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Jan's Computer Basics:

On Your Own: Software

Boxes of softwareYour computer probably comes with some software installed already. This pre-loaded software can be great, but does it do what you need done?

Picking the right software for you is not quite as straight forward as it might seem. You can't just let the computer salesman make the decision for you! Let's look at some of the things to watch out for before you settle for what came on the system or else plop down your dollars for that fancy software box that begs you to take it home.

What does it do?

The first thing to consider about software is whether it will do the job you think it will do. There are several things to do before pulling out your wallet.

  • Be informed

Find out before you go shopping what this kind of program normally can do and what the more advanced versions do. You may be able to do everything you want with the low-end program, or you may find that you MUST have the advanced kind to accomplish what you want.

To be informed you'll have to read reviews and ask people for their personal recommendations. Keep in mind that what others are looking for in a program may not be the same as what you need. So get the details. It takes some time but can keep you from very unhappy surprises. 

  • Read the box.

    software boxYes, I'm serious. All the colors and fancy type can actually contain INFORMATION! They've even started putting out boxes with front flaps that open up so you can see more screen shots and info about the program of which they are so proud. Often you can find out right on the box if this software will do the tasks you expect. (More on the box info below)

What hardware?

Before you get your heart set on a certain program, there are some hardware issues to settle. Not all programs will run on all computers. In fact, NO program will run on EVERY computer! You'll have to find out the system requirements, that is, what kind of hardware you need.

On the side or back of the box you will find a list something like the one below, which is for PaintShopPro 2018.
Box for PaintShopPro 2018

Minimum System Requirements

  • Windows 10, Windows 8/8.1, Windows 7 with the latest service pack (64-bit or 32-bit editions). For virtualization: Microsoft Windows Server 2012 R2, Windows Server 2016 or later.
  • Intel/AMD 1.5 GHz or faster processor with SSE2 supported (multi-core processor recommended).
  • 2 GB of RAM (4 GB recommended).
  • 1 GB of available hard-disk space required (2 GB recommended).
  • 1280 x 768 resolution with 16-bit color display (1366 x 768 resolution with 24-bit or higher color display recommended). Up to 250 DPI supported with appropriate resolution display.
  • DirectX 9 or higher compatible video adapter with the latest driver.
  • Internet Explorer version 10 or higher.
  • Internet connection required for online features and tutorial videos.

Let's examine what each of these requirements is talking about.

Computer type Does it require an PC or a MAC or something quite different?
Software for one will not run on the others. Some programs come in a different versions.

OS What operating system will it work with? Windows 7 or Windows 10 or Linux or UNIX or OSX or Android or Chrome OS or something else??

A tablet or smart phone may use its own special operating system or a version of a major operating system. For example, Windows RT tablets will only run programs that are written for that operating system.

Processor What processor? A 386, 486, Pentium IV? Single or multi-core?  32-bit or 64-bit?

Intel is the largest provider of PC computer chips, but AMD and Texas Instruments, to name two others, also make computer chips. For PC's this is not generally a problem. So if the requirement calls for an "Intel" chip, there are other brands that also will work. But some network computers use chips that will NOT work with Intel-designed software products.
This line might also include a processor speed, like 700 MHz or 2.0 GHz. This is a minimum speed for satisfactory program speed. A faster processor will normally be better. However, you might not be able to play older games with the newer, faster chips because the screen changes too fast for you to see it! There may be a way to fake out your computer to slow things down.
RAM The amount of memory required by a program is usually given as a "required" amount and a "recommended" amount. If you only have the "required" amount, you may be unhappy with the performance of the program. It may be quite slow. The "recommended" amount is actually the amount that gives the speed most people will be satisfied with. But that does assume that you are not trying to run a number of programs at the same time. Doing that increases the memory requirement a lot.
Hard disk space The amount of space stated in this requirement is what the program will take up on the hard disk after it is first installed. You'll also need space for the documents you create. Only you can predict how much space you might need for those.

User TipMore space needed during the installation: The installation process writes a lot of temporary files first and then converts those to the final files and deletes the temporary files. So if you think there is enough room to install a program, but the you get an error message that says there is not, this may be why.

Devices Specific devices or capabilities may be required, like a mouse, CD or DVD drive, certain speed for the CD/DVD, sound card and speakers, VGA or higher graphics, millions of colors, 3D video accelerator card, a particular game controller, graphics tablet... The list of available devices gets longer every year.

Understated requirements: Software vendors want to sell a lot of their programs, so they often understate the hardware requirements. If your system just barely meets the stated requirements, you may be just barely satisfied with the program's performance, too. But, what one person finds intolerably slow, another finds a comfortable speed. So your own preferences and expectations play a big role in how happy you are with your software.

What other software?

Does this program stand alone or does it need other software to go with it? Some programs are add-ons or enhancements for others or allow other programs to communicate with each other.


Issue: Do you need software that works well with programs you use at work or school?

If you share your work with others or bring documents to work or school from home, you'll need to have the same software. It is sad but true that converting documents does not often work really well. Sometimes you can pull the text out of a document that you cannot open directly. But all of the formatting and images will be lost. Not a very good solution!

Example: We bought our first computer so my husband could run insurance software to produce proposals for his clients. The software was only available for PCs. We did not have the choice of using a Mac.

Issue: What version of the software do you need?

If you have Office 2016 and your boss still has Office 2003, you must be very careful to work in "Compatibility Mode" for those files your boss needs to open on her own computer. Your boss won't be able to open a letter or spreadsheet that was saved in the new format! In some situations opening a file from a different version looks like it works, but there are differences that may be important.

Example: My sister writes children's songs and stories for a publishing house. The artists had Macintosh computers while the writers and the accounts department used PCs. Rather than standardize everyone on one or the other, the bosses got software that came in both a PC and a Mac version. But when files were shared, there were subtle but important differences. The words and pictures just did not line up the same under the two different versions of the same software.