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Technology—What is the Difference Between?
Maximize Your Efficiency and Security by Using the Proper Tools for the Task

by Daniel J. Siegel

Spring 2005, Vol. 68, No. 1

What is the difference between a hammer and a drill? When would you use a hammer and not a drill? And vice versa? Simple enough questions. But the answers are important because they demonstrate that you need different tools for different jobs. The same is true for computers. You need to use different software and different hardware for different tasks. Unfortunately, many computer users do not know the difference between common pieces of software and hardware. As a result, they often use the less-appropriate program because it is the one they know, even though the results will not be as good as they should be. In this column, I will answer the question, “What is the difference between?” some common software and hardware.

What is the Difference Between a Database and a Spreadsheet?
They look a lot alike, and they often yield similar results, but there is a clear difference between a database and a spreadsheet. Plus, although a database is preferable in most instances—unless you need to calculate and manipulate numbers—most people will use a spreadsheet, such as Microsoft Excel. Why? Because most computer users are taught to use spreadsheets and just use them. They never learn that a database is often a far more functional solution.

A database is a collection of information organized and presented to serve a specific purpose. A telephone book is a classic example of a database. Database programs—like Microsoft Access—excel at storing information. If you want to maintain a list of clients, or your stamp collection, or any other information that does not generally require mathematical calculations, use a database.

In contrast, spreadsheets—like Microsoft Excel—are for doing math. They perform mathematical and statistical functions, and generate charts and graphs. When using a spreadsheet, you enter text, numbers and complex functions into individual cells, and the software calculates the results as the numbers in the table are changed. For example, if you want to keep track of fees and costs incurred on behalf of your clients, use a spreadsheet. Or, if you want to track your time, a spreadsheet will work better because it will calculate the hours and easily generate your bill. In short, if you have lots of numbers, and need to calculate or manipulate them, a spreadsheet is the answer.

But, if you choose to store data with a spreadsheet, be very careful. Spreadsheets have some serious drawbacks. Their major shortcoming is that they offer almost no protection against data corruption from well-meaning but poorly trained users, or just sloppy users, who sort the data incorrectly and end up scrambling (and ruining) it. With a database, you are less likely to screw up your entire chart when you sort the data.

What is the Difference Between a Web Browser and a Search Engine?
Internet Explorer. Yahoo. Google. Netscape. These names are all associated with the Internet, but they are not interchangeable. Internet Explorer and Netscape are examples of Web browsers, while Yahoo! and Google are the names of search engines/Web portals. You can’t Yahoo! without a Web browser, but you can surf the World Wide Web without Yahoo! or Google.

Think of a Web browser as a library and a search engine as the card catalog. If you just walk into a library and try to find something, you may find it, but it could take you hours as you meander around. Or, you could turn to the card catalog (of course, most “card catalogs” are now electronic), enter the information for which you are searching and, voilà, a list of books appears.

Web browsers allow you to explore the Internet, i.e., go from Web site to Web site. Although Microsoft’s Internet Explorer is the most commonly used, it is not the only browser. Others, such as Netscape, Opera, Foxfire, etc., also give the user entrée to the Internet. Each has different bells and whistles designed to help make surfing the Internet easier, but their core function remains getting you started.

On the other hand, a search engine is like the Internet’s card catalog. Among the popular search engines are Google and Yahoo!, which are really massive indices of the zillions of Web pages on the Internet. Google and other general-interest search engines can probably fill your screen with more general information than you could ever desire. But they are far from the only search engines. Findlaw, All Law and the George-town Legal Explorer are some of the more popular search engines geared toward legal research, but they won’t help you very much if you want to find out who Britney Spears is divorcing this week.

What is the Difference Between a Hard Drive and Computer Memory?
It is generally agreed that the best way to improve the performance of most computers—other than throwing them out and buying newer and faster ones—is to increase their memory, generally known as RAM. All too often, however, people say that they have plenty of memory because they have a hard drive with lots of free space. Sorry, but the free space on your hard drive isn’t your “memory”; it’s where data are stored for the long-term.

RAM, which stands for “Random Access Memory,” is the temporary storage space on chips in your computer. Think of RAM as your short-term memory. Your computer’s RAM holds files and programs temporarily while you use them, just like your short-term memory keeps new information in your brain. When you turn off the power to your computer, everything in RAM “disappears,” just like we forget things we have just heard unless we write them down.

So what is a hard drive? The term hard drive really refers to the computer component that contains a round, metal platter with a magnetic coating. Generally installed inside the computer, a hard drive stores large amounts of information. The information stored on a hard drive is permanent until you delete it, as opposed to storage in memory (RAM), which is temporary. Thus, if you want to save information, save it on the hard drive.

What is the Difference Between Anti-Virus Software and a Firewall?
Viruses, worms—you read about them and how they can wreak havoc on your computer. You also hear about anti-virus software and firewalls. They’re interchangeable, right? Wrong. That said, you need to have both on any computer that will be accessing the Internet.

A virus is a computer program or piece of computer programming code that is loaded onto your computer without your knowledge and runs against your wishes. Most viruses can also replicate themselves and some can destroy data on a disk. A worm, which is really an acronym for “write once, read many (times)” is a self-contained program that can propagate itself through systems or networks. Worms are often designed to use up available computer resources, like storage or processing time. Worms, like viruses, can often replicate themselves from machine to machine across network connections, often clogging networks and computer systems as they spread. Worms and viruses are common, and if you get one, some or all of your computer data may be ruined or destroyed. If your computer is attached to a network, the virus or worm can spread to other computers and cause similar damage.

There are many ways to get worms and viruses, the most common is by opening attachments to spam (unsolicited) e-mail, or attachments to e-mail sent from “friendly” e-mail addresses that are already infected. You can also get them from other computer files. Microsoft Office programs are infamous for spreading viruses through the macros attached to documents, spreadsheets and databases.

To prevent or get rid of viruses and worms, you should use anti-virus software, made by companies such as Norton/Symantec and McAfee. Anti-virus software is a computer program that detects and cleans destructive computer codes that can destroy files and data. Every computer should have anti-virus software. Because there are new viruses created every day, most anti-virus software will automatically update the program’s virus definitions, which is critical to the effectiveness of the software. Also, you should run a complete system virus scan weekly just to make sure that no new viruses have made their way onto your computer, even with anti-virus software.

A firewall is a bit different. It is a system designed to protect a computer or computer network against unauthorized access to or from the network. There are software firewall programs, but you can also buy firewall hardware, although most individuals need only the software. Many companies manufacture firewall software; among the most popular are ZoneAlarm® Pro and Norton Firewall.

A computer firewall generally acts as an interface between two networks (e.g., the Internet and a private network) and protects the internal network from electronic attacks that originate from the external network. Firewalls can perform many functions, the most important of which, generally, is making your computer “invisible” to and inaccessible from other computers. A firewall protects your computer from a hacker who would otherwise access it and steal the data, including passwords and financial information stored on the PC. In corporate environments, firewalls can perform other important functions. They can authorize which computers can gain access to or from your network, permit protected (encrypted) connections to other parties over public networks, and filter incoming and outgoing computer traffic.

It’s important to use the right tool for the task at hand. This maxim applies not only to drills and hammers, but also to your “computer toolbox.” With the right hardware and software, you will become a more productive and more efficient computer user.