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    Rob Pegoraro and the Fast Forward Team
    Stump Us With Your Computer Problems

    Friday, July 9, 1999 at noon.

    Rob Pegoraro

    In the course of trying out stupendously useful new toys, the Fast Forward crew has also spent hours upon hours swearing at balky hardware and software, puzzling through inscrutable owner's manuals, waiting on hold while listening to Muzak versions of R.E.M., restoring data lost due to ill-chosen experiments and, in at least one case, losing blood from cuts induced by a poorly designed computer case.

    Now it's your turn... to profit from our misery! Bring your computer problems--hardware, software, Internet, whatever--to our discussion this Friday, from noon to 1. We'll answer as many questions as we can. (We can't guarantee everyone's satisfaction or that your computer will be miraculously restored to life, but we will at least try to be funnier than the gang on the help line.)

    Transcript Follows

    Bowie, MD: I was considering adding some RAM to my machine. Can I buy from any of the companies advertised in catalogs? Are there any compatibility issues with certain types of computers or hard drives? How can I tell if it is possible to install the RAM myself, and if not, what is the most economical way to have someone install it in my computer?

    Thank You!

    Rob Pegoraro: Good morning/afternoon, y'all...

    Welcome to today's exercise in collective problem-solving. First, a disclaimer: I'll do my best to see what might be ailing your system, and how to fix it, but I can't guarantee anything, and if my advice/guess turns your computer into a smoking, radioactive hole in the ground... it's not our fault, no warranty is expressed or implied, and, most importantly, please don't sue us.

    So: Let's see what we can do here. Send in your questions about whatever computing oddities you've witnessed lately, and we (meaning me and whatever other FFWD writers/staff I can reach on the phone or in e-mail) will try to see what can be done about it.

    In answer to this first question, the general answer here is "memory is memory"--provided that you're buying the right kind *for your machine.* Putting, say, extended data out RAM into a machine that only takes fast page mode RAM causes bad things to happen, so you need to verify with whoever takes your order that you're getting the right kind. Have your computer's model name (Presario 5502, blue-and-white G3 Power Mac, ThinkPad 760) handy when you call. But if you've bought the right kind and it's not DOA--your machine boots up properly with it and doesn't start crashing at random--you should be fine. It's possible for RAM to go "bad" but I have never seen it happen; the odds are really high that everything else on the computer will break first.

    The more important thing to consider is the vendor itself. Is the company responsive to its customers? Does it have a fair return policy? Does its support staff answer whatever questions you may have?

    Finally: If the computer's case was designed well, you shouldn't have a problem adding the chips yourself. Try taking the case off and accessing the chip slots yourself. If you can do that without drawing blood, you're probably OK. But some machines--for instance, the iMac--are just not that accessible on the inside, and you'll probably be better off paying somebody at a local computer store to install it for you.

    Ladson,SC: I have an "uninstaller" program on my machine.Some software vendors recommend removing their software using the add-remove function in Win xx only. What is your opinion on using "uninstaller or cleansweep programs?

    Rob Pegoraro: Using the Add/Remove Programs control panel or a specialized uninstaller utility is more about trading money for thoroughness. Add/Remove Programs used to be a complete joke--when Win 95 first came out, it wouldn't remove most of the programs in existence, since they were designed for Windows 3.1 and would therefore not work with the add/remove function.

    It's been a while since I've seen a program that couldn't be yanked by Add/Remove Programs (well, except for Internet Explorer...). But if you've got some old DOS or Win 3.1 programs you want to nuke, you probably need an uninstaller. That utility should also allow you to move programs from one directory to another, unlike Add/Remove Programs. Finally, it should do a better job of cleaning up the last traces of a program, such as whatever data it may put in the Windows Registry (this is a system-wide database of, well, everything that makes the machine run).

    Bottom line: If you're satisfied with how Add/Remove Programs works, leave well enough alone.

    Columbia, Md: What would you recommend for the conversion of analog video into digital video? I've been look at ATI's All-In-Wonder 128 -PCI- - have you heard anything about this card? I'd be using it with a 400 MHz Celeron processor. Thanks.

    Rob Pegoraro: Our video guru, Daniel Greenberg, says:

    "That's good, so is the Matrox Marvel... nowadays the all-in-one cards are usually the way to go, since you also get a decent graphics card.

