October 4, 2007

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Do it yourself — really
Quick fixes for common computer woes
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

When confronted with a spastic computer, the first thought to enter many people’s minds is, “It’s a virus!”

Software companies want you to think this, because why would you pay for annual subscriptions for their anti-virus programs otherwise? They’re a real threat, to be sure, but computers had problems long before viruses got all their bad press. If your home PC is acting slow or weird, here’s a few things you can try when the virus scan turns up nothing.

• Reboot: Anyone who’s ever called a tech support hotline knows how much phone techs like to have you reboot. For people who already know to do this, it can be frustrating, because they’ve probably already tried it, but it really should be the first step in many troubleshooting procedures. The techs are just doing their jobs, though; they can’t always tell the reasonably smart folk from the dopes, so humor them.

To really reboot right, it’s best to completely shut down a computer (or any device) rather than choosing the “restart” option. If the flow of electricity isn’t completely shut off, a stray bit that’s causing a problem in your PC’s memory might not get cleared, and the reboot will be for naught. It requires a few more seconds — not to mention the tedious pushing of a button — but it’s a better, more complete way to do it.

• Cool it down: Does your computer start acting up by slowing down? Does it reboot all by itself? Most likely there’s some overheating going on. Now that summer is oozing into fall, this should be less of a problem, but it can still happen, especially if the PC is in the wrong place — like, say, next to a bay window baking in sunlight, or right next to a radiator. Even if it’s cooped up in a cabinet, the lack of proper ventilation can cause the temperature inside that box to rise too much.

The long-term solution here is simple: move the thing. If that doesn’t fix it, you may have to take slightly more drastic action.

• Blow the gunk out: Although computers generally operate electronically, there are a few mechanical elements with moving parts. Most obvious are the fans that cool the processor, power supply and inside of the case. Those very fans can become the instruments of their own demise.

The problem here is dust. While you might think that fans blowing hot air out of a metal box would remove any dust, the truth is the air movement creates lower air pressure. Remember Bernoulli’s principle? Yeah, that’s right, science. Anyway, dust can get drawn into your computer, and once it hits something, it’s not likely to dislodge. If it builds up enough, it can slow or even stop fans, causing overheating. Some PCs will recognize a stopped fan and shut down to protect itself, while others will just start rebooting over and over.

In extreme cases, dust and other particulate matter can gum up the works so much that the computer doesn’t even start. My parents used to have their computer by an open window in their rural home, and one spring, there was a particularly high pollen count. Their desperate pleas for technology help were answered with a quick burst of compressed air, which unstuck the yellow glop with no problem. A previously inert power supply once again hummed with life.

By the way, did you know that most household dust is made of dead human skin cells? True fact. Eww, right?