How to Use a PC to Make Life Better


As the summer winds down, it’s time to make your computer do more than Google, check email, and play solitaire.  The processor, memory, disk, and connectivity provided by your newest computer puts that old dinosaur you bought a few years ago to shame.  So why limit yourself to running those same old tired programs?  Here are a few ideas on how to use a PC for a real on-line workout.


How to Use a PC to Its Fullest

1. Tune in to Internet radio

If you enjoy music, you probably used your old PC to play an occasional CD or download music using a program like iTunes.  But contemporary computers can also be used like high-quality stereo receivers, playing media streamed live over the Internet to PC-connected speakers or headsets.  Some Internet radio stations are free — for example, Live365 is an index to hundreds of Internet radio stations worldwide.  Other sites charge for access to commercial-free broadcasts – for example, XM satellite radio customers can listen to those same XM stations over the Internet from home or office PCs.  While it’s possible to listen to Internet radio over dial-up, using a broadband-connected computer delivers better quality.

2. Travel with Internet flicks

If you’re a movie buff, you may have carried DVDs along with you on trips, using your laptop to keep the kids or yourself occupied.  But today, many laptops have the disk space required to download TV shows and movies from the Internet.  Doing so can be more flexible and convenient than DVDs, while incurring little or no cost.  For example, TiVO customers can install free TiVO Desktop software on their laptop, using it to transfer previously-recorded shows from their DVR to PC for later viewing.  Or you can use an appliance like the Slingbox to watch your home DVR or TV through your PC from anywhere with a high-speed Internet connection and SlingPlayer software.

3. How to Use a PC as an HDTV

Do you know how to use a PC to play videos received and recorded elsewhere? How about turning your new computer into a stand-alone HDTV?  As the US moves from analog to digital television broadcasts, PCI, PCMCIA, and USB TV tuner cards have become readily available for PCs.  Many of those cards work in conjunction with Windows XP Media Center or Vista operating systems, recording over-the-air digital (and sometimes analog) TV broadcasts.  For example, the Pinnacle PCTV HD PRO is a USB stick that lets your PC receive free HDTV broadcasts over the air or from a coaxial connection, using a mini-remote to play, pause, rewind, and fast-forward those recordings.

4. Broadcast your own videos

YouTube has become a popular way to sharing previously-recorded video clips with friends and strangers.  Many shared videos are recorded with handheld digital cameras or mobile phones and then uploaded to the web.  However, another possibility is to stream live video, relayed as it is being recorded by a web cam attached to your desktop or laptop computer.  Many new laptops are shipped with an integrated web cam and associated software, making it easy to video-conference with family, friends, and colleagues.  Alternatively, you can set up an Internet camera to stream video 24/7 to anyone interested in watching your “feed’ – for example, see EarthCam.

5. Make Internet phone calls

If you travel for business, you probably keep up on what’s happening back at the office and at home using your cell phone.  But when you’re traveling abroad or in rural locations where cell phone coverage is absent or expensive, your laptop can fill the gap – and not just with email.  Installing a voice-over-IP softphone on your laptop is a great way to make low or no-cost Internet-based calls.  For example, VoIP companies like Skype provide programs that can be used to make voice and/or video calls to other Skype users for free – but you’ll have to pay to reach non-Skype numbers or route incoming calls to your PC.

6. Go gaming

Many new PCs come loaded with on-line games, making it easy for you to play with friends and family located on the far side of the Internet.  When you’ve exhausted your PC manufacturer’s built-in list of basic card, table, and action games, you might want check out some of today’s extremely popular “massively multiplayer on-line role playing games” – MMORPGs.  In most, you’ll have a chance to create your own fictional character, which can then participate in a large international virtual game world like World of Warcraft. You can find MMORPGs that match your own interests by visiting an index site like

7. Join an online community

But why stop with games?  Your new PC can help you tap the power and reach of the Internet to make new friends by joining a virtual community.  For example, SecondLife is a 3D virtual world created and inhabited by over 16 million residents, located in more than 100 countries.  Virtual communities like SecondLife are not (merely) on-line games – they are on-line communities in which you can meet and interact with people.  You can visit with friends, shop for virtual goods and services with virtual dollars, attend concerts, collaborate with colleagues, etc.  Getting started with SecondLife is free, although paid membership upgrades are also available.

These are just a few of the ways that your shiny new broadband-connected PC can expand your horizons, keep you entertained and informed, and enrich your life.  Many of these on-line activities have actually been around for a while — in older, slower, more limited forms.  For example, if you’ve tried Internet radio in the past but found it too choppy or tinny for your taste, give it a second chance.  Today’s more powerful computers, combined with ubiquitous high-speed Internet, make these possibilities far more practical and enjoyable.  So don’t let the limitations of your old computer keep your grounded.  Get out there on the Internet now that you know how to use a PC to its fullest!