A Setup Secret

Computers are extremely complex machines. There are delicate electronic components like memory and finely calibrated mechanical devices like the disk drive. On top of that is the software which is usually written by a large team of people you wouldn't want to invite to dinner for a number of reasons.

The physical bits and the software all have to work together every time. Usually, like a car or a plane, all the pieces work together so well that you don't even notice them.

But sometimes (rarely) those little electronic bits fail and your computer won't start. Sometimes the solution is to buy another part; sometimes it's easier to buy a new computer (Be patient. I'm getting to the secret).

More often, a mechanical piece fails. Like what?

  • There is a little fan, or two or three or four, inside your computer. If a fan stops, the temperature goes up and things start failing. Sometimes they will "come back to life" when the temperature goes down; sometimes not. Clue: listen for funny noises, like grinding, or for no noise when you usually hear one.
  • You also have a little battery inside the computer. If it runs down your clock will be wrong when you start up (and I don't mean it will read I mean it will say it's midnight on January 1, 1970 or something like that.
  • If your cd or dvd drive breaks, you'll know right away when you try to play a CD or read a DVD although it's always a good idea to try a few CDs/DVDs before assuming it's the drive (but that's not the secret). The same is true for Zip or diskette drives, if you're still using those.
  • A hard drive failure is really really bad. All of your e-mail, documents, check information, taxes, pictures of your kids could be lost. With a bad drive your computer will not start, or start intermittently. Shut it off and call someone! Sometimes data can be saved; sometimes not; sometimes it can only be saved using special equipment and at great expense. The best thing to do is to make sure your important data is copied and saved on CDs, a second disk, a zip disk, or a flash drive. Sometimes, the drive is OK and it's acting up because of a virus or heat problem or because power went out at the wrong moment or just a bad piece of software.
  • Your keyboard has over 100 little switches in it. You press the space bar hundreds of times a day. You're always sliding that mouse around the table and pressing those buttons. A good keyboard and mouse are made to handle millions of switch closings, but how about that $10 keyboard? Sticking keys are common, and remember that keyboards and soft drinks are a bad combination.

Here's That Secret

Computers used to be difficult to set up. You had to know what cable went where; sometimes the same connector would be used just to add to the confusion. You may have had to install the operating system and do some testing before it was ready to go.

Surprisingly, upgrading the computer was easier then. Often the hardest part was opening and closing the case. There were separate cards for everything. Pull out a bad card, put in a good one. Even the main computer chip and memory was pretty easy to change, if you knew some basic precautions to make sure you put it in right and didn't let it get damaged by bad handling.

Things have reversed today. Many cases have thumbwheels or catches to open and close. Cables are color-coded or only fit into a single socket in one direction. Drives slide out when you press a catch and slide right back in. Computers come with the latest operating system all ready for use. If you just got a new computer and you have a bunch of boxes sitting on the floor, don't call me. Take a breath, say "I can do this!" and do it. Open the main box and pull out the "quick start" card. It'll tell you how to plug in the keyboard, mouse, monitor (the monitor might have it's own "quick start" card) and you're ready to go. If you want a printer or scanner, they come with their own "quick start" cards and CDs. The instructions offered by the major companies are quite good. Make sure you do one thing at a time: set up the basic computer. Then add the printer or webcam or anything else you have. Pull out your old CDs and install whatever programs or games you like to use. Or if this is a new computer for someone else, get their new CDs and install whatever they want to use.

Your internet provider should have given you instructions on how to set up to connect to the internet. Usually they're pretty complete. Give it a try. It's rewarding and free. With most DSL and cable, all you do is plug in the network cable and go!

Sometimes, things don't work as expected. The most cost effective thing to do is call customer support for whatever the most likely culprit is. You should have warranties for everything; take advantage of them!

Things that aren't covered are special cases, like when you try to put your old monitor on the new computer and it doesn't work right, or when you want to move your data from one computer to another. If you get stuck on how to get your Quicken data or Outlook e-mail or Word documents to your new computer, drop me a note and I can often tell you via e-mail how to move things.

The other part of the secret is, upgrading has become more complicated. In the old days, if you needed memory you went to a computer store and got the size you needed (after checking the manual to make sure it could handle the size you needed). Now there's all different kinds of memories running at all different speeds and if you get the wrong one your computer probably won't work at all. If you get the PC2700 DDR because it's so cheap and your computer needs PC100 (expensive), you're in trouble.

And changing the CPU (computer chip) is a real ordeal these days: you need to fight a fan that's clamped on top and may even have a collar connecting to the outside of the case. Under the fan is thermal goo and a heatsink that has to be removed and replaced. It can be done, but it's not for the squeamish, and it's well beyond a web page like this.

Bottom line: setup that new computer yourself. You won't hurt it and you'll astound your friends. If you get stuck, try customer support. If you really really get stuck, I'm here.


Computer-Ease, LLC
Fairfax, VA
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