Types of Clients

There should be an image here!Because I prefer tutoring to computer repair and system maintenance, I now offer tutoring at a lower price than repair where before I simply charged an hourly rate for anything. Most of my clients want to feel more comfortable with their computers, but seem to regard seeking help as a failure of some type. Worse yet, some of them think of learning and practice as play and wasted time. I use the analogy of learning to play a piano. I can show anyone where the keys are and how to strike a note. That is a long way from being able to play Beethoven. People understand that, but expect to pick up a mouse and be proficient. Even worse, they get frustrated when that proficiency is elusive. Having a twenty-something geek quickly zip through a demonstration adds to the frustration. Most tutoring clients benefit the most with relaxed sessions, and those are challenging to bring about.

So even with a special tutoring offer, most of my calls are still of the “Help me — right now” variety. Seniors seem to fall into two categories: (1) those who are afraid to do anything lest they break a the computer or fill up the house with malware, and (2) those who will gladly play whack-a-mole with any banner that pops up. At least the clients I see tend to fall into one of those two extremes.

Recently I had a third type of client. She is a semi-retired accountant who had used high-powered professional accounting software in her profession. Now she was looking to help individuals and small businesses on a part-time basis. Several people had told her to learn Quicken. She wanted to know the best way to do it. Against my own best interests, I told her that with her background, she should simply plunge into the tutorials and look for online help. If she got into trouble, call me. She had been nervous about starting on something new — probably because she had memories of the difficulties she had when first introduced to computing many years ago. We all bring a lifetime of baggage to any new project.

So far I have not heard back from her, so I assume all is well. I also like to think that by passing up a couple of hours of easy tutoring, I gained a long time client who will trust me with other projects.

Like I said, tutoring is more fun than repairing, but right now I have two computers on my table. One of them needed a factory restore (don’t ask — ugly), and the other is being upgraded with memory and generally cleaned up. They represent examples of the two classes I listed above. But they are alike in at least one respect. In both cases, I know the clients and both of them paid too much for their computers. One of them paid far too much to have someone else look at the problems. I would like tutoring to include items such as how to purchase things you need at a good price. Many seniors are still naive about what to purchase and how to maintain it.

[Photo above by U.S. Department of Agriculture / CC BY-ND 2.0]

Patricia Gets A New Laptop – Mine

There should be an image here!My wife, Patricia, runs her own business and has her own dedicated business computer running XP, which I do not touch except to maintain. She might have ESP because recently she announced she wants to convert from her desktop computer to a laptop, so I started looking around for good buys. Then her computer broke — but that is getting ahead of the story.

Acer, ASUS, and Toshiba all had sales. For my consulting and tutoring, I have my own desktops (homebuilt and commercial) and one HP laptop. Maybe we should stay with HP — it serves me well. I read reviews and dithered for days, but this indecision proved unnecessary. She had made the decision to switch too late. Last week her computer froze while unattended for several hours. Nothing worked. So I tried a hard reboot. Windows failed to come up after POST. I tried again. This time the boot could not get through the POST. This is bad. The HD made funny sounds. From thinking she had a rather benign issue with Windows, which I could fix with a nod of my head and a reboot, I felt despair.

The problem was compounded by failure to back up for over a week. All her latest business records were at risk. Because she has a small desk for working space, she uses an internal drive for backup. I extracted both drives for testing. While taking them out, I noticed the CPU heat exchanger had separated from the CPU and was flopping loosely. That is not good.

With her C: hard drive as an external drive on my desktop, despair darkened. Windows could not read it. However, after some sweat, I was able to copy her personal data to my machine.

Her computer seemed to be only good for spare parts, but she needs a business computer. To get her back online immediately, we set her up with my laptop. Only here is the last hurdle: she used Outlook Express as her mail client under XP. She had resisted my attempts to convert to Outlook or anything else. Now she needed to move to Window 7 and probably Outlook.

In the backups, I had stored her addresses (wab format) and her email (dbx format) with the idea that I would learn how to convert them when the time came. The time came. Importing her addresses into Windows 7 was easy. Just open Contacts and import from the stored location.

Converting the dbx files was another story. Since we do not now have a computer with Outlook Express on it (which could read and export the files), I looked online for a solution and found a freeware app that recovered everything without hassle. The commercial applications that do the same thing cost between $30 and $70! Readers might know a way to do it within Windows, but I did not find it.

