3 Beginner Computer Tips That Are Often Neglected

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too_many_computersTo get more out of your computing, you don’t really need newer equipment or fancier software packages. To do your computer work faster, there’s not always a lot of sense in going out and buying more RAM or a new CPU. All you have to do is become a better user. After all, a good plumber doesn’t blame his tools.

Being a better computer user doesn’t require you to sign up for course at college or to read those huge books that geeks have on their desks. Truth is, we don’t read them either. We just refer to them every now and again when you stump us with a question.

Being a better computer user just takes a willingness to learn and to try. Here are a few computer tips for the beginner that should help you immediately.

1. Learn to Use Your Keyboard

Since PCs with a mouse attached were introduced, almost every user has become dependent on it. It seems like a good idea, but don’t you hate it when it dies, or gets clogged, or the right-click gets worn out? I know I do.

Learning how to type and use your keyboard shortcuts will help you to avoid the mouse. Remember, the keyboard was invented before the mouse, so everything you can do with your mouse, you can do with the keyboard.


There are plenty of freeware programs available for learning how to type, we mentioned several of them in our recently published productivity guide. It just takes patience and practice to master typing. When I started, I was a hunt-and-peck typer and now I can type almost anything without looking at the keyboard – which drives my wife nuts as I type and “listen” to her. She really hates it when I transcribe what she just told me. I don’t recommend doing that, guys.

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Keyboard shortcuts are awesome. Possibly the biggest time saver is the Tab key. It might say Tab on it or it might have two arrows – one pointing right and one pointing left. What the Tab key allows you to do is to move your cursor from field to field. This is especially time-saving when going through a form. Try it, just hit the Tab key a few times to see where the focus ends up. You’ll see a dashed line around whatever you tabbed to, or a blinking cursor if it’s in a text field. If you go one field too far, hold down your Shift key and then hit the Tab key once to go back one element. I use these shortcuts all the time when the batteries in my mouse are dead.

You can get printable shortcuts for Windows, Mac OS X, Firefox, Gmail and several other programs by subscribing to our RSS feed. Look for MakeUseOf Downloads link.

2. Be Picky With Software


How many toolbars do you have on your web browser? Do you have toolbars from Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask, and more? Just pick one – all the others do pretty much the same thing and just get in the way.

How did you end up with so many toolbars? Chances are you downloaded and installed something and didn’t read about the fact that the free software was going to install a toolbar as well. In the military, we had an initialization known as RTFQ – the G-rated version is Read The Full Question.


How much software do you need on your computer? Allow me to ask this another way. Do you put every scrap of paper that goes through your hands into your filing cabinet? If you did, how soon would it take for the filing cabinet to burst, leaving you to curl up in the fetal position wondering where your birth certificate went.

Same thing happens with your computer when you add every little piece of software you see to your computer. Be picky. If you aren’t going to use that software at least once a week – you probably don’t need it on your computer. If you haven’t used a piece of software in a few months, think about uninstalling it. Check out some uninstallers from Stefan’s post.

3. Find a Way To Get Organized

Carrying on with the file cabinet analogy, you also need to get your computer organized. I’m sure you’ve seen those computer desktops with a bajillion shortcuts on it. That’s no better than leaving papers all over your office. There’s a reason geek-speak calls them files and folders. Treat them like their real world companions and they will be easier to find, work with, and be more secure all at the same time.


For organizing your desktop, I recommend Fences by StarDock. It’s like setting up work-zones on your computer desktop and keeps it from getting cluttered. I’ve even seen people do this with their real desktops – setting up folders or taping off areas for specific ongoing projects to sit in. It can work, but you need to be vigilant. Entropy is a universal force – it cannot be overcome. But Fences sure can help!


Working on these three areas can only lead to a more productive day, with less effort and confusion. That means a lot less stress for you! And that’s a good thing.

Have you read the MakeUseOf Productivity guide? Do you have any beginner computer tips on being a better computer user? Have any of these ideas helped you out? I’d love to hear your suggestions and stories in the comments below.

