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Tips for heading off PC headaches


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 13, 2000

It is getting easier to use a PC right out of the box. But even with labeled or color-coded cable connections and software preloaded, some homework and preparation might help prevent a small problem from becoming a major headache.

Here are steps I recommend for new PC users:

Read the Getting Started or Read Me First information, even if you have some computer experience.

Make sure your monitor is set at eye level and away from any source of magnetic waves, such as lamps and stereo speakers that aren't designed for computer use.

Don't plug in the PC until you get a surge protector. Surge protectors come in different levels of protection and different prices. Get a good one.

Make sure you got what you paid for. Right-click the My Computer icon on the desktop screen and click Properties. This will tell you the amount of random access memory (RAM) in megabytes that Windows recognizes in your system. In addition to the possibility that some RAM might be missing, it's possible a RAM chip (known as a SIMM) was knocked loose during shipping or moving.

This screen also will show the processor type, such as Pentium III or Celeron, and give you numbers regarding your model and the word "steppings," which means version. Unless you're familiar with these numbers, you won't be able to tell what speed (in megahertz, or MHz) your processor is rated. Intel offers a utility program that will report all the information, including megahertz and cache amounts, that you'd ever want to know about your processor. You can find this utility at

These days, it seems as if every software application loaded on your PC wants to put its icon in the Tray area of your Task bar at the bottom of the screen, as if putting a normal icon on the Desktop weren't good enough. This means that the application, at least in some form, is loaded into memory whether you use it or not, and is wasting limited resource areas of the operating system.

Some applications need to be there, such as antivirus programs. I recommend that you familiarize yourself with the applications that come preloaded on your system and are set to load and run on startup. Click Start, then Run. Type MSINFO32, and press enter. From the menu bar at the top select Tools, then the System Configuration Utility and the Startup tab. This will show you which applications are loading automatically when Windows starts. Chances are that there are some you can disable. Do so by clicking to remove the checkmarks next to the listed items.

Make an inventory of software, booklets, compact discs and floppy disks that come with your computer. Many months from now, you may need them if your system crashes or if you want to add an optional feature that wasn't factory-installed. On some PCs, Windows completes the initial installation the first time you start the computer. You will need to sort through your stack of information to find the Windows OEM license number because you will be required to type it in.

Some PCs don't include a Windows CD. These systems usually have the CD's contents copied to a directory somewhere on the PC. Find out where this directory is and write its location inside the cover of a system manual so you won't lose it.

Doing so may require going into Windows Explorer (through the Start button, then Programs and Windows Explorer) and finding the Windows directory in the main C: drive. You'll need to click "Show files" once you get to the Windows directory. Many preloaded systems keep this information in the C:\Windows\Options\Cabs directory. If your system crashes and you can boot only to the DOS prompt, you may need to reload Windows. Now you'll know where to find it.

Create a Windows startup disk for emergencies. To do this, go to Control Panel, Add/Remove Programs, StartUp Disk. This floppy disk will contain, among other things, diagnostic programs as well as the "real mode" drivers that allow you to access your CD-ROM when you boot from this disk. For example, it would be necessary if the PC crashed and you were unable to boot into Windows. A last resort would be to boot from this floppy and run the setup from your Windows CD. And if your system didn't come with a Windows CD? Well, you've written the directory location on your C: drive that contains the CD contents, right?

Some systems come with a CD that people may mistakenly identify as the Windows operating system disc. These CDs are sometimes a "wipe and reload" type that will automatically format your hard drive and then load the original configuration that came with your PC. That will erase any programs you loaded or data you saved on your hard disk. Check the documentation to make sure you understand what is on your setup CD.

Hard drives have become very dependable. However, they are mechanical parts and problems can occur. Protect your valuable files just in case. Zip drives can back up as much as 250 megabytes, are relatively inexpensive and can connect to your USB port. Remember you don't need to back up what you can reload from the original disks (such as Windows and Microsoft Office).

Learn to use the Windows Explorer to navigate your hard drive. Learn the structure of your directories and organize your files. Keep files that you create in directories different from the directory of the program that creates them. Windows comes with a directory called My Documents that it puts on your Desktop. I create directories within My Documents, one each for Word documents, Excel files, graphics and Access databases that I create. This way it's easy to find them and simple to back them up.

Believe it or not, there's a good chance some of the device drivers that came with your new PC are out of date. These may include drivers for your sound card or video adapter, among others, as well as updates to Windows. Click the Start button and select Windows Update to connect by Internet to the one-stop update site for Windows software. Video adapter drivers change frequently, so check the manufacturer's Web site to see if there are updated drivers. You can check the version of your video adapter driver by right-clicking anywhere on the desktop, choosing Properties, Settings, Advanced and Adapter.

People often ask if they should turn off their PCs or leave them running. It's better to leave your PC running to save wear and tear on the hard drive. The electricity used by the average PC is negligible, comparable with the cost of a 75-watt light bulb.

The monitor is a different story. I recommend either turning it off or using Windows power management settings (go to Control Panel, Power Management) to have it automatically power down. Movement of the mouse will turn it on again. Of course, you can push the monitor's power button when you know you'll be leaving for a while.

Become familiar with the Windows Maintenance Wizard. It will periodically delete unnecessary files, check the integrity of your hard drive and optimize your hard drive to enable your most commonly used programs to start up faster. To run the Maintenance Wizard: Click Start, Programs, Accessories and Systems Tools.

Enjoy your new computer.

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- John Torro answers reader questions about hardware and software problems in the Solutions column that appears in Tech Times each Monday.

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