An ounce of PC trouble prevention

Preventative measures against potential PC problems

The principles listed on this page are for the most part relevant to anyone using any sort of personal computer

A Presentation of jrm&aFLUX
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Minimizing problems with your current PC, or eking out another few months or years of use from the system can postpone the purchase of another indefinitely-- thereby saving you money now, and helping you (likely) get a much more advanced and powerful system later for less money than is possible today-- thereby saving you money tomorrow.

Electronics like those in PCs do better and live longer on clean, properly grounded, uninterrupted power sources than any other kind. Unfortunately, many folks probably have 'dirty' power sources, which aren't properly grounded, and are subject to frequent outages. By 'dirty' I mean the power level fluctuates quite a bit on the line, hitting your PC with 'spikes' (too much power) or 'brown outs' (too little power) on a frequent basis. These fluctuations cause extra wear and tear on electronic components, eventually leading to hardware failures in some cases. Outright outages or blackouts can even cause data corruption on hard drives, and permanent loss of important files (unless you back up religiously).

Good quality surge protectors can help some.

NOTE: Don't confuse a plain power strip with a surge protector (they often look alike). A plain power strip does NOT provide surge protection. END NOTE.

Good quality un-interruptible power supples can help even more than surge protectors alone, but tend to cost several times what a good surge protector will. Note that an uninterruptible power supply should also include surge protection in its capabilities. UPSes are essentially large batteries rigged to provide power to your PC for the time required to either get through a brief outage, or to shut down in an organized manner if the outage looks to last longer than the battery can deal with. Some UPSes may be configured to shut your PC down for you in an automated fashion, when necessary (such as when you're away from your home or office PC, and you've left it running for some reason).

The main considerations for UPSes are how much power you'll need to keep your system adequately fed. This will depend on things like the newness of your system, how many drives and what size monitor it uses, and what if any peripherals (like printers) you want to be on the UPS too.

If your building has an old wiring system, or is wired improperly, your power outlets may not be properly grounded. In that case, surge protectors can't help at all, as they depend on the proper grounding to fend off power spikes (the electrical grounding is used for the overflow of electricity like an overflow tank on a car's radiator deals with excess antifreeze). Many good surge protectors these days come with light indicators which will inform you if your outlet is properly grounded or not. If you discover your outlets aren't well grounded, you'll likely need an electrician to fix the problem.

Keep in mind power surges from lightning strikes can attack through other wires too, besides your power line. Indeed, in my own experience I've seen stuff fried more often through the telephone line than the power line(!). A whole slew of fried modems and telephone answering machines have been paraded before my eyes over the years. And in some cases these things fried despite having surge protectors on both the power line and phone line(!)

So if you use a dial up internet connection, be triple sure you have some sort of quality surge protection between your modem and the wall jack, if at all possible. This warning goes quadruple for those folks living in rural areas, for that's where I've seen the vast majority of fried modems.

Of course, when in doubt about power protection during or before a thunderstorm, just pull the plugs. That is, once all your PC wares are shut down/turned off, pull the relevant power cords and phone cables out of the outlets/wall jacks. By breaking those connections, you make it virtually impossible for power surges to get at your equipment through those avenues.

Are there exceptions? Well, in my own case, I do NOT shut down or pull the plug on our network router or cable modem for storms-- though I may take those measures on everything else. Is the TV cable really immune from carrying power spikes into our network? I'm not sure. Roger acts like it's nothing to worry about. And we've had hundreds of bad storms here over decades, with only one TV casuality-- and we believe that one happened due to an ungrounded power connection rather than the TV cable. But anyone wanting an extra measure of protection could simply get surge protectors which included cable jacks, and route the network cable feeds through those.

The manuals, guides, disks, and other accessories which accompany your PC or other items at purchase can be extremely important to your system's long term welfare. For example, at some point you almost certainly will require one or more of the disks to re-install your operating system or original applications. Sometimes the documents will reveal tricks you need to know to get inside your PC case to install memory upgrades or drives too. Stuff like that. So you should store all these items in a safe and secure place in your home or office. Preferably in their original boxes, if possible. Using the original boxes should allow related items to be kept all together, plus make the whole shebang easier to find than a single CD among hundreds might be. In many cases original software boxes will pack onto a shelf like large books.

