Your eyes throb. your blood pressure soars. A deadline is crashing down on you, but you're staring helplessly at a "System Error" warning on your computer screen. Your machine has frozen up, you don't know why, and there's no one around to help you out. Suddenly you feel as if you're starring in that old commercial: Pressure. Tension. Pain.
R*E*L*I*E*F is on the way. We've isolated four common causes of the chronic aches and pains associated with the personal computer. And we've tested and selected the best modern pain medicine that money can buy: utilities and software that will return your machine to good health and protect it from recurring ailments. All you need do is follow the doctor's orders.
There now. Feeling better?
Medicine for a Messy Hard Drive
You need that report. You need it now. No excuses. And no file. Of course you've got it - somewhere. It's in that 2-GB mass of data that you've dumped into your hard drive over the years. But where?
Your mother always told you that neatness counts, and now - too late - you believe her. A good way to get organized and to keep track of files is to slice up your hard drive into independent segments called "partitions." Doing so tells your computer to treat one large drive (say, the C drive) as if it were several smaller drives (say, the C, D, E, and F drives). Then you can store, say, programs on the C drive, text documents on the D drive, financial data on the E drive, and so on. There's also a bonus: Partitioning often opens up more usable space on the original drive.
So why doesn't everyone use partitioning? Setting it up used to require a total wipeout of your hard drive. Not anymore. Now you can use PowerQuest's PartitionMagic 3.0 ($69.95), a clever utility that lets you rearrange disk partitions in minutes - while leaving all your data in place.
PartitionMagic is a straightforward, menu-driven program that walks you through the setup. You decide how much space to assign to each partition. For example, you can create a fat partition for bloated applications and several skinny ones for different types of data. Then you give each partition a name that will help you remember what's inside. Suddenly, it's a lot harder to misplace a file.
Got a lot of files that you use only occasionally? Keep them zipped up. Zip utilities compress large files or bundle multiple files into a single portable package. They're also an excellent way to separate the ephemeral from the essential, since they can zip dozens of rarely used files into one handy folder. That way, you'll know where you stored that one-year-old document - and be able to access it when you need to.
One of the best zip utilities is Quarterdeck's Zip-It ($39). Along with other top-notch features, Zip-It lets you view the contents of any zipped file that you find on the Web - without having to download it.
Even if you're the quintessential Organization Man (or Woman), you still have days when you can't put your cursor on an elusive document. Fortunately, the Digital engineers who built the AltaVista search engine have created a hot search tool for PCs that run on Windows 95ffNT.
AltaVista Personal Search 97 works on the same principle as AltaVista, which constantly trolls the Internet for new Web pages and creates a word index of every page it finds. When you run an AltaVista search, you're not searching the Web - you're searching that index. Personal Search 97 does the same thing for your hard drive. It generates and updates an index of every text file on the drive, including emails and word-processor documents.
As with the Internet version, you can search your personal AltaVista index by using any Web browser. Can't remember where you put the Hudsucker proxy? Just open your browser, type "Hudsucker," and this search engine will guide you to it. Personal Search 97 is a superb way to grab important data quickly, and there's no arguing with the price: It's free for the downloading at the AltaVista site.
Coordinates: PowerQuest Corp., http://www.powerquest.com; Quarterdeck Corp., http://www.quarterdeck.com; Digital Equipment Corp., http://www.altavista.digital.com
Remedies for Road Warriors
There you are, 2,000 miles from the office. You boot up your laptop to make a pitch to a hot prospect. Only the presentation isn't there. It's safe and sound - and a couple of time zones away. Rushing to catch the plane, you forgot to transfer those PowerPoint slides from your desktop to your portable. Oh, what a feeling!
It takes just one of these horror stories to understand why remote-control software is so popular: These programs enable you to retrieve files from your desktop computer - even when you're dialing in from the other side of the world. Products like Symantec's pcANYWHERE32 ($149.95) let your laptop link directly with your office PC. Need to control the office Macintosh from your PC laptop? Then consider Netopia's Timbuktu Pro ($139 for Macs; $99.95 for PCs), your best bet for a cross-platform solution.
After installing the remote-control software on both computers, leave the office machine hooked up to a modem or to your computer network. When you call in, just enter a password, and the software will display a mirror image of the other computer's screen. You can run programs stored on the remote machine, copy files to it, or download the files you left behind.
