Proper installation will help prevent bad 'out-of-box experience'

Personal Computers

December 22, 1997|By Stephen Manes | Stephen Manes,New York Times News Service

THREE BIG boxes emerge from the closet. The kids jump up and down and cry, "A computer!"

Moments later, Mom and Dad are ready for some crying of their own. Parts are strewn about the floor as the hapless couple try to decipher puzzling instructional pictograms labeled with not a word beyond "Read me first!" When Junior flips the power switch, a couple of connectors remain unconnected, the computer beeps in apparent protest, the monitor stays dark and the mouse seems to be gummed up with carpet hair.

The "out-of-box experience" does not have to be that bad, but it can be.

Consider the simple question of where the computer will spend its days. Unless your machine fits on your lap, you will need room also for the monitor, printer, keyboard and mouse, not to mention anything else you hook up, such as a scanner. You will need at least three power sockets and probably four, not to mention a phone jack for the modem. Consider a power strip that incorporates surge protection for the phone line as well as AC devices and can accommodate the inevitable oversize power plug. Prepare yourself for the visual pollution of 10 or more dangling wires.

Evolution has not developed humans designed for sitting at computers. A comfortable chair can help, and so can a stand that places the monitor at eye level. To minimize aches and pains, a surface that puts your mouse and keyboard at a height somewhat lower than a typical desktop is essential.

For a quick lesson in computer frustration, forget to bring home an essential cable. Printer makers typically leave out one that for PCs is known as an IEEE-1284 bi-directional parallel model. Buy yours along with a couple of extra printer cartridges.

Connect the computer and peripherals in the order the documentation recommends. Windows 95 often wants peripherals such as printers to be turned on before the computer, so be sure to follow the recommended power-on procedure. Note that computers sometimes have two power switches and that speakers and monitors put their switches in odd places.

Be prepared to be interrogated before you can begin computing. Windows insists that you type in a long serial number printed on a certificate hiding in the box of documentation. You will also be asked your time zone, and you might as well adjust the computer's clock while you are at it. If asked whether you want to install the computer maker's special gizmos such as answering-machine software, use discretion. It is usually easier to install things later than to uninstall them.

Expect little or no help from the manuals. The documentation typically covers not just the computer you bought but also several models and sometimes several lines, not to mention optional extras that "may not be included in your machine."

Additional material is often included on the hard disk, but getting to it can be confusing. In a nasty new trend, vendors are beginning to leave essential information off disks and paper entirely, sticking it on their Web sites. That will not do you much good if you do not have Internet access because you prefer not to bother with it or your modem or monitor has stopped working.

Why might that happen? Wiring is a common culprit, so make sure everything is plugged in securely to the proper connector. Many manufacturers include color-coded connectors for simplicity, but it is still possible to insert a keyboard or mouse plug upside down and think that it is connected properly.

Modem jacks are almost never color-coded, and the label is often stamped in lettering that is unreadable from most angles. The jack usually marked "line" is the one meant to be wired to the wall jack. The other one, labeled "phone," is where you connect a standard phone that is meant to share the modem's line.

A technician once told me that people often wondered whether the phone was required for the modem to work. The answer is no. But getting a modem running can be tricky even if it is connected properly. A Compaq Presario one of my relatives bought last year came installed with software for two modems that were not in the machine along with one that was. It took an unpaid computer consultant (me) to sort things out.

Warranties are not always what they seem. "In-home service" might imply that some extremely handy person will be sent to your door the instant you call the hot line with a complaint. The more likely scenario is that you spend time on hold, then are forced to try a support technician's suggestions, one after another, before you are authorized for a house call someday soon.

Given the problems I have seen with recent computers, it is imperative to get an unconditional money-back guarantee on everything from the outlet where you buy it. Before that guarantee runs out, check every feature you might use. Copy files to and from the floppy disk. Try out the modem. Play both CD-ROMs and CD audio disks in the CD-ROM drive. Print in color and in black and white. Crank up the volume on the speakers. Adjust your monitor carefully, and examine its picture critically at its maximum resolution.

I have heard far too many stories of customers being strung along with inadequate repairs until just after the return privilege runs out.

If major problems arise, do not hesitate to demand an immediate repair or to return the unit for a refund or exchange.

Pub Date: 12/22/97

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