Fast Fixes for Common PC Problems

Every computer user hits a speed bump now and then. Whether the bump is a dead power supply, a slow-booting PC, a soaking-wet cell phone, or an e-mail attachment lost in cyberspace, sometimes technology seems more trouble than it's worth.

But just as flat tires can be patched, most common PC problems can be fixed--and fast! We've rounded up speedy, simple solutions to hardware, software, network, Internet, and mobile-device crises--and we haven't left out Windows, of course. High-tech speed bumps may be annoying, but they shouldn't keep you from enjoying the ride.

In This Article

Windows

Accelerate XP File Searches

I'll say one thing for Vista: Its search capabilities put XP's to shame. Pity the poor XP user who tries to locate a file with that operating system's plodding, poorly designed search tool. Fortunately, alternatives exist: Both Copernic Desktop Search and Google Desktop index your documents, e-mail messages, images, MP3 files, and other content for lightning-fast searches. Better still, they let you peek inside found files without opening them. That's the way a search tool should work.

Hasten Windows Boot-Ups

Nobody likes getting stuck in traffic. But that's exactly what happens when a Windows PC boots: All the startup programs try to run at the same time, resulting in a kind of software traffic jam. What you need is a traffic cop, an application that lets programs start up one at a time, at designated intervals.

Startup Delayer helps you set delays for program launches, easing startup congestion so your PC boots faster.
That's Startup Delayer in a nutshell. The free app helps you set delays for other programs, easing startup congestion so your PC boots faster. Begin by reviewing the list of startup programs to see which ones can wait. Google Update, iTunesHelper, and LightScribe Control Panel are examples of good candidates: They don't need to run the moment your system starts. To set a delay for a program, drag it to the white bar at the bottom of the Startup Delayer window. You'll see a line representing the program; drag it left or right to decrease or increase the delay. Repeat for other apps as desired, but stagger them by at least a minute.

Leave some startup programs, especially those you don't recognize, alone. But a delay of 10 or 15 minutes for many apps should improve startup speed noticeably.

Make Windows (XP or Vista) Run Faster

When you launch a program, does it snap open in a matter of seconds, or does it leave you drumming your fingers for what seems like an eternity? Countless possible culprits can be to blame for a slow system, but you have a good chance of revving things up by following a few simple steps.

Start with a RAM boost. A Windows XP system can get by on 512MB, but it'll run a lot smoother with 1GB. As for Vista, it needs at least 2GB for optimal performance. Vista also benefits if you disable resource-hogging (and, some would say, unnecessary) extras, like Aero Glass and Flip3D. To free your system from both, right-click anywhere on the Desktop and click Personalize. Next, click Windows Color and Appearance, open Classic appearance properties for more color options, and then set the color scheme to Windows Vista Basic. Click OK and your system should seem a bit zippier.

XP users should consider disabling Windows' indexing service, a system hog of little practical value. Go to Control Panel, Administrative Tools, Services, and scroll down to Indexing Service. Double-click it, and set Startup type to Disabled.

Speed Up Vista File Copying

Whatever Vista's deal is, it's a slug when copying files to external and network drives. To step things up, adopt a utility such as FastCopy, SuperCopier, or TeraCopy, all of which do the job an awful lot faster. What's more, both SuperCopier and TeraCopy can pause and resume file transfers, which may come in handy if you need to interrupt the copy process. All three programs are freebies, too.

Software

Help iTunes Auto-Detect New Songs

iTunes 8 updates your library when you buy songs from the iTunes Store or use it to rip songs from CDs. But what if you want to add music from other sources such as Amazon or eMusic? Alas, with iTunes, unlike just about every other music manager, you have to add files and folders manually.

iTunes Folder Watch monitors designated folders and then automatically adds newly discovered music to your iTunes library.
Thankfully, there's iTunes Folder Watch, a free Windows utility that monitors designated folders and then automatically adds any newly discovered music to your iTunes library.

After installing the application, run it by clicking Start, iTunes Folder Watch, iTunes Folder Watch (Background Monitoring). This action will launch iTunes, create an "iTFW New Tracks" playlist, and add a new icon to your system tray. Right-click that icon, click Open, and then add one or more folders to watch. Click the Check Now button to have iTFW scan for any tracks not already in your iTunes library. If it finds any, you'll see them listed in the New Tracks tab. One more click whisks the songs into iTunes.

You'll also want to visit the Configuration tab so that you can select and tweak iTFW's options, such as one that automatically adds newfound tracks to iTunes.

