Technobuddy: How to avoid killing your PC

Way back when you made your first tentative tap at a computer keyboard, someone may have told you, "Don't worry, there is nothing you can do that will hurt it."

That's when you should have swept your arm across the desk, knocked the computer to the floor and replied, "I think you're wrong."

There are countless ways to kill a computer, most of them far gentler than knocking one off a desk. We'll talk about them today. You can use this information for good or choose to become a serial killer of computers. The choice is yours.

Death by electrocution

Electricity is the lifeblood of a computer but also a prime killer. Voltage surges -- common in almost every home -- represent slow death from damage that accumulates over time. On the other hand, a lightning strike offers sudden death.

Surges can be tamed with either a good surge protector or a UPS (uninterruptable power supply). I recommend a UPS because a good one not only calms surges, it also furnishes the power needed to shutdown a computer properly during a power outage.

The massive current from a lightning strike represents a challenge to even the best equipment. A direct strike on the line feeding your home can defeat all but the most sophisticated gear. Unplugging the computer and other electronics when storms are near is safest course, although most people don't want to be bothered to do it.

Static electricity -- that amusing spark you'll sometimes feel when you grab a door handle after shuffling across a room on a winter day -- can also do a whack job on electronic components. So if you ever open your computer case to add a memory chip or video card, or merely to dust, remember to touch the metal chassis of the PC before touching the electronics.

Viral infections

Viruses, spyware, and other stealthy threats -- let's lump them together under the name malware -- pose a threat that ranges from trivial to terrible.

And there is a disturbing trend. Once these evil bugs were mostly created for the amusement of bright hackers, but nowadays the most sophisticated malware has a purpose. It's created by professionals and used to either steal your identity, information or money.

Using an unprotected computer is like walking around with a ‘kick me' sign on your back. My choice when it comes to commercial do-it-all programs is Norton 360. There are numerous free programs, but one drawing a lot of praise lately is Microsoft's Security Essentials.

Medical malpractice

Do-it-yourself fixing is a common cause of death for PCs.

Resist the strong and often fatal temptation to dive right in at the first sign of trouble. Home users can make too many changes and be too quick to try remedies found on unreliable Web sites without the foggiest idea of what's really wrong with the computer.

What seems like a computer problem is often a symptom.

Think of a fever in humans. That symptom could come from an underlying infection, or it could be the early sign of a cold, or maybe of a more serious case of the flu. Doctors don't treat the fever, they treat the illness.

It should be the same with computers. A machine that has slowed down dramatically, or refuses to run, or occasionally freezes is demonstrating a symptom. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of possible causes.

If you decide to self-diagnose and fix a computer problem, take your time and do your research and ask yourself if you are competent to proceed. If your answer is yes, double check that with your spouse. While most of us can learn to fix computer problems, the learning process requires patience and a willingness to do research. It's no dishonor to admit that a computer repair shop is the best option.

Heat stroke

Heat can kill both humans and computers. That's why giant businesses often have a chilly computer room.

There's no need to turn down the thermostat at home, but regularly check to make sure computer cooling fans are working correctly and that exhaust vents are not clogged with dust. Avoid keeping your desktop computer on the floor, where dust settles. That dust can form a blanket on internal components, holding in the heat.

Also make sure your computer has plenty of breathing room, with several inches of clearance all around. Laptop computers should not be left running 24/7. Either use the sleep mode or -- better yet -- turn it off when it is not in use.

As is true for all of us, the computer has a finite lifespan. But if you follow these tips you'll increase the chances that your computer is still running strong until you decide to replace it.