Ten Commonly Asked Computer Questions...and Answers: Part 1

Computers can be intimidating and frustrating, but why? I believe it is because we rely on computers to do our job. If the computer is not working, then it probably means you (staff) are not working, or at the very least, you are not getting a lot of work done. This can be a very stressful situation. You may feel that this is somehow a reflection of your job performance. Also, you just want to get your work done, but you can’t because you need the computer to complete the task. You now have to explain to patients that you cannot accept their payment or book their next appointment because the computers are down. This means you have to track each patient manually and then call each one when the computers are back up and running.
No big deal, right? You will have plenty of time later in the day, because once you can use the computers again, time will stand still until you get caught up. Plus, the stack of charts you are holding is growing, which means the doctor cannot review them until you are through with them. Now the doctor’s routine is disrupted as well. Even worse, some patients may make inappropriate comments or may not be accommodating, given the situation.

Illustration by Nathan Zak

Just remember, it is probably not your fault the computers are down, unless, of course, the entire network crashed right after you played that funny video from your sister. If it is your fault, make sure you don’t tell anyone, that way it can’t be blamed on you. But if you don’t tell anyone, then it will take the computer tech twice as long to find and fix the problem, which means the stacks will continue to grow and the patient comments will get harder to take. Have I stressed you out enough, yet?
This article is not intended to be a how-to-fix-computer-problems type of article. This is a high-level view of computer problems that will hopefully help you cope better with them and maybe even reduce your stress level when your PC crashes. I apologize that I can’t help you with the patient comments, but maybe if you understand what is going on or what could be the issue, then it might make it easier to get through the situation. I have compiled a list of 10 questions that are the most commonly asked questions I have received over the last 5 years. I would go back the full 11 years I have been working on PCs, but the older questions are probably irrelevant today. In Part 1 of this article I will answer the first 5 questions, and in Part 2 I will address the next 5 questions.

In no particular order, here are the questions.

1. Should I shut off my PC every night, or is it OK to leave it on all of the time?

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? That’s right. The answer to the leave-it-on-or- shut-it-off question does not have a definitive answer; there are legitimate arguments on both sides. If you leave your PC on all of the time and something causes it to crash, then I can assure you that someone will offer the opinion that you should shut it down every night and this won’t happen again. If you shut it off every night and one morning you come into the office and it won’t turn on, then you can be assured that someone will tell you he or she leaves the PC on all of the time and never has a problem.
Some people argue that leaving a PC on all of the time will wear it out faster, while others will argue that turning it on and off every day puts more stress on the computer. I have clients that leave the computers on all week and shut them off for the weekend. One argument that cannot be disputed is that you will use more electricity if the computers are left on all of the time than if you shut them off every night. The list of arguments goes on and on and on.
So, should we leave the computers on or shut them off? The definitive answer is, do what allows you to sleep well at night. If your office has a lot of electrical issues including power outages, brownouts, and power surges, then I would definitely shut the computers off every night. If your staff is complaining that it takes forever to boot up the PCs every morning, then maybe you should leave them on every night so you can enjoy your coffee before seeing the first patient of the day. (Or maybe it is really time to upgrade the systems.) If you do leave them on all of the time, then you may want to reboot them once every few weeks, just to close out everything and start Windows fresh.

2. How come my hard drive crashed?

The hard drive case contains moving parts. You could compare it to an old console record player that allowed you to stack 3 or 4 albums on the spindle. Once the first record was finished playing, the arm would swing back, and the next record would drop and start playing. For the younger CD generation, think of it as a CD changer for your home stereo that allows you to load it with a bunch of CDs that you can play one at a time or randomly. These both work flawlessly all of the time, right? The albums and CDs never get scratched or dirty, and they always drop into place in the player. They never get ruined because it is too hot. Not true.
Inside a hard drive case are platters that spin around when your PC is on, and there is an arm that moves around reading different parts of the platters. So, what could go wrong with this set-up? Three very common things go wrong: the platters develop bad spots over time that can no longer be used for reading or writing data; the platters fall on top of each other, which means only the top of one platter can be used; or the swing arm breaks. OK, then why did I lose all of my data when my hard drive crashed, but my colleague was able to get all the data off her hard drive that crashed? The ability to recover data from a crashed hard drive depends on the severity of the crash. If you get into a car accident, your ability to drive away versus requiring a tow truck all depends on the extent of the damage to your car and to your body.
If the hard drive crashed because the platters have bad spots on them, then you can probably recover most of the data. If the hard drive crashed because the swing arm broke, then usually the only way to recover the data is to send the hard drive to a company that specializes in hard disk recovery. The technicians basically take the whole hard drive apart and either fix the mechanical issue or try to use other methods to get the data off the platters. It can be difficult sometimes to determine exactly what part failed unless you send it out for recovery, which can cost thousands of dollars. But, if the tech can recover most of the data at your office, then it was probably bad spots. If you hear clicking noises when you turn on the PC, but it won’t boot up, then it is probably the swing arm.

