Computer Corner: Yikes! There Was a Computer Under My Tree!

Reprinted from PN February 2002
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The following information is mainly for new users, but it contains some tips for "old hats" as well. Whether you received a new computer as a holiday gift or plan to buy one with your tax refund, here are some considerations, especially if you plan to use assistive technology.

The processor identifies the type of computer, e.g., Pentium II, III, or IV. Macintosh has a similar series of processor chips; other chip families include AMD and Celron. Each chip type is further identified by processing speed.

Random Access Memory (RAM) is called "memory" for short. A combination of processor speed and RAM mostly determines your system's efficiency. Each program you use and each task you perform takes RAM. Buy as much as you can afford.

The operating system (OS) is the software program that coordinates almost everything on the computer. Settings for hardware devices such as the keyboard, mouse, and monitor are controlled through the operating system. All application software such as word-processing programs, spreadsheets, games, e-mail, Internet browsers, etc., are accessed in some way through the OS. Files may be organized using it. Examples are DOS, all the flavors of Windows, LINUX, and all the version numbers of the Macintosh Operating Systems. Windows 2000 and XP have new additional adaptive software built-in, including an on-screen keyboard for anyone who can control a mouse more easily than using the keyboard.

You use application software to actually do things on the computer other than dink around with settings and files organization. It is the word processor, spreadsheet, database, game, art, Internet browser, tax-return software, or any of hundreds of other programs people like to use. The application program must be compatible with your computer's OS and hardware specifications. Read the box. Don't believe the minimum specifications listed on the box related to RAM (you'll probably need a bit more). Program costs range from free (public domain) to cheap (shareware—you like, you buy) to commercial ($40 for nice programs to $600 for integrated, powerful software programs like MS Office Professional, Corel WordPerfect Office Suite, etc.).

Adaptive software is designed to allow people with disabilities to use their computers in an alternative way. Programs are created to enhance input rate (like word-prediction software), give alternatives to existing hardware (e.g., speech recognition or alternative mouse/pointing devices), or augment functional abilities (such as talking computers for people without speech, or environmental-control devices).

Mainstream computer users often will not know the tricks to using adaptive software. For example, Dragon Naturally Speaking just released a new version of its software (6.0), and the "user interface" or basic commands for this product are very different (see Upgrades do not mean the software simply works better; it may mean whole new commands.

The best advice? Find a local assistive-technology agency or support group (see box) and talk about your needs for training, demonstration, or evaluation.

Have fun!

The above information is provided by Susan LeHew, assistive technology coordinator, Rehabilitation Services Administration-Arizona. Send computer questions to her at


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Computer Corner: Yikes! There Was a Computer Under My Tree!


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