On the downside, the ease of working on a remote machine depends on the speed of your Internet connection. If you use the software over a fast Internet link, the performance can be quite good. But if you rely on a standard telephone modem, you'll find yourself doing a lot of thumb-twiddling as you wait for files to make their way onscreen. Still, even a time sink is better than a professional black hole.
How do you keep up with mission-critical email and other urgent messages when you're on the road? Using a service called JFAX, you can forward CompuServe or AOL faxes and voice-mail messages to your computer. JFAX delivers faxes and voice mail as email attachments, displaying the faxes onscreen and playing back the voice mail through speakers or a headset. Basic service costs $12.50 per month and provides up to 100 messages or fax pages. Unfortunately, JFAX does not have a universal reach: It serves about 22 major U.S. cities and a smattering of foreign destinations, including Sydney, Paris, and London.
If you subscribe to a local or regional Internet Service Provider (ISP), you might have to place long-distance calls to get your email - very-long-distance calls, if you're traveling overseas. Before you depart, check to see if your service provider offers Internet roaming, a new arrangement that's helping small ISPs compete with the global giants. These providers form a compact and agree to act as local connection points for all of the group's members. You pay a little extra for roaming, but far less than you would to dial in from Tokyo.
The leading Internet roaming service is iPass, which claims 1,850 access points in 150 countries. The service also offers corporate connections that enable remote workers to dial directly into their company's intranet.
If your ISP is an iPass member, you can get special software that contains a directory of local phone connections for cities throughout the world. Just punch in the name of the city you're working in, and dial in to log on. To find out if your provider offers this service, visit the iPass Web site.
Coordinates: Symantec Corp., http://www.symantec.com; Netopia Inc., http://www.netopia.com; JFAX Personal Telecom Inc., http:ffff jfax.com; iPass Inc., http://www.ipass.com
Pain Relievers, Glitch Reducers
If Dante had written the inferno on a personal computer, he may well have dreamed up a circle of hell where damned souls clasp red-hot telephones to their ears, eternally waiting for technical support to help them fix their computers.
Contending with tech support is a misery that every computer user endures sooner or later, and it's especially painful when you're on a tight deadline. Even so, there's relief at hand for those who plan ahead.
Think of all the times you've fixed a computer problem by switching off the machine and then starting it up again. That's the CyberDiety's way of telling you that many computer glitches have a simple cause - an outdated device driver or an incorrect software setting, for example. You can save considerable time and money by using diagnostic software that discovers these minor ailments before they infect your entire machine.
CyberMedia's First Aid 98 ($59) and Quarterdeck's Fix-It ($79) offer such help. They come on CD-ROMs that include a "knowledge base" - an electronic library of malfunctions commonly found on computers running Windows 95 or 3.1. In some cases, the product will tell you how to overcome the mishap. In others, it'll fix the glitch for you, at the touch of a button.
Printer not printing? The cause could be anything from a loose cable to a missing printer driver. Repair software localizes the problem - and tells you how to fix it. If you can't manage the fix yourself, the program generates a diagnostic printout that you can show to an expert.
There's a bounty of tech-support resources on the Internet, including hundreds of Web sites devoted to specific products. Start looking for them at SupportHelp http://www.supporthelp.com, which features a searchable index of sites that provide technical assistance. Type in a product name, and SupportHelp serves up the manufacturer's email address and a Web link.
For a richer helping of information, try HealthyPC (www.zdhelp.com). Here too you'll find a searchable index of products - plus thousands of repair tips, available at no charge.
If you're willing to spend a bit of money, consider a visit to TuneUp.com http://www.tuneup.com. For $4.95 a month or $39.95 a year, you get not only services like those offered by SupportHelp but also software that scans your computer for viruses and that automatically delivers updates of key programs. Having a problem with your monitor? The newest video driver, uploaded to your machine by TuneUp.com, might just take care of it for you.
For some computer problems, only the human touch will do. Try the PC Crisis Line (800-828-4358). It's an independent company that provides support for all types of PC hardware and software. And the price is reasonable - $3 a minute for the first 10 minutes and $1 a minute thereafter. You're billed by credit card, not on your phone bill (as with those 900 numbers), and there's no charge if the company can't help you with your problem. The PC Crisis Line office is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Pacific time, Monday through Friday, but the techs are on call around the clock.