    Also, the Dazzle Digital Video Creator will do this without having to put anything inside the computer." See

    He notes that the resulting quality will not be nearly as good as what you'll get by importing digital video from a DV camcorder... but, hey, those cost a bit more.

    Washington, DC: HELP! I have a Dell Dimension XPS R-400 which I dearly love and try to take care of as best I can, but it is SLOW SLOW SLOW...

    I got it with 128 megs of RAM, which I thought would be more than enough for what I do -web browsing, word processing, email, occasional MP3 playing-, but I think I have a couple of background programs -TSRs?- that are hogging my system resources, but I don't know how or why.

    I recently installed Norton Utilities -which I also dearly love-, and I noticed a drastic drop in system speed -- now I can't have more than 3 or so major apps open without things becoming ridiculously slow. I also have McAfee VirusScan on in the background all the time, but it's been on my computer since I got it and doesn't really slow things down.

    To remedy things I've set some programs not to put an icon in the System Tray -I think that cuts down on resource use-, and I went into msconfig to make sure that programs I absolutely don't need at startup aren't launched at startup. But a lot of the time I have no idea what these programs do -- they have obscure names and often no explanation of their function, so I deselect them from startup selectively.

    So basically my question is, am I doing the right things to cut down on memory hogging by my computer? Is there anything else I can do? I really would like things back at the point where I could have 10 different apps open without the system freezing or going slow.


    P.S. Sometimes my system clock slows down while I'm on the internet -I use Dial-Up Networking-, but it's only the Windows clock, not the BIOS -- the clock always resets to the correct time whenever I restart Windows. Is this slowdown somehow related to my bloated system resource hogs?

    Rob Pegoraro: Ick. This is one of these questions with 10 or 12 different possible answers. First of all, yes, you do have more than enough RAM. So the answer has to be in the software you have installed on it--probably not things in the system tray, but other background utilities. Try these steps:

    1) Make sure Norton isn't trying to optimize your disk in the background all the time. I don't know why it would do that, but it's a possibility.

    2) On the other hand, maybe your disk hasn't been defragmented at all and needs to have that done. (Probably not--from the specs, it seems like a newer machine)

    3) Have you updated the VirusScan database? The other weirdness you're reporting sounds like there could be some virus munching away at things in the background.

    4) Hit Ctrl-Alt-Del to see what's running. Anything there look weird?

    5) I feel like a complete heel for suggesting this, but reinstalling Windows might solve the problem. Or not.

    Anybody have other suggestions for this poor fellow?

    vancouver canada: I have a brand new 400mhz, 128 ram pc clone made by NCI. I have a Motorola SM56 Voice and Data Modem. It seems balky at times. while slowly connecting or in some cases it disconnects suddenly in the middle of using the web or instant messenger. I have never had this problem before with the previous computers at home. Are 56K modems more "delicate" that 28,8's? More sensitive to line noise etc. Thus my problems or is this brand a piece of junk. -PS I have downloaded the latest drivers which has cleared up some of the problem-

    Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for mentioning that you haven't had this problem with other computers at home--that means your phone line shouldn't be what's at fault. But: Were you also using your current ISP? Were those other computers using 56-kbps modems?

    You kinda have to treat this kind of debugging like one of those grade-school science projects: Isolate one variable at a time, change it and see what happens. I'd try to get a friend to loan another 56k modem and try that out--56k modems in general are no more twitchy or delicate than 28.8 or 33.6 modems. Also, check again for updated drivers; I doubt the modem hardware is at fault, as Motorola is a fairly reputable manufacturer (one of the leaded telecom manufacturers in the world, actually).

    Chevy Chase, MD: I use outlook express for e-mail. Whenever I try to send an attachment -eg. word document-, it does not go through, rejected and comes with error message or "illegal" and the program closes down.

    I use ethernet, pcmci 56k modem ut I never get connected beyond 22.8.

    Rob Pegoraro: I've had a problem somewhat like this on a computer recently--Outlook Express crashes right at startup whenever I try to read newsgroups. I'd uninstall it, then reinstall--whatever's bugging the program, you're probably not going to be able to talk it out of its sulk. (But remember to back up your e-mail files first!).

    The modem shouldn't be connecting that slow, BTW. Did your ISP have any advice on that score? Do you have the latest drivers installed (I hate asking that question...)

