So You Want to Be a Windows System Geek? Ah, but There’s More Involved Than the Title

So you want to be a geek someday? Yet right now, you would happily settle for some fleeting feeling of mastery over the mystery which is your PC.

Yes, you think, you probably could get the case off, but what the heck would you do then? You wonder if you’ll know your hard drive from video card from your modem, or whether the RAM is even sitting in the right slot.

Fear not: it’s really not some deep dark world. It’s a world where standards change every six-and-a- half minutes but it’s not a deep dark world.

For me, being PC capable means equal parts of about three qualities: the patience to allow common sense to dominate over panic, the persistence to do the research needed beforehand and then proceed slowly and methodically towards the solution and the brains to know when to stop before you make the situation beyond hopeless. That’s exactly what I had to do before I wrote or edited any of the two or three dozen PC and Internet oriented books I’ve written.

First, but sorry, there is really no escaping it: you’re going to need to locate some good references material on subjects like PC hardware and Windows. Like it or not, that’s what folks are using in the greatest quantity. Depending on the statistics you read, up to 85% of the market in geared to Microsoft Windows and its platform. You may prefer Unix or feel excited about someday using the Mac OS but if you want to know the PC world, you also need to know Windows-based operating systems for the foreseeable future. But spend some time looking for the right references; not everyone wants a Dummies book and not everyone is ready for those 1200 page PC bibles where every third word is an acronym.

Second thing to know: when something stops working on your PC, there is usually a reason for it.

Your first job – besides not getting bent of out of all possible shape – is to think back. What were the last few things you did before the machine stopped working or before the last time you rebooted your PC?

Don’t dismiss this step: perhaps half of the problems I see as an expert technician each week are directly attributable to some change the user may think is incidental and not worth mentioning (AKA “it couldn’t be that”). So we waste a half hour of me saying repeatedly, “Are you absolutely sure you didn’t change anything?” or “Are you sure it’s plugged in?”

If it’s something you installed, try properly uninstalling it to see if this restores your system to sanity.

Before you run into trouble, make certain you have a system boot disk so you can still do some troubleshooting even if the hard drive or the OS fail on you. If you use Windows XP, you can use the install CD as a form of boot disk to allow you to attempt a repair of your Windows installation if it becomes fouled. Tools like System Restore and the creation of backup files you can later restore also can save your computing life and ability to work.

If your case feels noticeably hot to the touch, shut down your PC until it sufficiently cools. A hot system usually indicates poor circulation within the case and/or problems with the power supply fan which draws hot air out of the case through vents in the back. Running a very hot system for too long can result in short-term errors all the way up to permanent damage. In extreme cases can result. A roasting PC smells nothing like chestnuts or marshmallows and is far more expensive to replace. There are other fans in a PC, too, like the one mounted to the CPU. If the CPU fan stops turning, your CPU can fry in minutes.

If you install new equipment like a fast hard drive which seems to really increase the heat within the case, you want to watch it closely for the first week or so of operation. It may be necessary to add additional cooling measures or try to better control good air flow through the case (cables can bunch up and restrict air movement, for example). Also, excess dirt and dust within the case or blocking the vents around the case can drive up the interior case temperature.

Document error messages so you can give tech support details if you need to call upon them for help. Then remember to be in the frame of mind to ask the questions you need coupled with the ability to listen and follow their instructions.

Everyone gets frustrated, but the beginning of the difference between a PC novice and a decent troubleshooter is very often the ability to stay calm and focused on the task at hand, work logically, and follow directions.

None of this is magic: it’s trial and error, with a side of scratches on your hands from jagged edges from the PC case and adapters you install inside the case.

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