How Not to Hate Your Computer

Create an efficient office tool.

Always keep your computer upgraded with the latest software. Sometime this year Microsoft is scheduled to introduce its next operating system, Vista. Consider waiting six months or so for the worst of the bugs to be worked out, and buy a new computer with Vista already installed.

Be sure to connect your computers to battery backups so you don’t lose data if an electric blackout threatens to crash your computer. Be sure the product you buy has enough battery reserve to protect all your machines.

Consider using two flat screens to get a larger view of spreadsheets. It will make your work go faster and easier.

When your computer suddenly slows down or things go awry, do a reboot. Often that repairs the problem easily.

Downloading Google Desktop Search engine lets you type in keywords to swiftly locate files and e-mails on your computer.

Check that the cables and electric cords on your computer are securely plugged in. It’s one of the most frequent reasons for malfunctions.

Stanley Zarowin, a former JofA senior editor, is now a contributing editor to the magazine. His e-mail address is .

ou don’t have to invest a fortune or be a high-tech CPA to transform your computer into a most efficient office tool. On the following pages I will share with you not dazzling cutting-edge technology, but practical, economical, low-tech steps I’ve taken to bring my machine to peak efficiency.

Let’s start with the operating system (OS). If you don’t use the latest edition—Windows’ XP Pro edition—you’re working under a severe handicap. I’ve talked with CPAs who are proud they still use Windows 98; while that’s a quaint choice, it’s a miracle so many Windows applications actually still clunk along on it. If you want your computer to run efficiently, you must keep its software current. Think of it as a wise investment.

Sometime this year Microsoft plans to introduce its next OS iteration, Vista. I’ll wait six months or so after the unveiling, so the worst of the bugs probably will be worked out, and I’ll have it loaded on my new computer. That’s right, I said I’ll have it loaded on my new computer. Even though my present machine is only three years old and works fine, I’ll pass it to my grandchildren and have the manufacturer of my new machine load the new software.

If I’m so tech-smart, why don’t I load the operating system myself? Although loading a new operating system on an old computer sometimes works fine, it never works as well as when the computer manufacturer makes all the subtle but crucial adjustments that fine-tune the software to the new hardware.

Microsoft has thoroughly rewritten Vista’s Office applications. While they are designed to be fully backward-compatible to XP Office and even older Windows applications, I’ve had occasional unpleasant experiences in the past with software that claims to be backward-compatible. While it generally handles old files without flaws, it sometimes loses critical formatting and additions such as Track Changes and comments. Especially vulnerable are digital photos.

Once I receive the new machine, I will invest a few hours opening all of my Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint and Publisher files, and then I’ll re-save them in Vista’s new format and do new backups. Compulsive? I guess so, but those old files and my family photos are worth the effort.

Since you’ve probably downloaded a bunch of applications from the Internet over the years and stored them all on your hard drive, I suggest you decide which you want to keep and burn them onto high-capacity CDs so you will have a backup and can easily install them on the new computer.

System Mechanic 6 Professional running a comprehensive analysis of my computer.

Why, you may ask, don’t I just dump Windows and install the latest free edition of the Linux operating system and all its equally free applications? The short answer is: I respect those pioneers who use Linux. It surely is outstanding software. Like other Windows users, I’ve often grumbled about Bill Gates’ products, but despite their faults, they remain incredibly powerful and easy-to-use software.

Some time in the future, Linux, or some next-generation open-source replacement, will compete effectively with Windows or whatever the future Windows is called, and I may switch my allegiance. But in the meantime, I don’t have the time or patience to tinker with anything other than Windows.

What if your current computer is about to breathe its last breath and you must replace it now, before Vista is introduced? In that case, don’t risk waiting; buy a new machine now, even though you will have to load Vista yourself. Be sure your new computer has the following components: A 64-bit chip, at least 1 gigabyte (Gb) of random access memory (RAM), a separate video card with at least 128 megabytes of RAM, two built-in DVD drives that can play and burn DVDs and CDs. (I personally like two drives so you can burn one onto another in one operation.) Get as large a hard drive as you can, being sure it’s a Serial ATA, not an IDE.

There are several fancy ways to migrate your active files from the old machine to the new one. One popular way is to use Laplink’s PCmover ( ), which you can download for about $40. However, because I promised you economy, I’ll give you another way. Since you should add backup software to your system anyway, I suggest you use such an application for the migration and save the $40. It works just as well.

