Many people are surprised when they get their new machine home and someone sends them e-mail with a Word or XL document attached and they cannot open it.
"Isn't this thing supposed to be able to handle these files already?" I often hear.
The assumption people make is if they get a machine with enough horsepower, memory and hard-drive space, it ought to do anything they need it to. To a degree, that is true. But the one thing that's missing is the software, or program, to do the job.
Programs that are installed after Windows are loaded enhance the system and allow the computer to run at its full potential. What programs we need installed depends on the files that we are trying to open and work with.
A lot of the files that we work with on the Internet, such as .jpg, .html and .txt files all will open with the built-in Windows applications (called "applets") but other files, such as .xls, .doc, .pdf and .ppt need programs that specifically handle those kinds of files.
The three-letter extension is what identifies to the computer what kind of file it is, what icon to display for it and what program to use to open it.
If the program that is required to open a file is not installed on the machine, then the file will be displayed with a generic Windows icon. When you try to open it, the computer will open a screen listing of all the installed applications asking what program you want to use to open it. The computer takes a look at the file and doesn't recognize it. So it lists all the programs installed and lets you pick what program to open it with because it doesn't have a clue.
Unfortunately, when we see that program list, usually we don't have a clue what to open it with either, for the same reason the computer got stumped -- there is no program installed for that type of file.
So, that brings us back to the beginning, with the question of "What programs does a typical computer need installed, on top of Windows, in order to be able to handle most of the file formats that everyone else in the world is using?"
Why is it that some machines can already handle certain files and some machines cannot? And, when you buy a computer, what should you look for as far as "bundled" software goes?
Let's take the last question first and talk about "bundled" software. Some computer manufacturers have made deals with software vendors to "bundle" their software with every computer they sell. They, of course, get some sort of commission for including the software in with the price of the machine. Where things get tricky is every computer manufacturer has a different bundling agreement, or none at all, so every computer comes with different software loaded on top of Windows.
What that means is one computer bought from one manufacturer will usually have different software installed than what may be installed in another computer of the same hardware specs (horsepower) from another manufacturer.
So you've decided to get a new computer. What bundled software should you look for, above and beyond Windows, that will allow you to do some of the more common tasks without getting the dreaded "unknown file type message?"
Well, the most common bundle that ought to be installed is some level of Office Suite.
An office suite, such as MS Office, Open Office or even Works Office, is a package of software to handle Word processing, spreadsheets, databases, and is a must-have for productivity.
For things such as .pdf files, an adobe portable document, the Acrobat reader can be installed. Adobe Reader and Open Office are free and can sometimes be found bundled with other software or easily downloaded from the Internet.
But that is the subject of another column altogether.
Sean McCarthy fixes computers. He can be reached at (888) 752-9049 or help@ComputeThisOnline.com (no hyphens).