So, you think you are ready for the millennium? Your PC's internal clock and operating system passed the Y2K 'roll-over' test, you've purged all non-compliant software, downloaded the latest upgrades and patches and laid on a stock of tinned food. January the 1st comes and goes and your PC appears to be working normally, confidence is high and you're halfway through saving a large and important file when 'phut', the mains cuts out.

It may have nothing to do with millennium 'bugs' in power company computers. Electricity supplies can fail for any number of reasons, but the chances of one happening will be even higher than usual during the first few weeks of January next year, especially if we have a long hard winter. But whatever the cause even a brief interruption lasting no more than a split second can be enough to cause the files and data you are working on to be lost, or worse! Important system files can be corrupted and you'll be left with an inoperable PC.

The fact is we have become accustomed to a reliable mains supply in this country. For most of us living in towns and cities blackouts and 'brownouts' have been a comparatively rare occurrence in recent years and this has given us a false sense of security.

Power supply modules inside desktop PC have improved enormously in the past few years and they can iron out minor variations in mains voltage and even cope with small 'spikes' and surges lasting a few milliseconds but a complete power loss can cause considerable damage. There is only one solution – other than using a battery-powered laptop -- and that's a box of tricks called an UPS or uninterruptible power supply.

A UPS connects between the mains socket and your PC. Inside there's a re-chargeable battery, a battery charger and a circuit called an inverter. Its job is to convert the low voltage DC from the battery into 240 volts AC. When the mains fails the UPS switches automatically to the battery supply, maintaining the supply to the PC. Depending on the size of the battery the backup power supply can last from a few minutes to an hour or more, which should be long enough for you to save files close programs and carry out a safe shut down.

Broadly speaking there are two types of UPS, online and standby. Online models operate all of the time by keeping the battery constantly charged and supplying power to the inverter, which powers the PC. In this case the battery acts as a buffer between the PC and the mains, eliminating any irregularities in the mains voltage. Standby models kick in the instant the supply fails, taking between 2 and 10 milliseconds to restore power. The interruption is too brief to upset most modern PCs though it could cause problems on some older models. Incidentally, standby UPS tend to be a little cheaper than online types. Some more recent UPS designs are in effect hybrids, using what's known as a double conversion process, which lightens the load on the battery and provides a constant supply.

Most UPS modules are supplied with operating software that flashes up an on-screen warning when the mains supply fails. Some programs will carry out an automatic save and shut down routine for you, in case you are not there to do it yourself. UPS management programs can also monitor the health of the battery, indicating when it needs replacing (usually every two to three years) and continually check the condition of the mains supply, logging trends and predicting possible failures. Most models now have a 'hot-swap' facility that allows the battery to be exchanged whilst the unit is operating. Additionally all UPS devices filter and 'condition' the mains voltage, removing potentially harmful spikes and surges, maintaining a steady smooth supply.

It all sounds terribly complicated and expensive but surprisingly it's not. UPS units designed to protect stand-alone Windows desktop PCs costs from as little £65, which is a very small sum to pay when you consider how much your data, or even your computer is worth. UPS systems are normally rated by capacity quoted as volt-amperes or 'VA' (see Jargon Filter). The typical range is from 200 to 1500VA. Heavy-duty UPS systems for servers and networks, fed from high-power circuits, go from 2000VA upwards. However for most home PC users UPS modules in the range 200 to 500VA are usually more than adequate, providing between 5 and 15 minutes worth of power, depending on the PC, size of monitor and any peripherals.

Next week – chatting on the Internet 




A large reduction in the mains supply voltage, causing lights to dim and electronic devices like PCs to stop working


Brief increases in mains voltage, varying from a few volts to several thousand volts, caused by lightning strikes, grid switching and other devices connected to the supply


Volt-Ampere, a measure of electricity supply and generation. You can work out the required capacity of a UPS by adding up the power consumption figures (RMS values measured in watts) of your PC monitor etc, into a VA figure by multiplying it by 1.414



Two tips for the price of one this week, especially for fans of Outlook Express (version 4). The first is a way of disabling the opening 'splash' screen to make it open more or less instantaneously. It involves editing the Registry so don't tinker with it, unless you know what you are doing and accept the risk, and don't forget to make a backup first.

Close OE and start the Registry Editor by typing 'regedit' in Run on the Start menu. Click on the plus sign next to HKEY_CURRENT_USER and then drill down through the directory tree by clicking on the plus signs next to Software, Microsoft and then double click on the Outlook Express folder. Move the mouse pointer to an empty area in the right hand pane and right click. Select New and then DWORD Value. Rename the icon that appears 'NoSplash', (without the inverted commas), double click the icon and change the Numerical value from 0 to 1. Close the Registry Editor and see OE fly! 

Tip two is the hidden 'Easter Egg' in OE4. Don't get excited, it's not very interesting but if you have a few minutes to waste click on the Compose Message icon on the toolbar and on the Format drop-down menu select Rich Text (HTML). Click into the message window then click into the Font window and type 'athena', hit the Return key, close the window and choose 'No' when asked if you want to save changes. Finally, click on the Outlook Express icon at the top of the directory tree on the left hand side of the screen then click once between Read Mail and Read News in the right pane and type 'about' and watch what happens.

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