Since I believe in supersafety when it comes to backups, it should be no surprise that I use two separate backup packages—SynchBackSE ( ), which costs $25, and ZipBackup ( ), which costs $40. (For more on backup technology, see “ Skip This Article (If You Don’t Back Up Your Computer) ”).

If the electricity in your office fails—and someday it will—your computer will come to a clunking halt. That clunk will be the sound of the sensing arm that hovers above your hard disk as it smashes down and destroys your data. If you’re lucky, a data-restore expert might be able to save some files, though the bill could come to several thousand dollars. You can avoid that grief with an investment of about $100 for a battery backup system. When it senses a power outage, it instantly sends a message to your computer to save and close all files. It also protects your equipment against power surges.

Be sure the product you buy has enough backup battery reserve to protect all your machines. The Web site for supplier American Power Conversion ( ) contains a tool for determining how powerful a backup system you need.

For many years I used a popular brand of antivirus and utility software. Although it has been reasonably effective in fixing errors in my system, blocking Internet intruders from invading my computer and guarding against viruses, I found it usually slowed my computer. It also failed to block spyware from sneaking into my system, which I had to destroy with a free copy of Spybot software ( ).

A tech-wise friend suggested an alternative product: System Mechanic 6 Professional ( ). I found it to be the most powerful utility I’ve ever used. Among other things, the $69.95 software defragments my hard drive and RAM (eliminating blank spaces and compressing data on the disk so the drive works faster), cleans my Registry, accelerates my Internet connections, guards against intruders and even comes bundled with an extraordinary antivirus program, Kaspersky Anti-Virus Personal.

The first time I loaded Kaspersky, it insisted on running a full virus scan and found scores of problems that it immediately wiped out. Even more impressive, while Norton updates its antivirus software every month or so, Kaspersky updates automatically when needed —as often as every few hours (each time it discovers the circulation of a new virus). Equally important, it does not slow my computer.

Many users don’t give much thought to how they arrange their folders and subfolders. As a result, folder architecture soon becomes hit or miss, which makes finding files difficult. It also makes backup so clumsy that you either don’t back up or don’t do it often enough.

During the preliminary loading process of a new application, a screen pops up that suggests where to store it (usually under the Program Files ); accept that suggestion. If the computer wants to put it in a different location, override it by typing C:/Program Files .( add the program ) in the available box. Having all application programs in one folder makes them easier to locate and back up.

However, you should arrange data files differently. Group them in as few folders as possible. For example, create a single main folder for all your Clients , and then, branching out like a tree, create subfolders for each client and more subfolders under each client for their taxes, financial statements and any other logical subdivision. This is not a hard-and-fast rule; you may have reason to subdivide the data differently. The important point is to start with as few primary folders as possible to keep backup profiles simple. I start with two: work folders and personal folders.

When you’re analyzing large spreadsheets, it helps to have a 21-inch screen, but as a practical matter it’s even better to have two 21-inch screens, side by side—with one part of the worksheet on one screen and another part on the other. Windows XP (and Vista) can handle dual screens easily and two flat-panel screens can probably fit easily on your desk, so don’t delay in placing your order. It’ll make your work go faster and more efficient.

It happens to all of us: Suddenly the computer slows down or acts odd in some other way. You can invest the time in running your fix-it utility (such as System Mechanic) or you can take the easy solution and reboot. More often than not a simple reboot, which clears the memory, will solve the problem. For that reason I usually turn off my computer at night and fire it up when I’m having my morning coffee.

Although I promised you no gee-whiz technology, excuse me for one exception. Gennum Corp. ( ) has developed a noise-canceling/sound-enhancing mobile phone headset, called Nxzen, that runs on Bluetooth technology (so it connects wirelessly to your cell phone). The $150 device samples the ambient sound when you’re having a conversation, sorts out that voice from the background noise and amplifies only the voice.

About a year ago Microsoft introduced a utility that locates files and e-mails on your computer just by typing in a few keywords. It’s a great idea, but since it’s slow and clumsy, it’s next to useless. Shortly thereafter Google introduced Google Desktop Search , which does the same thing but it’s so fast and accurate you almost don’t have to think about where you store files. If you initiate a search (done with one mouse click), the moment you finish typing the keywords, Google has found and displays every file on your computer that contains those keywords. And the price is right; it’s free. Download the desktop application from .

My final suggestion is sure to prompt snide “he’s-got-to-be-kidding” comments and guffaws from many readers. Go ahead and laugh, but one of the most common reasons a computer malfunctions or fails to start is because of a loose plug. So when you have a problem, be sure to check all your plugs before calling tech support. It’ll save you time—and embarrassment.


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