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Doing your homework helps avoid headaches

By JOHN TORRO

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 1999


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

Here are steps I recommend for new PC users:

• Take time to 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 some lamps and stereo speakers that aren't designed for computer use.

• Don't plug in the PC until you get a surge protector. They come at different levels of protection, as well as different prices. Get a good one.

• Make an inventory of software, booklets, compact disks and floppy disks. On some PCs, Windows completes the initial installation from the factory the first time you boot. You will need to sort through your stack of information to find the Windows 98 OEM license number because you will be required to type it in.

• Some PCs don't include a Windows 98 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 down 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 and 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 (go to Control Panel, Add/Remove Programs, StartUp Disk). This floppy disk contains, 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.

It would be necessary, for example, if you crashed and were unable to boot into Windows. A last resort would be to boot from this floppy and run the setup from your Windows 98 CD. And if your system didn't come with a Windows 98 CD? Well, you've written down the directory location on your C: drive that contains the CD contents as I suggested -- right?

• Some systems come with a CD that people may mistakenly identify as Windows 98. 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 wipe out any programs you loaded or data you have. 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. You should protect your valuable files just in case. Zip drives can back up as much as 250 megabytes, are relatively inexpensive and can connect right 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. I create sub-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 that 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 98. Click the Start button and select Windows Update to connect by modem to the one-stop-shopping 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 your current version by right-clicking anywhere on your desktop, choose Properties, Settings, Advanced, Adapter.

• I'm often asked whether people should turn their PCs off or leave them running. It's better to leave your PC running. The electricity used by the average PC is negligible, comparable to 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 return the power and turn it on. 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: Start, Programs, Accessories, Systems Tools.

Enjoy your new computer.

-- 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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