Which keys are the function keys?
Function keys
The function keys are the keys marked F1 to F10 (or F1 to F12, depending on the keyboard) on the top row of the keyboard. Typically, each of these keys will perform two different functions:

  • they will perform the task assigned to the number of the key (eg F2 may be assigned the “find” command)
  • they will perform the task indicated by an icon on the key itself (often in a different colour from the rest of the keys). On the keyboard illustrated here, the F2 key will indicate the charge level of the battery.

How does the key know which of these two functions to perform?

  • if the key is pressed on its own then the specific function key will be actioned (eg F2 = find)
  • if the key marked Fn is depressed and then (with the Fn key still depressed) the function key is pressed, then the alternative use of that key is actioned (eg display battery state)

So, what are the “functions” that are carried out when a specific function key is pressed on its own?

It depends on the context. More specifically, it depends upon how the current program has been set up to use the function keys. The current program is the one that “has the focus” – ie the one that is currently reacting to your key presses and your mouse movements and clicks.

So, if the current program has been set up to use the F5 key as a “find” instruction, then pressing F5 will execute a “find” command. In Word 2007, for instance, pressing the F5 key executes a “find” command in exactly the same way as pressing the key combination of Ctrl F (pressing the “f” key while the Ctrl key is depressed) or finding and clicking the “find” instruction on the “ribbon” of commands at the top of the screen.

The whole point of the function keys is that they can perform different functions depending upon the program that is using them. Over time, some uses of the function keys have become more-or-less standardised. For instance, the F1 key almost always invokes the “Help” system for the current program. However, a bit of experimentation is needed to find out how a particular program has been set up to use the function keys (or consult the help system for the specific program by pressing F1).

If this is a bit confusing then there is no need to worry about function keys at all. I think it’s safe to say that there is always an alternative way of carrying out whatever the function keys do.

What do the symbols on the function keys mean that denote the alternative use of the function keys?

Sorry about this, but, once again, it depends. This time it depends on the particular keyboard. The best way to find out is probably to experiment, but it is strongly advised that you do not have any programs loaded when you do this as you may get unexpected results and you wouldn’t want to harm a document.

Some of the common icons and their uses are:

  • a moon – puts the machine into sleep mode (standby)
  • two different versions of suns – increase and decrease the screen brightness
  • loudspeaker – turn the sound on
  • loudspeaker crossed out – turn the sound off
  • various icons that denote increasing and decreasing the volume
  • computer monitor – switch the output to/from an external monitor

Will I break anything if I play with these keys?

It isn’t always completely clear what a function key does but if you are not sure if your experimenting has changed something then you can always re-boot the machine. This will return all the keys to the state they had previously been in.

One particular hint that is appropriate here is that laptops often have a key combination (usually the Fn key plus a function key) that turns the WiFi connection on and off. There doesn’t seem to be a universally agreed symbol (icon) for this but if your WiFi stops working after playing with these keys then this is worth investigating. The same key combination that turned the WiFi off will turn it back on again. There may or may not be an LED light somewhere on your laptop indicating that the WiFi is on or off. Similarly, some laptops have a slider switch for turning the WiFi on and off, so it’s worth checking this out as well if your WiFi suddenly disappears. If in doubt, re-boot and everything should go back to how it was before you starting investigating.

In a future blog I will do a roundup of the other keys that are not immediately obvious in their function and use.

Should I turn off my computer at the end of the day or leave it on?

1) A computer that is switched on is a fire hazard

I have never heard of a computer catching fire, so I did some Googling. There were suprisingly few results (about 30,000) to the phrase “computer caught fire” and almost all of them seemed to refer to “enthusiasts” making their own machines, overclocking, and so forth. I found nothing to suggest that I should worry more about a professionally-built computer than I should worry about, say, leaving my fridge or TV switched on.

2) It takes more electricity to switch off and on than to leave it on. A variation of this is that it wears out the components faster if you switch the machine on and off as compared with leaving it on

These seem to be a type of “cyber myth”. I can find no evidence at all one way or the other.

3) Switching the computer off at night makes it run faster

This is true up to a point (with Windows computers, anyway) but not as much as it used to be. However, it’s not the good night’s sleep that’s done it good, but the re-boot (which has flushed the memory out). Windows computers used to run slower and slower the longer they were left switched on as more and more of the memory was allocated to programs and not then released when the program was closed. I seem to remember that in the days of Windows 3 it would have been unheard of to leave a computer on for days on end. It would just grind to a halt. These days this is hardly an issue – if at all. Windows and the programs using it are much better written and there’s much more memory available.