So the problem of getting her back online was solved, but at the expense of my loss of a laptop. Since a new laptop is an unbudgeted expense, we want to get the best buy that we can. In the newsletter I distribute to my clients, I asked if anyone would want to join me in a group purchase of laptops to negotiate a lower price for everyone. No one took me up on it, so I am still looking for a special sale. In the meanwhile, Patricia has a more powerful computer and all her data. She thinks Windows 7 is nice. She even lets me borrow my laptop from time to time.

[Photo above by James Vaughan / CC BY-ND 2.0]

Top Five Tips For People Looking Into Working With Computer Hardware

There should be an image here!Gnomie RyGuy 5320 writes:

Hey Chris! I have seen in your videos that sometimes people send you little “Top Five Lists” about a multitude of things. I thought I should take a shot at it, so here goes!

I can’t tell you how many people have asked me “How do you know bow to build a computer? Can I learn how?” So here are my tips for them.

1. It’s not as complicated as you think. Computers in themselves are extremely complex, but the way the components come together is not! Everything in a computer has a special place, and it’s actually quite hard to wire something in a way that will damage it. This is even the case with compact computers like laptops and flatscreen all-in-ones, though they are hard to work with due to the scale of components and because everything is crammed into a tiny space.

2. Start with a tower computer. Tower computers are amazingly simple! You can put together a working tower computer in minutes! I first put together a tower at the age of 11. My only prior experience was that I saw my dad tinkering in an open computer. It really is simple if you see past the mess of wires and complex-looking labels.

3. Don’t be afraid to open it up! Want to see what’s in your computer? Most tower computers are designed to be easily popped open with the removal of a few screws. I’ve even seen a few that pop open when you press a button! They are designed to be opened, and you can only damage them by messing with something recklessly.

4. Experiment! Now, you may not be as lucky as me, but I have a supply of old computers from my grandmother’s attic. If you have an old computer that you don’t care about, experiment! Hook things up, move things around, see what works!

5. When all else fails, ask for help. If you don’t know what something is or what it does, look it up, or ask for help. Most geeks, like me, will be more than happy to help you out. Almost everything is labeled, too, so you can find out what something is and find out what to do with it.

I know this is a top five list, but let me add one more thing. When you’ve built, or at least messed with your computer, you can make yourself look pretty darn smart! How many preteens do you know who have built computers? In case you were interested, I’m now 14 years old. I can also truthfully say I’ve built six working computers over three years… from a pile of “junk!”

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read this, and have a great day!

P.S. I wrote this all on an iPod touch. My fingers hurt now!

[Photo above by Extra Ketchup / CC BY-ND 2.0]

Self Computer Repair Unleashed

There should be an image here!Tired of paying too much for computer repairs? Discover a multitude of money-saving tips for repairing your own computer. In this manual:

  • You get over 400 pages and 200 illustrations to help you understand the process of computer repair.
  • Learn to troubleshoot major and minor problems… with ease!
  • You get the general troubleshooting, repairs, and upgrades, advanced computer repair techniques, and more.
  • You receive over 100 topics and more computer repair instructions and techniques that take you from everyday repair to the component level of repair.
  • For the advanced there is a section on how to melt yer computer in three easy steps — or, better still, how not to melt your computer. It is all about overclocking. (Now that is geek!)

Also included:

  • Find out how to easily resolve the most common PC problems.
  • Sections to assist you with XP or Windows 7 from installation to optimization.
  • A section on the operation of a computer by each device along with some history from a technician’s point of view. Insights to some of the history that normally would not be published.
  • Never forget a step, thanks to the 12 checklists included for your convenience!

Discover these and many, many more tips and techniques most computer repair geeks will not tell you!

Get Self Computer Repair Unleashed now!

Top 5 Laptop Repairs (And How To Avoid Them)

There should be an image here!Q: What are the most common causes of failure in laptops? — Gino

A: The portable computer (laptops, netbooks, etc.) became the top selling category of computers when they began to outsell the desktop computer back in the third quarter of 2008.

And since there are more units being sold every year, there are more people being confronted by the much higher costs to repair portable computers when they break.

While portable computers are certainly convenient, you will always pay a premium whenever something goes wrong with any of the components. Unlike standard desktop computers that mostly use interchangeable parts, laptops are comprised primarily of proprietary components that generally come from one source: the manufacturer.

