everyone must use computers in modern society, so it’s important to understand how to use them.

Computers are logic machines, so they do exactly what they’re told to do.

Don’t overload a computer with additional information, especially when it’s already overloaded and bogged down.

Every computer command is technically a shortcut, and there are many ways to do the same thing.

Remember where you store user files on your computer.

Most computer problems can be solved with a straightforward approach:

  1. Reboot the computer.
  2. Free up memory.
  3. Reinstall the drivers.
  4. Research the problem online.
  5. Ask someone else for help.

Viruses are malicious software that control parts of a computer.

  • They usually come from you trusting something you shouldn’t have trusted.
  • They’re only harmful when the code runs.

Watch for phishing, which is a hacker trying to appear legitimate.

Watch carefully what you’re downloading and installing.

Keep your computer routinely updated.

You sometimes can’t avoid a virus.

Keep your data safe by running regular backups and learning good password habits.

Keep your important activities separate from everything else.

Why learn computers?

Most of the developed world uses computers, and living in modern society requires operating a computer.

In fact, you’d have a hard time finding something in society that isn’t using computers!

Like cars, understanding how to operate computers is generally easier than understanding how they work.

Computers are far more ubiquitous than you may think:
  • Almost every modern television, radio, phone, fax machine, watch, and security system is a type of computer.
  • Most household appliances have computers in them, including microwaves, refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and coffee machines.
  • Computers also control alarm clocks, pacemakers, air conditioning units, and autos.
  • Since computers are simply logic machines, a computer is useful for anything that logically causes something else.

If you don’t understand how to use a computer, you’ll feel trapped by modern life when something goes wrong.

Computers are logic machines

All computers have three main parts:
  1. An input (usually a touchscreen or mouse)
  2. Processing parts inside that perform and store calculations (usually memory and a CPU)
  3. An output (usually a screen or printer)

While people use intuition to understand things, computers only use logic.

Everyone who operates a computer is “programming” it:
  • Most people connect advanced video game design, web design, or database development to the concept of programming.
  • However, you’re also programming if you use a spreadsheet, write an email, or browse the internet, but with an extremely specific and user-friendly scope.

Computers do precisely what you tell them to do:
  • If the programmer’s logic was bad, computers become the world’s fastest idiots.
  • Algorithms add steps to let the computer “learn” but are still a programmer’s instructions.
  • To put it bluntly, most computer failures are caused by “user error”.
  • It’s fair to say that the interface may be poorly designed, but the user is often selecting the wrong thing for what they wish to perform.

Don’t overload a computer

Save your work often:
  • Until you save your work, the information is frequently only in short-term memory, and cutting off power will lose your work.
  • By saving frequently (or having the software auto-save on a regular basis), you won’t lose work if you need to reset the computer.

Every button press, screen touch, or mouse click gives the computer another instruction:
  • Usually, depending on how it was programmed, it stores the information in a chronological list for later, then runs it after everything unfreezes.
  • If you enter too many commands, you’ll overload the memory and the computer will crash.
  • Many modern computers have “timeouts” for input commands, but the programmer had to have been perceptive enough to program them into the software.

Every command is a shortcut

As the logic gets more elaborate, the systems become more complicated:
  • At one time, everyone used a keyboard to type in what they wanted, and they had to use punch cards before that.
  • Tapping or clicking something on a screen often runs the same command as if it were typed: a user can navigate to “C:\Program Files\WindowsApps”, then run “calc.exe” with a console command.
  • Alternately, that user can use the mouse to select “Calculator”, which will run that same “calc.exe” program.
  • There are technically about 4–5 ways to do just about anything on a computer. If you’re willing to learn keyboard shortcuts, you’ll become dramatically faster and more productive.
  • Even more elaborate input devices (such as VR headsets) add even more complexity to the situation.

Touchscreens are often more convenient than mice, but they have a few controls that aren’t intuitive without knowing beforehand:
  1. The computer counts how long you press and how much you move your finger.
    • Touching for less than a second in one spot is a “tap”.
    • Pressing for more than one second in one spot is a “long-press”.
    • Touching and moving before a long-press is a “swipe”.
    • Swipes can include multiple fingers.
    • Two fingers moving toward or away from each other are called a “pinch”.
  2. Touch screens hide most menu options:
    • Long press on parts of the screen to find extra menus.
    • Swipe your finger from each edge to find “pull-out” menus.
    • Swipe your finger toward all four edges of the screen to navigate to other screens.
    • Most menus hide in plain sight with horizontal lines or dots at the top of a screen.

