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Try upgrades yourself before calling pro

Don’t be afraid; you might actually learn something

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I got an interesting e-mail last week that brings up an interesting point: When should a computer user tackle a repair or upgrade himself and when should one call in the pros?

The letter basically took me to task for a recent column in which I gave some instruction on how to upgrade your computer's memory. The gist of the letter was that I made it sound too simple, that some memory sockets are hidden under power supplies, behind cables and otherwise hard to reach.

Point taken, but it brings up a couple of interesting issues. One, no columnist can offer specific steps on doing almost anything because nearly every motherboard and computer is different. Unlike other hobbies, there is little standardization between computer companies, even today. My favorite hardware Web site currently offers more than 200 motherboards for sale.

Secondly, I think it's the hard stuff that makes things interesting. I'm a pretty skilled computer nerd these days, and the number of classes I have taken in computer repair is zero. Everything I have learned — from upgrading computers to hard-drive repair to building a computer from scratch — I learned as I went.

And you can, too. If your memory sockets are hidden behind the power supply, unplug your computer and remove the supply. I have yet to see any computer where the power supply could not be removed by a chimp. Four screws and away you go. Ditto the hard drives, many of which are held in by two screws. Some have the entire hard-drive tray removable.

I guess my point is that nothing should be a deal-breaker here. You gain nothing by not trying it yourself; the worst that can happen is you end up paying a pro, which you would have done anyway. But there's a good chance you can do it yourself and learn something as you go.

Which upgrades should you tackle? In my opinion, the easy ones are memory upgrades, modem upgrades and adding a new video card. The latter two always come with decent instructions.

Several times a year the big chain stores offer free-installation specials, so keep your eyes peeled for that.

The more complicated upgrades include changing operating systems (going from Windows 98 to Windows NT, for example), adding a second CD drive and adding another hard drive.

Hard-drive upgrades are among the most popular upgrades, but they can be a little maddening. First, you need to change a little switch on the existing drive to let it know another drive is joining the family. You need to set the same switch on the new drive correctly. And you need to know how to access your computer's setup program and, sometimes, how to format a new drive.

I'd still encourage a user to try it, but be ready to call in nerdly reinforcements if you get stuck.CORRECTION: I had a typo in last week's column; the larger memory chips have 168 pins, not 128.

WEEKLY WEB WONDER: There are some great how-to articles online at PC World www.pcworld.com.

James Derk is new media editor for The Evansville Courier & Press. His e-mail address is jderk@evansville.net

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