Reader Q&A: Troubleshoot Windows, Tweak Office, Add USB Ports

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A few weeks back I answered some reader questions about connecting a PC to a TV and adding a second monitor. My mailbag just keeps filling up, so this week I'll tackle some more questions--about troubleshooting MIA Windows programs, making Office 2007 and 2010 look more like earlier versions of the suite, and the proper use of USB hubs.

Use a Spare User Account to Troubleshoot Windows Problems

Recently a couple readers wrote to me with very similar problems. One was having trouble getting Internet Explorer to run; the other, Windows Explorer.

In other words, a couple of Windows' own built-in tools were broken. (Note to Microsoft: That should not happen. Come on!)

Usually, for situations like these, I recommend an end-run around the problem. Internet Explorer won't work? Install Firefox or Chrome and use that instead. Can't load Windows Explorer? Switch to any number of even better Windows Explorer replacements.

Of course, that doesn't really solve the problem. If you're hoping to fix your broken tool, you'll need to do a little troubleshooting. To start, I recommend switching to (or creating) another user account, then seeing if Explorer runs properly. If it does, you've narrowed down the problem significantly (and should consider "moving" to a new user account permanently). If not, well, back to square one.

Either way, it's a simple method of figuring out how deeply rooted into Windows the problem is. And that will help considerably as you Google-search for an actual fix (assuming there is one--sometimes these things can be resolved only by reinstalling Windows).Make the Office 2007/2010 Toolbars More Familiar

Make the Office 2007/2010 Toolbars More Familiar

Reader Jim recently found himself face-to-face with Word 2007 for the first time, and quickly declared the "top task bar too complicated for my novice use." He's referring to what Microsoft calls "the Ribbon," and he wants to know if there's a way to simplify it.

No doubt about it, the Ribbon (which appears in most Office 2007 and all Office 2010 programs) can seem daunting to anyone accustomed to earlier versions of Word, Excel, and the like. If that's you, check out UBitMenu. This free plug-in brings pull-down menus back to Office 2007 and 2010, thus easing your transition. Thankfully, it keeps the Ribbon, too, so you can learn the new interface without totally abandoning the old one.

After installing UBitMenu, you'll see a new tab next to Home: the aptly named Menu. Click it and you'll find File, Edit, View, Insert, Format, and all the rest of those long-lost drop-downs. Even better, UBitMenu retains most of Office's newer features, like the more robust Save As submenu. You get the best of both worlds. The program is free for private, personal use. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Add More USB Ports to Your PC

Reader Jay wants to know how many USB "splitters" he can use with his desktop. The system has four USB ports in the back and two in the front; Jay says he's already using one splitter, but needs two additional USB ports.

Holy mackerel, Jay, how many devices do you have? (I'm a power user myself, and only four of my desktop's six ports are occupied.)

To answer your question, yes, it's safe to add another splitter (which, although an apt description, is traditionally known as a USB hub). In fact, a PC is theoretically capable of accommodating up to 127 USB ports. However, the reality is a bit different.

By "splitting" a USB port, you reduce the power available to the newly added ports. Whether or not that's a problem depends on the kinds of devices you plug in, but I strongly recommend using only powered USB hubs. They cost a little more, and force you to find yet another free AC outlet, but they virtually eliminate the issues that tend to arise with non-powered hubs.

I also recommend plugging each hub directly into one of your PC's built-in USB ports. In other words, don't daisy-chain them. And if you use an external hard drive, plug that into a built-in (i.e. non-hub) port as well. When it comes to your data, it's not wise to risk any kind of power fluctuation.

If you've got a hassle that needs solving, send it my way. I can't promise a response, but I'll definitely read every e-mail I get--and do my best to address at least some of them in the PCWorld Hassle-Free PC blog. My 411: You can also sign up to have the Hassle-Free PC newsletter e-mailed to you each week .

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