T.R. REID and BRIT HUME

We demand a lot from our computers. The standard desktop PC today serves not only as a number-cruncher and word-processor, but also as telephone, fax, answering machine, Internet terminal, calendar, CD player, photo editor, Rolodex, etc., etc. Each new feature or peripheral we attach to the computer increases its usefulness, but also adds to its enormous complexity.

The result is that computers don't work as reliably as other familiar appliances. We use our refrigerators even more than we use our home computers, but how often do we experience a "refrigerator crash?" Even the family car, a much more complicated piece of machinery than a computer, is generally easier to use and more reliable than a personal computer.

One way to avoid the dreaded "computer crash" and that mysterious screen warning "This program has performed an illegal operation" is to strip your PC to the bones and keep it simple. If you don't have a voice-fax-data modem in your computer, for example, you eliminate three system "interrupts" that could cause problems for other functions.

The downside is that this makes our PCs less functional and less fun. You don't absolutely need one of the new "3-D" sound cards, for example, which make the tinny sound from a standard PC emulate a mighty Wurlitzer. But frankly, those cards sound great.

We recently installed the Yamaha WaveForce 192G 3-D sound card in our IBM desktop. Putting the card in was easy, but it took hours of frustrating effort to make all the software changes required. The vaunted "Plug-'n'-Play" technology in Microsoft Windows was so hard to adjust, it should have been called "Plug-'n'-Curse." Still, the results are glorious. Our PC has become a music synthesizer, with better audio output now than a dedicated hi-fi system.

If you want to take advantage of added features like this without losing your sanity, the best solution is to buy your computer from a retailer who will promise to set up everything you need and then be on hand to help when things go wrong.

As we regularly note in this column, you shouldn't buy computer equipment from any seller who won't commit to making things work. If the salesperson will not, or cannot, guarantee to make a program or peripheral work on your PC, then go down the street and find another vendor.

There is something important, though, that all of us PC users can do to avoid crashes and similar problems: keep the computer clean.

A desktop PC is a metal box full of magnetically charged electronic components that must exist in a busy office environment. Grime, dust, paper clippings, staples, cleaning fluid, and the dreaded spilled coffee cup all gravitate toward this delicate piece of machinery like moths to a flame. Disk drives are particularly vulnerable to dirt; often a mysterious "software" problem can be fixed by cleaning the CD-ROM disk or the disk drive.

You can clean the outside of your computer with ordinary cleansers and paper towels, but there are specific cleaning tools made just for PCs. These cost more, but they have advantages: the PC cleaning materials are designed to eliminate static electricity and not to leave lint or paper dust behind.

Every computer user should apply an anti-static fluid now and then to combat the static electricity that can mess up the internal circuitry. There are several of these around, with names like Office Guard (Kensington Technology) and Static Guard (Alberto-Culver). It's best to spray the stuff on a lint-free wipe and rub down the computer and monitor. (You can also spray this on your clothes to eliminate static cling.) Just for insurance, we spray it on our hands, too, before touching any of the circuit boards inside the computer.

Another useful tool is a can of compressed air, such as the product called Dust Blaster (Kensington). You shoot this around the keyboard, in the disk drives, around the bottom of a mouse, and then around the circuit boards inside your PC. An amazing quantity of dust goes flying out.

There are also special cleaning disks that you can insert into the floppy disk or CD drive. The drive spins just as if you had put in a normal disk, and the cleaner brushes dust, lint, and other problems off the magnetic heads or the laser lens. If you have a problem with a drive that seems to be skipping or missing occasional hunks of data, this under-$10 device may save you a hundred-dollar repair call.

Computers are too complicated. But PC users can help eliminate problems with a simple rule: Keep them clean.

T.R. Reid is London bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at trreid@twp.com and Brit Hume at 72737.357@compuserve.com.

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