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Fix Your Computer Yourself - 5 Secrets That Computer Repair Shops Don't Want You to Know
Before You Call the Pros...Read this...!
Just ten years ago it was unusual for individuals to own more than one computer. Now it is almost commonplace for each of the members of the household to have their own computer and workstation. Employees are increasingly bringing home work and kids are increasingly becoming more and more reliant on the Internet for school work and establishing their social independence. What has not changed is the need to maintain those computers, to keep them running right and the cost associated with doing so. I personally have several computers in my home. I have desktops, laptops, the kids have their own computers and I am forever fielding questions from others on how to maintain their own stock of technical gadgets. I get these calls because of the outrageous prices that the chain stores charge to do even the simplest of tasks.
I would like to discuss the five most common computer related woes and what you can do, yourself, to prevent and repair these issues. If you can use a screwdriver...you can do this!
1. Adware, Malware and Viruses!
Most of us who own computers are very aware of the threat that viruses pose to a computer. We have all seen the Hollywood movies where someone sneaks in and sticks a disk into a drive...and...WHAM...the whole computer system is down! Well, although in extreme cases this is possible, computer viruses are not the threat that everyone makes them out to be. Viruses are bits of code that are downloaded secretly to your computer and 99% of the time are designed to disable your computer. Most viruses are written by over-amped cyber bullies that are trying to make a name for themselves within the viral community. Viruses ARE a very real threat to home computers, but most viruses need to be let into your computer in order to do any harm. This is where responsible web surfing comes into play. If you like to hang out at web sites that promise free software or music downloads or pornography, then guess what...you are most likely keeping the company of some unsavory tech types. Your chances of downloading something other than what was intended is extremely high! I know from experience! In the days of downloading music, there was more than one time when I downloaded something other than the new cool CD I was looking for. After having to rebuild my computer several times and losing a lot of files, I decided that buying the CD would be more cost effective. Luckily, there are very dedicated people and companies in the world that do nothing else but track new viral threats. Any one of the big name viral scanners works very well in stopping the viruses from ever entering your computer. There are also several very highly recommended free viral programs out there too! I personally run the free stuff. Having to purchase the viral software and the licenses for every computer in my house...every year... is a sobering cost! I have very little trouble with viruses anymore. I also surf with caution!
Adware and Malware are on the other spectrum of malicious threats today. Nothing against the "Big Guys", but from my experience they do viral protection very well but seem to fall a bit short when it comes to Adware and Malware. Adware is named because of its advertising nature. These were commonly known as "pop-ups" some time ago, but have recently evolved into something a bit more sinister. It used to be that only "bad guys" used pop-ups. People wanted you to visit their site and knew that forcing a window in front of what you wanted to see would force you to click on it (at the very least to try to get rid of it). Clicking on the little "X" in the corner of the window used to close the attack. The spammers got wise to this and made it so no matter where you clicked on their window it would bring you to their advertising. Once you are in their domain you will most likely be hit with something far worse. To combat these types of issues, usually hitting the keys "CTL-ALT-DEL" and opening the task manager will present the offending window. Closing the process from the Task Manager appears to get rid of the window without causing further damage. I'm sure this will eventually cease to fix the issue as the Adware becomes more and more sophisticated.
Due to the advertising nature of these types of affronts, it is also important to point out that many legitimate companies have opted to use Adware to boost their sales. Whether this is a sound advertising solution or not, it is a fine art to try to discern between which Adware is trying to "get" you and which ones are just trying to sell you more stuff. Once again, there are several freeware programs that do a mighty fine job at stopping Adware from spreading on your computer.
Lastly, on this topic is Malware. Malware is Adware's evil cousin! Malware is mostly advertising related as well. This type of threat tends to go after more personal information. Malware can range anywhere from tracking your buying habits so that companies can send you catalogs to running in the background of your computer as a hidden process and collecting sensitive personal information, such as passwords or banking information. Malware is once again associated with the more unsavory web sites but has been known to frequently turn up in very trusted areas. As I mentioned, the Malware likes to download itself to your computer and run undetected. As you may be aware, your computer will normally become slower to respond the more items you are running at one time. Malware is a leading cause of PCs running slowly. Getting a good malware cleaner will help significantly to keep your PC running like it did the first day you set it up.