Remove Duplicate Entries From Microsoft Outlook

The longer you use Outlook, the more likely you are to end up with duplicate records. Sometimes they're the result of synchronization errors with a phone, PDA, or Web site, and sometimes, well, it's just Outlook being Outlook. Either way, duplicates can be a hassle-but you can purge them easily. Outlook Duplicate Items Remover, or ODIR for short, eliminates duplicate contacts, calendar entries, tasks, notes, and e-mail folders.

ODIR eliminates duplicate contacts, calendar entries, tasks, notes, and e-mail folders in Outlook.
After installing the
program, simply fire up Microsoft Outlook, and look for the newly added ODIR menu. Click it, then select Remove Duplicate Items. Choose the folder you want ODIR to scan; it'll find duplicates and relocate them to a subfolder (without actually deleting anything). The tool is fast, simple, and effective--just the way freeware ought to be. ODIR is compatible with Outlook 2000 and later.

Open Office 2007 Documents in Older Versions of Office

With Microsoft Office 2007, Microsoft introduced a new batch of file formats: .docx, .xlsx, and .pptx, all incompatible with earlier versions of the suite. So if someone sends you a Word 2007 document and you use Word 2003, an error message awaits you. Fortunately, the fix is easy: Use the succinctly named Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 2007 File Formats.

MOCPWEP2007FF enables you to open Office 2007 documents in Office 2000, 2003, or XP without any work on your part. Just make sure that your suite has the latest Service Pack installed--either SP3 for Office 2000 and XP, or SP1 for Office 2003.

If you don't want to go to all that trouble and you need to convert just a single .docx file, point your browser to docx-converter.com. Upload your file, select your desired format (.doc is just one choice), and enter your e-mail address. In short order you'll get a message containing a link to download the converted file. It's a free service.

Organize a Huge, Messy Digital-Photo Library

Sorry, but the shoebox approach doesn't work in the age of digital photography: You can't just dump every snapshot into your My Documents folder and still expect to find specific photos again. What you need is a photo-management program that supports tags, or keywords that you assign to each picture. For example, suppose you have a vacation photo of you and your friend Jane standing on a beach in, say, Aruba. You'd assign tags like me, Jane, beach, vacation, and Aruba.

Get in the practice of adding tags to your photos and you'll turn a disorganized mess into an easily searchable library. Google Picasa 3 and Windows Live Photo Gallery are among the free photo managers that support tagging. I'm partial to the latter (which is newer and better than the Photo Gallery app that's built into Vista), mostly because it makes tagging easier. All you do is select one or more pictures, click the Info button, and then click Add tags in the Info pane. To use existing tags, just drag photos onto the tag name in the navigation pane.

Hardware

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/SafeManuals.com. 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.

Networking

Help PCs on Your Home Network ‘See' One Another

So you have a desktop in the den, a laptop in the kitchen, and maybe another system in the kids' room--all connected to your router. Problem is, they can't "see" one another, making file and printer sharing impossible. This maddening problem tends to plague networks with Windows XP-based systems or a mixture of XP and Vista.

Unfortunately, while Vista does a better job than XP of identifying networked computers, neither OS really helps users remedy this particular annoyance. So here's the easy way to get all of your machines communicating quickly.

Make sure each PC on your network subscribes to the same workgroup.
Start by making sure that each PC is subscribed to the same workgroup (very often the problem is that they aren't). It can have any name, up to 15 characters, but it needs to be the same on each machine. In XP, click Start, Control Panel, System, and choose the Computer Name tab. Click the Change button if you need to modify the workgroup name. In Vista, click Start, Control Panel, type workgroup in the Search field, and then click Change workgroup name.

If this no-cost solution doesn't fix the problem for you, let a third-party utility do the heavy lifting. Pure Networks' Network Magic provides wizard-driven operation for such tasks as file and printer sharing and even network optimization. The Essentials version ($30) supports up to three PCs; if you have more computers, you'll need the $50 Pro version.

Stop Your Neighbors From Stealing Your Wi-Fi Bandwidth

The tip below solves weak Wi-Fi, but some folks have the opposite problem: Their routers put out signals strong enough to extend far beyond their walls. So Flanders, Norton, the Mertzes, and other pesky neighbors might be pilfering your Internet access. Even if you don't mind sharing, remember that many ISPs now have caps on monthly bandwidth--and your BitTorrent-happy squatters might push you over the limit. "Loose" Wi-Fi also represents a very real security risk: If the neighbors can access your network, they may be able to access your data as well.

Turn on MAC address filtering in your router's settings to improve Wi-Fi network security.
You could just turn on your router's built-in WPA encryption, but that won't do you much good if your kids blab the family Wi-Fi password to everyone on the block. Instead, turn on MAC address filtering in your router's security settings. You'll have to spend a few minutes entering the MAC hardware addresses for all your devices (which you can find by typing ipconfig in the Windows command console), but after that you'll need no additional security at all. Only known devices will be allowed to connect, so a password isn't required.

