The PC that doesn’t go wrong hasn’t been invented -- and by the way, that includes the holy Apple Mac. In fact modern PCs are amazingly reliable, considering how complicated they are and what they’re used for, component failures are thankfully quite rare. Most faults are software related or are caused by external influences, such as clumsily installed peripherals, the owner having a fiddle, physical shock and very occasionally high voltage ‘spikes’ on the mains power supply or telephone line frying delicate microchips.


Hardware faults are almost impossible to prevent, you can greatly reduce the chances of damage to your PC by power surge and thermal shock by not switching it on and off any more than is necessary. Leave it on if you use it throughout the day and use Power Management in Control Panel to minimise power consumption if it’s going to be idle for long periods. Fitting a surge protector to the mains lead, and unplugging the telephone lead during thunderstorms is a good idea, and not messing around with the insides of your PC – unless you know what you are doing – is highly recommended! If your PC operates in a smoky or dusty environment you should regularly give your disc drives a run-through with good quality floppy and CD-ROM cleaners, otherwise a clean up every two or three months should be sufficient.


However, there is a lot you can do to avoid software-related problems, and that’s what we’re focusing on in this week’s Boot Camp. I make no apologies for repeating advice that has appeared in previous episodes of Boot Camp and the F!F!F! column. The concept of preventative maintenance will be new to a lot of new PC users and it doesn’t hurt to remind old hands about the basics, judging by the many tales of woe we hear that could have been easily avoided…


Without any doubt whatsoever the number one cause of PC problems is the user not reading the instructions when installing a piece of hardware or software. I’m as guilty as anyone but I have come up with a solution. Take a Post-It note, write on it in very large letters ‘RTFM’ and stick it to the front of your PC. RTFM is what service engineers mutter under their breath when confronted with faults that wouldn’t have happened if the user had bothered to READ THE FLIPPING MANUAL, (or words to that effect…).


Next on the list of trouble spots is detritus from uninstalled software. Virtually all Windows programs copy files to multiple locations on the disc drive and modify the Windows Registry during the installation process. If you simply delete a program folder in Windows Explorer so-called ‘orphan files’ or fragments of the program remain behind, just itching for the chance to conflict with Windows and other applications and crash your PC. Most programs nowadays come with their own uninstaller utilities, wherever possible use them, or go to Add/Remove Programs in Control Panel.


However, it’s better not to take chances and as soon as possible after you’ve bought a new PC or re-installed Windows, load a housekeeping utility like CleanSweep or Nuts And Bolts. These programs monitor every new program you put onto your PC, so that when the time comes they can be cleanly removed. They will also look for orphans, clutter, duplicate files and programs you no longer use, offer to remove them or make compressed backups, until you are ready to delete them permanently.  Never install or remove more than one program at a time and afterwards always re-boot the PC and watch for unexpected displays or error messages.


As you add and delete software the structure of the filing system on your PC’s hard disc drive becomes disorganised or ‘fragmented’. Eventually it could lead to files being more easily lost or corrupted but long before that happens the time it takes for your PC to access information will increase as the read-write heads in the drive search for bits of files spread about your disc drive. This also increases the rate of wear and tear on mechanical components. Defragging your PC on a weekly or monthly basis, depending whether you are a moderate or light user, will keep your computer’s filing system in good order. There are several versions of the Defrag program, depending which Windows you are using. In Windows 98 there are two, the one in Start > Programs > Accessories > System Tools has the option to organise files according to how often they are used, which helps speed up access times. The other one, which is launched by right clicking on the drive icon in My Computer and selecting Properties > Tools works well and is usually a little quicker. You should run Scandisk before Defrag (also in System Tools and under Tools in My Computer), every few months use the ‘Thorough’ option, but leave yourself plenty of time as it can take several hours. If at any time Scandisk finds any errors or bad sectors take that as a timely warning that your disc drive could fail and it is time to get it replaced.  


Finally, the obvious stuff that most of us seem to forget: make sure your virus scanner is kept up to date, make frequent backups of any files that cannot be replaced, backup essential system files (see Boot Camps 81 and 82 on Crash Recovery)   Make sure you have an up to date emergency startup disc (Start > Settings > Control Panel > Add/Remove Program > Startup disk tab) and keep a four-leaf clover/rabbits foot/piece of wood to hand, just in case…


Next week – When the worst happens, where to find help





Parts of the hard disc drive which the test utility Scandisk marks as being faults and incapable of reliably storing data. A sudden increase in the number of bad sectors is often a sign that the drive is damaged or starting to deteriorate



A large, constantly changing file in Windows containing details of how your PC is set up and configuration information for all the programs stored on the hard disc



Potentially damaging high voltage transients carried on the mains supply and on telephone lines



There are several frequently-used multiple key shortcuts in Windows, like Ctrl + Alt + Del (to bring up the close program menu) and Alt + Tab (to switch between running applications) and dozens more in applications like Word, Excel and Outlook. Windows 95/98/2000 & ME has a nifty way to avoid two and three finger gymnastics, it’s called ‘Sticky Keys’ and it’s one of the Accessibility Options in Control Panel. It’s aptly named because instead of pressing and holding a sequence of keys, you simply press each one in turn, your PC’s internal speaker bleeps at you to confirm each key press. The facility can be easily switched on and off by pressing the shift key five times in quick succession.


 Sticky Keys is not always installed by default, if you can’t see the Accessibility Options icon in Control Panel click on Add/Remove in Control Panel, select the Windows tab then Accessibility and follow the instructions. To enable Sticky Keys open Accessibility Options and select the Keyboard tab, use the Settings button to change the way it behaves. Whilst you’re there you might also like to switch on the Caps Lock bleeper, which also uses the PC’s built-in speaker.  

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