Chapter 5 - Getting started

So how do we turn this thing on? Press the power button!

It's located somewhere on the front or back of the main case and should be labeled "power" or marked with the universal symbol - a circle with a minute hand at twelve o'clock.

If your monitor is not built into your computer, you'll have to turn that on, too. And some of your other external components like your printer and scanner will also have their own power buttons. You can turn them all on now, or just flip the switches as you need them.

Oh, and if everything is plugged into a power strip or surge protector, you'll have to turn that on as well.

Das boot

Whether you're running a Mac or PC, your computer starts by going through an opening ceremony called "boot up." Don't expect any marching bands or giant torch lightings. There's little pomp and circumstance for us (save maybe a short musical chord), but this process is important for the computer.

Your computer is first relearning what hardware is inside and making sure it's all in working order. When that checks out, your computer starts its main program called the operating system (OS).

The vast majority of home PCs run some version of Microsoft Windows - either Windows XP, Windows 2000, Windows ME, Windows 98 or Windows 95. (There are other alternative operating systems for PCs, but we're sticking to the home market mainstream here.) Earlier PCs ran a text-based operating system called DOS.

Mac's operating system is MacOS, with the most recent version at this writing called MacOS X (for 10). They're now getting cute add-on names such as Tiger and Leopard. Older Macs might be running 8- or 9-point-something.

You would think the boot process would get faster over time, but each new version of our operating systems seem to take longer to get started. At this rate, Windows 2030 could take an hour and a half to restart!

When your computer is finally done booting, you'll be looking at the desktop, which we'll explore in greater detail in "Chapter 6: Navigating the Desktop."

Shutting down

Hey! We just got it running here. Why are we already shutting it down?

It's good practice, and don't worry, we'll start it up again.

We already mentioned the significance of boot up, and shutdown is an equally important process for our computer, much like our routine before going to bed.

While we need to put our pajamas on, brush our teeth and turn out the light, the computer has it's own routine as well. It has processes to close, temporary files to clean up, etc. Yanking the plug out of the wall or turning off the power switch with no warning will ensure your computer will be a bit cranky when you wake it back up later.

To properly close Windows, click on the Start button in the lower left corner of the desktop. When the pop-up menu appears, move the cursor to Shut Down or Turn Off Computer and click. A dialog box will offer a few options here. Choose Shut down or Turn Off. Newer computers will shut the computer down for you. Others will tell you when it's safe for you to turn off your computer using the power switch.

There are two ways to shut down a Mac.

Hit the power button, and it will show a dialog box with choices of Restart, Sleep, Cancel and Shut Down. Choose Shut Down and you're done. If you prefer to use the mouse, click on the Special menu at the top of the desktop, go down to Shut Down and you'll get the same dialog box.

Freeze frame

In a perfect world, we'd all shut down our computer properly every time we use it. Unfortunately this is not a perfect world.

It's not uncommon for computers to freeze - or sit there motionless while smoke starts to pour out of our ears. Don't worry, your computer isn't defective, it's just well a computer.

When your computer freezes, there are a couple of things to try before yanking the plug out of the wall.

First try: Maybe it's just one program that's messing things up. If you're on a PC, hold down the Ctrl key and the Alt keys and hit Delete. It will bring up a box letting you shut down the existing program, although the look varies a bit by Windows version.

In Windows 95, 98 and ME it's called the Close Program box and it appears when you hit Ctrl-Alt-Delete. You reach it the same way in Windows XP, but it's called the Task Manager. In Windows 2000, Ctrl-Alt-Delete brings up the Windows Security box with a button for Task Manager.

Regardless for how it's labeled, the box lists everything that is currently running. If one says [Not responding], highlight it and hit Close or End Task. Even if it doesn't say that, try closing the one you think might be giving you trouble.

On a Mac, hit Command (Mac Command key) - Option - Esc to do a "Force Quit." A dialog box will ask you if you want to Force to quit the program that's currently running.

These methods aren't guaranteed to get you out of a freeze, but they're a good place to start.

Another try: If you're still having trouble on a PC, try to force your computer to shut down properly. On a PC, bring up the Close program dialog box again by pressing Ctrl-Alt-Delete and click Shut Down.

Last resort: When all else fails, it's time to reset. On a PC, find the Reset button on the front of the box. (If it's labeled, it will read "Reset" or have a half circle with a left-pointing arrow at the end).

Most Macs let you restart by holding down the Command (Mac Command key) and Control keys while pressing the power button. If that doesn't work, you can force a reset on newer Macs by either pressing the Restart button (marked by a triangle facing left). Reset older Macs (some iMacs, Powerbooks and iBooks) and some PC notebooks by pushing a straightened paper clip into the tiny restart hole.

Last, last resort: Sometimes, none of the buttons work. In a worst-case scenario, power down or unplug the computer, wait about 15 seconds and start it back up. That should get you back up and running.

More troubleshooting: See "Chapter 25: Troubleshooting."

Why does it crash?

Crashes can be attributed to many different causes. Computers can grow instable over time if you are constantly installing and uninstalling new programs. A crash can also be caused by a brief power surge or drip, or it could be the fault of the programmer who created your software.

Booting after a crash

As mentioned earlier, killing the computer's power with no warning will ensure that your computer will be a bit cranky when you wake it back up. Unfortunately, the computer gives us the same rude reaction when the improper shutdown is its fault.

So don't take it personally when it tells you your computer was not shut down properly, even if you know it's not your fault. Your computer is not scolding you, it just wants to make there are no problems with your hard drive before starting over. Let it do its thing and you'll be back in no time. If the disk scan program finds any errors, tell it to fix them.

To serve and protect

While we're discussing startup and shutdown, let's talk briefly about devices that help us protect our investment and sometimes prevent crashes.

We all likely have some type of power strip to plug in our computer and components, mostly to make sure we have enough outlets.

A $20-$30 surge protector will give you those extra outlets while guarding against lightning strikes that could blow out your components. However lightning is actually more likely to travel through your phone line and fry your modem than through your power cord, so make sure the surge protector you buy has a telephone pass-through jack.

One step better than the surge protector is a UPS. No, we're not referring to the big brown delivery truck; we're talking uninterruptible power supply here. They, too, protect against spikes and surges, but they feature a battery that offers a couple of other features. First, it'll let you run your computer on battery for a few minutes during a power outage. Second, its battery can kick in extra power when your electric dips below level (a brown out). In other words, when the lights dim briefly in your house while everyone is overusing their air conditioning units during a heat wave, your computer won't even notice.

NEXT - Chapter 6 - Navigating the desktop