Every time a reader asks me a basic question, struggles with a computer or lets a cellphone keep ringing at a performance, I have the same thought: There ought to be a license to use technology.
I’m not trying to insult America’s clueless; exactly the opposite, in fact. How is the average person supposed to know the essentials of their phones, cameras and computers? There’s no government leaflet, no mandatory middle-school class, no state agency that teaches you some core curriculum. Instead, we muddle along, picking up scattershot techniques as we go. We wind up with enormous holes in our knowledge.
This week, for example, a reader asked me about those weird, square, pixelated black-and-white bar codes that are cropping up on billboards, movie posters, signs, magazine ads and business cards. Nobody ever bothered to explain them. (They’re QR codes — quick response bar codes. You can scan them with your iPhone’s or Android phone’s camera, using a special app that translates it into an ad or takes you to a related Web page.)
That interaction made me realize that it’s time to publish the first installment of what should be the Big Book of Basic Technology Knowledge — the prerequisite for using electronics in today’s society. Some may seem basic, but you’ll probably find at least a couple of “I didn’t know thats!” among them.
- Searching for a signal scarfs up battery juice appallingly quickly. Turn your phone off, or put it into Airplane Mode, before you travel out of cellphone range — for example, on a plane or, for AT&T users, Manhattan and San Francisco.
- When you need the phone number, address or directions for any commercial establishment, call 800-BING-411 for an amazingly good voice-activated agent. (Thank you, Microsoft.)
- You can skip the inane 15-second voice-mail instructions when leaving a message (“To page this person, press 5”) — if you know your friend’s cellphone carrier. If it’s Verizon, press * to cut directly to the beep. AT&T or Sprint, press 1. T-Mobile, press #. (Better yet: Do the world a favor and add this trick to your own greeting: “To cut to the beep, press 1.”)
- If you travel overseas, you may return to a smartphone bill for $5,000 or more, thanks to the staggering international Internet fees. (You might not even know your phone is online — if it checks e-mail every 15 minutes, for example.) Despite many well-publicized horror stories, some people still don’t realize they should call the cellphone company before traveling to buy a special temporary overseas plan.
- On the iPhone, the camera doesn’t snap the photo until you release the on-screen shutter button. That’s good to know if you want a steady, blur-free shot. Frame the shot with your finger on the button, then snap the photo by lifting off the screen instead of tapping it.
- On iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and Palm/H.P. phones, tap the Space bar twice at the end of a sentence. You get a period, a space and a capitalized next letter, without hunting for punctuation keys.
- Also on those phones, you can type dont, wont, youre, didnt and so on. The phone adds the apostrophe to those automatically. (But you’ll have to learn the difference between it’s and its.)
- On a BlackBerry, hold a letter key down to capitalize it.
- You can press Alt+D to highlight the Address bar at the top of your Web browser. Without touching the mouse, type the site name you want.
- You don’t have to type “http://www” into your Web browser. Just type “nytimes.com” or “dilbert.com,” for example. In Safari or Firefox, you can even omit the “.com.” In Internet Explorer, you can press Ctrl+Enter to add “.com,” or Ctrl+Shift+Enter for “.org.”
- You can tap the Space bar to scroll down by one screenful. Add the Shift key to scroll back up again. (You can also hit the Page Up/Page Down keys, if you have them.)
- When you get an error message — in a program, on your smartphone, on your tablet — search it on Google. You’ll find out what it means instantly.
- If you’re trying to paste some ridiculously long Web address where it would be confusing to read (or impossible to fit, as on Twitter), visit a site like Tinyurl.com or Bit.ly. These free sites convert long addresses into very compact ones.
- You can double-click a word to highlight it. (You don’t have to drag the mouse across it, in other words.) You can triple-click a word to select the entire paragraph.
When you see highlighted text — in your word processor, for example, or in a Web browser address bar — you don’t have to delete it first. Just start typing.
Sick of how Word automatically creates clickable links, boldface words, indented bulleted or numbered lists and other formatting as you type? The on/off switches for these features exist, but they’re well hidden. In Word 2010 (Windows), open the File menu; click Options, Proofing, AutoCorrect Options, then AutoFormat Options. On the Mac (Word 2011), open the Tools menu; click AutoCorrect, then AutoFormat As You Type.
- When you buy something online, don’t waste paper by printing the confirmation page. Instead, choose Print, and from the PDF pop-up menu, choose “Save PDF to Web Receipts Folder.” You get a beautiful PDF copy stashed in Documents, in a folder called Web Receipts.
- You can view most documents without opening a program to do it. At the desktop, highlight the icon and then tap the Space bar — a fantastic way to preview photos, but also great for Office documents, PDF files, movies, sounds and so on.
- Press Command-Delete to put a highlighted icon into the Trash.
- When you want to send a file to someone, right-click its icon; from the shortcut menu, choose Send to Mail Recipient. Windows thoughtfully creates an outgoing e-mail message with the file attached. (If it’s a photo, Windows even offers to let you shrink them down to reasonable e-mailable size.)
- Ever wonder about the Windows-logo key? It sets off a host of useful functions: press it with F for Find, with D to see the desktop with all windows hidden, with L to lock the screen while you wander off to get coffee, and so on.
- You don’t have to pay for antivirus and anti-spyware software, year after year. Microsoft offers a perfectly good free security program.
All right, there’s a start. There are more waiting for you at nytimes.com/pogue.
Here’s hoping that your tech knowledge is just a little less sketchy.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org.