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How to wow your kids with their gift computer To avoid embarrassment, test machine beforehand


WITH THE KIDS staring over your shoulder, you nervously unwrap the new computer, separate the hardware from the Styrofoam, read the instruction sheet, plug everything in, flick the power switch and -- nothing.

The kids start to fidget. You read the instructions again, check all the connections, and push the power button again. Nothing. The kids start asking questions. You can't answer them.

You fuss some more, read some more. Still nothing. Everyone starts offering suggestions. You call your brother-in-law, the computer expert. He has more suggestions that you don't understand.

You start to feel like a jerk. The kids start whining. You start snapping at them. You find the manufacturer's tech support number and dial it. Busy. And it stays busy for two solid weeks.

It's the New Computer From Hell, folks, and it could be under your tree. In fact, some studies show that more than 10 percent of today's computers arrive with at least one component that doesn't work. Unfortunately, you don't know whether the problem is you or the machine.

How do you cope? A little preparation helps. If you're reading this before the day of the Grand Unveiling, cheat on the kids and set up the computer ahead of time one night when they're asleep. It's easier to read instructions and solve problems when you don't have an audience.

If everything works, repack the machine and unwrap it again on the big day. You'll be able to put everything together in half the time, and you'll look like a techno-hero instead of a bumbler. If the computer or monitor doesn't work, you'll have a chance to exchange it for a good one and avoid disappointing the family.

This is also a good time to install any additional software you may have bought and make sure it runs properly. This is particularly important with games, which are more likely to test the limits of your equipment than word processors, spreadsheets and other pedestrian stuff.

If the computer doesn't work, it's time for some basic trouble-shooting. Most machines come with simple, step-by-step setup instructions and color-coded cables. But hooking up your monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers and printer can still be confusing. Go over the instructions again, item by item, and make sure all the connectors are seated firmly. Don't be fooled by how they look. Push each plug in again.

Now make sure the power cord is plugged solidly into both the wall outlet and the computer. If you're using a power strip, make sure the switch on the power strip is turned on. Make sure the outlet has electricity, particularly if it's one that you don't normally use. If in doubt, test it by plugging in a table lamp (and make sure the bulb in the lamp is good).

Now make sure the computer is turned on. Don't laugh. I once spent an hour on the phone with a colleague who insisted he'd turned on the machine when all he'd actually turned on was the switch on the power strip. If we'd been in the same city at the time, I would have strangled him on the spot. Most computers have the on-off switch mounted on the front panel, but a few still have it mounted on the side near the back of the unit.

When you turn the power on, you'll usually see a light glow on the front of the unit, and (more importantly) you'll hear a hum from the fan in the back. If you can't tell whether there's a hum or not because the kids are playing Nine Inch Nails on their new boom box loud enough to be heard in the next state, throw the boom box out the window and listen to your computer again. If you know the power source is good and you don't hear a hum, the computer is probably dead on arrival, in which case, exchange it immediately.

If the computer hums but nothing appears on the screen, make sure the monitor is turned on (most have a power indicator light on the front panel). No luck? Be sure the monitor's power cord is plugged into an outlet and the monitor cable is plugged firmly into the computer's video port. A friend once spent a frustrating afternoon staring at a blank screen because the setup instructions forgot to mention that the monitor had to be hooked up to the computer itself.

Is the tube still dark? Twiddle the brightness and contrast controls. Occasionally, a unit will sneak through the factory with the brightness set to zero. If the image on the screen is misshapen or off-center, look in the manual and find the controls that handle image size, position and distortion. Monitors frequently are knocked out of factory specifications in transit.

If none of these remedies works, there's a real problem with either your monitor or your computer's video board. The only way to be certain is to plug your monitor into another computer or try another monitor with your system. If you don't have the time to do this, take the whole package back and exchange it.

Should all else fail, it may be time to call the manufacturer's technical support service. This is as much fun as having a wart removed with rusty pliers. During the month after Christmas, it's almost as impossible to get through, and once you do get through, you're likely to be put on hold for several days.

I know some families whose members have taken shifts on the phone, an hour at a time, waiting for the next available customer support representative. Their skeletal remains may be discovered by the next generation of anthropologists. But your best tactic may be timing. If the support line operates 24 hours a day, set your alarm to wake you up early and call at 4 or 5 a.m. (Eastern time). By that time, the number of callers is down to 3 or 4 million.

Finally, if you turn on the computer and it works perfectly the first time, say a prayer of thanks, turn it over to the kids, and enjoy your holiday.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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