2. Outdated Hardware
The system requirements for programs and video games seem to double every year. It was not uncommon ten years ago to purchase a new computer with 256mb of RAM and one processor. Today, if you do not have at least two processors and 4GB (4000mb) of RAM you are seriously behind the times! Computers today also have very few replaceable parts. Most components are integrated onto the motherboard itself. This means that upgrades to your typical desktop computer will be confined to increased RAM, a better disk drive or possibly a sound card. The good news is, replacing or installing these items is relatively inexpensive and easy to do. The bad news is, you will only be able to upgrade that old computer up to a point.
Computers that are still running Windows 2000, ME, and XP will generally only have one slot for a processor (aka chipset, chip, proc, CPU). Although you can purchase aftermarket CPUs and replace them with medium difficulty, you must be very careful to purchase a chipset that will work within the specifications of your motherboard (MOBO). It is generally not recommended to replace your CPU, What can be accomplished with minimal skills is to upgrade your RAM.
RAM (Random Access Memory) is similar to your short term memory. This is memory that is used to process calculations and run the programs on your computer. Combined with the speed of your processor and the amount of RAM you have installed, dictates how quickly your computer will respond to tasks that you ask of it. While the process of opening up your computer and finding the slots to put the RAM is very simple, you should refer to any one of the hundreds of thousands of how-to tutorials on this before attempting. Computer manufacturers like to vary the type and speed of RAM that a computer will use. You MUST purchase RAM that is specifically designed to fit into your computer. Once again, there are several resources on the Internet to help with that. Beware of purchasing cheap RAM or used RAM! You DO get what you pay for when it comes to RAM. The maximum amount of RAM that your system will accommodate will vary. The PC manufacturer's website will give you this information. Another important thing to note is the amount of RAM slots your PC has.
If your PC is running (2) 256mb sticks of RAM and only has two slots, you will not want to buy two more sticks of 256mb RAM thinking that you will be able to double your RAM capacity. In this case, you will want to purchase two more sticks of RAM that will equal the total amount of memory you would like to upgrade to and then replace the existing RAM with the newly purchased hardware. If your PC has more than two RAM slots and you are not using all of them, you have several other options for a RAM upgrade. Just remember not to mix and match RAM types. Often times a computer will be able to use more than one type of RAM and you must make sure that all of the sticks are the same speed.
You can also replace your existing CD ROM with one that will burn CDs or DVDs. Please refer to any number of online sources to perform this procedure. It is very easy to do and most times, on newer PCs, does not even require the use of tools. 99% of all disk drives are a standard size. If you are swapping one drive for a newer one you will not need to be concerned with the maximum wattage that your power supply will handle (the power supply is the internal device that plugs into the wall and regulates voltage for the parts inside of the computer). If you decide to add and extra internal disk drive (if your PC has the expansion slot provided) or you wish to add an external drive to your system, you may want to consider the total number of watts that will be drawn by the computer while using these devices and confirm that the power supply in your computer can handle the load. Most desktop PC power supplys are in the 250-300 watt range. Most computers that allow for extra disk drives are upwards of 300 watts. Consult manufacturer specs for details.
Adding a sound card or graphics card is a bit tricky. The actual installation is quite simple, it is the compatibility with your system and the intended outcome you must consider. Most off the shelf PCs come with an integrated sound card and graphics chip. These are normally marginal in performance. If you have the need for an upgraded graphics capability for gaming or video display, a new graphics card will do wonders. Once again, you have to purchase a card that was specifically built for your computer. There are several types of slots that cards will slide into and you must purchase the correct form factor. You must also take into account your power supply limits. Every new device that you plug into your computer will share in the available wattage from your power supply. I once tried to get fancy with glowing cooling fans all over inside my old Gateway tower. It looked really cool for about a day until the power supply consumed itself in a fiery blast!
