Some can be fixed quickly and easily by simply re-booting the machine, or by doing software stuff. (I covered these in the post “Basic Quick Fixes for Troubled Gear.”)
Some of these fixes are best left to an IT professional or somebody else with experience in fixing computers — in particular, anything that involves opening up the case. Not only can this be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, but you can also create additional problems if you aren’t careful.
But there’s a lot that you, a coworker, family member or friend can do if you have the right part on hand.
And since many of these problems occur when it’s not convenient to go out and buy the part — you may be on deadline and can’t take the two hours. Or the weather may be abysmal. Or it may be midnight or a holiday when the stores you want are closed. As for going online, you may not be able to wait for delivery — and the problem you’re facing might mean you can’t get online, anyways.
I’ve found it’s best to have a few spares and other things on hand.
The best — and certainly most extreme — “spare part” is another complete computer, of course. Of course, that’s not always an option. Luckily, a remarkably small set of things will solve many common problems.
The Basics: Peripherals and Cables
Here’s my recommended starter list:
All it takes to ruin a keyboard is a little dirt or spilled coffee — even one bad key can keep you from working comfortably.
Because keyboards aren’t all exactly alike, get one that’s the same as the one you use. For example, I use a Microsoft “ergonomic” keyboard, which has the keys angled — I can use a “regular” keyboard, but it’s much less comfortable. (Make sure that it has the right type of plug as your current keyboard, e.g., USB, PS/2, Bluetooth wireless.)
When you buy your next monitor, save your old one if it still works.
- Mouse (or other pointing device)
Like keyboards, make sure you have a spare like what you use. For example, I use a trackball. I could use a mouse if I had to, but I’m comfortable with my trackball. And, if you use one, a mousepad.
- Headset (if you normally use one)
- Main cables
Your computer’s power cable or video cable aren’t likely to fail, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
- Other cables
I keep several spare cables around, including a printer cable, an Ethernet cable, and a few USB cables (there’s several types of USB jacks, make sure you’ve got the right bunch).
- Any other ergonomic accessories you use, like wrist pads.
Even if your computer has a built-in optical CD/DVD drive, having an external USB-powered one can’t hurt — there’s other good reasons to have one anyway.
A handful of cable adapters, including “gender-menders” and type-to-type adapters, e.g., 9-to-15 pin VGA, and a VGA/HDMI adapter.
If you’re comfortable and confident, a spare hard drive may be useful — along with an external USB hard drive adapter/chassis.
Depending on how old the computer is (some of your friends and family still have a few that are five, ten, or more years old, I guarantee), you may also want a USB floppy drive.
My list isn’t that long, you’ll notice.
I’m not saying you should rush out and buy all this stuff — other than the keyboard, if you don’t have a spare already. But keep your eyes open at yard sales (see my post, “Yard Sales: A Good Place for Tech Bargains“) and other places. Used/yard-sale prices for keyboards and mice are usually one to five bucks — if friends don’t have some to give away. Smaller (19″ and under) , classic-format flatscreens should be ten bucks or less — or free. (You should be able to get a good CRT for free, but flatscreens are less bulky to store, of course.)
And put as much of these in a box, label it carefully — and remember where you put it all.
Sooner or later, you’ll thank me for this advice.