Fast fixes for common PC problems

Every computer user hits a speed bump now and then. Whether the bump is a dead power supply, a slow-booting PC, a soaking-wet cell phone, or an e-mail attachment lost in cyberspace, sometimes technology seems more trouble than it's worth.

But just as flat tires can be patched, most common PC problems can be fixed -- and fast! We've rounded up speedy, simple solutions to hardware, software, network, Internet and mobile-device crises -- and we haven't left out Windows, of course. High-tech speed bumps may be annoying, but they shouldn't keep you from enjoying the ride.

Windows

Accelerate XP file searches

I'll say one thing for Vista: Its search capabilities put XP's to shame. Pity the poor XP user who tries to locate a file with that operating system's plodding, poorly designed search tool. Fortunately, alternatives exist: Both Copernic Desktop Search and Google Desktop index your documents, e-mail messages, images, MP3 files and other content for lightning-fast searches. Better still, they let you peek inside found files without opening them. That's the way a search tool should work.

Hasten Windows boot-ups

Nobody likes getting stuck in traffic. But that's exactly what happens when a Windows PC boots: All the startup programs try to run at the same time, resulting in a kind of software traffic jam. What you need is a traffic cop, an application that lets programs start up one at a time, at designated intervals.

That's Startup Delayer in a nutshell. The free app helps you set delays for other programs, easing start-up congestion so your PC boots faster. Begin by reviewing the list of startup programs to see which ones can wait. Google Update, iTunesHelper and LightScribe Control Panel are examples of good candidates: They don't need to run the moment your system starts. To set a delay for a program, drag it to the white bar at the bottom of the Startup Delayer window. You'll see a line representing the program; drag it left or right to decrease or increase the delay. Repeat for other apps as desired, but stagger them by at least a minute.

Leave some startup programs, especially those you don't recognize, alone. But a delay of 10 or 15 minutes for many apps should improve startup speed noticeably.

Make Windows (XP or Vista) run faster

When you launch a program, does it snap open in a matter of seconds, or does it leave you drumming your fingers for what seems like an eternity? Countless possible culprits can be to blame for a slow system, but you have a good chance of revving things up by following a few simple steps.

Start with a RAM boost. A Windows XP system can get by on 512MB, but it'll run a lot smoother with 1GB. As for Vista, it needs at least 2GB for optimal performance. Vista also benefits if you disable resource-hogging (and, some would say, unnecessary) extras, like Aero Glass and Flip3D. To free your system from both, right-click anywhere on the Desktop and click Personalize. Next, click Windows Color and Appearance, open Classic appearance properties for more color options, and then set the color scheme to Windows Vista Basic. Click OK and your system should seem a bit zippier.

XP users should consider disabling Windows' indexing service, a system hog of little practical value. Go to Control Panel, Administrative Tools, Services, and scroll down to Indexing Service. Double-click it, and set Startup type to Disabled.

Speed up Vista file copying

Whatever Vista's deal is, it's a slug when copying files to external and network drives. To step things up, adopt a utility such as FastCopy, SuperCopier, or TeraCopy, all of which do the job an awful lot faster. What's more, both SuperCopier and TeraCopy can pause and resume file transfers, which may come in handy if you need to interrupt the copy process. All three programs are freebies, too.

Software

Help iTunes auto-detect new songs

iTunes 8 updates your library when you buy songs from the iTunes Store or use it to rip songs from CDs. But what if you want to add music from other sources such as Amazon or eMusic? Alas, with iTunes, unlike just about every other music manager, you have to add files and folders manually.

Thankfully, there's iTunes Folder Watch, a free Windows utility that monitors designated folders and then automatically adds any newly discovered music to your iTunes library.

After installing the application, run it by clicking Start, iTunes Folder Watch, iTunes Folder Watch (Background Monitoring). This action will launch iTunes, create an "iTFW New Tracks" playlist, and add a new icon to your system tray. Right-click that icon, click Open, and then add one or more folders to watch. Click the Check Now button to have iTFW scan for any tracks not already in your iTunes library. If it finds any, you'll see them listed in the New Tracks tab. One more click whisks the songs into iTunes.

You'll also want to visit the Configuration tab so that you can select and tweak iTFW's options, such as one that automatically adds newfound tracks to iTunes.

Remove duplicate entries from Microsoft Outlook

The longer you use Outlook, the more likely you are to end up with duplicate records. Sometimes they're the result of synchronization errors with a phone, PDA or Web site, and sometimes, well, it's just Outlook being Outlook. Either way, duplicates can be a hassle-but you can purge them easily. Outlook Duplicate Items Remover, or ODIR for short, eliminates duplicate contacts, calendar entries, tasks, notes and e-mail folders.

After installing the program, simply fire up Microsoft Outlook, and look for the newly added ODIR menu. Click it, then select Remove Duplicate Items. Choose the folder you want ODIR to scan; it'll find duplicates and relocate them to a subfolder (without actually deleting anything). The tool is fast, simple, and effective -- just the way freeware ought to be. ODIR is compatible with Outlook 2000 and later.

Open Office 2007 documents in older versions of Office

With Microsoft Office 2007, Microsoft introduced a new batch of file formats: .docx, .xlsx, and .pptx, all incompatible with earlier versions of the suite. So if someone sends you a Word 2007 document and you use Word 2003, an error message awaits you. Fortunately, the fix is easy: Use the succinctly named Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 2007 File Formats.