Other than the RAM (Random Access Memory) and the hard drive, be prepared to ‘pay the piper’ for replacement parts, even if you can find them used, which is why I always caution buyers to make sure they really need the portability.

We’ve been repairing portable computers since they were referred to as ‘luggables’ in the ’80s, so we’ve seen just about everything.

The single most common service we perform on portable computers is the same service we perform on desktop computers: corrupted or infected operating systems (nothing to do with hardware failures).

Malicious software (malware), viruses, and general over-installing of unnecessary programs is by far the most common reason we see our ‘patients.’

From an actual failure of components standpoint, here are the top five reasons we have to repair a laptop and what you can do about it.

  1. Motherboards (39%): Motherboard failures are the most common (and one of the most expensive) repairs that we perform and about half of the time it’s from a poor decision made by the user (for the other half, it’s just a poorly designed motherboard).When the original power adapter dies, many are often enticed to buy ‘universal’ power adapters from third parties because they’re cheaper than the original adapter from the manufacturer.Unfortunately, these universal adapters can deliver excessive power when they fail, often blowing up components on the motherboard. I highly recommend sticking to the original manufacturer’s power adapters to help avoid this expensive repair.
  2. DC Jack/AC adapter (18%): This is one of the repairs that is 100% user-caused. The power adapter often plugs into a small hole that contains a rather delicate pin jack that, if pushed to one side or the other or in too hard, can short out, break off, or crack the solder connection — or even the motherboard.Tripping over the power adapter’s cord or pushing the laptop back into a wall or cabinet account for most of these repairs, so act accordingly.
  3. LCD Displays (17%): Unless you drop the laptop, the most common display repair deals with replacing the backlight or inverter for the LCD. There’s a finite number of hours that the display ‘lighting’ will run before failing, so the best way to avoid this repair is to set your laptop to go to ‘sleep mode’ whenever you close the lid — and close the lid whenever you aren’t using the laptop. Lowering the brightness setting could also help extend the life of the display system.
  4. CPU Fans (6%): The processor in a laptop generates a lot of heat in a very small space, so it’s critical to draw the heat away to keep everything running properly. While most fan failures are caused simply from normal use, if you have pets or smoke, you can increase the likelihood of a fan failure because the air vents on your laptop are more likely to get clogged up (so clean your vents periodically).
  5. Keyboards (4%): This is another failure that is generally a ‘liveware’ (human) caused repair. Spilled liquids are the primary drivers of this type of repair, so if you just can’t fathom keeping liquids away, get a keyboard spill guard installed.

Human behavior is a big reason we have a thriving laptop repair business across the country, so if you want to avoid a visit to ‘the doctors,’ remember these tips!

Ken Colburn
Data Doctors Computer Services
Data Doctors Data Recovery Labs
Data Doctors Franchise Systems, Inc.
Weekly video tech contributor to CNN.com
Host of the award-winning “Computer Corner” radio show

Common Computer Cleanup Mistakes

Q: Since February 8th was supposedly ‘Clean Out Your Computer Day’ (I missed it), what should I be doing to clean out my computer? — Irene

A: This event was clearly a PR stunt by someone in the computer business. Performing routine maintenance on your computer is always a good idea but I would recommend that you do it more frequently than once a year!

While managing your files is important for organizational purposes, getting rid of files because someone created a national day to remind you to do is a bit disconcerting to me.

There is a major misconception amongst non-technical computer users that deleting files from your computer will somehow improve the performance.

A computer that has 100 data files will run no faster than a computer that has 10,000 data files stored on it purely based on the number of files. The only impact that a large volume of files will have on a computer is that it will fill up your computer’s hard drive. Think of it like your refrigerator; it stores the ingredients that you use for cooking, but has little to do with how fast you can prepare a meal.

If your computer’s hard drive is getting close to full, then getting the ‘urge to purge’ makes sense but don’t expect any tangible performance gain (unless your hard drive is completely full and out of operating space).

You can easily check to see how full your hard drive is by opening up My Computer and right-clicking on the C: drive, then selecting Properties.

A pie chart should come up with the blue section representing your data and the purple section representing your free space. If the purple section is a tiny sliver, then it’s time to start removing unneeded items; if not, don’t get too concerned about deleting old files.