Boost Wi-Fi Signals to Reach All Corners of Your Home

If you're still using the old 802.11b or 802.11g Wi-Fi router that you bought when you set up your home network years ago, it's high time for an upgrade to 802.11n (currently known as draft-n); 802.11n routers offer roughly twice the range of their g counterparts--more than enough to blanket the average home with Wi-Fi goodness.

If you're looking for a cheap solution, consider a taking a do-it-yourself approach: You may be able to extend the range of your existing Wi-Fi router by "hacking" its antenna(s). Check out this how-to video and the accompanying step-by-step instructions.

Web

Keep Your Kids Safe Online

Tech-savvy teens can probably work their way around parental-control software, so how can you prevent them from visiting inappropriate and/or malicious Web sites? Simple: Route all Internet activity through a "filtered" domain-name server like ScrubIT. This free service promises to block pornographic and harmful sites, and will even fix inadvertently misspelled Web addresses.

Setup requires configuring your router to use ScrubIT's servers rather than those that your ISP supplies. If you're uncomfortable messing with your router's settings, a small Windows 2000/XP configuration utility can get the job done. Vista and Mac users must do it manually.

Once router reconfiguration is complete, ScrubIT will automatically block both adult and potentially malicious sites--over 3 million in all, according to the site. Remember, however, that you will have no control over what sites are blocked, which is the only real drawback to using ScrubIT over, say, content-filtering software. If you decide that you don't like it, an "unscrubit" utility on the site's FAQ page will revert your router to its original DNS settings.

E-Mail Large Files Easily

Big files are a fact of life in these days of 10-megapixel photos and viral videos. But many mail servers haven't kept up: They still put size limits on file attachments, so if you're trying to send something larger than, say, 5MB, it may not go through. What's more, sending huge attachments to people who aren't expecting them is a digital faux pas, as the files choke the recipient's inbox (and pity the poor dial-up or mobile user who tries to download a 5MB e-mail message).

YouSendIt and similar services let you easily send large files.
Instead, share big files by way of a service such as Drop.io, GigaSize.com, SendSpace.com, or YouSendIt.com. No software to install: Simply choose the file to send, and then name one or more recipients.

After the file uploads, the service sends the recipients an e-mail containing a link for downloading the file. No clogged mail servers; just an easy, free, and convenient big-file transfer.

Sync Google Docs With Your PC

Google Docs puts documents, spreadsheets, and presentations "in the cloud," meaning that you can work on them from any Internet-connected computer. But what about those times when you're disconnected, such as on an airplane? How can you do any work when your files live online and you're offline?

Answer: Google Gears. This free tool syncs your Google Docs docs to your PC, letting you work with your Web-hosted files even when you're offline. Changes to your documents will sync back to your Docs account the next time you connect to the Net. Just fire up Google Docs, click the Offline link in the upper-right corner, and follow the Gears setup instructions.

Give Gmail a Major Makeover

Gmail may be indispensable, but it's not much to look at. It has a decidedly Web 1.0 appearance--all text and links. Give it an extreme makeover, courtesy of Google Redesigned. A few clicks, and Gmail goes from ugly duckling to sexy starlet (or applet).

To use this free skin (which also transforms Google Calendar--no prize pig itself), you'll need Firefox 3 and the Stylish add-on. Install both, restart Firefox, and then head to the Google Redesigned site and click Install. Don't be alarmed by the stark-looking page of text; just follow the instructions, which essentially boil down to clicking the Stylish icon in the bottom-right corner of Firefox and then clicking Add Style. Finally, fire up Gmail and be prepared to say "Wow." It may be just a skin, but it's like dropping a Ferrari frame over a Ford Focus body.

Too much work? Give Gmail a splash of color with Google's new themes. Just load Gmail, click Settings, Themes, and choose from dozens of nifty designs.

Mobile

Stop Paying for Movies You Already Own

Handbrake rips DVDs you own and turns them into iPod/iPhone-friendly files.
Does Apple really expect you to pay $15 to download Iron Man when you already own it on DVD? Well, yes--but that's not the only way to get the film onto your iPod or iPhone. Instead, you could try firing up HandBrake, a free utility that can rip DVDs (but only the ones you own, of course) and turn them into iPod/iPhone-friendly MPEG-4 files. You'll need to install AnyDVD, DVD43, or DVDDecrypter to allow HandBrake to work its magic on commercial (copy-protected) movies.