Keep installations of new software and hardware on your system to a minimum. Many times such events are the source of many people's problems with their systems. I realize minimizing such installations would seem to drastically cut down on the potential functionality and entertainment value of your system, but in truth it will often accomplish the opposite for many people, by keeping their systems up and running (and running well) long after more frequent 'upgraders' have been forced to give up on their machine and buy a whole new one to replace it. OUCH! The truth of the matter is that at any given moment lots of the hardware and software 'extras' or 'upgrades' available on the market are buggy and incompatible with many other components (including several of those of your own present PC) and WILL cause you problems if you attempt to install them. You can reduce the risk of problems by thoroughly researching an upgrade before you buy it, to avoid obvious lemons. But as the PC market is so huge and complex and everchanging, and every individual PC quickly becomes virtually unique in its own configuration of hardware and software and usage patterns compared to all other PCs in the universe, there's nothing you can to do to absolutely guarantee a given program or hardware component won't nuke your system when installed. YIKES!

So how do you do research? Search Google and other places for references, reviews, user complaints, etc., regarding a given product over a period of days or weeks before you buy it. The info that would be most helpful is to find someone using a system as close as possible to your own both in terms of hardware and software, who has already tried installing the item in question. Unfortunately, you'll rarely get anywhere near to that ideal.

Also be wary of many industry reviews of hardware/software. I've been reading these for maybe half my life now, and had the opportunity to compare what the reviewers said with my own experiences, at levels ranging from plain consumer/user up through corporate network administrator. The result? I'm highly skeptical of glowing reviews where no problem whatsoever is encountered, everything is apparently super-easy to use, and few if any details are provided. I personally have almost never had experiences like that, and know of few others who did either. Follow the money. Magazines make their money from selling advertising to hardware and software sellers. So it's in their interests to push the stuff on you-- and to push the most expensive stuff, too. Also, printing negative reviews can bring retaliation in the form of lawsuits from companies who don't like the reviews. So you often end up with the worst products/services simply not being talked about at all, or at best recieving a 'neutral' review, when an outright warning might be more in order.

Unfortunately, products which give little or no problem to users will often sell well without much advertising or promotion by manufacturers, and so there'll be little mention of them in computer mags either-- just like really bad products. Add to this the low numbers of any users griping about the great products anywhere on line, plus the manufacturers NOT needing to post much in the way of tech support for well working products, and you end up with a Google search for info on a truly great product maybe looking much the same as one for a really bad one-- almost no mention at all. DOH! as Homer Simpson would say.

So BOTH the very best and very worst products be under-represented in online forums and search engine results.

Any product that never sells very many in the marketplace will also be under-represented in these places-- regardless of whether it was great or dismal in quality (with the exception of course of those rare items which turned out to be truly spectacular rip-offs and/or joke-material).

When you do decide to install something new, make certain your system resources meet the minimum requirements for the package-- else you're simply wasting your time and outright asking for trouble.

Often some terribly important things about the installation are buried in the fine print of the manual or other instructions accompanying the program. Only neglect the documentation if you truly want everything to go awry with the install.

In general, no matter how new or fast or hefty in memory your PC/OS is, it's recommended that you don't make your system try to chew gum and walk at the same time. The more stuff you have going on in your system at the same time, the more chance it'll crap out on you, causing you to lose data and maybe even cause problems so severe as to take your system offline indefinitely, possibly requiring a disk format and complete OS/applications/peripherals re-installation to get back up and running again.

The longer you use your system, and/or the more stuff you've installed and regularly use on the system, the more traumatic it'll be to have to re-construct/reconfigure it all again later. So you want to avoid the total rebuild if at all possible.

You should always exit or quit out of all running applications, and then shut your computer down using its normal shut down command if at all possible. Just flicking the power off could render your computer unable to boot, requiring a complete re-build of your OS and applications, or alternatively create more subtle problems with its workings.

Speaking of shutting down, I advise you do this regularly, especially if your PC has a broadband internet connection, and/or your PC will otherwise sit idle for 8+ hours otherwise.

There's been debates about the shortening of lifespans PC components experience from the power surges involved in being switched on and shut down on a regular basis. But things like drive and fan motors and CRTs all can use the rest. The purely solid-state components might like being on 24-7-365, but the motors and CRT don't necessarily benefit from the practice. The hidden time/date memory battery also lasts longer if the PC is on 24-7-365. But that constant power supply won't necessarily protect from the spike of a lightning strike at or near your PC site. So I definitely wouldn't want my PC on during a storm if I could help it. For that reason I always shut the machine down if I've leaving the office for a while. I shut it down nightly for that reason and for saving the wear and tear on motors and CRT.

I also shut the PC down to save on my own electricity costs, and to reduce global warming and pollution due to all that extra electricity having to be generated with dirty fuels like coal and others.