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48 Comments - Write a Comment


Internet Strategist @GrowMap

Hello Guy,

This is a really good post which is probably not getting shared or linked to nearly as frequently as it would if you did not have the ads between the title and the content.

The ads at the very top of the page aren’t intrusive but that box there is and it makes your blog look spammy. I know many recommend putting ads in content but since the only writers who would rather people leave their content by ad clicking are those who are in it for the money it makes you look like one of them.

I can’t speak for others but I DO look at ads at the end of what I came to read and am far more likely to click on them when they are there. I share a lot of quality content at Twitter, FriendFeed, cliKball and sometimes elsewhere. I almost never share posts with ads in that position and suspect others like me feel the same.

Guy McDowell

I appreciate the advice, however I don’t set this site up. I’m a staff writer. No doubt the operators of MakeUseOf will read your comment and think about it. They’re pretty smart folks. Wait, do I have some owner butt on my lip?



Fence is really a useful piece of software :D love it!

Guy McDowell

I agree! A few years ago, it was a resource hog, but now it’s something that I think should be incorporated into every operating system. Immensely useful.



The # 1 thing I would recommend is to take a bit of time / energy and learn the fundamentals of the OS you are using.

I have seen it over and over – many, many people don’t understand the basics of the file structure of Windows or Mac. They are constantly confused and annoyed because they can’t find anything. They don’t understand the desktop vs My Documents vs C: Drive, etc. Same thing on a Mac.

Learning the fundamentals pays off a hundred fold.

Guy McDowell

I agree with that too! The problem is that these operating systems are always pitched as user-friendly and the general public assumes that they don’t have to learn anything – that it’ll be all intuitive. I can’t blame them.

It’s like the VCR clock. As long as it plays the movies and that’s all they want to do, they’ll never learn to change the clock. As long as they can e-mail and surf the web, they’ll never learn how truly powerful a piece of equipment they have.


The trouble with supposed user-friendliness is that you have to motivate users to learn in the first place. People go to the Control Panel in Vista, and they have no idea where to go. I can understand that, it’s complex and, if you don’t know how a computer works, it can be intimidating.

But there’s a search field that makes it bloody easy as pie to figure out! Whenever I point to it, people give me this deer-in-the-headlights stare. And then, I facepalm. :D



I am working in an IT help desk as a summer job. (Studying to be a programmer).

The vast amounts of people who call sometimes make your head spin. You get things from “installing” a keyboard, to asking how to send an e-mail using Microsoft Outlook, to asking how they can access the file they just saved.

The majority of these people have all the tools nicely planted on their desktop through a shortcut called “Self Help & Links”, which explains EVERYTHING there is to know about XP. It’s laid out in a structural format, it has a search engine, and it can even be listed in alphabetical order, it has general links, common problem links, and it couldn’t be easier to find what you’re looking for. They don’t read it, and then come crying because they don’t know how their computer works.

I once seen some guy with icons on every inch of his desktop. Not one space was free, and he called in because he saved a file to his desktop but couldn’t see it. (It was behind another icon)

I like the VCR comment because it is too true. If the computer works, they don’t complain. And then when things hit the fan they panic and are left way out in left field because they haven’t the slightest clue how their computer works.

Guy McDowell

I had a programming teacher who took a hard line. She insisted that she would not help us until we exhausted the included documentation.

I’ve tried that with office users. Doesn’t work. The execs loose their minds. Funny how it’s the ‘lower downs’ that don’t need as much assistance.



Check. Check. Check.

Guy McDowell

Attaboy David!



Fences is new to me. I’ve only had it installed for about ten minutes and I’m already loving it. Thanks for the awesome find!

Guy McDowell

You’re welcome Joe. Here to help.



Guy McDowell’s article is a must-have for all beginning computer users!

Guy McDowell

High praise. Thank you.



I have a critique.

Why even pick one toolbar? Every modern browser has pop-up blocking and every modern Windows browser can search damn near any website from the top right corner. Browser toolbars are completely unnecessary wastes of vertical space.