The quickest way to free up large quantities of disk space is to uninstall unnecessary programs, which take up lots more space than documents and spreadsheets. Pictures, music and especially video files are the most common ‘data’ files that can take up significant space only if you have large quantities of them.

To remove unneeded programs, start by looking for an Uninstall option in the Programs section of each application from the Start menu. If you don’t find an option there, you can open the Control Panel and click on the Add/Remove programs option.

A Word of Warning!

Removing items just because you don’t know what they are is very dangerous. We constantly see customers in our stores that are suffering from ‘self inflicted deletion wounds’ because they started mass deleting files and programs that they didn’t recognize.

A more relevant cleanup process that can improve performance is built into the Windows operating system and should be performed at least every couple of months.

The Disk Cleanup utility (Start / Programs / Accessories / System Tools) will track down lots of extraneous files that build up as a natural course of using your computer and get rid of them all at once.

Beware of companies that may try to take advantage of any press that ‘Clean Out Your Computer Day’ receives by trying to sell you a magical program that will clean up your computer for you.

Windows based ‘Registry’ system is extremely complicated, so these ‘cleanup programs’ must guess what needs to stay and what it thinks it can remove. If they guess wrong, you end up with a much bigger problem that can be very costly to fix. All too often, we see folks bringing in crashed systems that say ‘everything was working fine until I installed XXX cleanup program,’ so be very mindful of any third party programs that claim to perform miracles for $29.95!

Ken Colburn
Data Doctors Computer Services
Data Doctors Data Recovery Labs
Data Doctors Franchise Systems, Inc.
Weekly video tech contributor to CNN.com
Host of the award-winning “Computer Corner” radio show

Wacky Wi-Fi Weirdness

Last weekend, I finally caught up with a client that needed some help with connecting to his wireless router at home from a couple different Windows laptops. I had the client connect one of the laptops to his router via wired Ethernet so I could use LogMeIn to remote into the machine.

After a few moments, I had control of his machine and the first thing I did was log into his router, a NetGear WGR614v6. The first thing I noticed was that it was (unsurprisingly) left to all original factory settings. The second thing I noticed was that his was a very “busy” Wireless LAN environment, with twelve wireless networks broadcasting within range. One of those other wireless networks actually was a NetGear router with “NETGEAR” as the SSID. Not good.

So I changed the SSID and enabled some basic security settings and tried once more to connect to this router wirelessly. No dice… Windows would simply not connect, despite numerous attempts to do so. Interestingly enough, I could successfully connect to a couple other routers that were unsecured (just for testing purposes only).

Next, I loaded up NetStumbler on the laptop and did a quick site survey. This allowed me to see more information about the other wireless networks, including what channel they were broadcasting on. The bad news was that every possible channel (1-11) was spoken for… so changing the channel used to broadcast was likely not going to help.

So I continued to futz around with the settings on the router, trying different combinations of SSIDs, security settings, turning SSID broadcast off, G-only mode, you name it, I tried it. I also tried some stuff on the laptop, making sure the Wireless NIC drivers were as current as they could be. But regardless what I tried, I simply could not get the Windows XP SP2 laptop to connect to the wireless router. I also updated the router to the latest firmware for that model, and still didn’t get anywhere. The whole time, after every change I made, the client’s MacBook was always able to connect. So I knew that the NetGear router was functioning at some level. I also knew that the wireless NIC in the Windows laptop was working since it could connect to other routers (and the client said it would work at other locations fine, just not at home).

The conclusion I arrived at is that the chipset in the NetGear router was not playing nice with the wireless chipset in the Windows laptop (it was an older Sony VAIO laptop, and sadly, I didn’t write down the model or the Wireless NIC info). It’s rate, but I’ve seen this happen a couple times before, where the interoperability between wireless manufacturers wasn’t there.

Ultimately, I recommended for my client to get another router made by somebody other than NetGear, such as Linksys or D-Link. Hopefully changing the brand of router will help out.

No More House Calls!

It feels good to post again… I haven’t posted anything in quite a while, but not because I didn’t have anything to write about. On the contrary, I almost have too much to write about. I’ve just been swamped, trying to tend to every little PC issue with what seems like an endless stream of end users. I know I’m exaggerating, but some days, it seems like I’m responsible for the smooth operation of half of the PCs in the Chicago area.

