Practical Advice for Laptops and Desktops

A few months ago, I put together some useful tips for laptops--stuff like fixing broken keys, and a useful keyboard shortcut. I think it's about time for another grab bag of tips. Read on for a laptop-specific power tip and a couple one-size-fits all tips for Windows machines.

Should You Use Standby or Hibernate?

It's an age-old question: When you're done using your laptop, or just taking a break from work, should you put it to sleep, let it hibernate, or turn it all the way off?

Allow me to answer by way of a mnemonic: Hibernate is great. You see, sleep mode (aka standby) puts your system into an off-like state, allowing you to pick up where you left off after just a few seconds--unlike rebooting, which can take minutes. But a laptop in standby mode continues to consume battery power, so it's not uncommon to return to a "sleeping" machine to find that it's just plain dead.

Hibernate writes your laptop's current state to a temporary hard-drive file, then shuts down completely. When you start up the computer again, it loads that file and returns you to where you left off--no booting required.

Both ends of the hibernate process take a little longer than standby (usually 10-20 seconds, in my experience), but you avoid any of the issues that can arise when Windows suddenly loses power. What's more, standby is a notoriously flaky mode. I've encountered plenty of systems that refuse to wake up properly, so you end up losing the work you were trying to preserve. Consequently, unless you're running your laptop on AC power, I recommend using hibernate most of the time.

And here's a handy related tip: You can change the function of your laptop's power button so that pressing it automatically activates hibernation.

Protect Your PC From Sudden Power Outages

This morning I wanted to give my uninterruptible power supply (or UPS) a big, sloppy kiss--and would have, if not for the risk of electrocution.

See, my neighborhood experienced a brief power outage--right when my PC was in the process of booting. If a system loses power while it's starting up or shutting down, it could spell disaster. One possible outcome: damaged Windows and a PC that will no longer boot. That's why I was so grateful to have that battery-backed UPS, which kept my computer alive and booting even while the lights went out around me.

Needless to say, a UPS is also indispensable if the power dies while you're working, as it gives you time to save your documents and shut down safely.

Obviously laptop users already have a "battery backup" built in, so they have less need for a UPS. If, however, you've followed my advice to remove the battery while working at a desk, a UPS is just as essential as if you were using a desktop.

So, what kind should you buy? I have no specific recommendations, but you can find popular models like the APC Back-UPS ES for as little as $50. (That's very similar to the one I'm using now, and I have no complaints. Quite the opposite, in fact.)

Yep, a battery backup will cost you a few bucks, but I think it's worth it. The computer you save could be your own.

Are You Neglecting Your Windows Key?

Today I saw something that made my eyes go wide: A friend reached for the mouse, clicked the Start button, and then went back to the keyboard to type the name of the app he wanted to launch.

I asked him what I considered an obvious question: "Why didn't you just press the Windows key?"

"The what key?" he responded.

Seriously? This isn't common knowledge? Apparently not, because after a quick survey of some friends and family, I discovered that few people ever bother with the Windows key, and some don't even know what it's there for. (The horror. Time to re-up your PC World subscriptions, people!)

Needless to say, a tap of the Windows key (which on most keyboards is just to the left of the space bar) takes you to the Start menu, where--in Vista and 7--you can start typing to dynamically search for apps, files, e-mail, and the like.

A lesser-known use of the Windows key is to launch apps in a flash. And don't forget these three indispensable Windows-key shortcuts.

Rick Broida writes PC World's Hassle-Free PC blog. Sign up to have Rick's newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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