Ask the GCN Lab

No tech question too big or too small

John Breeden II and Greg Crowe, the GCN Lab

The GCN Lab tests hundreds of products each year. The staff has scoured more help files, user manuals and FAQs than many users will read in a lifetime. And they're happy to answer almost any technical question that's thrown their way. A recent look at their in-box provided these samples:

William from New Jersey:

I just started building Web pages for the small government branch office where I work and bought a copy of Adobe Photoshop. I noticed there were many different formats I could save graphics in, including RGB and something called CMYK. What does all that mean and what should I be using for the Web? Can disabled users see my files?

JOHN BREEDEN, GCN Lab director: CMYK stands for the four basic colors used in a four-color print process: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. You can mix them to achieve just about any color, and Photoshop will even let you enter numeric values for each color so you get exactly what you want. For a Web site, you would use photos saved as RGB, which Greg will explain, and post in JPEG or GIF formats.

GREG CROWE, GCN Lab analyst: First, let's explain what RGB is and what is going on with the six-digit, alphanumeric numbers you might see nearby. Each pair of digits is a hexadecimal number indicating the level of red, green or blue a color contains. The value 000000 would indicate black; FFFFFF is white. More than 16 million colors can be represented this way.

Unfortunately, discerning differences among many of these colors is impossible for a human eye, let alone someone with vision impairment. For this and other reasons, the government in 1998 amended the Disabilities Act with Section 508, requiring federal agencies to make electronic media accessible to persons with disabilities. As a result, a so-called 'Web-safe' palette of colors was introduced in 1999 and quickly became an Internet standard.

The Web-safe palette consists of 216 colors in roughly 20-percent increments of red, green and blue. It's a good compromise between flexibility of design and accessibility. Although some may say that, due to the prevalence of 16-bit and 24-bit displays, there is no longer a need for the Web-safe palette, it's still valuable for accessibility's sake.

Fortunately, Photoshop allows for easy manipulation of Web colors. In the color picker window, there should be a check for using the special palette.

Heather from California:

I've been given permission to work from home some days, as the traffic in California is terrible and the government is trying to alleviate this somewhat. But I am a little bit worried about using my Windows XP system at home. We use Windows 2000 at work, which I am told is very secure. What can I do to make things safer at home?

BREEDEN: Windows XP is built on the Windows 2000 kernel, but there are significant differences between the operating systems and this is especially true when it comes to security. In general, make sure the XP system has all the latest updates. You can check this by running Windows Update from the Start menu. You should have Service Pack 2 at this point and your system should be set to automatically update itself with the latest profiles from Microsoft. Naturally, you need to make sure you have an antivirus program and that the profiles are updated automatically. A good free program is AVG Free from Grisoft, which can be found at free.grisoft.com.

If you're going to be online over a high-speed connection, make sure you use a hardware firewall. You can buy one at Best Buy for under $100 that will even split your connection so you can use multiple machines on the same network. This will work a lot better than the software firewall you get with Windows.

CROWE: Also, if you have a wireless network at home, make sure it's a secure one. Changing the default administrator password for your access point is always a good idea. And make sure data is encrypted with either WPA or WEP so neighbors can't tap your connection. Your agency may have policies governing all this, so check with them, too.

Want to go a little further? Make sure your hard drive is formatted using NTFS, not FAT 16 or 32. Besides being more secure, an NTFS drive is a lot quicker, which might make a difference if your home system is not top of the line. To find out, open My Computer and click once on the icon for your local hard drive. A Details window should hold the answer.

No tech question is too big or too small for the GCN Lab. Ask them about what's on your mind at AskTheLab@gcn.com.

About the Authors

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

Greg Crowe is a former GCN staff writer who covered mobile technology.

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