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What software do you need?

From encyclopedias to CD burners, options abound for your system.

As I write this, it’s shortly after Christmas and a lot of folks out there have just finished unwrapping their brand new, high-powered Windows Me PCs. Most computers come ready to run out of the box with at least a 56K modem, DVD-ROM drive, 3D graphics card, sound card, and enough other hardware to last you until at least a few days after the New Year.

But what about the software? While some of the nicer systems come with Microsoft Office 2000 and other high-end goodies, most are shipped with just the bare essentials–Microsoft Works, for example–and that just isn’t good enough. So what do you need? This month’s column will attempt to point you, the first-time PC owner (or perhaps just the owner of a new PC) in the right direction.

An office suite

Forget Microsoft Works and WordPerfect Office 2000, either of which will probably come standard on your new PC. If you’re going to be working with word processing or spreadsheets, Office 2000 is the only way to go. There’s nothing inherently wrong with WordPerfect Office 2000, but the majority of the free world uses the Microsoft suite, bringing up compatibility problems if you work in an office or need to exchange files with others. And while Works, for example, only comes with weak versions of Word and Excel, the standard version of Office includes full versions of each program as well as Outlook and PowerPoint.

Office 2000 comes in other versions as well, and, depending on your needs, can include some or all of the following programs: Publisher, Small Business Tools, Access, PowerPoint, FrontPage, and PhotoDraw. Office 2000 costs anywhere from $299 for the upgrade version of the standard package to $699 for the full version of the Premium package. If you think you might be designing Web pages and working with presentations, it might be worth it to spring for the Professional or Premium editions. If you just want a strong, solid suite of word-processing, spread sheet, and database programs, Office 2000 Standard will easily fill the bill.

Best of all, because Office 2000 was made by Microsoft, it will work perfectly (or as perfectly as any software can) with the new Windows Me. Talk about your marketing strategies.

Antivirus software

If your new Windows PC didn’t come with antivirus software, you definitely need it. There are plenty of such packages out there, and two of the best are Norton and McAfee. In this age of hackers and viruses, an antivirus program–preferably one that scans your e-mail attachments before you open them–is essential. While Norton is arguably the more powerful of the two programs, it also has the most conflicts with other software that might be running on your PC. Such conflicts usually entail programs locking up, and can usually be worked around, but they are still a nuisance. McAfee, though, has fewer compatibility problems and now offers an online virus-scan version that you can access directly from McAfee www.mcafee.com and use to scan your hard drive, all without installing the scanning software on your PC. Both packages sell for around $40.

CD burning

More and more new PCs are being shipped with rewritable CD-ROM drives, and most come with Roxio (formerly Adaptec) Easy CD Creator. If you plan to burn a lot of CDs, though, you should probably consider upgrading to the deluxe version of the software. The deluxe version allows you to record from analog (phonograph, tape, or microphone) as well as digital sources, and uses sound filtering to remove the pops, hiss, and clicks often associated with this kind of media.

CD Spin Doctor, a program only included in the deluxe version, also allows you to morph music, using effects such as Concert Hall, Reverb, Metalizer, Talk Box, and TimeWarp. An included sound editor also allows you to edit .WAV files, something the standard version doesn’t have.

Best of all, perhaps, is the Take Two Disaster Recovery and Backup software that is exclusive to the deluxe version of Easy CD Creator. Using this software, you can make quick backups of your hard drive onto CD-ROM, Jaz disk, or Zip disk–or even a second hard drive. There are other enhancements offered in Easy CD Creator Deluxe as well, more than enough to make you want to make the switch. The package retails for around $100, while the street price can be as low as $70.

Encyclopedias

There are plenty of encyclopedia programs available to the Windows user, and the best of the bunch just happens to be another Microsoft program: Encarta. If you have school-age children (or just enjoy information) this program is a must-have for your PC.

Encarta comes in both a standard and deluxe version on CD-ROM, the difference being that the deluxe version contains more material. If you have a DVD-ROM on your system, though, Encarta Reference Suite 2001 DVD-ROM is the best of the best. This reference suite includes the 2001 editions of Encarta Encyclopedia Deluxe, Encarta Africana, Encarta Interactive World Atlas, Encarta World English Dictionary, and a subscription to Encarta Online Deluxe.

The suite also comes on CD-ROM, but is much more efficient than its DVD cousin in that the material isn’t spread over as many disks, and load time is significantly reduced as a result. The standard version of Encarta sells for around $30, the deluxe for just $5 more. The CD-ROM version of the reference suite goes for $55, while the DVD-ROM version fetches $70.

Giving you what you need

There are other software packages you might add or replace–graphics programs or a system monitor such as Symantec’s Norton Utilities–but this guide should give you an idea of what to look for (and what not to settle for) in a new PC.

While some of the better PC manufacturers let you order software to be preinstalled with your PC, most systems come with prepackaged software that can’t be changed prior to purchase. Department and electronic stores are even worse, and for the most part, what you see listed on the outside of the PC box is pretty much exactly what you get. But once you know what you’re getting, you can decide what to keep and what to replace, and upgrade your system accordingly.

Contributing Editor Joe Rudich is a network administrator with the St. Paul Companies in St. Paul, Minn.

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