    Queens, New York: I'm a Mac user and proud of it but I have to admit to installing Connectix's Virtual PC software on my G3. I've got 64 MB of RAM in my 266 MHz G3 and that handles most of the PC programs -Word, Excel, and the like- I run on Virtual PC. But when it comes to games, it balks and sometimes quits out of the game altogether.

    Would simply adding more RAM fix that or is Virtual PC just not a powerful enough emulator to handle most games?

    Rob Pegoraro: Virtual PC will definitely take as much RAM as you care to give it. But this sounds more like something going on within the program--64 megs of memory should suffice, and a G3 also has enough horsepower.

    One, you might not have the latest version of Virtual PC--Connectix has come out with a few revisions, and most of them have involved revisions to video-card drivers.

    Two, the games themselves might not like whatever video card Virtual PC is simulating. In that case, you're basically hosed unless you install a second video card--say, a 3Dfx-based card--in your Mac. Buying a PlayStation is a lot easier, IMHO.

    silver spring, md: Tell him to try the wintop utility from the kerneltoys group at microsoft.

    This will show all the tasks currently running and give a percentage of the total cpu usage each one is taking.

    Works under Windows95 and also Windows98 (even though it says it's only for Win95)

    Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the tip, Silver Spring!

    Lansing, MI: Hi!
    How do I do data transferring
    from master hard drive -IDE-in to slave HD -IDE- under windows 98.

    Rob Pegoraro: Lansing, are both drives installed? If so, you should be able to just drag whatever files you need from the C: drive to the D: drive, no? (Applications are another ball of wax.) Tell me more...

    Washington Dc: I have a 486-66 circa '93 Gateway computer. Besides the general need to get a new computer, is there a compelling reason to do so because of this Y2K thing? Also is my same year ('93 don't have the version handy but I think it's 4.0) Quicken going to have a problem?

    Rob Pegoraro: I'd check at Gateway's Web site. A machine that old will definitely have some Y2K problems in its hardware, but in most cases that should be fixable via a software patch. See our article on Y2K home-computing issues:

    Your copy of Quicken works, but with quirks. To quote that article: "You must designate post-2000 dates with a bizarre syntax: 01/01'00 instead of 01/01/00." They may now have an updater available to simplify that nonsense, however.

    Greenbelt, MD: Rob: I own a Packard-Bell computer -the one with the attached speakers to the CRT- I'm thinking of buying a larger screen CRT. Am I forced to purchase another Packard-Bell model so I may mount the speakers or must I purchase new speakers if a buy another brand of CRT?

    Rob Pegoraro: Depends on how the speakers are mounted. Unless it's something real simple, like some kind of harness over the top, I don't think even PB's own larger monitors will work. So you could try crazy glue, or you could just park the speakers on the desktop (assuming PB designed them with a flat bottom).

    Springfield, VA: Recently, the game Freecell has started to run agonizingly slow on my computer for apparently no reason. All of my other programs seem to run at the same speed, but, for some reason, Freecell moves almost as slow as moving the cards manually with the mouse.
    Can you guess what gives?

    Rob Pegoraro: Quick question: Are you running Win 3.1 or Win 95/98? If I recall correctly, under Win 3.1 FreeCell was one of the few programs for that OS that required this 32-bit patch to run (WinSys 32? This takes me back a ways).

    Pete from Lafayette, Louisiana: When I print anything on my local BJC-4200 printer it comes out about half the size that it should be. The test page prints the same way.

    I got the computer from someone else and I'm not sure exactly how they set it up. The computer is a Compaq Presario 5204 with an AMD K6 and 64 meg. There is an attached Mustek 1200 III EP scanner and associated "TextBridge Instant Access OCR" software that starts up at boot time. After booting up I always close that software down.

    When I print the test page or print anything from word or wordpad the output is consistently 1-2 the size -or less?- that it should be. The page prints as shown in word-wordpad but it only prints on the left side of the page and the letters are quite tiny. Go figure ...

    The driver selected is appropriate -right?-: Canon Bubble-Jet BJC-4200. There are 2 other drivers in the driver pulldown menu: BitWare Fax and OLFAXDRV.

    I went through a "wizard" series of questions after I entered "NO" to the question "Did the test page print properly?" None of the questions the wizard asked appeared to address my problem. The test page printed at 1-2 size -on the left hand side of the page-.

    I'm usually between OK and good at computer stuff but I have no idea what's going on here.