I also shut it down nightly to protect myself against crackers/hackers, who constantly search the net for idle machines to exploit. I do have a firewall and have implemented a few other protections, but shutting down nightly is an easy way to throw one more roadblock in front of the bad guys.

Pretty much the first upgrade anyone should do with their PC is add more RAM. Most modern computers (Windows XP, Mac OS X) seem to do best with at least 256 MB, and will make good use of 512 MB or more under some conditions. Operating systems like Linux of course don't necessarily have such huge requirements.

The recommended second upgrade? That's a hard one. Because nowadays PCs pretty much come stock with all the basic hardware most people might need or want, except for the RAM. I suspect very few folks out there will ever use up all the space on their 30 GB to 80 GB hard drives before switching to a whole other computer down the road, for example.

Regularly clear your browser cache and history. The cache is also known as temporary files in the browser. Occasionally some of these files may get corrupted and cause you web surfing problems or general system instability. They can also slow down your surfing, when they get too numerous. Letting your history file get pretty long also mainly helps snoops tracking your web surfing habits while you're online, maybe seeing exactly where you (or other users on your PC) surfed as long ago as months in the past. I personally have never had the need for a history file to go back more than a couple weeks or so.

You can also delete your cookies, but this measure is less clear cut in its desirability. Why? Well, clearing your cookies does protect your personal privacy somewhat on the web, making it harder for others to see your surfing patterns and what sites you visit regularly. But on the other hand cookies also store various site preferences which make it more convenient to shop or log onto certain web sites. Deleting your cookies will force you to manually re-enter much info when you visit such places.

Of course, if you're experiencing mysterious problems with your browser you can find no other way to fix, you may have no choice but to delete your cookies as one remedy attempt.

Subscribe to an anti-virus service. I currently use MacAfee anti-virus software on my HP PC, and my only complaints are that it seems like it sure does update a lot (you have to wait around a few minutes during an update), and being the typical modern American capitalists MacAfee dutifully makes it hard for you to discern exactly how much protection you really need to buy, so you may err on the side of overbuying, thereby fattening their profits while gaining little additional protection of the type you're really wanting. They almost got me to pay twice as much than I really needed to for their service, before I figured out what was going on.

In the months I've had this latest anti-virus package, it's probably actually saved me from a potentially disasterous infection (or a dumb move on my part regarding a virus attack) at least several times.

If you've got a broadband connection you should get a firewall. Firewalls make it harder for crackers/hackers to get at your vulnerable online PCs. If you share your office or home broadband connection via a network with a central router, there may already be a rudimentary firewall built into your router. Windows XP also includes a rudimentary firewall in the OS (but this one must be shut off if you install another one).

In some cases updating the drivers for a particular product or service may reduce or even solve the problems you're having with it. But if you're already satisfied with how something's working, I wouldn't update the drivers except where the old ones pose a major risk to system security or stability, or are required due to some other upgrade you want or need to do.

Un-installing an application or peripheral is much preferable to deleting files you know nothing about. Of course, not all applications offer an un-install option, and even where they do it doesn't always work as it should. When it is available, you should be able to find a particular program's un-install option in that program's sub-menu found by clicking on the Start button.

There's also a Windows control panel for adding or removing programs in the Settings menu, available after clicking the Start button.

In some un-install cases (where un-install is unavailable or not working for some reason, or Add/Remove doesn't seem to do the trick) you might be best advised to seek out expert help, or at least a third party utility program specializing in this chore.

-- Take precautions with that new PC By James Derk; Scripps Howard News Service/Deseret News; December 23, 2001

-- 10 ways to keep a new computer performing well;; December 23, 2001; Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.

Some additional links which might help in the prevention category are:

Create Your Own Emergency Boot Disk

Everyone using an older Windows PC should immediately make themselves an emergency boot disk, label it, and put it away in a safe place. Otherwise you'll be hurting bad in a disaster. If memory serves, you can get your Windows PC to make such a floppy as an option in the Add/Remove control panel. I'm unsure if such an emergency floppy is necessary for Windows XP machines. Seems like I tried to make such a disk in Win XP and couldn't find the option in its usual place-- so maybe XP doesn't even allow the creation of those disks anymore. XP now appears capable of doing 'time travel' back to the last 'good' version of the OS which existed before the user installed that item which nuked their PC...

I'll be adding more to this page later...

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The above article(s) come from and make references to a collection copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 by J.R. Mooneyham (except where otherwise noted in the text). Text here explicitly authored by J.R. Mooneyham may be freely copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes in paper and electronic form without charge if this copyright paragraph and link to are included.

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