Keep track of important files

To make computers run, they usually need thousands of files:
  • They separate the files for humans’ reading into groups called “folders”.
  • There are several major groups for files, though each operating system runs things a little differently.
    • System files are critical to keeping the operating system running.
      • A few missing files might make your mouse not work or make the computer not start.
      • Unless you have a career in computers or are hacking, don’t touch system files.
      • Some operating systems show a warning to prevent people from breaking their computer.
    • Program files are necessary to run various “applications” you want to use (e.g., word processor, email).
      • If you mess with program files, you might have to reinstall the program.
      • Program files also have special “configuration” files that may have settings you prefer (e.g., your email address, passwords).
    • User files are the original files you’ve made while using the computer.
      • Always save files somewhere you can quickly locate them again, even if you’re downloading them from the internet and running them from the browser interface.

Computers automatically store your important documents in a few specific folders, but it depends on the program you’re running:
  • Documents or Downloads folder
  • In the Desktop folder (the folder that contains everything you see on the desktop)
  • Inside a proprietary cloud storage folder (like Dropbox or Google Drive)
  • Inside the folder specifically designated for the program (especially game save files and settings)
  • Sometimes, you might have a proprietary system that manages files elsewhere and hides that they’re files (like many programs that run in web browsers).

To safely manage files, stay organized by creating folders inside folders as needed.

Most computer problems are simple

95% of all computer issues have a few profoundly simple solutions.

A. Fully power off the computer and then restart it:
  • Processes get hung up, configurations go weird, and memory leaks eventually overload the computer, which all go away when you reboot it.
  • Most tech support will instruct callers to do this before even discussing another option.

B. Check for low memory, then delete enough programs or files to have at least 5-15% free:
  • This usually requires running basic software like Disk Cleanup or BleachBit.

C. Reinstall the computer’s instructions for the hardware (the “driver”):
  • Visit the device manufacturer’s website and download the driver from there.

D. Research the problem on the internet:
  • Thousands of people have had your problem and hundreds of them have solved it, so the answer is typically on a web forum or help desk “knowledge base” somewhere.
    • Look in the “About” section (often one of the right-hand menus) to find the program and version you’re using.
  • If you can’t find the right answer, add “solved” to your web search.

E. Ask someone more skilled than you with computers:
  • You only know what you can know, and computers are complex.
  • Even genius computer scientists get stuck and need help!

How viruses work

Computers use the concept of “permissions” instead of “trust”:
  • Trust is somewhat intuitive and earned through reputation.
  • Permissions are a series of rules, and are gained through some type of “authentication” (i.e., a type of passcode).

Some malicious people find ways to gain permissions they shouldn’t have to access someone’s computer.

Viruses are malicious lines of computer code inserted without the user’s consent.

Most viruses are designed to avoid detection, so people are usually wrong when they think they have a virus.

Most viruses are installed by a user opening something that came from someone they shouldn’t have trusted.

A virus is only harmful when the code runs:
  • Some viruses can delay themselves for months after they’re installed.
  • Other viruses only run when the computer runs a specific program.

If hackers can currently get inappropriate permissions from a computer’s publicly released software, it’s called a “zero-day vulnerability”.

Watch for phishing

“Phishing”, the most well-known type of hack, involves stealing personal data by fooling people into thinking a hacker has a legitimate website, email, or has legitimate authority.

You can usually detect phishing from certain specific details:
  • Asks for personal information they normally wouldn’t need.
  • Refuses to give specific information that refers to anything you can look up.
  • Requests any specific bits of information that could betray your password:
    • Mother’s maiden name
    • Name of pet
    • First girlfriend or boyfriend
    • Your address
  • Many times, they’re not very good at speaking or writing.
  • Just because they say they’re from the FBI or threaten you doesn’t mean anything in itself, especially if you’ve been legally safe.

Avoid opening alerts you’re not familiar with:
  • The only virus alert you should have will come from antivirus software you know you downloaded.
  • If you ever receive an alert from unfamiliar software saying YOUR COMPUTER IS INFECTED, don’t click on it.
  • If you ever see an unsolicited Internet message that says you have viruses or should scan your computer, close it immediately and avoid clicking on it.

Don’t open any email you don’t trust, and especially don’t click on any links from it.

Never download or run anything you don’t feel completely safe about.

Many scams are fake bank websites, financial institutions, and social networks that look very similar to the actual website:
  • They’ll make the entire site look the same and even use a similar-looking web domain.
  • Expert phishers will often plug in the password to the legitimate site once you enter it on their phony site.

If you suspect phishing, give them the wrong information to see how they respond.

Add a fake email address to your contacts list:
  • If a hacker gets your email and sends out spam, you’ll know immediately from an Undeliverable Report email sent back to you.
  • Alternately, add a second email you own to the contacts list of the first.

Stay vigilant when installing new programs

Watch carefully what you’re downloading:
  • Many “Download Now” buttons on websites are advertisements for unrelated software.
  • If you see more than one Download button, note the file name of what you’re downloading (usually by hovering the mouse over the button).
    • As long as you don’t run it and promptly delete it (and empty the Recycle Bin/Trash), most viruses can’t harm your computer.