There was a time in my life that I enjoyed it, and to some degree I still do, but my life circumstances have radically changed in the past couple of years, and I’m just not “into it” as much as I used to me. I have to focus on getting my home in Chicago sold, an endeavor that has turned into a comedy, or tragedy, depending on my mood. I have a gorgeous new home waiting for me in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I’m trying to focus more and more on getting there.

It’s quite possible that I’ve attempted this before, and that I failed to heed my own advice. But I am going to make another (very determined) effort to stop making computer and network repair house calls. It’s just become too taxing, time consuming and repetitive. I had one this past weekend that I am hoping is my last. So unless it is a close personal friend in dire straits, I’m putting my foot down.

This has been a long time coming. Call it burn out, malaise or fatigue. I’m sure I’ll get some people that will chide me for turning any kind of work down, especially in this economy. It became a simple matter of balance. It was just too easy to over-schedule myself with gigs, and the money I earned was just not worth the effort. In the end, I’d find myself getting snippy with my loved ones, just because I didn’t have any personal down time to spend with them.

I’m still somewhat willing to fix machines in my home office, and use various remote control tools to tune up and tweak computers across the Internet… But here is what is making me swear off of house calls.

  1. They are becoming harder and harder to schedule. The only time I have to do house calls is evenings and weekends (I have a full time corporate IT job), and I need that time for my own personal tasks and relaxation. This is the “balance” concept I mentioned earlier.
  2. Related to the above, I have a tendency to undervalue my time, and thus undercharge for my services. This stemmed from a time in my life when I really enjoyed technical challenges, and looked at side gigs less as a serious source of income and more of a hobby with some cash rewards. I don’t look at it like that any more. My spare time is too valuable as just that… MY spare time. One person told me to jack up my hourly rates, but I don’t think anybody is going to pay me $100+/hr to come to their home to set up that new PC and router.
  3. Logistics and transportation: My wife and I share one car, and have for years. It’s saved us a TON of money. So when I do take the car for gigs, she’s stranded. Yes, we live in the city and there’s public transit, but that doesn’t cut the mustard in most circumstances. Then there’s parking (many of my customers are in the city of Chicago), the price of gasoline, and the drive times involved. In some cases, I spend almost as much time driving and parking as I do at the client’s home or office.
  4. Repetition and burnout: Self explanatory

Again, I’m not really shutting down my PC repair and IT consulting work entirely… not in the least… I’m just giving up one piece of it because of time constraints a need to focus on other aspects of my life and career.

Time To Put A Fork In It

A couple of months back, a customer asked me for help with his desktop. I’d replaced the hard drive and re-loaded it for him over a year before, but he said it suddenly starting to freeze up randomly. He dropped off the machine, and I took a quick look.

I plugged the machine into my KVM, powered it up and took a look. The machine actually booted up reasonably quick for a 5+ year old Gateway PC. I ran some spyware scans, which came up with just a few relatively harmless tracking cookies, nothing major. I made sure the Antivirus definitions were current, then started a full scan. About 15 minutes into the virus scanning process, the machine just froze up. OK, I thought to myself, this is what the PC’s owner is talking about.

So here is where the wheels came off the wagon. After shutting the machine completely off, I went to boot it back up, and I got nothing. What do I mean by nothing? I mean no splash screen, no disk activity, nothing beyond the faint hum of the fan and power supply.

I let the machine sit for a good 20-30 minutes, then attempted to start it up again. Amazingly, it booted up as if nothing happened. I attempted to run the full virus scan, and just like before, the machine locked up after less than an hour of operation. And it refused to boot up, or give any signs of life until after I let it sit for a period of time.

I started to arrive at the conclusion that this was not a case of malware infestation, or even Windows corruption, because when the machine not only ran quickly (when it wasn’t frozen up), all my scans came up clean. And if Windows were hosed, it wouldn’t result in the PC not even displaying the pre-boot splash screen. This was a hardware issue.

I checked and reseated the RAM modules, thinking that could be the problem, but that didn’t improve anything. The inside of the machine was quite clean, cleaner than most desktops I’ve worked on… so it wasn’t a layer of crud causing the machine to overheat or choke to death. Maybe the power supply or motherboard had something going on. In any event, I shifted gears and focused on getting his data off of the PC. I was able to get the PC to run long enough to copy his data to a portable USB hard drive, which I then burned to DVD.

At this point, I cut my losses, as I didn’t want to invest any more time in troubleshooting this machine. It just didn’t make any sense given the age of the machine and the fact that this kind of problem may involve replacing components, possibly even the motherboard.

