The big picture

It's not just for typing up those boring reports; with a little bit of imagination and exploration, your unassuming personal computer can become a window to the world, writes Steve Homer
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The modern computer has a lot more to offer than you might expect. Most home computers can function as a fax machine, a sophisticated answerphone and much more besides. There is virtually nothing a PC cannot do.

Almost all computers today come with CD-Rom drives. While these are intended for all those really useful multimedia encyclopedias or for all those fun games, most people buying a computer do not realise that a CD-Rom drive makes the beginning of an excellent hi-fi system.

If you have a small flat and work from home, it is easy to use your computer as your main CD player - all you need are some good speakers. Indeed, if you are buying a decent computer system, you may well find that the supplied speakers will do just fine.

But your computer can be even more of an entertainment centre. Some computers are sold with TV tuners built in and some with radios - you can listen to the Archers and watch Neighbours while you work; you could get rid of your rented TV.

But things can go even further. With the addition of an extra bit of electronics, you can watch movies on your PC. A so-called MPEG card will allow you to watch video stored on CD-Rom discs. Some computers come with this as standard.

If you want to stay in touch, a computer is an invaluable tool for a well-crafted letter. But it can do much more than that. Most computers today are sold with a modem built in - these can send and receive faxes.

This means you don't have to buy a fax machine. The only place this does not work quite so well is sending "hard copy" faxes. If you are writing someone a note, you can fax it straight from the computer. However, there is no way to send a fax from a piece of paper received through the post. The only way to solve that problem is to buy yourself a scanner, scan the document into your PC and send it.

To be honest, you will not feel much need for this function and you will happily make do with your computer as your fax. You can always nip round and see a friend on those two or three days a year when you need to fax something. It will save clutter in your home or office.

The modem in your PC will also allow access to the Internet, which will introduce you to electronic mail. E-mail can be fantastic. If you have a friend who lives abroad and works for a big company, you can easily stay in touch with e-mail. With a dial-up connection to an Internet service provider (it will usually set you back around pounds 12 a month), you get all the Internet has to offer, including access to the World Wide Web.

Many people don't realise that most modern PCs also have a built-in answerphone. If your PC has a sound system and a modem, it can probably answer your phone. Most PCs will offer voicemail system, which is far more sophisticated than a simple answerphone.

If you run a small business, this can be really useful. If you have teenage children, it can be a lifesaver. When someone rings, you can set the computer to say: "If you want to leave a message for the aged parents, press 1. For Hannah, press 2; for Freddie, press 3." That way, you only have to listen to your own messages, not for those of your lovelorn offspring.

There are hundreds of other things that are sometimes bundled in with your new PC, so take time to look through what has been supplied. You'll never know what you might be missing out on

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