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Finding the Computer How-To That's Right for You

Q: I'm not a total newbie when it comes to computers, but I'll admit I get stuck a fair amount—I mean, does Microsoft expect we're just born knowing how to edit a registry? It'd be swell if you could recommend a solid how-to book that's not geared toward total numskulls. Like, nothing in the " . . . for Dummies" series, please.

Finding the right computer book is a bit like locating the ideal bowl of porridge at the three bears' house—you've gotta take care to avoid both the tepid and the overly challenging. You're right to eschew the real elementary titles, but you don't want to wind up with something geared toward über-geeks, either. The golden mean's what you're shooting for, and you can start by memorizing this simple mantra: O'Reilly, current, thin.

The first word in that series may confuse all but Mr. Roboto's most computer-literate devotees. O'Reilly (oreilly.com) is by far the planet's finest computer-geek publisher, catering primarily to users who fall into the intermediate-to-advanced category—if you ever have a hankering to program Perl, they've got the manual. But in recent years, O'Reilly's also gotten a lot better about offering more basic primers, such as Steve Bass's PC Annoyances—How to Fix the Most Annoying Things About Your Personal Computer. Bass's tome hits all three criteria on Mr. Roboto's list, from the O'Reilly lineage to the recent release date to the 200-page length. Oh, and it lists for under $25. Golden.

One of O'Reilly's current bestsellers is Mac OS X: The Missing Manual, which also gets the coveted Mr. Roboto seal of approval. Mac-heads may want to pick up Rob Griffiths's Mac OS X Hints: Jaguar Edition while they're at it; together, those titles should get you out of any jam. Just added to the publisher's Mac series is Mac OS X Unwired, the definitive guide to installing and configuring wireless tools.

Other O'Reilly works worth a gander from the beginner-to-intermediate set include Windows XP Pocket Reference and Google Hacks. Heck, even Mr. Roboto didn't know about that Google phone-book trick before he checked out the latter how-to.

OK, so O'Reilly isn't the be-all and end-all of accessible computer books, especially when it comes to digital media. If you're planning on giving or receiving a digital camera this Christmas, consider an investment in McGraw-Hill Osborne Media's Digital Photography: 99 Easy Tips to Make You Look Like a Pro. Budding Kurosawas can scope Kyle McCabe's Final Cut Express: Make the Cut (Charles River Media), which artfully covers the cheapskate Mac-editing software.

Charles River also puts out Chuck Easttom's Moving From Windows to Linux. Now, Mr. Roboto knows you PC users have long dreamed of ditching Windows in favor of open-source Linux, but the task always seems too daunting. Easttom's book isn't a super-easy read, but it can be a big help.

If you're a tad flummoxed by the Internet, maybe Online! the Book is for you. The lead author is John C. Dvorak, who's been writing techie columns since before Mr. Roboto was a glimmer in a mechanical engineer's eye. A geek saying he likes Dvorak is akin to a hip-hop-head saying he likes Tone-Loc, but you know what? Online! is a pretty good primer for anxiety-ridden Web surfers, and it gets respect from this corner. (For the record, Mr. Roboto runs from the room screaming whenever "Funky Cold Medina" starts playing.)

Obviously, you're going to get sharper and sharper about computer matters over the months and years, and at some point you may get curious about security. The best place to start is the latest edition of Hacking Exposed, from McGraw-Hill Osborne Media. It's not for beginners, but it's straightforward enough that smart cookies can pick up on such tricks as how to lock down (or break through) firewalls. For what it's worth, Hacking Exposed currently tops the Amazon sales chart among buyers in the U.S. Army. Mr. Roboto has no idea what to make of that tidbit.

At this point, you're surely asking yourself, "But Mr. Roboto, when is your book of wisdom coming out?" Good question. Publishers, let the bidding war begin for Mr. Roboto's collected columns. Let's open with a six-pack of Ballantine and a carton of vegetable egg foo young. Anyone? Anyone?


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com

 
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