MOCPWEP2007FF enables you to open Office 2007 documents in Office 2000, 2003, or XP without any work on your part. Just make sure that your suite has the latest Service Pack installed -- either SP3 for Office 2000 and XP, or SP1 for Office 2003.

If you don't want to go to all that trouble and you need to convert just a single .docx file, point your browser to docx-converter.com. Upload your file, select your desired format (.doc is just one choice), and enter your e-mail address. In short order you'll get a message containing a link to download the converted file. It's a free service.

Organize a huge, messy digital-photo library

Sorry, but the shoebox approach doesn't work in the age of digital photography: You can't just dump every snapshot into your My Documents folder and still expect to find specific photos again. What you need is a photo-management program that supports tags, or keywords that you assign to each picture. For example, suppose you have a vacation photo of you and your friend Jane standing on a beach in, say, Aruba. You'd assign tags like me, Jane, beach, vacation, and Aruba.

Get in the practice of adding tags to your photos and you'll turn a disorganized mess into an easily searchable library. Google Picasa 3 and Windows Live Photo Gallery are among the free photo managers that support tagging. I'm partial to the latter (which is newer and better than the Photo Gallery app that's built into Vista), mostly because it makes tagging easier. All you do is select one or more pictures, click the Info button, and then click Add tags in the Info pane. To use existing tags, just drag photos onto the tag name in the navigation pane.

Hardware

Clean up USB cable clutter

We're not sure why design engineers so often decide to put laptop USB ports on the sides instead of the rear, or even put them all on the same side. Sure, the ports are easier to find that way, but if you employ your laptop as your primary computing system, then all those side-mounted USB ports will create a ton of unsightly cable clutter.

Solution: Use a USB "elbow" connector, which routes any USB device's cable toward the rear of the laptop (or toward the front, if you prefer). Belkin's $9 Flexible USB Cable Adapter, for instance, plugs in almost flush with the system case and rotates 90 degrees, either forward or backward, for easy access.

Rescue your data from a failing hard drive

Ever heard a PC's "click of death"? Count yourself lucky. It's the warning siren of a dying hard drive, one that can't be fixed and will only get worse. When you start hearing that sound, that's your cue to get a new hard drive right away.

If you've been diligent, you've been making full backups of your data all along, in which case a dying drive is merely a nuisance, not a catastrophe. If not, act fast: Buy or borrow an external hard drive, plug it in, and copy over your most critical data (documents, photos, music library, financial records, and so on). The key is to offload everything you can and install a new drive before the old one dies.

If your drive has reached the point where you can no longer boot Windows (or run any file-copy operations with it), a Linux-based boot CD such as Ultimate Boot CD might help.

Once you download the file and burn it to a CD, it runs a Linux OS straight from the disc, giving you access to your drive without the drive having to run Windows at the same time. With luck, you'll be able to offload all your files before the hard drive bites the dust.

If all else fails, you may have no choice but to seek out a professional data-recovery service. Just be prepared to spend at least a few hundred dollars for the rescue.

Upgrade your laptop hard drive

Laptop hard drives tend to be on the smallish side, so they can fill up fast. But swapping your laptop's internal drive for a higher-capacity replacement is easier than you may think.

With some online comparison shopping, you can find a 160GB SATA drive for around $70 or a 250GB drive for about $90. A 7200-rpm drive will give you optimal performance.

Next, get an external USB drive enclosure with an internal interface matching that of your hard drive. This should cost no more than $20. Install the new drive in the enclosure, connect the enclosure to your system, and then format the drive according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Finally, use a free utility such as DriveImage XML to copy the contents of the old drive to the new one, and then swap the two drives. (Tip: Reuse the old one for storage.)

Replace a dead power supply

You press your desktop PC's power button just as you have a thousand times before, only this time...nothing. Fortunately, power supplies are relatively easy to replace, and doing it yourself will save you upward of $100 or more at the local repair shop. While you're at it, consider something more powerful than your old one to accommodate higher-end graphics cards and other upgrades.

The actual surgery is pretty straightforward: Before starting, snap a bunch of photos that show where each power lead is plugged in. Disconnect the main power cord from the system, unhook the cables from the internal components, remove the old power supply, and install the new one. Follow the labels on the leads to reconnect everything, using your photos as a guide if needed.

Replace a lost instruction manual

Can't find the manual for your printer? Cell phone? Digital camera? No problem: You can almost certainly find a replacement online. Start with the manufacturer's Web site; the support page for any given product often includes an electronic version of the manual (usually in PDF) that you can download.

But if you can't find one there (or if you don't want to hunt through seemingly endless support pages), try Diplodocs/SafeManuals.com. This site is home to a whopping 1.2 million instruction manuals, and you can browse or search by brand, product, model number, and so on. All manuals on the site are stored in PDF, so you should be able to view them using nearly any device (even many smart phones). If you have some user guides of your own that aren't in the directory, you can upload them, and they'll be preserved for future reference (and shared with other users).

Help technology-challenged friends and relatives fix their PCs

If you're the go-to tech guru in your family, you know how tough it is to troubleshoot a problem over the phone. So do what the pros do: Run remote-control software to temporarily take control of another user's PC to diagnose and fix problems.

Although many programs offer this capability, I'm partial to CrossLoop. It's free, and it couldn't be easier to use. Just download and run the program, and instruct Uncle Moe to do likewise. Then have him click the program's Share tab and read you the access code presented there. You type it into CrossLoop at your end, and then click Connect. Presto: You have full control over your uncle's PC. Now you can work your magic.

Networking

Help PCs on your home network ‘see' one another

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