In the medieval era of personal computing, newbies received tech support from user groups that met at the local Denny's. Those groups are still out there, and you can find them by visiting the Association of Personal Computer User Groups http://www.apcug.org. Consider joining up, attending meetings, and building relationships with knowledgeable users - folks you can call at 5 p.m., when that vital report just won't print out.
It's no fun when your computer goes kablooey in the middle of a major project. But with a little effort, you can transform a hellish experience into mere purgatory.
Coordinates: CyberMedia Inc., http://www.cybermedia.com; Quarterdeck Corp., http://www.quarterdeck.com
Antidotes for Viruses - and Thieves
America's streets are the safest they've been in years, but its computers are another matter. They're at the mercy of virus-generating hackers, sneak thieves, and disgruntled employees.
New types of computer viruses leap from machine to machine with depressing ease, ravaging data as they go. In 1996, according to Safeware, a computer-insurance company, crooks swiped over 265,000 laptops, many of them crammed with vital business data. And a survey of 200 major corporations by WarRoom Research LLC found that 48% had been hit by data thieves during 1996, with most victims reporting losses of more than $50,000 per incident.
You say you've never had a computer-security problem? Good. Keep it that way.
Start with a sound anti-virus strategy. For years, the virus threat was more hype than reality. That changed with the development of "macro viruses," which can hide inside word-processing documents or spreadsheets: Open the wrong memo, and you're infected.
There are plenty of good virus-filtering products on the market, including Dr Solomon's Anti-Virus and McAfee's VirusScan ($50 each). Pick one and use it. If you're on a computer network, make sure that every machine on it is equipped with anti-virus software that scans email and data coming in from the Internet. And remember: To detect the latest diseases, anti-virus programs require regular updates from the manufacturer.
Once you've stopped viruses from getting in, you need to prevent private information from getting out. Windows comes with a password system to prevent passers-by from spying on your work, but it's easy to sidestep. For surefire security, try Symantec's Norton Your Eyes Only ($89.95), which features a tougher-to-crack password program.
Older encryption systems were hard to use. With Your Eyes Only, it takes just a second or two to scramble private files so that only you can read them. There's also a drag-and-drop feature that lets you create secure folders on your desktop: You can dedicate a folder to, say, client information, and once it's set up, all the files stored in it will be encrypted automatically.
Passwords have always been the weak link in computer security. Really good passwords, like "204jobtf23," are impossible to remember; really memorable ones, like your birthday, are too easy to guess.
The problem gets much worse if you have multiple passwords swimming around in your head. Counterpane Systems http://www.counterpane.com has a clever remedy called Password Safe, a free program available for downloading at the Web site. The program does what the name implies: It locks and stores your passwords in encrypted form. You'll need to remember just one password - the one that opens Password Safe.
Now, what about your laptop? It'd be a shame if someone were to run off with it. Not only would you lose $4,000 worth of computer; you'd lose the priceless data inside it. CyberAngel from Computer Sentry (www.sentryinc.com) protects your data - and gives you a fighting chance of retrieving your machine.
CyberAngel is a kind of LoJack for laptops. Try to use the computer without entering the right password, and CyberAngel will lock down the data. Better yet, if a thief plugs in your laptop's modem, CyberAngel will automatically call Computer Sentry for help. Using the same technology that makes possible caller ID service, the people at Computer Sentry can determine the laptop's location. Then they contact you, and you call the cops. CyberAngel sells for $25 plus a monitoring fee of $60 a year.
You'll still have to worry about laptop larceny. But in the long run, you just might catch a thief - and avoid a headache.
Coordinates: Dr Solomon's Software Inc., www.drsolomon.com; McAfee Associates Inc., http://www.mcafee.com; Computer Sentry Software Inc., http://www.sentryinc.com
Hiawatha Bray email@example.com is a columnist and technology reporter for the Boston Globe.
Action Item: Quick Relief!
Computer makers love to brag about their high-speed machines, but they must be dreaming. If computers are so fast, why do we spend so much time waiting? Waiting for the machine to boot up. Waiting for applications to launch. Waiting for storage drives to zip shut. Somebody, please, wake me when it's over!
If you too feel the need for speed, catch Hurricane 98, Helix Software's new utility for Windows. Hurricane 98 accelerates the boot-up time for Windows by as much as 40% and gooses the time it takes to launch applications by almost 200%. It also saves time by automatically downloading from the Internet and patching into your system the latest version of Hurricane software.
