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- This Week's Free Computer Tip -

148 - Think About the Features You Choose To Use

The problem with most computer manuals, and computer tip sources as well, is that they describe program features in a strictly academic way, meaning, they just describe how it works with little attention paid to the merits of the feature. Windows is sold to us as being "feature rich". Others in the business prefer to think if it as "bloated". With over 30 million lines of code, both characterizations are fair. What do I think? I think that given the software industry's propensity for loading up their products with solutions desperately seeking valid problems, we should view all features with a critical eye.

Is a feature even worth knowing about? Is there a downside to using it? Some features make perfect sense where others are a waste of time, or worse, have an actual downside. Here are some examples.

Example #1 - Using "stationary" in Outlook
Outlook has a built-in feature called "stationary". When you handwrite a letter, you can use plain paper or fancy stationary. Fancy stationary is often colored and may have seasonal designs or company logos or other pre-printed images on it. The Outlook stationary feature creates these designs on your outgoing emails.

So, what's the problem with that? At first glance, it's kinda (I love that word) nice. The problem is, the stationary is an actual computer image, much like a photograph. When you send it to a person who has a dial-up connection, they have to sit there and tap their fingers while the image gets downloaded. The image part actually takes several times longer to transmit than the text of a typical email. The books and tip lines don't point that out. You think your emails are looking really sharp, but your friends on the other end are getting steamed every time you email them!

Here's a tip about using Outlook stationary -
There is one form of using stationary which doesn't cause the download problem. If you look at the Outlook menu where you pick the stationary to use, you will notice that there is a choice called "Blank". If you highlight "Blank" and select "Edit", you are allowed to choose a color for your stationary. Choosing a pale background color for your emails can be a nice change and it doesn't require a download for the reader.

Here's how it's done - Open Outlook and select Tools, Options, Mail Format, Stationary Picker..., select "Blank" and then Edit. There is a place to select your background color. Save and exit normally and you're done.

Example #2 - The new XP feature called "Group Similar Taskbar Buttons"
With the advent of Windows XP, a new feature called "Group Similar Taskbar Buttons" appeared. Before that, whenever you opened a new window, a new "task" appeared on the task bar (The Task Bar is the horizontal bar, usually found at the bottom of your screen, which has the "Start Button" on it). The first task to open might be two inches wide. It contains the program icon, followed by some text describing what the task is. Usually the description is longer than the button allows, but you can see enough of it to get the idea. There is a finite limit to the size of the taskbar so, as you open more tasks, the width of the buttons has to shrink.

Someone at Microsoft decided that this was a real problem and they added a feature called "Group Similar Taskbar Buttons" to address it. What it does is this. If five of those tasks happen to be Word documents, Windows groups them under one button, saving space on the task bar. Sounds like a cool idea. The problem is, you lost something in doing that. The traditional task bar told you one more thing. It told you in what order the tasks had been opened. The tasks were listed in the order they were opened, from left to right on the task bar. Under the new feature, this sequence information is lost. Now, if you want to return to a document you worked on earlier, you have to search for it by its text description, which you may not recognize. As a user, you should decide whether the feature is a net gain or net loss to you. For me, I turned the feature off.

(This feature is found on at Start, Settings, Taskbar and Start Menu. Check or un-check the box, as you prefer.)

Example #3 - "Mapping" disk drives when computers are networked
If you have a network for your computers at home or in the office, there is a feature called "Mapping" which allows you to go directly to another computer on the network and have access to a hard disk on that computer. It looks just like a hard disk mounted in your actual computer, except that it's in some other computer that you may not even know the location of. This is often used in businesses, where some database such as the company's product catalog needs to be available to all the employees. The catalog is stored on a network computer and mapped to everyone else's machine. (Yes, I know this is a simplistic example)

This feature has its place, most especially when you have a computer department in your building. The problem is this. If that other computer goes down for any reason, such as someone turning it off, YOUR computer will hang up trying to reboot. Your computer tries and tries to connect to the mapped drive, but without success. It just sits there. It looks like there is something wrong with your computer when the only problem is, it can't find the mapped drive. Have this happen twice and you will never forget it.

Many features in today's software were born out of practical experience and genuine user needs. Many others were not. When you read about a feature, take a moment to think about the impact it's going to have. Just don't forget that you may not be the only one impacted. You can always contact us and ask what we know about a particular feature. Since we get to see lots of ways people use computers, we see more problems than most folks do and are happy to share the experience with you.

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