If you have an old laptop that starts making ominous, clicking noises, don't wait for it to get better. It won't. And don't put off making backup copies of your important files, even if your computer isn't complaining.
My cousin in Florida learned these lessons the hard way last week. And if I had done the smart thing and insisted that she fix or replace her old machine the day she first mentioned the problem, I could have spent my last afternoon of vacation sitting on the beach instead of replacing a crashed computer - a pastime that long ago lost its charm.
First, a word about failing computers. Almost every computer will expire some day. I have a colleague who flogged an XT clone from the mid-1980s right up to the millennium, and retired it only when he realized it couldn't do the World Wide Web - but that's the exception.
Sometimes failures happen without warning. Over the years, I've had a few motherboards (the computer's main circuit board) snuff themselves without so much as a bleep. But with older machines, the most common cause of failure is the hard drive - which not only stores all your data but also has to be working in order to load the operating system when you turn the computer on.
If you have a machine that's four years old or more and you get strange error messages when you start the machine - or, like my cousin, you hear the hard drive clicking repeatedly before the computer loads the operating system - it's time for a new drive or, if your PC is old enough, a new computer.
Should you be lucky enough to get a balky computer running, don't shut it off till you've backed up your important data. You can always reinstall software, but if you lose important documents, financial records, music, photos - or, in my cousin's case, a massive recipe file - you could be facing disaster.
There are a variety of ways to back up your hard drive, but the easiest by far is to buy an external hard drive that plugs into a USB or FireWire port. Starting at $100 or so for 150 gigabytes of storage or more, these devices are about the size of a paperback book and represent an incredible bargain.
If you really want to be secure, buy two portable units and keep one backup in a safe-deposit box, or just store it in a safe place somewhere away from your main PC so it won't get stolen, flooded out or burned up in a disaster.
Many external drives come with "one-touch" backup software that will clone your hard disk on the backup drive and then make incremental copies of files that have changed. But that might be more work than most people want to do.
I use a free Microsoft utility called SyncToy that was designed to synchronize the contents of any two folders on the same drive or different drives.
I keep everything I care about in Windows' master My Documents folder. Once a week or so, I tell SyncToy to synchronize that folder with a backup folder on two external drives. One is attached to my PC and the other to my wife's machine on our home network. The whole process takes only takes a few minutes.
You can find this handy utility by visiting www.microsoft.com/downloads/ and searching for SyncToy. The latest versions work on Vista as well as earlier Windows releases.
Another backup possibility, if you don't have a lot of bulky photos, music or video files, is to use a thumb-sized flash memory drive. Four-gigabyte models that plug into a USB port are available for less than $30, and higher-capacity drives are becoming cheaper all the time. Buy a couple and rotate your backups - because no medium lasts forever.
DTV coupon blues
With less than 300 days till broadcast TV stations switch from analog to digital transmissions, I'm hearing complaints from readers who registered for coupons to buy converter boxes for their sets but haven't received them. Some have been waiting two months.
No surprise there. According to the government's TV Converter Box Web site, the agency handling the coupons was swamped when the program began early this year. This week, the government is mailing coupons ordered late in February.
If you order coupons now, you can expect to wait four to six weeks, according to the latest schedule. The coupons are valid for 90 days after they're mailed. If you've registered and you're still waiting, check the status of your coupon order at www.dtv2009.gov/CheckStatus.aspx.
For those who haven't heard about this issue (despite my occasional harping), the government will send two coupons worth $40 each to any household with a TV that gets its signals over-the-air, with an antenna, as opposed to using cable, satellite or fiber-optic service.
Consumers can use the coupons to offset the cost of converter boxes that translate the new digital transmissions into the analog signals most existing sets require. The boxes, available at most electronics outlets, cost $40 to $70.
Without a converter, any of the 70 million analog TVs that depend on antennas will turn into a doorstop when broadcasters turn off their old transmitters on Feb. 17, 2009. If your TV is hooked up to cable, don't worry now: Most cable companies will continue to provide analog signals for at least three years.
Just be aware of scammers who offer "HDTV" converters. Although a digital converter may improve picture quality slightly, there's no gadget that will turn an old analog TV into a high-definition set.
My advice: If you're an over-the-air viewer, buy your converters ASAP and test them now. You may find that you need a new antenna, too - something the government won't help pay for. Even then, you may not get all the channels you get today. If that's the case, and it bothers you, write your congressman.