Opinion: Top how-to tech videos that won't cost you a dime

Tips ranging from enabling wireless security to building a PHP calculator -- and how to find more

What can you use for kindling, a door stop, shooting practice or boosting a toddler up to the table?

That's right: those thick documentation manuals we used to collect.

But these days, most companies refer you to a Web site or include online help. Still, you may need a little extra help with complex subjects.

That's where these instructional videos come in. They can guide you visually -- sometimes with a little comic flair thrown in. Here are some of the best how-to videos on the Web and tips on how to find more.

Enable wireless security

Lab Rats

Lab Rats

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The typical Belkin or D-Link router does provide good documentation on enabling security. Still, most people are thoroughly confused about the subject, which explains why companies such as Network Magic make software to guide you through the steps.

Get Connected

Get Connected

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Another option is just watching a video from the "Lab Rats" (Sean and Andy) who do a pretty good job of explaining the basics of WEP and WPA. Another one, from the Get Connected TV Show, is also helpful -- but not nearly as nerdy.

Record video game footage

Recording from an Xbox

Recording from an Xbox

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Sites such as G4's The Feed show you game-play footage for Xbox and other consoles, but did you know you can record your own? A YouTube video from a person called "ramsy66" shows you the hardware you need and how to get it all connected and working. (This particular video is from the U.K., but the same principles and hardware apply to the U.S. audience.) Of course, you won't find how-to videos like this at Xbox.com because Microsoft doesn't encourage customers to make these homespun videos.

Use a phone as a modem

Popular Mechanics lesson

Popular Mechanics lesson

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Popular Mechanics has some of the best how-to videos on the Web, and this video guide by Glenn Derene -- the technology editor at the magazine -- is quick and useful. He explains the fundamental concept: Your smart phone can act as a modem for your PC, which means you can connect to the Internet from anywhere. The phone and PC have to support Bluetooth, and the settings in Windows can be a chore to configure, but once it is all working, you don't have to rely soley on Wi-Fi hot spots.

Use Windows Remote Access

Remote access

Remote access

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This video from the "Ask the Techies" series on Veoh.com explains how to connect to a remote computer using built-in services in Windows -- a bonus because you can skip the third-party options. It's like talking to a couple of IT guys in a back room somewhere. Like all good how-to videos, there are cutaways to the actual configuration screens in Windows -- interspersed as the guys are talking and without getting overly technical and dull.

Use an old PC as a server

Cheap and easy

Cheap and easy

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Instead of tossing out an old PC, you can turn it into a server -- and this video from VitaminCM.com explains the steps. It's a little dated -- which is fine, because most of us with old PCs lying around are not running Vista on them anyway. There's also no extra banter or even a talking head explaining the steps -- just the audio and screen actions to guide you through the process quickly.

Recall e-mail sent by mistake

A second chance

A second chance

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Here's an instructional video from VideoJug.com that is part comic relief, part serious guide. I like how the video pokes fun at the concept while inserting a few gems, such as the ability to delay sending mail for a few seconds so you can rethink that message to the boss or block a mass e-mail that was supposed to use a blind copy. Those tips are usually buried in a manual or help file; here, they are just part of a goofy video.

Speed up Windows

Go faster

Go faster

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This Tinkernut.com video -- which is a little longer and more advanced than some of the previous how-tos -- goes into great detail about defragging Windows, deleting Internet history and beefing up performance by shutting down unneeded programs on a system that has started to show its age. Like most of the videos on the WonderHowTo.com site, the quality is good and focuses just on the computer screen without the superfluous jokes or talking head -- it means you can learn just the specific steps required.

Use PHP to make a calculator

Coding

Coding

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Ramping up the complexity even more, this video from PHPSquad.net shows you how to make a calculator using PHP, the ultrasimple programming language for the Web. It's good because it gives you a basic introduction to PHP and helps you create a useful program that you could tweak and update. Also, many how-to videos for programming assume that you're already familiar with the basics, but not this one.

Live trace with Adobe Illustrator

Animation

Animation

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This thorough and slightly more advanced video tutorial from Adobe Creative Suite Podcast.com shows you how to do a live trace in Adobe Illustrator CS2. You start with a raw video file, then trace the edges of it and make an animation that you can adjust and tweak using all of the tools in Illustrator. The audio instruction is quick and to the point, without being so dull that it should have been included on a classroom DVD.

Record with GarageBand '08

Rock out

Rock out

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Budding musicians will appreciate the helpful video guidance in this tutorial from Apple.com that teaches you the basics of recording with GarageBand '08. You can also learn how to use guitar effects and other software effects on recorded instruments.

How-to Web sites

VideoJug

VideoJug

Click here to go to site.

Both VideoJug.com and WonderHowTo.com are chock full of instructional videos, ranging from the helpful to the comedic -- and everything in between.

It's easy to search by category or keyword to find that one tutorial that you need that is not listed in the manual or help file.

WonderHowTo

WonderHowTo

Click here to go to site.

Although it is not a video site, also try Wikihow.com -- it has text tutorials for just about every topic under the sun.

Even if you know the sites that host video tutorials -- such as Veoh.com and YouTube.com -- the best way to find a video is just by searching for them. Type "video how to connect an HDTV" into the search field of your browser, and you'll be amazed how many videos show up -- some good, some bad. If you find a really good how-to video, post it in the forums for everyone else to see. And keep on learning (and saving trees).

John Brandon is a freelance writer and book author who worked as an IT manager for 10 years.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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