Most of the people who read this blog are interested in development rather than computers. Many of you live in developing countries, where the internet can be slow and expensive, and computer support can be difficult. So I thought it might be useful to give you some non-technical suggestions for how to manage if you live somewhere where the computer facilities are rather basic.
In this first post in a series, I’ll look at the basic set up.
What computer should I use?
If you are travelling a lot, you probably want a computer that is light, not-too expensive, with a good battery life and reasonably robust. You might want to look at the new generation of netbook computers – these are less powerful than more expensive laptops, but perfectly adequate for writing documents, doing email and surfing the web; and they can cost as little as £200. The Samsung N220 or the HP Mini 110 are both good options. The other disadvantage is that they have small keyboards and screens: but you could quite cheaply add a monitor and keyboard to use at home.
If you want something a bit bigger or faster (which you would need if you want to edit photos or video) then you won’t go far wrong with a Dell or an HP laptop. If money is no object (unlikely for most development workers) then get a solid state disk – they are much less likely to break down in hot and dusty climates.
Should I use Windows?
Most people use Windows, because it is so universal. You’ll be able to share files easily and get some basic support. If you go with Windows, then use either Windows XP or Windows 7 (not Windows Vista, which is slow and unreliable).
Lots of people prefer Apple Mac. Lots of Windows users who try Macs never want to go back. You can get Microsoft Word and Excel for the Mac, and you can swap files without problems with Windows users. Most people find Macs easier to use and more reliable than Windows; and the design is beautiful; but they are a bit more expensive than their Windows equivalents.
Most normal people wouldn’t use Linux software: so I’m not recommending it; though if you fancy a walk on the wild side, the latest version of Ubuntu (10.04 – Lucid Lynx) installs very easily and is very easy to use; and of course it is completely free and much more secure than Windows. It is what I use on my main computer at home. OpenOffice is a powerful, free alternative to Microsoft Office. If you are technically minded this might be a good cheap alternative – especially if you want a second computer.
What office software do I need?
For your work lots of people need Microsoft Word and possibly Powerpoint. The latest version is Office 2010, and this enables you to read files from, and create files that can be read by, earlier versions. But there is not much new in Office 2007 and Office 2010, so if you already have Office 2003 you can stick with that for now. If you stick with Office 2003 you may want to download and install a compatibility pack which enables you to read documents and spreadsheets created with later versions of Office. You can get Office for the Mac or the PC; but if you are going to do presentations with a Mac, use Keynote rather than Powerpoint.
If you don’t need Microsoft for work reasons, consider getting OpenOffice instead. It is free and it works well with people using Microsoft. UPDATE: Cato in the comments points out that OpenOffice for the Mac is called NeoOffice.
How do I stay secure?
Computer viruses are a big problem in developing countries, even more than in rich countries. Here are four things you should do to stay secure:
- First, you should use registered software, especially Windows. If you use unregistered or pirate software, it won’t update itself automatically to close any security loopholes, and that will leave you vulnerable.
- Second, install a virus checker and keep it up to date. AVG Free is, er, free, and perfectly adequate.
- Third, don’t use Internet Explorer for surfing the web. It is very insecure. Use Chrome or Firefox instead. I am using Chrome all the time now because it is so fast.
- Fourth, if you can, choose a Mac or Linux rather than Windows.
Everybody using a computer should have backups; and that is even more true if you are living in a developing country where something is more likely to go wrong (e.g. hardware failures because of heat and dust; software failures because of viruses; theft etc). Concentrate on backing up your data – documents, photos, music etc, rather than software which you can always install again if you need to.
Ideally you should use the 3-2-1 rule: you should have three copies of everything, on two different types of media (eg hard disk and DVD), of which one should be stored off-site.
I have an external hard drive which I use to back up all my documents, photos and music. I also make occasional DVDs of important stuff. Try to buy one that does NOT need an external power supply, because then it is easy to pop into your travel bag. This Freecom drive is 320Gb for £50, which is not bad. If you use a Mac, set up Time Machine to make backups.
In addition, consider using an online backup service such as Dropbox. These services make copies of particular folders on your computer onto a password protected disk online. They work in the background, copying changed files when your internet connection is available and not otherwise being used They enable you to get those files back whereever you can get online – very helpful if you are travelling and need to get hold of a file from your computer.
I use GMail for everything. I’ve got several different email addresses, but they all go in to the same GMail account which I can access anywhere. (You can use free Google Apps to have your own domain name – that looks more professional than using a gmail address.)
A good idea is to use Outlook on your computer, connected to your GMail account. Here is how. (Use IMAP rather than POP, because that way any change you make in GMail will be made automatically in Outlook, and any change you make in Outlook will be automatically reflected in GMail.) With this set up, you can work offline (eg on a plane, or when the internet is down) in Outlook, or use Gmail or Outlook to work online.
If you rely entirely on GMail, then you run the risk that you might be locked out one day. This does happen, either because of a cockup at Google, or because your account gets hacked. Would you be OK permanently losing all the mail you have ever sent and received? That is probably not as much fun as it sounds. If you use Outlook connected to your GMail then you’ll have a local copy of everything. Alternatively, you can use a service like Backupify which makes backup copies of all your online services such as GMail, Facebook and Flickr in case they go down. I use Thunderbird (made by the same people as Firefox) because I like the fact that all my mail is downloaded in a standard format; but most people are comfortable with Outlook. I have it installed on a USB stick, so all my mail is backed up on that.
You’ll have noticed that I am quite focused on staying secure by avoiding viruses and having good backups. This is because I know too many people who have seen their hard disk fail in a dusty city, or found their computer so comprehensively infected with viruses that there is no option but to wipe the hard disk. You really want something that you can set up and then forget – which is why online services like dropbox or carbonite are a good idea, but they may not be much good for you if your internet connection is very slow.
In the next installment, I’ll look at software for the non-technical development worker.