IF YOU'RE like millions of other Americans who bought a new PC for Christmas, you're probably enjoying the experience. Computers are easier to use and a lot more fun than they used to be.
Unfortunately, too many new computer owners soon take their machines for granted. If you depend on a PC for business, schoolwork, e-mail or Internet access, you should take some steps now to keep it working properly and protect it against gremlins that can ruin your day.
First, make sure your computer is protected against power fluctuations by investing a few dollars in a good surge suppressor or -- better yet -- an uninterruptible power supply.
Most people associate power surges with summer thunderstorms and lightning strikes -- but they're a year-round danger. They can occur any time your power goes off unexpectedly, and that's just as likely to happen during a winter snow or ice storm.
Power interruptions can hurt your computer in two ways. If your PC is writing information to the hard drive when the electricity dies, you can wind up with scrambled data. This may be nothing worse than a mangled letter to Aunt Rhoda, but it could also mean a hard disk so badly damaged that your computer won't start up.
The second part of the double whammy comes when the power returns -- often with a voltage spike that can damage a computer's delicate electronics. Modems are also vulnerable to tiny power surges that occur in phone lines.
For $20 to $30, a power strip with a good surge suppressor will protect your PC against anything short of a direct lightning strike. Most come with six outlets, enough to handle your computer, monitor, printer and a couple of other devices. Better models also have a phone jack to protect your modem.
But a power strip won't keep the juice flowing or prevent a mangled hard drive. For that you'll need an uninterruptible power supply, or UPS. These are battery backup units that kick in automatically when the electricity dies to keep your PC running for anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. When the electricity is flowing normally, they act as surge suppressors and power filters. UPS units for home and small office PCs run anywhere from $100 to $250, depending on how many devices you want to plug in and how long you want them to run.
Another piece of hardware that can save you grief is a tape backup. This is a high-speed digital tape recorder that can store the entire contents of your hard drive. The process can take an hour or two, but it's largely automatic.
Many first-time users think they don't need to back up their hard drives because their computers come with a "rescue" CD that will restore the hard drive's original contents. But the rescue disk won't have all the programs you've installed since you bought the PC or any of the letters, reports, term papers, contact lists, spreadsheets or financial records you've created. It's difficult if not impossible to re-create these -- and if you depend on your PC for your livelihood, a disk crash can put you out of business.
You can buy a capable tape backup for $200 or less. You don't even have to open up your computer to install one. Many units plug right into your printer port (your printer plugs into the tape drive). Then, all you have to do is run the backup software when you quit work for the day.
So much for hardware. You can also keep your PC working properly by employing a little brainware.
Rule No. 1: Shut down your PC properly. Don't just turn off the power switch. First, tell Windows 95 that it's time to quit.
This may seem strange if you're new to Windows 95, but it's very important. In fact, Microsoft's project director for Windows 98 told me that an inordinate number of calls to the company's technical support lines involve problems that occur because of improper shutdowns.
Here's why: Windows 95 is a complex operating system that's constantly writing information to your hard disk, even when you're not doing anything. The information involves programs that are currently running, the location and status of critical system files and all kinds of arcane stuff that operating systems need to keep healthy.
When Windows 95 shuts down the way it's supposed to, it makes closing entries in its internal ledger. If you just flick off the power switch, it may not have a chance to make those entries. Or you may catch the hard disk while it's writing data (see scrambled disk, above). When you start up the computer next time, Windows 95 may have trouble figuring out what it's supposed to do. It's like stumbling around in a dark room where some joker has rearranged the furniture.
To make matters worse, Microsoft doesn't make it easy to find the "Shut Down" icon. In fact, Shut Down is rather perversely located in the menu that pops up when you click the Start Button. That's right. To stop, you have to press Start. Go figure. Anyway, always use the Shut Down button and wait for the screen that says it's safe to turn off your PC.
Pub Date: 12/28/97