Fast Fixes for Common PC Problems

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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

Rescue 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

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/ 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.

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