My favorite feature is the WinPack, which lets you compress applications instead of closing them. When you need to access the application, just click on the special icon that WinPack creates. The program pops up without making you wait for it to restart. And by compressing the program, WinPack frees up disk space so that you can use more memory. Hurricane handles both Windows 95 and Windows 3.x.
- Gina Imperato
Coordinates: $39. Helix Software Co., http://www.helixsoftware.com
Calling Nurse Stelter!
Attorney, librarian, neat freak. That's Sandy Stelter of Benicia, California. Stelter helps high-tech pack rats tidy up their computers - right down to the last kilobyte of storage space. She charges between $50 and $75 an hour for an office visit. For us, however, she's giving away three of her most valuable secrets.
Call for Backup
Don't even think about giving your computer a spring cleaning without first copying all the data on it. Backing up saves you from losing a file - and it forces you to swamp out your hard drive. The effort of deciding which files to back up, says Stelter, will yield dozens of items that belong in the trash.
Learn to Say Goodbye
Discard old files and programs that you no longer use. Don't delete only the obvious files. If you use fax-modem software, your hard drive is probably cluttered with old faxes, which suck up vast amounts of disk space. Also, cull through email - and don't limit yourself to the inbox. Stelter regularly trashes copies of old outgoing mail.
Fill the Manila
Most operating systems make it easy to sort data into file folders - though few people do it the right way. Stelter's advice: Create new folders for each major project - and folders within the folders for each task within a project. Then use a directory such as Windows Explorer to display a visual "tree" showing each stage of the work. "Put these folders on your desktop," she advises, "and you'll find them at a glance."
Coordinates: Sandy Stelter, firstname.lastname@example.org
Pack Your First Aid Kit!
Any place outside the United States can be a perilous destination for the high-tech traveler. Which is why Stephanie Kelly won't be out of a job any time soon. Kelly is a field sales manager for TeleAdapt, an international firm that specializes in telecom aids for the global warrior. The next time you pack your passport, check out Kelly's favorite gadgets before you plug in your laptop.
The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang
"There are 40 different phone sockets used worldwide," Kelly warns, "and your U.S. RJ-11 cable doesn't work with any of them.''
Before you climb onto the plane, pick up a batch of TeleDaptors - devices that connect your modem cable to overseas phone systems. Sixteen adapters that'll get you plugged in throughout Europe cost $195.
Good Morning, Mr. Phelps
You'll need the skill of a secret agent to use a modem in some Eastern European countries. For $105, TeleAdapt offers its Executive TeleKit, a set of gadgets that lets you dismantle a wall jack and clip directly onto the wires inside - just like a character out of "Mission: Impossible."
"American modems are programmed to listen for American dial tones," Kelly says. "Outside the United States, the dial tones are different.'' TeleAdapt offers pamphlets on overseas use of many communications-software programs, so you can find out how to adjust your modem to those strange tones.
Coordinates: TeleAdapt Ltd., http://www.teleadapt.com
Rx for Windows 95
Think you've got computer problems? Steve Jenkins has hundreds of them. And he has a solution to match each one. Jenkins founded the Windows95.com site http://www.windows95.com to help users deal with the many glitches that plague Windows 95. Here are his top tips for keeping your PC alive.
Designate Your Drivers
Drivers are the vital little programs that control your PC's interaction with add-on hardware devices, including printers and monitors. "There's a very good chance that a problem with a hardware device can be fixed with an updated driver," says Jenkins. Windows95.com features links to manufacturer's sites, from which you can download the newest drivers. The software is free.
Zap Those Bugs
Many popular programs are riddled with bugs that didn't get stomped on during the testing process. To eliminate these vermin, get a service pack. "A service pack is an interim release for an operating system or a software package," says Jenkins. Software companies roll them out regularly, and the packs usually include repairs for bugs that have infested earlier versions of the software. Service packs for Windows 95 are available for free through Jenkins's site.
Hang with the Big Tippers
You can solve - or at least avoid - many common problems by learning more about how your software works. Windows95.com contains hundreds of handy tips that can bail you out of a tough spot. Say you can't get your internal modem to work. To get help, you'll need to know the modem's brand name. Windows 95 will tell you - if you just know how to ask. And you will know, after a quick visit to Windows95.com.
Coordinates: Steve Jenkins, email@example.com
A version of this article appeared in the February/March 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.