Guy McDowell

Are you suggesting that I don’t need my StumbleUpon toolbar? Good lord, how would I ever come up with a story idea? What would I do with those hours where I would otherwise be sleeping? Noooo, not my StumbleUpon bar!!!!!!!!!!

But other than that, yeah, your right.


Here! Here! My only toolbar is StumbleUpon! Love it, love it, love it!


Shannon VanWagner

Here’s something that can make you a REAL power user… Use GNU/Linux!

Actually it’s not even hard anymore, and you’ll learn anything you want about computers because you’ll have access to 10.8 Billion dollars worth of FREE software via the click of the mouse(Internet connection required).

With GNU/Linux, and the software that is available when you’re using it.. you can edit multimedia and graphics, make programs, make music with your computer, the list is endless.. all for FREE!

Why is it FREE? Because of computer science… GNU/Linux is about Free and Open Source Code software. This means that you can not only donwload, install, use, modify, and share any of the 10,000+ software packages that are available, but you can also look at the SOURCE CODE for any of these programs and use it to build a new program if you want.

Check it out at some of the links below. Get ready to be enabled by technology with GNU/Linux!

Contact me if you need any help.

FREE YOURSELF, Use GNU/LINUX! | linux.com | getgnulinux.org | ubuntuguide.org | whylinuxisbetter.net | openoffice.org | humans-enabled.com



I use XP @ work and one feature that really de-clutters the desktop is to make a folder with shortcuts to your most used programs then display the folder as a toolbar, make the icons really small and then dock it on the left or right of the desktop. In this way you can start all of your programs with 1 click instead of double clicking and if you show the toolbar on top, there’s no need for minimizing any open windows when you want to start another program.

This works well in XP but I haven’t found an equivalent in vista yet.

Guy McDowell

That works decent. I’ve tried it in the past, but I prefer the quick launch tool bar. For some reason, many of my past users didn’t grasp that they can just click on the icon in the quick launch bar to start their programs. Most of them don’t even use the start menu – it’s always the desktop. They were ecstatic when I showed them the Windows Key + D shortcut to the desktop.



Yeh! for Games



I do not display anything on My Desktop. Well OK a nice wallpaper. Using the quick launch bar just makes more sense to Me. I do put icons there when installing but drag and drop them on the quick launch bar and then unclick the show desktop icons.

There are a few toolbars that provide functionality that is useful. Most of them are Firefox addons.



On the topic of using the keyboard and arranging program shortcuts, you should try launchy, alt-space and type in the program name, hit enter and it boots, works on windows, XP, Vista, and 7. My two cents worth…


Jimmy Rogers

For the record, Entropy isn’t a force, but more of a tendancy. Similar to “life,” entropy is really a word we use to describe a specific kind of system…systems themselves don’t act like gravity or the strong force.

I’m sure you knew that but I figure as a scientists it’s my job to nitpic science references. :P

Guy McDowell

It seems like a force when a teenager’s clean room goes right to disaster in less than a minute. But yeah, I stand corrected – it is a tendency.



I have 2 more for beginners:

Try again before you give up.

Guy McDowell

Preach it Meat, it’s the gospel.



Who has icons on his desktop anway these days when you can reach anything with dock applications or indexed start menu search bar. But great article nonetheless


bret jarreau

you guys are fags=]

Guy McDowell

You’re a bunch of sticks too!

Mark O’Neill

we’re cigarettes? OK…whatever.



I’ve got nothing on my desktop.
All you really need is a dock, and an application-launcher-keyboard-

Two things that have been combined with Gnome-Do.
Dunno if that’ll work with Windows though.


Shannon VanWagner

Mr. McDowell..

I see that you deleted my Linux comment, and frankly, I’m not surprised actually.

This is typical… to silence any information about the GNU/Linux wonder. This is what Microsoft does with part of its 4 Bln+ in revenue that it makes every quarter. Stomp out all competition, take away choice, marketing, marketing, marketing… Slash and burn.. business as usual.