4) It’s far more convenient to leave it on as it takes so long to boot up from scratch

Undoubtedly. I suspect that computers take as long to boot up now as they did 25 years ago. However, “standby” (sleep mode) is almost as quick to re-start as leaving it fully awake and alert.

5) The computer can’t do background tasks and housekeeping tasks if it is switched off

True, but a computer that is asleep (ie in standby mode) can be woken automatically to perform scheduled tasks and then be put back into standby.

6) The computer is not available as a server if it’s switched off

Can’t argue with that. If, for instance, you use a program like TeamViewer to access a machine remotely then that machine has to be switched on!

7) Turning computers off saves electricity.

This is being perceived as more and more important, but it’s nowhere near as clear-cut as you might expect. I tested the power consumption of two of my laptops and my (oldish) Compaq desktop under different conditions. These results are not scientific and the short test time (about one hour for each condition) means that they should be taken as nothing more than a guide. In the laptop tests, the laptop’s own battery was connected and fully charged. In all cases, only Windows plus security programs (firewall, antivirus) were running. Just out of interest, I also tested the consumption of my TV (a Sony Bravia LCD of reasonably modest screen size). The results were as follows:

Power consumption - chart 1

From these results, one thing is very clear. From the point of view of power consumption, there is no point at all in switching off a computer if you leave it connected to the power supply. The power usage is almost exactly the same as leaving it in standby (sleep) mode.

Is it worth switching it off?

It’s almost impossible to apply an average cost of electricity to this analysis as it depends on the company, the tarriff, the price at the margin of use etc. It seems that a kwh (kilowatt hour) of electricity can be anything from 4p to 20p. As guide, though, the next table shows the total kwh that a machine would consume over a complete year. If you know how much your electricity is costing per unit then applying that figure to the annual consumption will give an idea of the potential savings (but remember that your computer may be in use for, say, 25% of the time so savings during that time would not be so high).

Power consumption - chart 2

My own rule of thumb is that I leave machines in sleep mode (standby) if I’m expecting to use them in the next 24 hours and switch them off otherwise.

Memo to self: unplug it if switching it off. Switching it off and leaving it plugged in is pointless. It’s a much better compromise to leave it in sleep mode.

When I’m asked whether it is safe to download files from the internet I can only give the very irritating response of “it depends….”.

There is no absolute way of knowing if a download is safe, but there are some rules of thumb that I tend to apply:

  • Have I downloaded safely from this site before?
  • What prompted the question? If something’s just popped up out of the blue, as opposed to my asking for it, then I’m going to be more suspicious
  • Does the message/website look real? Look for spelling errors, grammatical errors and peculiarities. Most major companies offering genuine downloads will have very few such problems and peculiarities whereas fakes/scammers are less good (but getting better!)
  • Do logos, “legal statements”, etc look genuine and credible?
  • Does my system automatically scan downloaded files? I’m going to feel more comfortable if I know my antivirus program either automatically or manually scans downloaded files.
  • Does the filename look odd? If you think you are downloading an image and the filename is, for instance, piccy.jp.exe then steer clear as it’s the last characters after the last dot that tell you what type of file it is and a file ending in “.exe” is an executable file – ie a program, which is much more likely to be a virus or spyware than other file types. If you are expecting a picture or a document or a music file and you are being offerred an “executable file” (ending in .exe, .bat, .com, .pif, or .scr) then steer clear.

There is nothing you can do on the internet that is totally risk-free. By definition, you are connecting to other computers and you can never be absolutely certain that you are safe. However, this is no different from saying that every time you open your front door you are at risk from criminals. That doesn’t stop you from opening the door: it just means you take reasonable care and, without even realising it, you balance risks all the time and make judgments as to whether the person standing on your doorstep is genuine or not . Using the internet is the same, and I can’t see that changing.

Dilsblog - safe to downloadThe biggest single tip I can give to anyone seeking out specific downloads of programs, drivers, etc is to start at http://download.cnet.com/windows/ and see if you can download the file from there. Be careful, though, as there are many distractions on the site for downloads that you don’t want or need (eg utilities that offer to scan your system for “problems” – avoid them).

This is a huge, popular, and respected source of downloads. My judgment is that there’s still no guarantee that they won’t get caught out by offering a bad file but the chances are very very small and well within what I would call “acceptable risk”.

