Use junk to keep your computer running


Q: We must be the last family in America without an HDTV. We’ve gotten along fairly well using an ancient 26-inch console television (much to the horror of our friends). But we are now ready to move into the modern world. Any advice?

A: You didn’t give me much to go on here but I’ll assume this television will be in a den or family room, not the bedroom. That means, at the least, you’ll want a 42-inch screen. That size once was a standard but nowadays huge screens seem the fad. Make your decision on screen size based on how far away you’ll be from the set. The longer the distance the bigger the screen needed.

Otherwise, stick to brand names, check warranties and enjoy. Buying an HDTV is no longer complicated. Just pick a set that fits your budget and suits your eyes. If you want to be especially careful, go to and read the reviews for HDTVs.

Q: Our Internet service has developed the habit of blipping off for a short period of time every evening. The signal will disappear at almost of the same time and, minutes later, reappear. — Randy Parrish

A: Well, the expert here would be your Internet provider. You can ask that a technician be sent to your home. But I’ll offer my opinion: I believe the cause of your problem is some type of interference – maybe a device that is switching on at the same time each evening, triggering the loss of signal. I’ve seen that happen when outdoor lights (with an electrical fault of some kind) switch on.

I use a little known but terrific system for keeping my computer running. But I have to warn you. My wife knows about my method and she does not approve.

That’s because this method of mine is all about junk. Mary is not a big fan of junk. It’s not politically correct to say this, but in general guys like junk, wives don’t. I say this with confidence. You can ask around if you don’t believe me.

So how does junk keep your computer running?

I discovered this technique through my ham radio hobby. Any self-respecting amateur radio operator has a junk box. After all, you never know when you’ll need things like an old tube tester, an antenna analyzer or even an oscilloscope even if it just sort of works.

Having a junk box for computers isn’t as esoteric but the computer junk box is twice as practical as my ham radio junk box.

When your computer has problems you can often dive into your junk collection and find a way to get it going again. Even if none of your spare parts do the trick, a good junk box can still help. I have expanded my junk box to include old computers that have been replaced but still work. So, in extremis, I can drag one of the junker computers out of the basement and use it until I figure things out. After all old computers have almost no cash value. But – if they work – they can still step in and let you browse the web, create documents, check email and the like.

At the most basic, a junk box should contain a computer mouse or two, monitors, keyboards, video cards, sound cards, cables and some outdated – but still decent software. I also include things like batteries and flash drives.

You should also use is to save the manuals that came with your computer and other devices. I say this with the full realization that these manuals are often pretty bad, written in a language that only vaguely resembles English. However, if you work at it hard enough, you’ll find information that can help you get a computer back in running order. And the manuals offer a road map of sorts that will help you find your way around under the hood.

While manuals like this can often be found online at the manufacturer’s website, these online versions do no good at all if your computer won’t work well enough to let you see them.

Now if all a junk box did was offer spare parts for your computer, it would still be valuable. But, as they say on the late night TV commercials, there’s much much more.

There’s another, maybe more important, way the junk box can save your neck when it comes to computing. I use my junk box to figure out what’s wrong with a computer by the process of elimination. Here’s how that works.

Let’s say your computer monitor is displaying streaked or jittery images. It’s easy to see that something is wrong. Trouble is that it’s not so easy to know what’s busted. It could be the monitor itself, or one of the cables that connect to the computer, or a bad video card, or maybe the trouble is with the computer itself.

Maybe you can already see where I’m going. To find the cause of the problem, simply pull some components out of your junk box and substitute it. Maybe connect the substitute monitor first. And if things work you know the problem was with the monitor, not the video card, connectors or computer. If the problem persists with the substitute monitor you may want to try an old video card and see what happens. Or if, after all that, the problem is still hanging around substitute an old computer. If the problem goes away you know that the bug lives in the computer somewhere. Then, depending on how involved you want to get, you can – if you have them – substitute various parts inside the computer itself – anything from a working power supply, to RAM chips … well you get the idea.

Keep in mind that junk boxes don’t get built in a day. I’m lucky (unless you ask my wife) in that there are a lot of computers and spare parts already here at Technology Ranch. But it’s easy enough – if you aren’t in that boat – to pick up cheap used parts from eBay. A local computer repair shop will almost certainly have some fine junk lying about. And second hand stores are another source.

Meantime, if you buy into this junk box thing, start saving rather than throwing away. Your junk box will be bulging in no time.

I hope this helps. Meantime, I’ll show this column to Mary and see if she’ll change her mind about my junk box.