3. Keeping your PC clean and cool!
Ever think what would happen if you covered up the radiator in your car and decided to drive several hundred miles on a hot summer day? Of course not! The same things holds true for your PC. There are fans and vents on your PC for a very specific reason. Blocking the inlet and outlet flows will increase the temperature of the components of your computer. Most PCs are equipped will a temperature kill-switch that will shutdown your PC before it bursts into flames, but will still not prevent damage being done if overheating continues. One of the most common reasons I see for computers overheating is excessive dust being trapped inside of the PC. No matter how clean your environment is, the computer is sucking in dust filled air through its intricate components and blowing it out the back side many, many hours at a time. Frequent cleaning of the dust inside the computer will allow fans and cooling fins to operate as they were intended. A can of air or an air compressor set to under 90PSI does the trick nicely. Remember to open up you computer case to blow out the dust (and UNPLUG it and TAKE IT OUTSIDE!) Remember to blow air into the vents on the power supply. Also remember not to excessively spray small components or fans; doing so may break off parts, cause them to come unsoldered or even burn out the tiny bearings in the fans. One important note on smoking around your computer. Some years ago, there was rumor that smoking near your computer could cause it to short out. This is false. What does happen is the smoke is pulled into the ventilation system of the PC and the nicotine adheres to every surface inside creating a sticky layer of tar. After adding household dust bunnies to the mix you have virtually succeeded in "tar and feathering' your computer. No judgement being made on your choice to smoke, it will however ruin your computer.
4. My Computer is SLOW!
We have already discussed reasons why your computer may be slow due to Malware (Spyware) or Adware. Another thing you can do to help your computer is to lighten its load. Almost all programs that you install place a small icon in the bottom right hand of your screen. This is known as the "Start-up Tray". These icons represent programs that are running and start up automatically when you boot up your PC. Most times, 75% of these items do not need to be running or start up on boot. Take for example iTunes. If you want to use iTunes you can double-click the icon on your desktop and iTunes will open. You can plug in you Apple device and iTunes will open. You do not need to wait the extra time and put the extra strain on your computer at startup waiting for iTunes to open in the the Start up Tray. There are many other programs like this that are probably in your tray right now. Fixing this is very simple. Investigate the "msconfig" command and the actions you need to take to change the way items behave on startup. You will be amazed how much faster your PC will boot up.
Upgrading to an increased amount of RAM will speed up your PC. Keep in mind that this is not a super-fixall solution. You must consider the speed of your processor and whether your computer has other issues that is slowing it down. Beware of anyone that tells you that just installing more RAM will fix your problems. They are most likely looking to sell you RAM or trying to get rid of you quickly (or have no idea what they are talking about).
Defragging your hard drive. Hmmm...well remember how I made the comparison between RAM being short term memory? Well your hard drive would be the equivalent of your long term memory. As each bit of information is processed in your computer, the stuff that you want your computer to remember the next time you turn it on must be recorded on the platter of the hard drive. The hard drive is very similar to a record. There is a shiny platter that looks very similar to a CD that resides inside of an outer case. There is a very tiny little "needle" (magnetic head) that records all of the information you type into your computer. The head jumps around from place to place fitting in data where there is room on the platter. Likewise, when you erase something, the head travels to the spot where the information was stored and deletes it from memory leaving a blank space for more data to be written. As a side-note, this is how data can be recovered even after you think it has been deleted. The data is not truly deleted until new data has been written over the top of it. "Defragging" or defragmeting your system's hard drive allows the computer to move around the data on the platter and put it where it is most convenient for retrieval. Instead of having to jump around to several different spots to retrieve the data for a document, the head now only needs to go to one location. Sounds like a wonderful way to speed up your computer...right? Well, yes and no. Back in the day when hard drives were significantly smaller (like smaller than the memory in the phone you are carrying around), rearranging the space on the hard drive made a significantly larger impact. For example, if you had 10 square feet of junk in a 12 square foot shed, cleaning it out would make a great difference. If you had the same 10 square feet of junk inside of a 1200 square foot shed, not so much. Not to mention the stress that is put on the hard drive during the reorganization process of defragmentation. Defragging your hard drive all the time is probably worse for your system than leaving it alone. Defragging should be done 2-3 times a year.