Copy Recorded TV Shows to Your iPod/iPhone

If you use Windows Media Center to record TV shows on your PC, you've undoubtedly wished for a way to copy those shows to your iPod or iPhone. After all, they're free, whereas Apple charges $1.99 for every single episode of 30 Rock. Unfortunately, recorded shows are saved in Microsoft's proprietary DVR-MS format, which iTunes can't recognize.

Enter iPodifier, a free utility that converts DVR-MS files to iPod-appropriate MPEG-4 or H264. Just install the program, point it to Media Center's Recorded TV folder (which is usually in the Public folder), and configure any options you want. For example, iPodifier can convert all new shows or just those you choose, and it can automatically add transcoded shows to iTunes for on-demand syncing.

Make Your Own iPhone Ring Tones

Want to turn your favorite Brendan Benson song into an iPhone ring tone? iTunes charges 99 cents for the privilege, and that's after you've already paid for the song. Luckily, you can easily roll your own ring tone using any MP3 file in your iTunes library.

First, in iTunes find the song you want, right-click it, and choose Get Info. Click the Options tab, check the Start Time and Stop Time boxes, and then enter times for each (no more than 30 seconds apart, the maximum length for a ring tone). Click OK, right-click the song again, and choose Create AAC Version. You should see a new 30-second version. Drag it from iTunes into the folder of your choice. Next, delete the 30-second version from iTunes and undo the Start Time/Stop Time changes to the original.

Finally, open the folder containing the 30-second AAC file you dragged out of iTunes, and then change the file extension from .m4a to .m4r. Double-click it, and it's immediately added to iTunes' ring-tone library. Sync your iPhone, and you're good to go.

Recover Lost Photos From Your Camera's Memory Card

Rolls of film (remember those?) are vulnerable to accidental light exposure; similarly, memory cards can be corrupted by, well, lots of things. For example, if you pop the card out of your PC or camera while it's still being accessed, you risk damaging the data and/or the card's ability to be read. And let's not forget accidental deletion, which is often the result of nothing more than the errant click of a mouse.

PC Inspector Smart Recovery and other utilities promise to restore damaged or deleted photos from memory cards.
While you can't do anything to rescue an exposed film roll, several software utilities promise to recover damaged or deleted photos from memory cards. For starters, stop snapping pictures the moment you realize you have a problem. Any extra data written to the card may overwrite the photos you want to recover. Next, install a program such as PC Inspector Smart Recovery or Zero Assumption Digital Image Recovery on your PC, and then slip the memory card into your PC's reader. No guarantees, but these programs should find some, if not all, of your photos and copy them to your hard drive.

Advanced users can try CGSecurity PhotoRec, a DOS-based utility that bypasses the card's file system and goes straight for the data--arguably the most effective approach. It's a bit tricky to use, but worth a spin if the other programs can't do the job.

Replace a Failing iPod Battery

It's a sad fact of gadget life: Batteries wear out.

Unfortunately, Apple and Microsoft each sacrificed good sense for stylish design, building their iPod and Zune players so you can't change out the batteries. Consequently, when the battery dies permanently (usually after 18 to 24 months), so does your device--in theory. In reality, you can gently pry open most iPod and Zune cases and replace the battery. Just head to eBay and search for "ipod battery" or "zune battery." We found one for a 30GB Zune selling for just $7, complete with tools and instructions. The entire operation takes about 10 minutes, and it's easy for anyone adept with a screwdriver. Just remember: The key word is "gentle." You can accidentally chip or mar the case if you use the wrong tools or don't follow the instructions to the letter.

Going this route means you should be able to find everything you need for a lot less than the cost of a new player.

Rescue a Wet Cell Phone

So you dropped your cell phone in the toilet. Or left it out in the rain. Or ran it through a load of whites. Hey, it happens. Before slinking into the phone store for a replacement, try bringing your drowned device back to life. First, remove the battery (which may need to be replaced). If your phone has a memory card, take that out, too--it should be fine once it dries. Submerge the phone in a bowl of dry rice, cover it, and leave it overnight. The rice should suck out the moisture from the phone's innards. Pop in a new battery, and you might just be back in business.

Get Driving Directions--While You're Driving

Futzing with your GPS device while driving is just plain dangerous. But what if a client has just changed the meeting location, and you have no idea how to get there? No problem: Dial Microsoft's voice-activated TellMe service (800/555-TELL) and say the name of the restaurant. After TellMe tells you the address, say "text me the info." In a flash you'll get a text message containing the address, the phone number, and a map. TellMe works from any phone (hint: add it to your speed-dial), but BlackBerry users can download the even cooler TellMe app. The service and the app are free of charge (though texting charges apply, of course).

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