For a list of no fewer than 1515 file extensions and their descriptions, see http://filext.com/alphalist.php?extstart=^A

When I train clients who are new to computers, I like to mention keyboard shortcuts. The basic facts I like to get across at this stage are:

  • keyboard shortcuts are a matter of choice – they are an alternative way of achieving something that can be done with the mouse
  • there are far too many of them to learn all at once, so don’t even try
  • a few shortcuts are very useful as they work in the same way in most programs and are often used

The common ones I mention first are:
Ctrl a = Select all (eg all the text of a document or every file in a listing)
Ctrl c = copy (put a copy of whatever is currently selected into a memory area called the “clipboard”)
Ctl v = paste (put a copy of whatever is in the clipboard into the current cursor location)
Ctrl x = delete (delete whatever is currently selected from the current location but put it in the clipboard)

Note that these shortcuts are executed by depressing the key marked “Ctrl” (the “Control” key) and then, while the Control key is down, touching the letter that goes with it (eg a,c,v,x). These commands can also usually be carried out by right-clicking on the mouse and then selecting the relevant command that appears on the “context menu” that pops up.

I usually advise my trainees not to worry too much about shortcuts to begin with as there are probably more urgent things to learn, but that if they find themselves repeating what seems to be an awkward task there may be a shortcut for it, so it’s worth looking.

The moral here, though, is that I should practise what I preach. A few days ago I was having a phone conversation with a fairly novice trainee and it was important that she could navigate back to her desktop so that we could then start a remote control session. No way could she get to the desktop. It started to get quite frustrating. If only I’d remembered that there’s a shortcut for getting back to the desktop wherever you are. Simply depress the windows key (the one with the Windows logo on – see image) and then press d. Easy. Repeating the command takes you back where you were before.Winkey

So, I think I’ll run an occasional item on this blog of a few useful shortcuts at a time that it may be worth committing to memory (assuming your memory is better than mine).

In the meantime, you can find a full list of shortcut keys that use the Windows key at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windows_key.

Monthly broadband costs can now be reduced to well under £10 per month. If you are paying substantially more than this – because, for instance, you’ve had your current contract for a couple of years or more – then it may well be worth either shopping around or contacting your current provider to see if they can offer you a better deal (I’ve heard that AOL will now drop your monthly charges substantially if they think you are about to abandon them – how the mighty are fallen).

If you have been wondering if your broadband speed is all that it should be, or wondering whether you are getting a good deal on your broadband contract, or puzzled about the terminology or technology, it could well be worth visiting http://www.broadband.co.uk/

A good site for checking your current speed and comparing it with other people in your neighbourhood is http://www.broadbandspeedchecker.co.uk/

Personally, I think that the overall service and the quality of the technical support are more important than the monthly cost or the speed of the connection (within reasonable limits, of course). I’m paying about £18 per month to Zen and I’d much rather do that than pay £7 per month elsewhere.

Why? They answer the phone quickly, they are based in the UK, and their focus is on solving the problem rather than obeying the list of instructions they have been given regarding support calls. They don’t spend 20 minutes asking you everything from your postcode, to your mother’s maiden name, to your inside leg measurement, and then force you to do the umpteen checks that you already did before picking up the phone (eg re-booting the router). If the problem isn’t fixed there and then, they send progress emails and these are signed by the person responsible for the issue. Why can’t other organisations realise that this is the way to keep customers?

Discover Award Winning Broadband from £17.99 per month inc. VAT. Order Now.

Microsoft will soon end support for some versions of Windows. When support ends, security updates will no longer be provided. This means that computers running these unsupported versions will become more vulnerable to malicious attack.

The versions and cut-off dates are:

Windows Vista without any Service Packs – 13th April 2010
Windows XP Service Pack 2 – 13th July 2010

For further information, see http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows/help/end-support-windows-xp-sp2-windows-vista-without-service-packs?os=other

If you double-click on a data file in Windows Explorer (eg a picture file or document), then Windows will open the program that it thinks “controls” that type of file, and then open the data file (document) in the newly opened program.

Sometimes, you may prefer a different program to open a particular type of file. For instance, the Windows Picture and Fax Viewer may open “jpg” files whereas you would like these to be opened with Photoshop.

To change the program that opens files (known in Windows terms as changing the file association) take the following steps (these instructions are for Windows XP):

1) In Windows Explorer, open any folder
2) Click on “Tools” in the top menu
3) Click on “Folder Options”
4) Click on the “File Types” tab
5) Scroll down the list to find the type of file you wish to change (for instance, JPG, JPEG, and JPE are all picture files that could be produced by a digital camera)
6) Click on the file type you wish to change
7) Click the “Change” button. This will produce a list of the programs that Windows suggests may be suitable to open this type of file.
8) If you see the program you want, double-click on it and then close any open boxes.
9) If you don’t see the program you want, you can browse for it by clicking on the “Browse” button. You will then need to identify the program you want, double-click on it and then close any open boxes.

In this example there are 3 different file names associated with jpg files (see (5) above), so repeat the exercise for all three types if you want Photoshop to open any type of jpg file.

Selecting the file type

Selecting the file type

Choosing the program that opens the file

Choosing the program that opens the file

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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