I told the customer the bad news first, that I though the machine has some major hardware issue causing it to freeze up and fail to boot. Then I gave him the good news, that I had his data safely copied to a DVD. I then told him that the best thing to do is to just get a new basic desktop PC to replace it, rather than put any more money into repairing his old machine. He seemed somewhat loathe to buy a new PC, which I understand to some degree… but when you look at what the old PC is worth (basically nothing), it just makes zero sense to invest any money in repairing it. We kind of went around in logic circles about repair vs. replace, and I think my message finally started to sink in. I mean, I know everybody’s on a budget these days, but considering you can get a decent budget desktop these days for $399 (which would likely outperform his 5+ year old PC), why wouldn’t you want to go that route? If it were the motherboard (and I’m not saying it was), would you even be able to get a replacement from Gateway for a machine that old?

It’s kind of a shame that the economics of PC repair often make replacement more economically feasible than repair, but that’s the cold, truth of personal computers. The older the PC, the more it applies. It doesn’t take a genius to see how this feeds the growing problem of e-Waste. Think about it.

Shoot Your Computer?

This seems a bit over the top to me, shooting your computer because it is having issues. Yet according to this blog post, such an event allegedly happened in South Carolina as one ex-law enforcement office apparently opted to use deadly force with his girlfriend’s computer.

What is comical is that this incident, is it had less to do with the OS creating the frustration and more to do with technology’s challenges as it becomes more powerful. The more powerful it gets, the more skilled effort that is required to get things working properly.

Give me ANY OS and I can stump most people off the street by having them try to install something via a driver CD. Even OS X has stumped people in my past work because it requires some level of user interaction in many cases. That and if something else goes wrong, good luck getting Joe Average to fix it with anything other than a large cinder block.

So this brings me to this week’s query. What is the weirdest, most out of this world thing you have seen someone do when their PC was not working right? Speaking for myself, back when I was doing PC repair, I actually drove up to do a house call to witness the client outside with a 20-some-odd pound sledge screaming at his was once nearly new Dell tower. Hit the comments, let’s hear your tale of fright.

What's That Grinding Sound In My Computer?

My computer is making strange grinding sounds, but not all the time. There is no rhyme or reason to when the noise occurs; it just seems to go in and out on its own. What can this be and what should I do? –Tom

Most of us operate our computers in an environment where we can hear the normal whirring and blowing sounds of the various fans and mechanical components that are inside of the computer.

When you start to hear grinding sounds from your computer box (often referred to as the CPU), it most likely will be one of the mechanical devices inside the computer.

The actual device that is making the noise can either signal a minor issue or a major issue, so it is important that you determine the source of the noise as soon as possible.

Some of the more minor items include floppy drives, CD or DVD drives or secondary case cooling fans. The reason that I refer to them as minor is that if they do fail, it won’t cause permanent damage to the system or cause the system to be completely inoperable.

If you are familiar with the insides of a computer, you can remove the cover (with the system turned off) and try to locate the source of the noise just by listening. Be sure to avoid touching any of the electronic boards so you don’t generate electrostatic discharge (ESD), especially if you are on carpet.

If the grinding noise is constant, all of the minor items can be quickly eliminated by shutting down the computer and disconnecting the power to each item (one at a time) then restarting your system.

The items that could create a major issue include your power supply cooling fan, your processor cooling fan and your hard drive.

If the power supply cooling fan (usually located at the top and back of your computer) is the source of the noise, it is more annoying than it is destructive. If the nose stops, however, it could mean that the grinding fan has stopped spinning all together, which will cause the power supply to overheat and fail (the most obvious symptom of this failure is that nothing will power on).

When a power supply overheats, before it completely fails, it is likely to start sounding erratic voltage to the various devices that are connected to it, such as your motherboard, add-on cards, memory, processor or hard drive.

If the voltage becomes excessive, it can cause damage to these components further increasing the cost of repairs.

The key here is that if the grinding sound suddenly stops on its own, make sure that the power supply fan is still spinning. Usually, you can just hold your hand by the opening of the fan to feel that it’s still blowing out.

If it has stopped spinning, shut your computer off immediately and have it serviced by an experienced person that will also examine your main board for signs of “blown caps” (capacitors).

