BOOT CAMP ARCHIVE 1999

  

 

BOOT CAMP 072

USING A PC FOR RESEARCH

It might be stretching the point a wee bit to suggest that computers are the fount of all knowledge but the fact is, if you have a question – no matter how complex or trivial it might be -- your PC can almost certainly help you to find the answer. Note the use of the word 'help', computers are merely tools, albeit extremely versatile ones with a huge capacity for storing and retrieving information but that's all they are, and like any tool, it works best when you know how to use it properly.

Essentially there are three ways your PC can assist with research. You can look for information on a 'local' database, such as a CD-ROM. If you have an Internet connection you have access to a world wide network of databases and sources of information, and you can use E-mail and Newsgroups to communicate directly with people and organisations. We have looked at E-mail and Newsgroups in some detail in previous episodes of Boot Camp so this week we're concentrating on CD-ROMs and the Internet.

Information on CD-ROM is mostly in the form of broad-based encyclopaedias or specialist or single-subject titles. Multimedia encyclopaedias are the best source for what might be called general-purpose information, that is basic facts and figures about people and places, history the arts and science. Specialist CD-ROMs are a bit of a mixed bag, there are some very good ones around and lots of really amateurish ones, some are worse than useless, so tread carefully.

CD-ROMs have two big plus points, they are quick – no waiting for a connection and no data bottlenecks during peak times  -- plus they are normally easy to use. You won't have to sift through stacks of irrelevant information and no extra additional costs will be incurred if you wander off the topic or get side-tracked. Most CD-ROM encyclopaedias will allow you to cut and paste text and pictures from the disc into a word processor document though you should be aware that material is usually subject to copyright and not for publication.

At the last count there were more than a dozen CD-ROM encyclopaedias on the market but two stand head and shoulders above the rest. They are Microsoft Encarta, and Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encarta is the world's most popular CD-ROM encyclopaedia, it is well presented and it covers a lot of ground. The latest 1999 'Reference Suite' is a well-researched 'British' edition and includes a  world atlas and Bookshelf (dictionary, Thesaurus etc.). It's not expensive either – at least not when you compare it with the stack of books it represents – shop around and you can find it for £85 (inc. VAT) or less. Encarta on its own costs around £36.

Encyclopaedia Britannica on CD-ROM is the disc version of the worlds most respected reference work. The multimedia content (pictures, sound movies etc.) is still some way behind Encarta but what it lacks in glitz it more than makes up for with solid, authoratative content. The cost of Britannica has fallen dramatically in the past two years and the 1999 edition can be found selling for around £120, which is around a tenth of the hardback version!

If you're on a tight budget there are several perfectly adequate CD-ROM Encyclopaedias such as Comptons (£30) and Hutchinsons (£25), moreover it's worth keeping an eye out for freebies on PC magazines though they may be an older version of a new current offering.    

If the information you're after is of a more specific nature and not the sort of thing that's likely to be found on CD-ROM then you'll probably find it on the Internet, but only if you know where to look! The trouble with the Internet is that it is so big that it can make finding a needle in a haystack look simple! Unless you have the address or URL of a particular web site you know has the information you're seeking you will have to call upon the services of a Search Engine. They are the telephone directories, Yellow Pages and guide books to the Internet rolled into one, with a dash of advertising thrown in for good measure, the good news is that most of them are completely free to use.

There are many to choose from, the best known being AltaVista, Lycos, HotBot, Infoseek and Yahoo. To access any of them simply open your browser and in the address field type www. then the name of the search engine and add the suffix .com e.g. www.yahoo.com

Search engines use keywords to find web pages containing the information you want and this is where things can go awry. The trick is to narrow your search by choosing your words very carefully. Search engines work in slightly different ways so it pays to get to know their little foibles. Most will carry out a search using just two or three words, others, like AltaVista can understand simple phrases, such as 'where can I find…' or 'what is the population of …'.  The main search engines are usually the best place to start; most of them will obligingly point you towards to more specialist search sites covering narrower fields of interest.

Incidentally several of the CD-ROM encyclopaedias have their own web sites, most search engines include links to them, Britannica On-Line is also worth a visit and although this is a subscription service you can try a free sample search at: www.eb.com

The text and pictures appearing on web sites can usually be copied and pasted into word processor documents. However, if the words on a web page won't highlight when you click and drag the mouse pointer then it is probably an image, rather than text. In that case you won't be able to extract the words and numbers, though you can still save the image to the Windows clipboard by pressing the Print Screen key on the keyboard and viewing the image using Paintbox or your chosen graphics program. Once again be careful that you do not infringe anyone's copyright if you are going to use the material in a publication or book.

 

JARGON FILTER

BROWSER

Internet access program, such as Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator

NEWSGROUP

Public noticeboards on the Internet where like-minded net users can post e-mail messages, articles or announcements for others to read and respond to.

URL

Uniform Resource Locator the standardised Internet address format e.g.: http://www.telegraph.co.uk

 

TOP TIP

Here's a quick and simple tweak that can help reduce the time it takes for your Windows 95/98 PC to make a connection to your Internet Service Provider, but only try this if it’s a stand alone machine, i.e. not hooked up to a network. Open Dial Up Networking by going to Start > Programs > Accessories > Communications > Dial Up Networking. Right click on the icon for your ISP connection and select Properties and the Server Types tab. In Advanced Options uncheck 'Log on to Networks' and below that, under Allowed Networks make sure that only TCP/IP is checked. Click OK and give it a try, if all's well Internet Explorer (or your chosen browser) should log on and establish a connection a little faster than before. In the unlikely event that anything odd happens simply go back to Dial Up Networking and restore the default settings (i.e. Log on to Networks, NetBeui and IPX/SPX all checked).  

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