Computers for Beginners/Internet

The Basics edit

Where is the Internet? edit

In the 21st century the Internet is a pervasive presence in our lives, shaping them both for good and evil. It should not be surprising that the Internet may have motivated you to buy and use a computer to its maximum potential.

So, people "connect" to the Internet. Where is the Internet? The short answer is nowhere and everywhere. The nature of the Internet is not centralized, there is no specific place where the Internet exists. What we call "the Internet" is the ever-changing collection of computers that are all connected together and configured so that they can "talk" to each other. Your computer becomes part of the Internet every time you connect to it, and you usually connect to it through your internet service provider (ISP), and they are permanently connected.

The Internet is what you and others make it by creating a web page and uploading it onto a server. Your web page has now become a part of the Internet.

To define the term, the internet is a collection of many, many computers, including servers and desktop PCs, linked together to send and receive information.

The Internet and the World Wide Web edit

Another point that may need clarification is the difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web. People tend to use those terms interchangeably, but there is a difference. The Internet can provide a wide range of services, like web-pages, email, file transfers, instant messages — the list never ends. The World Wide Web (or just "Web"), refers to the collection of inter-linked web-pages, and web-browsing refers to the exploration of those web-pages.

Web Browsing edit

Web browsing is probably the most accessible beginners' Internet activity. It is the act of viewing textual or image-based content using the World-Wide Web over the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). You are doing this as you read this text.

All recent versions of Windows come with a version of Internet Explorer, and most of them are inextricably integrated with the operating system. The current version, bundled with Windows Vista , is Internet Explorer 8. Windows 98 ships with version 4, and Me or 2000 are integrated with 5.0 or 5.5 (the difference being that 5.5 has support for more advanced security measures).

Internet Explorer is not the only browser, and not necessarily the best. Although it's still by far the most common, many people point out that it's difficult to use and may expose your computer to security risks. If you plan to use the World Wide Web, it's highly recommended that you at least try out one of the alternatives:

Linux users sometimes want to use command-line, or textual, browsers such as Lynx or Links2 where a graphical user interface is unavailable, for instance when installing, but most browsers are graphical.

When learning to use a browser (graphical or textual) most efficiently, it can be useful to learn keyboard commands, as well as the discrete uses of the Left and Right mouse button. If your mouse has a wheel in the middle, it can be useful to scroll, or for browsers with tabbed browsing support, opening a new tab. Check your settings so you can get the best use of this tool.

The vast majority of Web browsing is done among sites you might already know. The first one that you may have seen is your home page. When the browser is out of the box, it may direct to the company (Microsoft for Internet Explorer, Netscape for Netscape and allied products), or it will direct to your Internet Service Provider (the people who manage your connection). You can also have a home page of your choosing. If you are surfing at school or work, your school or work will have a page, as will the library or the Internet cafe.

Choosing a password edit

Many web services, such as email, internet shopping or online banking require the user to "log in" by entering a username and password.

It is important to choose a good password, that is, a password that cannot be easily cracked by a third party who could potentially gain access to your email account or finances.

Bad passwords edit

The following types of passwords should never be used. They can easily be cracked by modern password breaking tools and offer little or no protection in case of an attack.

  • Dictionary words, common phrases and names in any language, even if combined with numbers. For example:
 webmail, merci, London, clare, beermonster, install, Sony, honey888, password3, fluffy,
 bahnhof, MichaelJackson, mount_everest, jesuschrist, linux7, venividivici, ...
  • Passwords shorter than 7 characters. For example:
 fG4ir5, bmw, cat, foo, cng56, girl9, ...
  • Passwords containing a modified version of the user name. (e.g. if the user name is "martin88", a password such as "martmart" or "nitram")
  • Passwords containing personal information about the user or the user's family such as dates of birth, social security numbers, number plates, pet names and addresses. For example:
 12021967, 12_2_1967, 12Feb67, y67d12m2, abbeyRoad, ...
  • Patterns or repetitive sequences
 qwerty, 9876789, g3g3g3g3, aeiou...
  • Contains only digits or letters. For example:
 wiki, 9876543... ...

Good passwords edit

Good passwords should:

  • be at least 8 characters long
  • contain upper and lowercase characters, as well as numbers in a random sequence.
  • be easy to remember
FQr7erfn5, QWd3fTr6U, rgi82eJiFF0, GI$87d90%nj, kEirt4Pw, ...