Blown capacitors are much more common than most folks realize because they don’t necessarily cause the computer to stop working, they cause the computer to have very strange intermittent issues (examples of how to spot them can be found here).

If the noise is coming from the fan that is designed to cool your processor, you will want to replace the fan before it fails, especially if you are running an AMD processor. Over the years, we have seen Intel processors hold up better when they overheat, but you really don’t want to put any processor in a position to ever overheat.

The final mechanical item that will cause you the most distress is your hard drive. If you know that the sound is coming from the hard drive or if the grinding sound coincides with the flashing of the hard drive light (on the front of your computer) or if it’s accompanied by an occasional clicking sound (in the data recovery business, we refer to this as the “click of death”), your data could be in jeopardy.

The various components inside of the hard disk drive are designed to operate in very tight tolerances and running a computer with a failing disk drive will most likely cause irreparable damage. Again, if you think the sounds are coming from your hard drive, turn off your computer immediately and seek a qualified technician, especially if you don’t have a good backup.

The real message is when you hear strange noises coming from your computer don’t ignore it. Unless you like big repair bills, you don’t drive your car until it breaks, so from now on, don’t drive your computer until it crashes either.

Ken Colburn
President of Data Doctors Computer Services, Host of the award-winning Computer Corner radio show, and Author of Computer Q&A in the East Valley Tribune newspapers.

Self-Employed Techs Must Read This Book

For those looking at getting into the PC repair industry as a self-employed tech, running their own business, this is the single most important book I have ever recommended to anyone seeking advice. I have recommended this book many times in the past, but feel it is worth another mention as to this day I receive email from people asking me how they might be able to get started in the repair game.

Single best quote from this book:

Starting out as a low-key, part-time operation will give you plenty of time to experiment with ways to attract customers, but if you jump into making the computer business your sole occupation, you’d better be good at sales.

In other words, this is a business where you had better eat your Wheaties each morning before your competition mops the floor with you. If you are meek or soft-spoken, find a different career path. This is a people business, period.

Extremely basic book to most PC consulting/repair veterans, yet critical to newbies.

I first bought my copy around 2005, back when I was still doing PC consulting/repair as my primary source of income. For me, it had some new information, but largely it featured ‘old news’ as I had been subjected to many of the learning experiences highlighted in the book itself. Still, there are critical points presented about how important it is to realize the pitfalls of stocking your own PC hardware for sale, running a shop vs working from your home and even dealing with a growing business from a hiring new employees aspect. In reality, this book is the complete package. A manual for someone looking to make this their chosen career. And despite all the good this great book has to offer, there are so many areas left touched.

Again, for the person just starting out, this book is solid gold. But I found it interesting at looking at what I knew as a PC Tech back in 2005 compared to what I know now in 2008. With the understanding of just how powerful “people” marketing really is, I could have made ten times what I made back then just with my current level of understanding. And I am not even going to get into how easy it would be to automate much of what today’s techs do day in and day out. That is for another article…

So how about you? Many of you are self-employed and repairing PCs for a living these days. What techniques are you using for attracting new clients, better managing the ones you already have and keeping it all straight? Specialized software, taking the bus vs driving to save costs or even just dressing up like a clown to get yourself in the local newspaper? Maybe you are taking the more subtle, dignified approach. Whatever it may be, comment here and share it with the rest of the community.

PC Repair Wake-Up Call

Every once in a while I see something that I consider to be a wake-up call. This would be it.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/LbR4wSAE7NY" width="350" height="288" wmode="transparent" /]

Every day, there are computer repair techs ripping people off. And every day, there are still those of you out there working hard to provide honest, reliable service. So here’s a thought: utilize this information to further your business.

Offer to create a clear, concise report (in plain English) of what you did, why it happened and if applicable, how to avoid it in the future. This simple act of common sense can often prevent you from potentially falling victim to the sort of thing seen above. I would also say that it is high time to rethink diagnostic charges. Start with a free hardware inspection, then begin the charging at the software level. Considering how fast one with any level of commonsense can use their eyes to look over the inside of a PC case, videos like the one above will be left only to those who are dishonest.

Any thoughts from those of you still in the field?

