Lessons for getting along with computers

January 10, 2002|By Bill Husted | Bill Husted,COX NEWS SERVICE

When I read about efforts to create a computer that can perfectly imitate a human, I smile. As far as I'm concerned, my computers have been doing that for years.

Computers seem to know when I need them, to wait for just that moment to stop working. They tease me. Many times the computer will wait until I am nearly done with a project and then - with a two-hour writing job sitting on the screen - freeze. I save documents faithfully but, on the few times that I forget, the computer knows that would be the perfect moment to stop working.

Many of you have a recent holiday gift of a computer. By now, you have it working.

No matter how smooth things seem, there's a certainty: Your new machine will someday take complete leave of its senses. I don't know if it will stop working altogether, or whether it will freeze and taunt you, or if it will suddenly fail to recognize your printer - which has worked flawlessly until that moment.

It happens to all of us. It's the first rule of computing: Something bad is bound to happen.

Let's look at simple tips to help you and your computer get along.

My friend Aron Siegel is helping me with this column. He's been involved in tech support for years.

Getting plugged in correctly: It seems easy - just hook up the keyboard, mouse and the other accessories. You don't need the manual. But some users "will swap keyboard and mouse cables," Siegel said. The lesson: Read the manual.

Stalls: Computer stalls aren't as dangerous as an airplane's, but they can annoy. Siegel said a stall when you try to shut down the computer sometimes is caused by anti-virus software set to scan floppy disk drives at shutdown. "When it doesn't find a floppy, it'll stall," he said. "So check the settings on all your programs."

Falsely accused: Now that viruses are so common, they tend to be blamed for almost every computer problem, Siegel said. Don't make this mistake. If there's a cause for the problem other than a virus, you won't look for it. And if you don't look, you won't find it.

Process of elimination: Calculus problems are hard to solve because there can be so many variables. It's the same with computers. Make changes - software or hardware - one at a time when you're trying to fix a computer. Then reboot. By making changes one at a time, you can identify the what's causing the problem.

Bad drivers: Not all the bad drivers are on the interstate. Drivers are tiny programs that help your hardware (printers, sound cards, scanners, etc.) communicate with your computer. If you have a problem getting a newly installed accessory to work, there's a good chance the problem is in the driver. Make sure you have the latest one - especially if you're using the Windows XP operating system. They're usually available for download at the Web site maintained by the gizmo's manufacturer.

What's that noise? Siegel said too few users defragment their hard disk. There's a simple program called Defrag, built into Windows, that does the job. Siegel noted that when you install and remove programs, that information is copied onto the hard disk on a space-available basis. Part of a program might end up on one section of the disk, with the rest scattered. That makes the hard disk work hard as it tries to find all the bits and bytes - and you can hear it whirring at times. Defragmenting cleans up the mess and makes the disk work faster.

What you don't do is important, too: Many new users create terrible problems when attempting to "fix" their PCs. Siegel said if you want to stay out of trouble, avoid making changes to the CMOS/BIOS if you can avoid it. Your computer manual will call this the "set-up" screen. It's where the computer keeps track of what kind of hard disk you have and how the computer works at a basic level. Stay away from it if you can.

One final tip: "Avoid hitting the case in frustration," Siegel said. "I know it looks great when people in a movie do it." But the computer won't feel any pain. The real pain will be in your pocketbook.

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