Many “standard installation” options install harmful or worthless software (“bloatware”):
  • Always select “custom installation” to avoid installing additional software.
    • Take your time to read what you’re installing or the installation program is doing.
  • All the “helpful” web browser toolbars from Ask, Yahoo, etc. can create new entry points for viruses.

Keep your computer updated

Most virus entry points are “patched” by the latest software updates.

Routinely run operating system updates:
  • On Windows, run Windows Update.
  • On Mac, run Software Update.
  • On Linux, run a command of “sudo apt update” or “sudo dnf update”.
  • Most mobile devices simply require using the preinstalled app store.

Mind any pop-up messages in the bottom-right corner of the screen or in the pull-down drawer from the top, since they’re often important.

Most of the extra “enhancers” and “cleaners” can do more harm than good if you don’t know what you’re doing:
  • Programs like “registry cleaners” are more risky than helpful because the registry is a relatively small database that almost never needs “cleaning”.
  • “System scanners” are usually designed to exploit money from unsuspecting users and most of their proposed “updates” are completely unnecessary.

Ironically, antivirus software will bog a computer down:
  1. Antivirus software scans processes for malicious patterns.
  2. At its most extreme, an antivirus scan will check every single process three times to verify the computer isn’t running malicious code, which means it’ll check each relevant memory element four times as much.
  3. Those extra processes can slow the computer to a snail’s pace, effectively making the computer work at 1/4 or 1/8 its ideal speed.

Many antivirus programs (especially free ones) are often full of security vulnerabilities that make them more unsafe than not having them:
  • Do your research online by looking through tech publications, not the main website of that antivirus software.
  • The best antivirus software for Windows and Mac are built into Microsoft’s framework without any extra installation necessary (Windows Defender and XProtect, respectively).

You may get a virus

Even tech-savvy people sometimes get a virus or are hacked, especially when the virus spreads on a secured network.

The best solution is to have backups of everything:
  • Sometimes, the virus will be very effective at what it’s doing:
    • You might be unable to access files or won’t be able to run a virus scanner.
    • The operating system will be permanently irrecoverable (and require a clean reinstall).
    • All the files on the system will be encrypted, making them impossible to retrieve.
  • When you get a virus, turn back time on the PC to an earlier working date with software designed to save and restore backups.
  • Whatever happens, do not pay anything they ask, since there’s no guarantee that they’ll release your files.

While it’s not intuitive, powering off and doing nothing won’t make the problem worse:
  • An infected computer that’s powered off and not connected to the internet won’t break anything.
    • Disconnect the computer from the internet to prevent any malicious data transfers.
    • Unplug the power source and remove the battery.
  • If you’re brave enough, you can often examine the problem and retrieve user files safely by removing the hard drive and accessing it as external storage on another computer.

As a worst-case scenario, wipe the hard drive clean or get a new computer:
  • If you store everything in a cloud service, you may only lose a few hours or minutes of work.

Protect your privacy and data

Automate data backup:
  • Numerous free online cloud backup services (e.g., Dropbox) can help you frequently, routinely keep backups of your user files (and occasionally your program files as well).
  • Even if it takes up space on your computer, keep the System Restore feature on.

A password allows someone to look at information by decrypting it.

Your most critical password is for your email, since most websites send password reset links to it.

Use secure passwords you can remember or easily access, especially for your email.

Make an easy-to-remember standardized password with the following:
  1. At least 10 characters
  2. 1 capital letter
  3. 1 lowercase letter
  4. 1 punctuation mark
  5. NOT “password”, “passcode”, “123456”, your name, your birthdate, or anniversaries
  6. Make it uniquely different for every website you visit
  7. Make it something you can remember.
    • The most memorable password is either a full sentence or a set of abbreviations.

Alternately, use a password manager to auto-generate passwords:
  • If you use the same password everywhere, even if it has small variations, you’re opening yourself to a hack.
  • Every clever thought you have about password cracking (e.g., using “5” instead of “S”) has already been programmed into most password crackers.

Carefully consider where you store your password:
  • Do not write down your password unless you’ve safely stored the paper password behind a lock.
  • If you store passwords in your web browser, you’re trusting that nobody will hack that browser.
  • For extra security, use a password-protected document or password management database with software not connected to the internet (e.g., KeePass).

Keep important activities separate

Don’t use the same device (or at least the same account) that manages highly sensitive financial information to browse internet articles and play online games.

If you use another computer that isn’t your own, log out of everything you use.

Avoid frequently posting your email where a scammer’s software can pick it up, which includes across the internet:
  • If you need to, keep separate “personal” and “business” emails.

On a public Wi-Fi network, all your information might be unsafe.

  • Run your internet through your phone’s tethering or mobile hotspot, or use a prepaid VPN.