A convenient way of creating a password is thinking of a "pass phrase" and then abbreviating it into a password. This procedure usually results in a password that is both safe and easy to remember. For example:

  • "Roses are red, violets are blue, I'm a bad poet, so are you" becomes "RarVabIabp5ay", where the first word of each line is represented by a capital and "S" becomes a "5" because both characters look similar.
  • "I use this website to buy cheap flights from Stanstead airport" becomes "IutwtbcffSa"

Using special characters such as *&^%$ also improves a password's safety. However, some applications and websites don't allow passwords to contain special characters. If in doubt, leave them out and make the password longer.

Another convenient way to creating a good password is to change the letters to numbers or symbols in a short phrase. For example, if I wanted to use the phrase "Pepsi Man", I could simply change a few letters to numbers or symbols and get "P3p$1_m4n" an good and easy to use password that is accepted by most websites.

Searching: getting here from there edit

A very useful idea for a home page can be a search engine. In a search engine, you can type in words or phrases in regard to a site or topic you may know something or nothing about. There have been many search engines developed over time. Since 1998, the most popular search engine is Google.

The principles to use all search engines are the same. Search engines differ in how much, how widely and how deeply they cover the Internet. The Internet is not just the World Wide Web, it can be Telnet, Usenet, Tymnet, Gopher and File Transfer Protocol. So keep that in mind!

So when looking for a website that we already know, we type in http://www into the box at the top below the menus. Or we would go to Open Location and press Control+L (all demonstrations from this point are conducted in Firefox 1.0.1).

When we want to go to Google, we type in

Once you are in Google type in the box "Windows XP For Beginners". Then press Enter/Return or click on Google Search. The button next to it, I'm Feeling Lucky, will take you to the first site that google finds such as "BBC" will take you to "". When we 'felt lucky', we clicked on this site:, which will reinforce many of the concepts we have gone through and learnt.

Many sites have come up. We want to evaluate the ones which give us the most information about what we want to know.

Google gives us the name of the website (written out in full, so you can recall it later; if you can't put your mouse over the link's name), the first few words of the website we want to go to (usually 2 lines long), how big the file is (measured in kilobytes and useful for downloading, especially if you have limited time and resources), and two links called 'Cached' (which shows past versions of the website in the event the present version may not work) and 'Similar Pages' which will give similar pages. In the case of our 'Never Used a Computer Before' search, we found 30 sites similar to the 'I Feel Lucky' site, which incidentally is the first one. Many people, when they search and research, click on the first 10 files they see and gain information that way. This is not always the best thing to do, because most search engines have some form of ranking. Some of this ranking is sorted out by the user patterns of human beings, and others by the vagaries of servers. Some of this is sorted out by advertising. Google is a popular search engine for the reason it is not influenced by advertising.

How do we narrow down the search? On the right, there is a small link called Advanced Search. Advanced Search, as implied, is very powerful. It is something like a similar feature in your word processor or database programme and even in your operating system.

Advanced Search is here (if you are not located in the United States replace '.com' with '', '', '.de', '.fr' or some other domain suffix.)

and then you can play around.

The first four text boxes are to do with restricting the terms of the search with words or phrases - adding, delimiting or deleting. You may well be familiar with this from your word processor's Find and Replace function.

Web pages are in many different languages, file formats, dates and domains. To protect yourself and other people, you may want to use SafeSearch. Most things searched on the Web are 'sex' and 'porn(ography)' in all their forms, so for work and study, SafeSearch would be recommended. Otherwise, no filtering will do the trick. Google is able to limit all these things.

If you need more help then you can look at Advanced Search Tips:

You might also like to find similar or linked pages to your page.

There are also technology-related searches for Macintosh, Microsoft and Linux (for example).

Email edit

E-mail (commonly referred to as email - either spelling is acceptable) is a method of sending messages with a computer. Sending email costs nothing extra over your Internet connection.

You send email either with an email client such as Microsoft Outlook , Mozilla Thunderbird or with a web-based email system. The basic principle is the same for both:

  • The email is written and sent to a server with an email address attached.
  • The server looks at the domain name of the email (the section following the @) and sends the email on its way through the internet.
  • The receiving server receives the email. It looks at the username of the email (the section preceding the @) and stores the email in an appropriate folder on its hard disc.
  • The recipient connects to the Internet and logs into their mail client or webmail site.
  • The receiving server then allows the message to be downloaded by the recipient.

All this often happens in a second or less. The speed depends on the speed of the two previously mentioned servers and all the ISP servers in between, the amount of internet traffic, and the distance between the two servers.

Web-based email edit

Web-based email is very convenient compared to email accessed via a client, but almost never has the featureset of clients.

Here is how to sign up for a Yahoo! Mail account. Yahoo! was one of the very first web-based email companies.

