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Taking precautions now can prevent headaches later

Published Sep. 10, 2005

It is getting easier to use a PC right out of the box. But even with labeled or color-coded cable connections and software preloaded, some homework and preparation might prevent a small problem from becoming a major headache.

Read the Getting Started or Read Me First information, even if you have some computer experience. Sometimes the more you think you know, the more dangerous you can be.

Before setting up the machine, you should put all paperwork, manuals, disks, rebate information, warranties and registrations in one place, such as a shoebox. And don't forget to fill out and mail any rebate offers that may have come with your system.

For PCs with the Microsoft Windows XP operating system, make special note of the registration number that is required for product activation. If your system came preloaded from the vendor, it most likely already is activated and you won't be prompted to activate. But you still need to hold on to the registration number in case you need it later.

Set your monitor at eye level and away from any source of magnetic waves, such as lamps and stereo speakers that aren't designed for computer use.

Once your computer is turned on, check to make sure you got what you paid for. Right-click the My Computer icon on the desktop screen (that means clicking on the button on the right side of the mouse) and click Properties. This will tell you the amount of random access memory (RAM) in megabytes that Windows recognizes in your system. In addition to the possibility that some RAM might be missing, it's possible a RAM chip (known as a SIMM or DIMM) was knocked loose during shipping or moving.

This screen also will show the processor type, such as Pentium 4, Pentium III, Celeron, Athlon or Duron. You also may see numbers regarding your model and the word "steppings," which means version. Unless you're familiar with these numbers, you won't be able to tell what speed (in megahertz, or MHz) the processor is rated. If you're curious, or skeptical, enough to pursue the question, Intel offers a utility program that will report all the information, including megahertz and cache amounts, that you'd ever want to know about your processor. If you have a Pentium or Celeron chip, you can find this utility on the Web at processors/tools/frequencyid/ freqid.htm. The AMD equivalent (for Athlons and Durons chips) can be found at: contenttype/utilities/ amdcpuid.exe.

It seems as if every software application loaded on your PC wants to put its icon in the task bar at the bottom of the screen, as if putting a normal icon on the desktop weren't enough. This means that the application, at least in some form, is loaded into memory whether you use it or not, and is wasting limited resources.

Some applications need to be there, such as antivirus programs. You should familiarize yourself with the applications that are set to load and run on startup. Click Start, then Run. Type MSCONFIG, press Enter, then click the Startup tab. This will show you which applications are loading automatically when Windows starts. Chances are that there are some you can disable. For instance, there's no reason for America Online or Real Audio to load automatically. On the other hand, files such as Explorer.exe and Svchost.exe are likely to be crucial. Resource management is much better with Windows XP than previous Windows versions and you may not want to change any of these settings unless you know what you're doing, but at least you'll know what is loading automatically on your system.

Some PCs don't come with a Windows CD that you can fall back on in a crisis. These systems usually have the CD's contents copied to a directory somewhere on the PC. Find out where this directory is and write its location inside the cover of a system manual so you won't lose it.

Doing so may require going into Windows Explorer (through the Start button, then Programs and Windows Explorer) and finding the Windows directory in the main C: drive. You'll need to click "Show files" once you get to the Windows directory. Many preloaded systems keep this information in a directory called C:WindowsOptionsCabs. If your system crashes and you can boot only to the DOS prompt, you may need to reload Windows. Now you'll know where to find it.

If your new system has the Windows Me operating system, you should create a Windows startup disk for emergencies. To do this, go to Control Panel, Add/Remove Programs, StartUp Disk. This floppy disk will contain, among other things, diagnostic programs as well as the "real mode" drivers that allow you to access your CD-ROM when you boot from this disk.

For example, it would be necessary if the PC crashed and you were unable to boot into Windows. A last resort would be to boot from this floppy and run the setup from your Windows CD. And if your system didn't come with a Windows CD? Well, you've written the directory location on your C: drive that contains the CD contents, right?

For Windows XP, a Startup disk isn't necessary. You have other options, such as starting in Safe Mode and booting with your Windows XP CD to run the Recovery Console. It will have troubleshooting tools available that serve a function similar to the Startup Disk in previous Windows versions.

Some systems come with a CD that people may mistakenly identify as the Windows operating system disk. These CDs are sometimes a "wipe and reload" type that will automatically format your hard drive, then load the original configuration that came with your PC. That will erase any programs or data on your hard disk. Check the documentation to make sure you understand what is on your setup CD.

Hard drives have become very dependable. However, they are mechanical parts and problems can occur, not to mention potential loss from virus attacks. Protect your valuable files, such as the contents of your My Documents file, just in case. Iomega Zip drives can back up as much as 250 megabytes, are relatively inexpensive and can connect to your USB port. Archiving pictures and music to a CD is also a good idea. Remember you don't need to back up what you can reload from the original disks (such as Windows, Microsoft Office and other programs).

Believe it or not, there's a good chance some of the device drivers that came with your new PC are already out of date. These may include drivers for your sound card or video adapter, among others, as well as updates to Windows itself. It is especially important to keep up with the latest security updates for both Internet Explorer and Outlook Express.

Click the Start button and select Windows Update to connect by Internet to the one-stop update site for Windows software. The Windows XP update site is much more inclusive of third-party drivers than ever before. Chances are this will serve as one-stop shopping for your entire PC's update requirements.

People often ask if they should turn off their PCs or leave them running. The electricity used by the average PC is negligible, comparable with the cost of a 75-watt light bulb. However, you still may want to take advantage of the ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface), or "sleep," features of your new PC. Go to Control Panel, Power Management (or Performance and Maintenance and then Power Management on XP systems) where you can set the various options to selectively shut power to the various PC components after periods of inactivity. Of course, you can always just push the monitor's power button when you know you'll be leaving for a while.

Become familiar with the Windows Disk Cleanup Wizard and the Disk Defragmenter. Use these to periodically delete unnecessary files and optimize your hard drive to keep your system running at peak efficiency. You can find these utilities at: Start, All Programs, Accessories, System Tools.

Enjoy your new computer.

_ John Torro writes the Solutions columns, which answers hardware and software questions from readers in Tech Times.