Computers can develop problems for a variety of reasons, and it can sometimes be hard to isolate the cause. Problems come in two general types: hardware and software. Hardware refers to a physical part of your computer, including the keyboard, the hard drive, and the motherboard. Software refers to programs and documents stored on your computer, including the operating system (such as Windows or the Mac OS), Microsoft Word documents, images, etc. Software problems can be caused by a variety of things, including a hard drive that is beginning to fail, power fluctuations that happen while files are being saved, viruses, or from not shutting your computer down properly.
Hardware problems can’t be caused by software; they tend to happen over time, or because of something like power fluctuations, or excessive heat or moisture. It’s essential to protect your machine with a surge suppressor, or better yet, an uninterruptible power supply (UPS).
A surge suppressor protects your computer and peripherals from a sudden surge in electricity, sometimes caused by an electrical storm, or because of fluctuations in voltage from the power grid. These power surges can come through either your power or your phone outlets, so if you have your computer connected to the phone line (if you use dial-up internet access for example), any surge suppressor you use should protect both power and phone lines. There are also surge suppressors which protect your cable line instead of the phone line, for those who use cable internet access like Time Warner’s RoadRunner.
If you live in an area like I do, you know what it’s like to experience a lot of brownouts, and even complete blackouts are common in a lot of areas. While a surge suppressor is a must-have no matter where you live, it’s better to use a UPS (which stands for Uninterruptible Power Supply, and has nothing to do with the shipping company) to protect your computer if you live in a place with unstable power like we have here.
A UPS contains both a surge suppressor and a large backup battery that immediately takes over if the power level drops. This protects the computer from the damage done by brownouts and can even keep your computer running for up to 20 minutes if the power goes out completely, allowing you to save your work and shut down safely. This 20 minutes can make the difference between losing hours, days, or even months of work (if the computer turns off while you’re working on a project, you can lose not just what you’re working on now, but everything in the file).
If you live near the ocean or in a very humid area, rust and corrosion are a very big problem; keeping your computer in an air conditioned room will help.
Regardless of where you live and whether or not you have a surge suppressor or UPS, you should make regular backups of your important files onto disks that aren’t damaged by moisture, such as CDs and DVDs. Floppy disks and Zip disks, on the other hand, are both made of similar materials to videotapes, all of which can be ruined by mold. If you still have important files on floppy or Zip disk, you should look into transferring the files to CD or DVD. In the mean time, keeping the disks in a sealed Tupperware container with desiccant packs (the same stuff that comes in vitamin bottles) can help keep them working longer.
Symptoms of a sick computer can range from occasional crashes or slow operation, to a computer that won’t turn on. The thing is, a hardware problem can start out very minor, but can get worse over time. A common mistake people make is ignoring or overlooking problems until they get too big to fix – in the case of a bad hard drive, this can mean you can lose all of your files. This is why it’s so crucial to back your files up regularly.
Don’t make the mistake so many people do: make a habit of backing up regularly before you lose important files. So many people learn the hard way; I hate having to tell people that all of their many hours of work are completely lost.
I know what it’s like to lose files, too – I’m not just a computer guy, I’m also a writer. Most of my early writing is lost forever because I didn’t back up my first computer many years ago (hey, everybody was a rookie once!). Don’t let this happen to you with the valuable pictures, music, letters, emails, schoolwork, customer files, or whatever other irreplaceable files you may have on your computer.