Do you really think this is what technology is all about? Blinding humankind from technology that can help them? What if people like Newton, Copernicus, Galileo, Einstein, Descartes, Franklin, et. al. thought this way? What if you had to pay a license fee or a tax to use the English language, or arithmetic? What if you had to pay a tax to colossal Microsoft every time you bought a computer?

Enabling humans with technology – that’s what computer science is about.

Let me take this moment to introduce you to the greatest thing to ever happen to computerised technology… GNU/Linux!

You can install Ubuntu inside Windows…You can spread the word about the freedom and computer science that is available to everyone on the planet!

Check it out at some of these links:
FREE YOURSELF, Use GNU/LINUX! | linux.com | getgnulinux.org | ubuntuguide.org | whylinuxisbetter.net | openoffice.org | humans-enabled.com

Don’t be an Alchemist, be a Scientist! Be a technologist, not a marketing director!

I look forward to your next article on the benefits of GNU/Linux and how it’s helping the world… John Dvorak did it…and so many others.

Shannon VanWagner



You say everything you can do with your mouse, you can do with the keyboard. OK. Then tell me how I click on NEXT PAGE using the keyboard. (This is for reading multipage articles in online newspapers, like the NY Times.)

Mark O’Neill

How about typing the web URL into Pagezipper?

Guy McDowell

The TAB key also works on web page and program elements. If something is clickable on a web page, you should be able to tab to it, and then hit enter. This doesn’t work in Flash applications though.



Fences? Learn to use FOLDERS. That is what they are there for. Have a project that you need to put 50 pictures and 7 word documents on your desktop for? File->New->Folder. You can even right click and put the folders on your desktop if you’re too lazy!



TIP #4: Buy a Mac.
TIP #5: Dump Windows for UBUNTU



Just so you know we don’t delete comments, if it’s not here then it’s probably got caught in our spam filter. I will check it there.


Jim Edwards

In response to Guys & Zigzug:

I’ve been working in IT for 10 years, and I’ll never forget the advice my first Network Admin gave me the first month I was on the job… she said…
“People get stupid when they call for help, at that point, they are frustrated and they are convinced either the computer is out to get them, or the IT department is evil and preventing them from making it easier… Any task they ask (that they should know how to do) say ‘I’m in the middle of another issue but I’ll come by in 20-30 min.’ Then call them again before you leave your desk to tell them “I’m on my way”. 9 times out of 10, When I call back, they have fixed the problem themselves, and joking how they should have my job…

I laugh, agree, and go back to what I was doing.


Guy McDowell

I’ve known people that have used computers and the Internet for years and haven’t applied any of the three things mentioned in this article. So, I disagree.



I know many recommend putting ads in content but since the only writers who would rather people leave their content by ad clicking are those who are in it for the money it makes you look like one of them

Guy McDowell

Well, in a way you are right. This site has over 75,000 subscribers so the content must be good. Getting to that point takes a lot of quality content, so it takes a lot of good writers. Getting good writers takes money. Getting money takes advertising. It’s just like a quality subject specific magazine, like Mother Earth news. They believe what they write but it still takes money to publish it.



I work for a major ISP’s tech support, and one thing that really bothers me is when people do not know how to type in a web address, they just use the “Search” box at the top of their browser. They also tend to have no idea what operating system they are using nor do they know what Internet Explorer is. They refer to is as the “Blue E”.

On each call I try to determine the caller’s computer knowledge by asking a few questions…”What operating system do you have?”, “is this a laptop or desktop?” and “What happens when you open internet explorer?”….most callers cannot answer these questions without clarification or they have to ask their children.


Daniel Hirschlein

I couldn’t agree with you more about the toolbar issue – more and more installers a defaulting the addition of these toolbars.

Most of the time a lot of this garbage is pre-installed when they buy a new computer. It’s almost as if they are inheriting a mess to begin with and users need to learn organization skills before they learn computer skills.

I’ve offered these (agfish.com/web/10-things-to-do-after-buying-a-new-pc/) 10 tips for those buying a new PC.



folders on desktop is a killing factor. a software to organize them is totally welcomed.



i’m getting a new laptop…. i shall follow these steps :D

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