To PC or not PC


OK, so you've bitten the bullet and bought a home computer. They've managed to deliver it in time for Christmas and now you face three huge boxes and several small, expectant faces. What do you do next?

Well ideally you step back a week or two, to when you were deciding what to buy. You did make sure that the machine came with a good selection of programs and games, since they're much cheaper to get with the machine than piecemeal afterwards didn't you? Good!

After choosing your software "bundle" you made sure that it was "pre-loaded" the software is actually on the machine, rather than in a bundle of CDRoms or disks? Excellent! Even if you didn't, it's not a major problem, just a bit more hassle, dealing with installation programs and the troublesome questions they ask.

Now put down that drink (safely to one side) and get started. The first challenge is get the beast out of its lair. Computer boxes are top quality cartons, and tough, ideal for packing if you plan to move house in the foreseeable. Designed to keep precious contents safe in transit, they are the initial hurdle to happy home computing.

Put all the boxes right way up (there are usually signs on the side to help) in a space big enough to step around them comfortably. Remember that each thing you take out has to be put down somewhere, so an area twice the size the boxes themselves occupy is a good starting point. Have the desk or table where you plan to put it clear and remember that you will need up to five power points (monitor, system unit, speakers, printer and modem). A six outlet connector block is a good idea.

Most systems ship with one box for the monitor and another for the system unit, keyboard, manuals and software. The loudspeakers may be boxed separately. For each box, take a short sharpish implement and cut the tape along the joins, making sure that you don't go deep enough into the boxes to scratch the contents.

Lift out any packing to expose the computer components and make sure you can get a good grip on each item to lift it out. Take particular care with the monitor. They are not particularly heavy, but the weight is all to the front (screen) end and the rotating base makes a rotten grip.

Remember to drop the polystyrene packing back into the boxes before the dog and the children get a chance to discover how much fun it is to break it up into infuriating little balls. The cables will have little wire tics around them. Keep these to tidy spare lengths of cable once everything is in place.

NOW comes the jigsaw puzzle at least four (screen, system unit, keyboard, mouse) pieces and probably several more (speakers, printer, modem, with their own power and telephone cables). The key thing at this point is not to panic.

There are far fewer pieces than there are to most jigsaws made for anyone over three years of age. Everything has its place and most manufacturers take some steps to make things easier. Gone are the days when most people unpacking a computer were expected to be professionals at it and the whole gory mess tumbled out with no indication of where anything should go. Manufacturers code the plugs and sockets with little pictures, and sometimes colours, to show you what goes where.

Look through the documentation for a "getting started" or "read me first" booklet or poster. It will be among the thinnest of the slabs of paper. Open it and have a good look before you launch in. As long as the power is not connected and you don't use force you won't damage your computer.

Even if there is no helpful chart, all is not lost. There are a limited number of essential connections and not many ways to make them.

. The monitor needs two connections video (a thick cable to the system unit) and power (either directly to an electric socket or piggybacked from the system unit). The video cable will fit only one of the connections on the back of the system unit, so it's a good starting point.

. The printer is also easy, with connections only to the system unit and to an electric socket.

. On an IBM compatible the keyboard goes to one of two circular DIN sockets on the back of the system unit. The other is for the mouse. These plugs go in only at one point in the circle, so look for a key line or turn it gently until it goes in easily. Do knot push hard. (On a Macintosh the keyboard goes into the "Apple desktop bus connector" marked with a picture like a tiny subway map, and the mouse connects to the keyboard.)

. The system unit needs to be connected to the electric socket and to the printer and external modem, if there is one. If you have an internal modem, a phone socket on the back of the system unit goes to the phone line. (Many internal modems have two sockets make sure you use the one marked "line or "telco". The other is to connect a telephone handset.)

Loudspeakers need to be connected one to the other with a shared connection then to the output socket on the sound card and another to electric power, usually a small transformer. Your sound card will usually have three mini-jack sockets line on (for a microphone or other sound source) line out (to headphones or an amplifier) and loudspeaker output.

If there is a third, sub-woofer, speaker you will probably have to check the manufacturer's wiring diagram to assemble the parts. The sound card may also have a games port for connecting a joystick or game pad.

ONCE everything is connected, take a deep breath and switch on monitor and printer first, then system unit and speakers. You should see the machine "boot" itself loading its basic software or operating system.

They do actually turn on computers in the factory, so if it doesn't all work it's unlikely that the machine is totally dead. Much more likely that something is not connected. Check all your connections, especially power and video, and work through the manufacturer's trouble shooting guide. Ask someone else to check your work. If you still have no phone the computer company's help line, preferably from a phone in front of the computer so that you can describe symptoms and do things that they suggest.

If the games and other software are not pre-loaded you will now have to install them. Check the annual for how to do so, and stick to a couple of the most wanted titles at first. Pick the "express" or "default" options if you are asked to choose a type of installation. You can always come back later and do a "custom" install if necessary.

With the system assembled and working you are almost finished. If you are new to Windows 95 or the Macintosh choose the help option that gives you a quick tour of the operating system. This is the computer's "personality" and will govern all your interaction with it, so a little time spent learning about it is worthwhile.

If the manufacturer has not included disk or CD-Rom copies of all the software installed on the hard drive you may have to make these copies yourself. It's a copout by the manufacturer and a nuisance for you, but you have to do it. Some day you will need to install another printer, or modem, or reinstall the operating system and these backup disks are what you'll need.

Finally, put on your sternest expression and lay down the rules for using the computer even if it's only to yourself (see panel). Now where did you leave that drink?