  1. Having got to the Yahoo site! (the American one), find 'Sign up'.
  2. The splash screen shows us three choices: Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Mail Plus and Personal Yahoo. The one that will be easiest for our purposes will be Yahoo Mail.
  3. It is always a good idea to read the Privacy Policy [1], and Terms of Service [2]. Look at everything marked with an asterisk and read the Terms of Service very very carefully. (Even print them out if you can't read them: there is a printable version).
  4. The most important thing is to have a user name and password:
    • For this demonstration we'll type in where the pattern is
    • You can make up your own password
    • Follow the tips and hints.
  5. Hopefully you won't forget your password, but 'If You Forget Your Password' is next.
  6. Now that you have remembered your password, you will have to look at Captcha to verify your registration or account. It will be different every time. If you can see it, type it.
  7. Now you have your Yahoo account and you can sign in.

Many of these principles and practices apply to any Internet Service Provider or free service. It is interesting to compare similarities and differences. The basis of getting 'free' e-mail can and will change over time, especially if you intend to keep your address for longer than a month and will use it for many different things. Most people do keep their e-mail addresses for life or as long as is practicable, and will try to maintain continuity over the services they most frequently use. However, there is a danger of forgetfulness or apathy in regard to less frequently used or one-time only services. Ideally, a portal such as Yahoo or Hotmail will provide a very functional and neat e-mail address and many safe explorations on the information superhighway, like message boards, chat and directory links.

E-mail through a specialist program edit

There are many programs designed for reading e-mail. A good one is Mozilla Thunderbird and it is meant to work alongside Mozilla Firefox. There are also Outlook and Outlook Express, Eudora and others. Those programs do not need a browser, they are capable of downloading and reading email on their own — they are stand-alone.

1. In your browser, go to Tools -> Read Mail.

2. If you want to write a new message, then go to Tools -> New Message or press Control+M.

E-mail hygiene: viruses edit

One of the main ways that computer viruses propagate is via e-mail. This is usually done by attachments — files that are attached to the e-mail message sent to you. If you don't know the person sending you the email, it's advisable to be careful and not open the attachment that accompanies the e-mail (if any). The types of files that can be infected by viruses are files whose filenames end with .exe (executable programs), .bat, .vbs, .doc (Microsoft Word documents), .xls (Microsoft Excel files), .ppt (Microsoft PowerPoint presentations) and others. Even if you do know the person sending you the e-mail message, they might not know that their computer is infected with a virus and they may unknowingly be sending you infected files, so it's always a good idea to have virus-scanning software. Finally, watch out for files that have names like file.jpg.bat. The .jpg part of the filename is there to fool you into believing this is a picture file, but it is almost certainly something nasty (due to the .bat ending).

One final point you should be careful about: many graphical e-mail programs have a "preview mode" as the default mode for reading email messages. In this mode, the contents of the email are presented to you immediately when you click on the message title in the list of messages. In the past years, we have seen viruses that infect your system immediately when you just view the email message that carries them. It's advisable to disable the preview mode so that you have more control on which messages you want to view: that would give you the chance of deleting the emails you think look suspicious before even viewing their contents (yes, you can often judge from their titles).

Online Scams edit

Common sense in the real world applies online. If an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is. A good idea is to research an offer before you accept it.

A typical scam letter expresses an urgent need for a person to do them a favor. This usually involves some type of inheritance. These scammers are very good, and their letters sound sincere and legitimate. They are not. They also will target anyone who they think has money. There are even reports of religious figures being scammed. One occurred with a Pastor who was scammed into thinking that a Nigerian man had an inheritance of a few million dollars. However, a stipulation was placed on the inheritance that he had to give half of it away to charity but he didn't have the initial money to get to the location of the money in order for it to be released. The Pastor trusted him and in exchange for fronting the $10,000 or so USD, the scammer was to give him a few million for his church for the trouble. Unfortunately, the Pastor was scammed, he never received the money and was out $10,000.

Phishing is another way that crackers will try to obtain your personal information. They send emails claiming to be from reputable companies like or PayPal. The emails claim that they need information from you, like your credit card information or password, for some reason or another. Common excuses are technical glitches and software upgrades. These emails look legitimate at first glance—complete with company logos and professional formatting. They may ask you give you information via phone, through a reply, or through a website, which is also masked as the website of the company that they are trying to imitate. If you ever get an email like this, always treat it like it is evil as most companies would never ask for personal information through email. If anything, call the company and verify that they sent you the email. Also, both Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer will detect many phishing sites and warn users that they are malicious.

Links edit