A question recently posed on Quora went something like: “If the polarity in AC changes (i.e. no positive/negative, hot/ground), why is there a hot and ground wire in the real world (worse yet neutral)…”

I am an Electrical Engineer but I am not a licensed Electrician. This is a discussion of concepts, not specific advice on electrical wiring.

Current can be thought of as flowing through a single point, but voltage (also called potential difference) is always between two points. There is no ‘polarity’ at one point. Only with respect to some other point.

With AC (alternating current), the direction of current flow in the wires and the polarity of the voltage between the wires changes in a sinusoidal pattern. The voltage reaches a positive maximum at a particular instant and half a cycle later it reaches a negative maximum.

In AC wiring, “hot,” and “neutral” really have nothing to do with polarity. “Hot” and “neutral” define the relationship of the wires with respect to ground.

“Ground” itself is a relative term. It could refer to earth ground or some other common point. For example, most vehicles have a negative “ground” system so you could say the positive battery terminal is “hot” with respect to “ground,” but the system could be just as easily designed to have the positive terminal connected to chassis of the vehicle and then the negative terminal would be considered “hot.” Either way, the chassis is not connected to actual earth ground.

In the AC power distribution system, the secondary winding of a power transformer feeding a home or business with single phase power is center tapped. The center tap is connected by a wire to earth ground at the power pole. This establishes a definite relationship to “ground” at that location.

You typically see three wires twisted together going in to a building. Two “hot” wires that are insulated, with approximately 220V between them, and one bare “neutral” wire connected to the center tap. Half of the standard 110V circuits are connected to one of the “hot” wires and the neutral. The other half of the circuits are connected to the other hot wire and the neutral. If you have a 220 appliance like an electric stove or clothes dryer, it is connected across both “hot” wires.

There is also a local ground wire. All of the outlets and appliances have a connection to this local ground.

Creating a “neutral” wire by connecting one side of the power circuit to ground enhances safety because there is one less “hot” wire. If everything is working properly then you should be able to touch the “neutral” wire with no problem because back at the breaker box “neutral” and “ground” are both connected to the same point.

However the neutral wire is part of the power supply circuit which means current flows through it. The wire and the connections have some resistance. This means that at the point where power is being used there could be a small voltage difference between the neutral and ground. It should be extremely small unless there is a problem with the wiring.

Call an Electrician if you have wiring problems, but call me for computer and general technical assistance. Affordable Technical Solutions. 315-376-8879. solutions@atspn.com.

Original newspaper column published October 2019

Microsoft will discontinue support for Windows 7 on January 14.

Don’t panic.  Don’t just run out and buy a new computer. You have options. Call me.

“End of support” does not mean Windows 7 will stop working, just that there will be no more security updates from Microsoft.

Over time Windows 7 will  effectively become less secure as additional security flaws are discovered but not patched. Microsoft will issue updates for Windows 8 and 10. Thes updates will be analyzed by hackers to determine what security flaws they fix, and then malware will be written to attack the flaws. Unpatched systems including all Windows 7 computers will be vulnerable because they won’t be updated.

This was a major concern when Microsoft ended support for XP in 2014, although I did not really see this happen with my customers. Many continued to use XP for quite a while without an increase in malware problems. However, it may be worse this time. Windows 7 program code and structure has more similarity to Windows 10 than XP did to Vista and 7.

Most people still using Windows 7 like it and do not want to give it up, especially if they have already tried Windows 10.

If you are a casual home user and your computer has adequate malware protection and you are careful, I think you can get away with continuing to use Windows 7 for a while. But eventually it will become so outdated it just won’t work well on the Internet.

Unfortunately if you are using your computers for business, and particularly if your business or organization is subject to privacy or security regulations, then you probably have little choice but to stop using an ”unsupported” operating system if you want to be in compliance.

Possibly more significant is that within a couple of years support for other software on Windows 7 will be dropped. In particular, out of date Internet-based applications will start to have problems. Anyone who has tried to use an old web browser has already experienced this.

So what can you do?

Many users just go out and buy a new computer with Windows 10, but this is a costly option which may not be necessary. There are alternatives.

You can continue to use Windows 7 for a while as long as you are careful, have all the available updates installed, know your system is clean, and have good antivirus software.

You can update your existing computers from 7 to 10. It is much less expensive than buying a new one. Another advantage is that is you keep your programs, settings, and data.

Most computers in the last 10 years can handle Windows 10. The most likely hardware upgrade required would be an increase in RAM.

But another great option for those who don’t like Windows 10 or Microsoft’s tendency to force you into updates and changes you don’t want, and don’t “need” Windows,  is to dump Microsoft  altogether and switch to Linux.

Web surfing, email, word processing and all the other common things most people do with Windows can be done just as easily with Linux. The graphical user interface of a Linux distribution such as Linux Mint is designed to be very easy for Windows users.

Since Linux is not Windows, it is immune to all Windows malware because programs written specifically for Windows will not install and run.

My favorite Linux distribution is Linux Mint.  The graphical user interface is very similar to Windows and most users have no trouble switching.

So far, I have switched about 30 customers from Windows to Linux. Many of them are still economically and happily using their 10+ year old Windows Vista PCs converted to Linux, but some have just had it with Windows problems on newer computers and dumped Windows 8 or 10 for Linux Mint.

Windows 7 End of Support Information from Microsoft
Switching from Windows to Linux
General Information about Linux on your PC
$79 Risk Free Linux Conversion Offer

Original Question on Quora.com:
Which Linux distribution has the best GUI for novices in 2020? Will it dramatically speed up an old Windows 8 laptop?

My Answer:

“Best” is matter of opinion. I happen to like Linux Mint

According to many references it is the most popular, especially for Windows converts. The desktop is very similar to classic Windows.

An advantage is that because it is so popular there is a very large user community which means it is likely you will find lots of help and answers on the forums.

Some people will say ZorinOS is better for beginners from Windows. I tried it a few years ago and it was OK but I found the documentation was a little lacking at that time. I have not looked at it recently.

According to Slant – Zorin OS vs Linux Mint detailed comparison as of 2019

When comparing Zorin OS vs Linux Mint, the Slant community recommends Linux Mint for most people.

As to the question “What are the best Linux distributions for desktops?Linux Mint is ranked 5th while Zorin OS* is ranked 39th.

The 4 distributions ranked above Mint (Debian, Slackware, Arch, and Salix) are definitely not suitable for beginners coming from Windows.

6 Best Linux Distributions for Beginners in 2019  rates only Ubuntu above Mint, primarily because it “has great documentation and community support.” But I think Mint is better because all the the desktop environments (Cinnamon, Mate, and XFCE) are a lot more like classic Windows. And XFCE in particular is very lightweight so it runs well on older hardware.

Mint is based on Ubuntu so aside from differences in the desktop environments it is almost the same. Software written for Ubuntu also works on Mint.

I have converted computers for many customers. Mostly old Vista and a few old XP computers to Mint XFCE because it is the most lightweight Mint distribution. Most have had no problem making the transition.
On the same hardware Mint XFCE is faster than Vista and much faster than Windows 10.

I expect I’ll be doing a bunch more conversions now that Windows 7 will no longer be “supported” by Microsoft. Any Windows 7 PC will have hardware that runs Mint very well.

Mint XFCE uses about 350MB of RAM. Windows 10 uses about1.3GB! Mint Cinnamon uses a little more but I had it on an old Vista laptop with 2GB RAM and it ran fine until the hardware failed.

So yes, Mint would speed up an”old” Windows 8 laptop, especially one that didn’t have much RAM.

Link to my original post on Quora      About Quora  Q & A