DSL Disillusionment

I have a small business client located in the North Shore, an area immediately north of Chicago. They’ve been connected to the Internet via a DSL connection from MegaPath DSL. Every time I’ve been at their office and have done any serious downloading, I was amazed at how slow their connection was. I have them on hosted Exchange, and Outlook 2003 in cached mode performs admirably. But when it comes to significant downloads — well let’s just say I’m glad there is a coffee maker nearby. Let me give you some hard numbers from a speed test I ran from dslreports.com:

Speed Test #41883941 by dslreports.com
Run: 2007-12-15 15:39:57 EST
Download: 129 (Kbps)
Upload: 134 (Kbps)
In kilobytes per second: 15.7 down 16.4 up
Tested by server: 56 java
User: 2 @ dslreports.com
User’s DNS: dsl.net

To add insult to injury, the rates they are being charged are insanely expensive for what they are getting. I can’t remember exactly what they pay MegaPath, but what I do remember is the reaction I had when their office manager told me — disbelief. So I counseled them on what their options were and helped them seek out alternatives. Although Comcast has service in their area, they don’t have any Coax pulled into their office suite, so I put that on the back burner (although it may quickly move to the front burner). We spoke to AT&T about getting their DSL service — and it only reinforced my opinion that they like sell first, and worry about service availability later. It’s going on the fourth day of a supposed “outage in the area” as we haven’t been able to fully activate the AT&T DSL modem yet. We’re going to try once more, then return the modem kit and tell them to take a hike. Even if we were to get the modem lit up, the fact that they’ve had an outage of this magnitude doesn’t exactly instill confidence in their service. What is their motto, “Your World, Delivered.” As if.

I have to wonder if there is just some kind of infrastructure issue in the immediate area — based on the horrible DSL speeds from MegaPath, and the non-availability of AT&T’s DSL service (so far). And yes, we were told by AT&T that the service location was well within the maximum distance from their CO for stable service. Again, I think they are so eager to sell packages, that whether they work or not is secondary. So, we may see what Comcast can do in terms of bringing Coax into their office suite, then try out one of their high-speed Internet offerings. Stay tuned.

Triple Gig Saturday (Again)

This is kind of a bittersweet story — I’ll get to the reason why in a little while.

A couple weekends before Christmas, I had a “Triple-Gig” Saturday. I try to avoid lining up so many gigs in one day, but in this case, it made the most sense. This particular small business client, specializing in executive coaching and leadership training, wanted me to take care of a bunch of things before the end of the year. There are three partners in this business, each one wanted a house-call, along with a visit to their office just north of Chicago.

I visited one of the partners the previous weekend, because she lived the furthest away in Aurora, a far west suburb of Chicago. She needed some minor WinXP tweaking and help with renewing her antivirus subscription. The other two partners lived near each other and their office, so it made sense to cluster them all together in the same day.

Of course, when you have three destinations all lined up for a single day, timing is everything. The first stop of the day should have been a quick one, but it was anything but. This particular customer has an old Compaq desktop that is slower than molasses. I had to rip and replace her AV and upgrade her Retrospect HD backup software. Those two tasks took around three hours. Each reboot was, and I’m not kidding, a 30 minute endeavor. I’ve seen paint dry quicker. I’ve been nudging her to get a new PC for quite some time, but I think after seeing how long it takes to boot up (she likes to leave her PC on for weeks on end), she’s going to take the plunge. Finally, I got through it all and headed to the next stop.

The next stop was their offices. I met their office manager, Robin, and she had a list all ready to go for me. Thankfully, I was able to crank through it quickly, and was in and out in less than an hour. Then I set off for my third and final stop of the day.

The last stop was at another partner’s home near their offices. She was a Mac user that had somewhat of a Rube Goldberg network setup, including an old CRT-based eMac with a failing screen that made it nearly impossible to use. After getting her automatic backup working, I took care of a couple of other issues and then wrapping things up.

But back to why this post is so bittersweet. Scarcely a week after taking care of these folks, I learned that their office manager, Robin, had passed away suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. I don’t know why — but it affected me deeply. She was a really great person and fellow animal lover. She was in her late 40s, very active, and was involved with her community, church, and other worthy causes. Attending a memorial service is tough enough, but to attend one on Christmas Eve is a real tragedy. I made a donation to the ASPCA, figuring it was an appropriate action to honor her memory. She lived by herself with her two cherished cats, and I’m helping her co-workers to find new homes for them. I’d have taken them both, but already having two cats, it wasn’t really practical. I hate to call upon a cliche, but hers was a life well lived, and after talking with many who attended the service, she touched many lives.