Don't forget to plug it in before trying Christmas PCs often don't work because of human oversight, not bad parts

Your computer

December 21, 1997|By MICHAEL HIMOWITZ

I DON'T enjoy being the Grinch, but there's something you have to know. If you're setting up a new computer this holiday season, there's a good chance that something will go wrong.

In fact, studies have consistently shown that about 10 percent of new computers emerge from the box with at least one component out of whack. And there are millions of other new PCs with problems that are, shall we say, of human origin.

How do you tell which is which? Well, if something goes wrong with your new machine, try this handy, step-by-step checklist.

Step 1: Is everything plugged in?

Your computer and monitor need electricity, but a surprising number of people try to run their systems without it. Most computers and some monitors come with detachable power cords that have to be plugged in at both ends. Make sure the plugs are tightly seated -- sometimes you have to push hard with new equipment.

Your printer will also require an outlet, and your speakers may have their own power cord, too. So you'll probably need a power strip, which plugs into a wall outlet and provides electricity for four to six devices. But remember, power strips have on-off switches. Make sure the power strip switch is on, or nothing will work.

If you've plugged everything in and your computer still doesn't run, check the wall outlet to make sure it's live. You don't need fancy test equipment; just plug a working lamp into the outlet and turn it on. If there's no glow, you may have a blown fuse or tripped a circuit breaker. On a circuit that's already heavily loaded, the addition of a computer, monitor and (especially) a laser printer may be the cause of the overload.

Step 2: Did you really turn the computer on?

Don't laugh. I once spent 45 minutes on the phone with a colleague who insisted that he had turned the computer on, when he'd only turned on the switch on the power strip. If we'd been in the same city that day, "Homicide: Life on the Streets" would have chalked up one story line.

Most computers have power switches on the front these days. Unfortunately, they often look just like the buttons that control your floppy drive and CD-ROM. There's usually a reset button nearby to confuse things even more. This is the evil work of high-paid designers who try to make computers into objets d'art. Make sure you push the right button. Likewise, make sure your monitor, printer and speakers are turned on. They have little green lights on the front that glow when they're powered up.

Step 3: Is everything connected to everything else?

Most computers come with simple setup diagrams that explain what gets plugged in where. But Real Men don't bother with these, right? So here's a Real Man's checklist:

If your computer hums but the monitor stays dark, make sure the brightness control is turned up. Then make sure the monitor cable is plugged into the video port on the back of your computer. You'll also need a cable to connect your printer to the computer's parallel port. For some perverse reason, most printers don't come with cables, so you'll have to buy one. If you tried to save a few bucks by using the cable from an old printer, you may be out of luck. Many printers require new bi-directional cables that pass information back to the computer. Without a new cable, your printer may play dead.

If your speakers don't speak, make sure they're connected to the computer properly. This can be confusing, because your sound card may have more than one port that will accept the speaker jack. Make sure you plug it into the right one. If you're uncertain, wait till nobody's looking and sneak a peak at the setup diagram. Or look for a little speaker symbol next to a small round port on the back of your computer.

No luck with your modem? Make sure you've run a phone cord from the wall jack to the phone jack on the back of your computer. Many computers have two jacks -- one for your phone and one for the line to the wall. These jacks will usually be labeled "line" and "phone." Make sure the cord to the wall is plugged into the "line" jack.

Step 4: If you've tried Steps 1 through 3 and the darn thing still doesn't work, do not shoot yourself (although you'll want to leave this option open). It's time to call for technical support.

Unfortunately, getting through to someone who can help you after Christmas is about as much fun as hemorrhoid surgery. Even the best tech-support operations are overwhelmed by people who haven't bothered with Steps 1 through 3 above, not to mention people like you with real problems.

There are two approaches to the logjam. The first is brute force -- keep dialing till you get through and wait your turn on hold. If there's a speaker-phone with auto redial, use it. This also is a good time to enlist the kids' help.

The other tactic is to wait till 3 a.m. when most of the other 9 million people who tried brute force have given up or been committed. In my experience this rarely fails. You may be grumpy in the morning, but there's a good chance you'll have a working computer.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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