Registry cleaners. The registry can be likened to the connections that your brain cells have to one another. The registry tells the computer how everything is to look and work. It's the computer stuff that happens when you press a button in an application or from your operating system. Registry cleaners were designed to clear out all of the old or unused connections or instruction left by past commands or applications. While using a registry cleaner could improve PC performance, it is a lot like giving yourself a lobotomy to get rid of the memory of your last girlfriend. Use extreme caution when using registry cleaners. Always make a backup of your registry before using one. That way if you scramble your computer's brain, at least you have the option of returning it back to the way it was.
5. Restoring Your Original Operating System
Ah yes...when all else fails...when your registry is mush and you no longer can open the Internet without ads for "special drugs" appearing, you decide that you just want to put the computer back the way it was when you bought it. Well, you just said a mouthful! Although this is a very doable task for anyone, like all other things computer...there are several precautions you must first consider. First, and foremost, do you have data on your computer that you want to save?
Most people I know have transferred over to digital photography and digital music. The sum of this data could be quite large. In order to transfer your data you will need to have someplace to move it to. The cost of flash drives and external hard drives have come down significantly in the past few years. Depending on the amount of data you want to keep, there are several budget friendly solutions to obtaining extra space. Next, you must transfer the data. Most times it is a matter of copying files from one location and then pasting them onto your external space. Remember, not all data will be transferable. Your programs, games, printers, scanners, etc. will not just "copy" over. These items will need to be reinstalled after you have completed the reinstall of your operating system. You must also consider whether you have the software available to reinstall those programs. Many people are not real careful when it comes to keeping track of a printer install disk after the printer is installed and working. This goes for many applications as well. It is best to try to make a list of all programs you use on your computer before wiping the memory.
Most people also fail to remember their Internet Favorites folder. You have spent years bookmarking many of your favorite web pages. All of this information will be gone if you do not also transfer the contents of your Favorites folder. Lastly, do you have your operating system disks?
All computers if purchased legitimately will have a Certificate of Authenticity with the CD Key for the operating system that was purchased with the computer. 99% of all computers are sold with an operating system and should have this vital information. This key is found on a small label somewhere on the case of your PC. This is also a good time to point out that if you buy a computer second-hand, make sure that the computer you buy has this certificate. You will be out of luck and will have to spend several hundreds of dollars to purchase an operating system if you choose to wipe your computer without the key. It is also important to point out that the CD Key for the OS (operating System) will only work for the version of OS for which it was intended for. An example, you have a PC running Windows XP...is it XP Pro or XP Home? The XP home CD key will not work if you try to install a copy of XP Pro. Windows Vista and Windows 7 offer a larger variety of OS options and making sure you have the right one can get tricky.
What happens if I no longer have the disk to restore the OS? Well...you don't actually need the exact disk that came with the computer to complete your task. Contrary to popular belief, it is not illegal to download a copy of an OS from the Internet. What is illegal is installing a copy of the OS and trying to use it without the proper CD key. Installing your OS from a "generic" disk has its down side. The original disk that came with your PC had all of the necessary hardware drivers that would run your sound and graphics and Internet connection. If you choose to use the generic disk to restore with, you are responsible for obtaining the correct drivers from the Internet and installing them onto your computer. This is where having more than one computer in the house comes in handy!
What happens if my computer will not start up and I have data I need to get off of it? Well, once again...there are certain things that must be considered. Does the drive still power up and spin? Most times it does. If this is the case. there are inexpensive devices that will connect the hard drive from your broken PC to a PC that works and uses the "bad" disk in much the same manner as a flash drive. Most times, it is only the files to boot the OS that are bad and the drive and the data is still recoverable. If your drive does not power up or makes awful sounds when it is on, then I am afraid you are out of luck...that is unless you are one of the smart ones that made back up copies of your valuable data. ALWAYS MAKE A BACKUP! Like I mentioned, external drives are coming down in price everyday. For items that I am particularly fond of I make two copies, and store one in a fire safe.
That concludes my two-cents on how to keep your PC in tip-top shape without having to pay through the nose to have the teenager down the street do it! I hope you have found this information useful!