Q: I recently bought a laptop with Wi-Fi access, although we only have a dial-up account at home. When I first plugged it in, I was surprised...

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Q: I recently bought a laptop with Wi-Fi access, although we only have a dial-up account at home. When I first plugged it in, I was surprised to discover it detected five wireless hot spots in my residential Seattle neighborhood, including two that were unsecured! What is the protocol here? Should I knock on my neighbors’ doors, try to find out whose they are and see if it’s OK to use them? If I use them without obtaining permission, will I slow my neighbors down? If they are unsecured, should I be extra careful about what I do on the Internet?

Also, over the years I’ve legitimately purchased a number of pieces of software online for my desktop computer. Now I’d like to transfer these programs to my new laptop and take them off the desktop. Of course, I don’t have CDs for the programs. What’s the easiest way to transfer? Can I just copy the program file and put it on a CD? Or can I use the executable installation file that I originally downloaded, put that on a CD and put it on my new computer?

— Katherine Zuhl

A: It’s not considered appropriate to be using someone else’s network without their permission. If you’re really friendly with your neighbors, you might ask them if it’s OK.

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But even more to the point, if you care about your neighbors you should warn them that their wireless networks are not secure. As long as that’s the case, their computers — as well as yours, if you’re on their network — are open to hackers.

As for slowing down their network, if you were doing something that involved a lot of uploads and downloads, you could noticeably affect their performance.

As for moving applications from one computer to another, you can’t simply copy the files over. Part of the installation process for most applications is that changes are made in the Windows registry. If you don’t go through the installation procedure, it’s almost certain that the application won’t work properly.

If you downloaded an executable installation file, it may or may not work if you copy it to the new computer. That all depends upon how the installation file was designed.

Q: Can you refer me to unbiased documentation on features of the competing high-speed Internet offerings in Seattle?

— Robert Michelson

A: The best I can offer is a link to DSL Reports, a Web site with a lot of information on broadband services. The site includes user reviews of service providers, and it’s searchable so that you can zoom in on your area: Go to www.dslreports.com.

Q: About a year ago, I purchased a Sony Vaio laptop, PCG-Z1WA, with a 60-gigabyte hard drive. About a week ago, as I was downloading some software, I got a message saying there was not room on my C:\ drive for the software.

On investigating, I learned my hard drive is partitioned into a “0” drive of about 10 gigabytes for system software, a “C” drive with about 14 gigabytes, and a “D” drive of about 36 gigabytes, which is essentially empty.

When I called Sony tech support, I was told that the only way to repartition the drive is to do a system restore, which includes reinstalling all the software on my system. Why did they do this? Is there an easier way to repartition my drive? I have heard of a program called Partition Magic. Do you know if it works?

— Steve Handley

A: When computer makers partition the computer drives the way you describe, they generally do so to make it easier to restore your system using their software. If their system files are on a separate, protected partition, you can’t be mucking them up very easily.

PartitionMagic will allow you to repartition the drive, but you still may have to reinstall software after doing so. You can find out more about PartitionMagic, now owned by Symantec, at www.powerquest.com/partitionmagic.

Questions for Patrick Marshall may be sent by e-mail to pmarshall@seattletimes.com or pgmarshall@pgmarshall.net, or by mail at Q&A/Technology, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.