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Test gizmos well before the holidays


IF YOUR LIST OF family Christmas presents includes a new computer or some other electronic wonder, it's time to think about making sure your holiday is a digital delight and not a digital disaster.

There's nothing more unnerving than unwrapping a computer and spending a couple of hours fumbling with unfamiliar plugs, cables and other paraphernalia while the kids are looking over your shoulder, and then finding out that there's something broken or missing. Or worse yet, watching the kids' faces when you can't figure out what's wrong.

Luckily, you still have time to make sure that everything turns out right. A little planning and advance work can help ensure that your holiday is a happy one.

First, there's more than an off chance that something will go wrong with that new computer. Over the years, surveys have consistently shown that at least 10 percent of new PCs arrive with at least one faulty component. And trying to get problems fixed in the weeks after Christmas can be a nightmare - no company's technical support operation can handle the flood of calls.

The best way to deal with this is to check out the PC before Christmas morning. This is best done at night, when the kids are in bed, and it may take a couple of hours. But it's worth the effort.

Unpack the PC, hook everything up and make sure it works. This means reading the setup instructions and ensuring that all the cables are plugged in properly before you turn it on. If the machine is dead on arrival (meaning it won't start at all after you've made sure it's plugged into a live outlet), take it back to the retailer if you bought it at a store and demand a replacement. If you bought the machine from a mail-order company, call the firm's technical support line immediately and try to resolve the problem.

One common glitch has a simple fix. Monitors are frequently knocked out of alignment during shipping. Or, if you bought a monitor that isn't specifically matched to your PC, it may not be set up properly for your computer's video adapter. Either way, the result can be an image that's too small or too large for the screen, poorly centered, or bowed at the edges. Most monitors have front panel controls that can correct these problems easily. Read the instructions, spend a few minutes punching the right buttons, and everything will be fine.

Once you're satisfied that the machine is working, pack it up again and unwrap it again on Christmas morning. You'll spend a lot less time setting it up on the second go-round, which means your kids will spend a lot less time peering over your shoulder and asking, "When is it going to be ready?" And you'll look like a genius instead of a bumbler.

A few additional precautions can make the big day a lot more enjoyable. Make sure you buy a six-outlet, surge-protected power strip for your new system. A PC, monitor and printer have three electrical plugs, which is one more than the number of outlets in a standard wall receptacle. And chances are good that you already have something plugged into those outlets. A power strip solves the problem.

If you live in an older house with two-wire electrical outlets, the three-pronged plugs on your computer, monitor, printer and power strip won't fit. So buy a three-pronged adapter and make sure you ground it properly by attaching the protruding ring or ground wire to the screw that holds the receptacle plate to the wall.

Planning to hook up to the Internet? Make sure you set up the PC near a phone jack (most systems come with a 6-to 10-foot phone cord). If the computer is not near a jack, buy a 25-foot phone extension cord ahead of time so you can get connected bTC right away.

If you have two phone lines that operate through a single wall jack (a common setup in newer homes), plugging the modem into the jack will automatically put the computer on Line 1. If you want it to operate on Line 2, buy a splitter that plugs into the wall and provides three jacks - one jack for each line, plus one jack that delivers both lines. This will allow you to use the computer and a two-line phone. You'll find splitters at Radio Shack and most consumer electronics stores that sell telephones.

Does your system include a printer? Don't forget to buy a cable - most printers don't include them. And make sure it's a bidirectional cable - they're a bit more expensive, but many new printers require them. Pick up a ream of paper ahead of time - otherwise you'll be scouring the house for scraps.

To maintain parental sanity while the kids play their new games (which can be very loud), consider buying a headset microphone ($15 to $20), which plugs into your computer's sound card. You won't have to listen to Klingon warships exploding, and your kids will be able to record voice e-mail or try out Internet telephony.

Your computer will probably come with a half-dozen CD-ROMs, which are generally packaged in flimsy white envelopes. Pick up some CD jewel cases to protect them, along with a CD rack to keep them from getting lost. And don't forget a box of floppy disks - you'll need them to back up your data and make a set of startup disks to get your computer running if the hard drive ever fails.

Finally, if your gift list includes a Walkman, portable CD player or a hand-held video game, don't forget batteries! And make sure they're the right size. There's nothing sadder than the face of a kid staring at a dead electronic gadget without a battery in sight.

Send e-mail to mike.himowitaltsun.com.

Pub Date: 12/14/98

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