3. I have a lot of music files on my PC…will they slow it down?

Probably not, unless you are using most of the hard drive space. Today’s hard drives are very large and can hold a lot of data. Think of an iPod for a minute…the 30-GB model holds roughly 7,500 songs. So, if each CD has 10 songs on it, this is 750 CDs. The minimum hard drive that most PCs ship with today is 40 GB. But if your PC is older, then the hard drive could be 6 or 10 GB. How can you find out how big the hard drive is? Open My Computer, right mouse-click on the C drive, and select Properties.  This should show you the size of the hard drive and the amount of free space. But it is possible to divvy up a hard drive into multiple sections (partitions). This is not as common today as it was 4 or 5 years ago. There are too many different scenarios to cover, but if you are not sure, ask your computer tech.
Great, I have a 60-GB hard drive and I have 10 GB of free space left, so I am all set, no problems here. You are probably OK, but if the free space is less than 5% of the total size of the drive, then you are most likely seeing a slow down of your PC. Before you go running to your boss’  office with this article saying,  “See, I told you, my music files are not slowing down my PC,” know that I am not condoning putting music files, games, or any other non-work-related files on the office PC. Everything in moderation, and less is better. Think of your hard drive like the refrigerator in the office. If no one cleans out the fridge, then over time it will fill up with stale food that starts to smell, which also means less space for you to put today’s lunch in there. The fridge still works fine, all of the food is cold, but it is not being used effectively. What if you need to get at that bottle of soda you put in there 2 weeks ago? It could take a few minutes to find it, which slows you down. This leads into the next question on disk defrag (defragmentation).

4. How often should I run the disk defrag (defragmentation or defragmenter) program?

How often you run the disk defrag depends on how old the drive is and how much of the hard drive you are using. What is disk defrag and what does it do? When you save a file to your hard drive, it does not allow it to be saved in the open space toward the end of the drive; it can be sectioned across the drive. So, when you open the file, your computer pulls all the sections together without your involvement or approval. Over time, you now have a lot of files that are sectioned all over the hard drive. As the drive fills up, it takes the computer a longer time to pull everything together so you can use the file.
Let’s go back to the office fridge for a minute. Instead of putting your sandwich in a plastic baggy and putting it in the fridge, let’s say you put it in there in multiple bags. One bag has the bread, one bag has the tuna, one bag has the lettuce, etc. Now, when lunchtime finally gets here, you have to find each bag and put the sandwich back together before you can eat it. Now, we all know that people never move stuff around in the fridge, take something that is not theirs, or throw something out because they think it has gone bad. If you decide to go out for lunch that day, how much longer is it going to take you the next day to find all of the pieces and put that sandwich back together? Looks like you are eating out again. Everyone does this, and over time you are faced with space and performance issues.
What if you could run a program that would put all the pieces of your sandwich into a pile or at least right next to each other? Wouldn’t it be easier to make your lunch? That program for your hard drive is the disk defragmenter (or another software program with a different name that does the same thing). When you run the disk defrag, it puts all the pieces of your files right next to each other, which means it will be easier for the computer to load your file when you want to use it.

5. I just purchased a new PC…Can I copy everything from my current PC over to it?

Not everything. Well, technically, yes you could, but not much is going to work right. You can copy your data files, your Favorites, and some other data-type files. But you will have to run the installation program for most programs (applications, software) on the new PC. Let’s use QuickBooks or Quicken (Intuit) to explain what needs to be done. First, will the version you have run on the new PC? If the old PC was running Windows 3.1, Windows 98, or Windows ME, and you bought the software when you purchased the old PC, then you may have a problem. The old software may not run on your new PC, which is now running Windows XP or Windows Vista (when it is released). How can you tell if the software will work? The best way is to go to the manufacturer’s Web site and look in the Support section. You also may be able to e-mail the company’s tech support department. But be prepared for the company line that states that the software won’t work and that you will need to upgrade. Just to be sure, do a Google search to confirm this statement.
Also, the software may work, but it is not a supported version or configuration. Great, so I can install it and won’t have any problems. No, that is not what that statement is saying. Read it again. If you install the software and there are problems, then getting help with the issue is going to be difficult. What if you have problems 3 months later? Do you pay to have someone monkey around to get it working, or do you pay for the upgraded version of the program? Sounds like a case of pay it now, pay it later, or pay it both times.
In most cases, you will have to reinstall all of your applications, but you can copy your data files. The data files can include Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, Quick-Books company files, and other files you have created and saved. There are programs that will help with moving files and applications to the new PC, but they usually won’t get everything and will not work with all applications. No matter which route you take to transition to the new PC, hang onto the old PC for a week or 2 to make sure you got everything.

SUMMARY

I hope that you have learned something from this article that will help you get through your next computer crisis. Remember that most computer problems are not your fault and they are not the end of the world. It stinks when your car breaks down, and it stinks when your PC crashes, but you will get through it. If your PC does crash, write down what you were doing when it crashed, any changes that were made, any software that was installed, and take a deep breath. You will be able to help get the problem solved quicker if you stay relaxed.
Part 2 of this article, to be published in a future issue of Dentistry Today, will answer the next 5 commonly asked computer questions. 


Mr. Walsh is the president of Patriot Networks, located in Mendon, Mass. Patriot Networks provides computer and network services to dental practices and small businesses in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. He can be reached at (508) 624-9898 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 



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