    Rob Pegoraro: Talking to John Breeden, another of our far-flung staff, gets this advice:

    "You can hold down the buttons to print out that test page without the printer being connected to the system. (Check the manual for how to do that.) If that's coming out right, then he has the wrong driver selected."

    He then, less encouragingly, said:

    "I have heard of this problem before, but I can't remember the exact specifics. It took me a really long time to solve it. He might try to check the Canon Web page to see if there's an updated driver he can get. "

    Good luck...

    Bowie, MD: I bought a 32X Digital Research cd drive and installed it in my PC. The installation instructions said that I didn't need to load any software -I assume that meant drivers- if using the Windows 95 OS. After bootup and Win 95 recognition of the new cd drive I noticed that the cd drive would not execute any program that was 16 bit based but would run any 32 bit program. Do you have any idea why the cd drive won't run 16 bit programs?


    Rob Pegoraro: First off, are you trying to run DOS programs or Win 3.1 programs? My colleague John Breeden says he's seen some CD-ROM drives that just won't run under DOS, no matter what.

    The other possibility is that one of the text-only bootup files that the DOS under Win 95 uses doesn't have the info it needs for the drive to work in DOS mode. (Ick.) What did Digital Research say about this?

    Gaithersburg, MD: In Windows 98 Control Panel I am unable to open "Mail and Fax." I get a box that tells me I do not have enough memory or system resources. I know this is highly unlikely, with nothing else running but Windows. I also am unable to open "Outlook." I've tried reinstalling both Windows 98, and Microsoft Office, to no avail. Any suggestions?

    Rob Pegoraro: If I recall correctly, Microsoft removed the built-in faxing functions from Win 98--did you upgrade from 95 to 98 and have that get left behind?

    On the other hand, I just tried invoking the Mail and Fax control panel on this antique 486 around the corner, and nothing happened at all.

    Do you have any third-party fax software (like what came with your modem) around to try out?

    Washington, DC: When I attempt to install Norton Anti-Virus -one cd-, version 4.0, I receive the message "this machine is infected with a memory resident virus. Boot from emergency disk and scan for viruses." I don't have an emergency disk. WIN95 was preinstalled and no diskettes accompanied it. Likewise, installing Corel WP8 -1 cd- results in system shut down. I've got scads of memory and a Pentium chip that rocks. Actually whenever I attempt to install any new software -a recipe organizer, etc.- the system crashes. Is it this "memory resident virus" and how do I get rid of it? Who could have given me such a nasty germ? Thanks, even if you can't help. And double thanks to our staff - love you guys.

    Rob Pegoraro: Norton AntiVirus should have that emergency boot disk right in the box--it should boot up the machine and then let you run a virus cleanup program.

    Which you need to do--you're not going to solve any of your problems until you eradicate that bug.

    Good luck...

    Darkside, the Moon: My friend's Palm III keeps "going dead" losing the data stored on it. Is this a common occurrence with the Palm? Or does my friend perhaps not know how to handle technology well enough not to ruin it?

    Rob Pegoraro: Call Palm's tech support--that's not a feature, it's a bug. I have heard of this happening to people's PalmPilots, and 3Com should be able to send your friend a new (well, refurbished) unit right away if it's under warranty.

    Just because something is a computer doesn't mean it's supposed to regularly fail for no detectable reason.

    wash. dc: hi, rob -

    i have a strange problem. i use a desktop and laptop, and frequently transfer files between them via floppy disk.

    when i had a virus problem on my desktop a few weeks ago, i downloaded the latest Norton antivirus software, ran it, and deleted dozens of the "Ethan.A" virus, as well as the "Happy" virus, from my desktop hard drive and floppy disks.

    I then downloaded the exact same version of the exact same software onto my laptop. I ran the software, and it reported no viruses. This is even though the very floppies I have used repeatedly to transfer files were riddled with the viruses.

    What gives here?

    Rob Pegoraro: Sure you had no anti-virus software running on the laptop?

    This, incidentally, is why you *always* need to have an anti-virus program running on a PC. *Never* open attached files in your e-mail without checking them first. *Never* open strange Word files unless you have your anti-virus program set to scan them. The industry really has to do a better job of building in some safeguards--for instance, whoever decided that e-mail programs like Outlook should allow attached files to auto-open attached files should be horsewhipped.

