Learning computer setup the hard way Help: I got much more than I bargained for when I bought my mom a new PC. Plug and play? Not exactly.

November 30, 1998|By Kasey Jones | Kasey Jones,SUN STAFF

When people buy a computer, they want to plug it in and start writing letters or surfing the Internet.

Most buyers will find this won't happen.

I spent the better part of a day buying, setting up and configuring a computer for my mother. It's a wonder more people don't hurl the things through the plate-glass windows of computer stores.

By way of background, my mother is 73, and I decided to buy her a replacement for the 486DX she was using. If you're buying a new computer, you can take advantage of some of the things we learned - the hard way:

Tip 1: Know what you will use the computer for.

Mom needed a machine to do word processing for her duties as president of the residents' association of her retirement community and to access America Online.

She didn't need the fastest, most powerful machine available. And I didn't want to spend a lot of money. We headed to CompUSA.

We reluctantly decided against the spiffy iMac. I am not nearly as familiar with Apple's operating system as I am with Windows, and offering my mother technical support was important.

We looked at the low-end machines and settled on a Hewlett-Packard Pavilion 6330. It had 48 megabytes of RAM, a 4-gigabyte hard drive and a 300-megahertz processor. We selected a 15-inch HP monitor and a Canon BJC-4400 printer.

Tip 2: If you know little or nothing about computers, don't walk into a computer store without a knowledgeable companion.

The CompUSA clerk left to gather the hardware. We picked up WordPerfect Suite 8 and the "Complete National Geographic CD-ROM Edition."

The clerk assembled the hardware, including a "printer pack" that comprised 200 sheets of paper and a bidirectional parallel printer cable. (Will someone tell me why printer manufacturers don't include the cable? It's like selling a car without the tires.) The price: $59.95. I told the clerk to put the "printer pack" back and get me just the cable, which cost $10.

The price for the computer, monitor, printer, cable and software was $1,737.

Tip 3: Buy and set up the computer on a weekday. Computer stores and manufacturers' technical-support lines are less busy than on evenings and weekends.

At my mother's house, the unpacking went quickly and smoothly till I grabbed the owner's manual and the Windows certificate and prepared to power up. The monitor did not respond.

I looked around and found the monitor's power cable sitting on a desk. Even experienced users make dumb mistakes.

With the monitor working, I turned on the computer and prepared to set up Windows 98. The first screen requires that you type in the "product key" for the Windows software. I looked at the certificate on the Windows 98 CD-ROM and started typing.

The form on the computer screen required a sequence of characters that looked like this: XXXXX-XXXXX-XXXXX- XXXXX. Unfortunately, the ID on the Windows certificate looked like this: XXXXX-XXX-XXXXX-XXXXX.

I made a toll call to HP, where I waited on hold for five minutes until I could explain the problem to a technician named Roy. He said the Pavilion had certificates for Windows 95 and Windows 98 - but the Windows 98 certificate was on the Windows manual, not on the CD. Thus enlightened, I found the product key and continued the setup.

Things went awry again when I inserted the CD that came with the printer to install the drivers that make it work. The CD-ROM drive spun furiously, and at times the mouse wouldn't move at all. Several minutes later, the PC finally displayed the Blue Screen of Death, a sight that strikes fear into the hearts of Windows users. It means everything is frozen solid.

So I turned off the computer, waited 30 seconds and turned it on again. This time the computer booted up and displayed the Windows 98 desktop. A window on the screen suggested registering with HP, and a form appeared. I started typing in my mother's name, but nothing appeared on the screen. The keyboard, which had worked before, was not responding.

I rebooted. Still no response from the keyboard. So I placed a second toll call HP support.

After more than 10 minutes on hold, I got Randall. He had me cycle the power off and on, something I should have thought of. This time, the keyboard responded. While I was waiting for the computer to come on again, I asked Randall why the CD-ROM drive was causing the mouse to freeze periodically. He said the CD-ROM was using so much system memory that it interfered with the mouse's operation.

I wondered what Randall was smoking.

Tip 4: There are good tech-support people and bad tech-support people.

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