Monday, April 13, 2009

The Blessing and Curse of Used PCs

On May 2nd, the Champaign County Fair Grounds will host an electronics recycling event from 8 am to 4 pm. It's the safest way to dispose of e-waste, and volunteers can obtain a free, refurbished computer.

I'm finding that an increasing number of technology questions are from patrons facing problems with second-hand PCs, particularly laptops. The owners seem genuinely happy to have them, but often lack the experience or funds to make them work optimally.

As any nonprofit organization will likely attest, accepting used computer donations is not without risks.

Rarely is the gear ready for immediate use by its intended recipients; documentation and supporting software may be missing; the previous owners may leave sensitive information behind or, worse, malware and viruses; and the equipment may be damaged or in bad physical shape.

Administrative privileges and their corresponding passwords, which control who can make changes and updates on a given machine, also present problems.

Recently, a teen patron needed Microsoft PowerPoint to complete a class presentation on her home computer. Unfortunately, only PowerPoint Viewer is free.

I recommended she try Impress, which is part of the free OpenOffice suite. Impress files are compatible with PowerPoint.

We downloaded a copy of OpenOffice, burned it to a disc, and home she went.

The next day she called to say she'd encountered problems installing the software due to a lack of administrative privileges on her hand-me-down. She could access only the "Guest" account when she used the PC.

We tried a workaround over the phone, which went well until the very last step: no go.

I encouraged her to use PowerPoint on the library's PCs until we can find the right answer. (Leo Notenboom offers one interesting strategy ... and in the process reveals how easy it can be to crack security.)

But pass this tip around:

Volunteer Technology Assistants are currently available at our library every Thursday from 4 to 6 pm and every Saturday from 1 to 3 pm.

Bring your questions (and your laptops) if you're stuck. We'll do our best to help!

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