    Warrenton, VA: I use Win 98 on a 100Mhz Pentium. It runs pretty well for a geezer. However my video drivers keep getting corrupted. I now know how to install new ones but is there anything I can do to prevent that from happening.

    Rob Pegoraro: Warrenton, our guy Greenberg says that this might be a case of competing versions of the driver living in your computer.

    "The problem with Windows is that, every time it loads, if it detects anything different or wrong, it will reload drivers.

    He needs to check to see if he has multiple versions of the driver installed. In theory, Windows is supposed to do this for you, but I've seen this before. Go into Device Manager (within the System control panel) and delete the profile for his video card. Reinstall the driver for it, shut down, restart and let it rebuild."

    I.e., yet another weird problem that *might* be solved by going to the manufacturer's Web site, downloading the absolute latest driver, and reinstalling. Sigh. Good luck...

    Gaithersburg, MD: "Mail and Fax" problem person here-
    I installed Win98 clean, no upgrade. My Winfax program works fine. Any chance there's a virus that targets "Outlook" via Windows architecture. Perhaps a memory resident TSR?

    Rob Pegoraro: There's always a possibility that a virus is monkeying around with your system--is your virus checker up to date?

    College Park, MD: I have a SCSI Jaz Drive -the original, 1GB- that worked fine for about three months, then I started recording video to it -directly from my TV card-, and while in the process of storing tons of data, my Mac froze. When I restarted the computer, it wouldn't read the Jaz disk. I tried reformattnig it and 80% of the way into the format it gave me an error and said it couldn't format the disk. I put in a different Jaz disk, and it read it fine, but when I later tried to reformat that one, I got the same error, and now can't read either. I'm assuming it's a hardware problem... any idea how I can get it fixed?

    Rob Pegoraro: Sounds like your Jaz drive is toast--if the drive crashes in the midst of a write, you can damage the drive hardware, which would then screw up your disks in the manner you describe. Call Iomega and see what they suggest, but the prognosis doesn't look super from here.

    The general buzz about Jaz drives is not so good... I've heard of quite a few reports of problems with them. Check the MacFixit site for more detailed discussions of this.

    Vienna, VA: Occasionally my system freezes up completely - no keyboard, no mouse, no nothing. I can't even turn it off normally - have to hit the power switch then start up in SAFE mode, shut down and start up again. The first manifestation of this came when I was logged onto AOL and was scrolling through documents. -I lost 8 Wall Street Journal articles at $2.95 each - WSJ credited me - but still- AOL said that I probably needed to have my pin priorities reset. Took the system into the retailer where I bought it and they said it was the AOL SW. Since then I have also experienced this when I'm logged into work - so it's not AOL SW problem. Pin priorities seem to make sense - i.e. perhaps someone is trying to call me, or data signal coming in at same time I'm sending one out. How-Where can I get someone to check out the pins-reset etc. - or is there some other suggestion?

    Rob Pegoraro: The behavior you describe is usually a symptom of some driver illness. I'm not sure what mean by "pin priorities," but what could happen is that you've got a corrupted or out-of-date or buggy driver--it could be the video driver, something for the modem, whatever--that, when it malfunctions, locks up the computer far too deep for Windows to be able to crash in any graceful manner. When you boot up in safe mode, try selecting the option where you can watch each driver, etc. get loaded and approve or disapprove each step. I'm afraid this won't be a quick fix, though...

    D.C.: My father who is in his 70's is thinking of getting a home computer mainly for internet use and e-mail. His main requirements are 1- EASE-OF-USE and 2- Reliability -both in terms of the product, as well as technical support and service- 3- Cost -around $1000-, I did a bit of research for him and narrowed the search down to 2 systems:
    an iMAC -for ease of use, but no sure about their reliability- or the DELL L400 -due out later this month?-. Which would you go with ?

    Rob Pegoraro: Based on what we've seen today, I think the iMac is going to be an overwhelmingly superior choice as far as ease of use goes. It should be OK for reliability as well--in general Macs do crash more than PCs, but the odds of the crash being a catastrophic failure are a lot lower. Apple's tech support policies aren't as good as they used to be, and not as good as Dell's, but you're probably not going to need to call tech support that much either.

    And on that note, I will sign off for now. I'll be back on Friday, July 30 (right in time for our issue on "laptops for starving students"). Until then, hope your computer stays out of trouble, and if I didn't get to your question, please e-mail me at

    Take care,


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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