Here's what else you'll need with that new computer


December 28, 1992|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

A few years ago, a friend of mine got a radial arm saw for Christmas. For any woodworking hobbyist, this is Big Casino. He'd wanted one for years, and he couldn't wait to get started with it.

I ran into him at Sears a few days later, prowling happily through the power tools department. His arms were bulging with saw goodies -- a ripping blade, a plywood blade, a dado, a molding cutter and a half dozen other exotic gadgets whose purpose I could only guess at.

A asked him how he liked the saw.

"Oh, it's great," he said. "But you need all this stuff to do anything with it."

Millions of families who found a new computer under the tree this Christmas are going through the same process now. Thanks to a price war and aggressive marketing by manufacturers who put cheap, powerful computers in department stores, discount houses, appliance stores and maybe even a few supermarkets, the home PC became a fixture this year.

Despite the recession, some industry analysts think as many as 4 million PCs were sold in the fourth quarter alone, and others are predicting that total unit sales will be up 30 percent for the year.

Unfortunately, a lot of those new buyers didn't know what they were getting -- or not getting. The salesmen who sold the machines probably didn't know, either. After all, they were selling refrigerators two days before.

If you got a computer for Christmas, chances are good that you're out there now, looking for the stuff you really need to make the computer work for you. Here are a few suggestions to help relieve you of the few dollars you may have left.

First, if you're wondering why Microsoft Windows is running slowly, consider a memory transplant. You'll know Windows is running slowly if you start up your word processor and get halfway through your first paragraph before the first character appears on the screen.

To save a few dollars and put their computers on the the shelves with a low street price, many manufacturers are selling IBM-compatibles with only 2 megabytes of RAM. That's half of what it takes to make Windows work fast enough to be useful, particularly on entry-level computers with 386SX processors. Windows will do its best to keep running by substituting hard disk storage for internal memory, but it's a slow, uphill struggle. Some Windows programs won't work at all with only 2 megabytes of memory installed.

Memory is cheap today -- $40 to $50 per megabyte. Adding 2 megabytes will easily double the speed of Windows programs. Unfortunately, the guy at the discount warehouse or garden supply store who sold you the computer may not have any idea how to upgrade the memory. He's paid to sell boxes, not computers.

Head to the nearest computer retailer. He'll be happy to sell you the memory chips. If your computer, like most today, uses Single In-line Memory Modules (SIMMs), you can open the case and install the chips yourself without much trouble. Then you'll have to run the configuration program that tells the computer how much memory you have. Or you can take the easy way out and let the dealer do it. Most charge an extra $30 to $50.

By this time, you've also noticed that the electric plate behind your desk has only two outlets, while you have a computer, a monitor, a printer and perhaps a modem to plug in.

Pick up a power strip with a surge suppressor and at least six outlets. A good surge suppressor (not the $13.95 variety) is a must if you've splurged on an expensive, large-screen monitor, since these seem to be far more susceptible to power fluctuations than less sophisticated equipment.

Power strips with two rows of three outlets are better than strips with a single row of six if you're going to plug in those little power supply boxes that come with modems, answering machines and other electrical gadgets.

Some surge suppressor strips also have phone jacks to protect your modem in case of a phone line surge. These surges are rare, and they don't affect regular telephones, but they do happen and they can ruin a modem.

If you have a modem, you've undoubtedly noticed that the only phone jack is on the opposite side of the room from your computer desk. Resist the temptation to run a phone cord across the room to the jack and promise you'll disconnect it when you're not using the computer. Someone will undoubtedly come traipsing through, trip over it and rip everything out. Trust me on this. It happens.

Buy a 25-foot extension phone cord, or two if you need them

NTC (you can connect them with an in-line coupler available at any Radio Shack). Run the cord around the periphery of the room, behind the furniture. While you're at the Shack, pick up a splitter to plug into the wall jack. That will let you plug the modem and phone in at the same time. You can't talk on the phone while you're using the modem, but you won't spend time plugging and unplugging.

If you have two phone lines that terminate in a single jack (two-line phones are designed for this setup), you'll need a different gadget to talk on one line and use the modem on the other. Radio Shack Part No. 279-402 plugs into a single, two-line phone jack and presents you with three jacks. The first, for your phone, passes both lines through. The others let you access either line separately.

Finally, buy a box of floppy disks. Many new users today forget about this because their software comes loaded on the computer's hard disk, ready to run. You'll need the floppies to make backup copies of your important files. While computers are extraordinarily reliable today, all machines fail at some point in their lives, and they can ruin everything on your hard disk when they turn misanthropic. You don't want to lose the Great American Novel, the PTA bulletin, or your tax records. Disks are cheap. Your time isn't.

(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)

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