The holiday-buying rush is over, and if you're like most of us, your household will have at least one new electronic gadget with which to greet the New Year, whether it's a computer, DVD player, digital camera, Walkman or a talking doll.
Unfortunately, we forget that these gadgets require what the marketers like to call "after-market support." In English, this means "extra stuff you need to make it work." While it's easy to grumble about this state of affairs, it's better to bite the bullet and get what you need now. That way, you can enjoy your gifts without worrying about something preventable going wrong or some critical supply running out. Here are some suggestions:
Whether you've just bought a new computer or you've blown $400 on a game console, you now have an expensive and delicate piece of electronic equipment plugged into your household wiring. Electrical spikes and surges can ruin that gadgetry, especially at a time of year when winter storms often result in power outages.
A sudden loss of electricity can scramble your hard drive if your computer is writing data when the juice goes out, and the voltage spikes that often occur when the power comes back can ruin its internal circuits. Modems are particularly vulnerable to small surges that travel over phone lines and are undetectable, until you try to dial up your Internet provider and nothing happens.
There are two ways to protect your equipment. The cheapest -- and this is all you need for game consoles, stereo and TV equipment -- is a power strip with a built-in surge suppressor. You can get a decent one for $20 to $35.
If the power strip is serving a computer with a modem, make sure it has jacks for the phone cord as well as standard outlets.
A good power strip will have its own switch and at least two lights -- one to show whether the power is turned on (which helps in troubleshooting) and another to show that surge suppression is still active. A power strip dies a little with each surge it blocks, and ultimately the suppressor circuits wear out. A surge suppression light will warn you if your equipment is no longer protected.
For convenience, buy a power strip with outlets spaced wide enough apart to accommodate one or more "power blocks," the bulky, annoying transformers with built-in plugs that supply electricity to a variety of gadgets. A roomy power strip won't force you to cover up a good outlet with one of those awful black boxes.
Finally, if you're setting up a new PC on a desktop and the power strip is on the floor underneath, make sure it's out of range of your feet (especially if they're as big as mine). I've kicked enough switches and turned my equipment off inadvertently enough times to make me a bit paranoid about this.
To keep your computer safe, consider investing in an uninterruptible power supply (UPS for short). This is a large, heavy box that serves as a battery backup for your equipment. In addition to providing clean power and stopping surges, a UPS kicks in automatically when the power goes out and keeps your equipment running for a short period of time (remember the "short" part). This prevents scrambled disks and gives you a chance to shut down your system in an orderly manner.
UPS units that start at $90 to $100 provide only a few minutes of power and might not be suitable for high-end computers with large monitors. More money buys more juice and longer battery life. So, make sure your UPS matches your system's needs. A good place to start is the American Power Conversion Web site, which can match a UPS to your system. Surf to www.apcc.com/template/size/apc/.
If you have kids in the house, that new printer is likely to get a serious workout. You'll be amazed how many photos, greeting cards, invitations, banners, buttons and other projects they'll turn out -- particularly if you install the clever arts-and-crafts software bundled with the machine.
Although entertaining, these insidious programs are actually designed to do one thing -- drain your printer's ink reservoirs. Printer makers get a big chunk of their profits from selling replacement cartridges at $70 a set; that's why printers are so cheap.
In any case, the kids will eventually get bored with the printer, and you'll probably forget about it. As a result, you'll run out of ink at the worst possible time -- when your child has a report due the next day or you have to finish a proposal for the office.
So pick up a spare set of cartridges now and avert disaster down the road.
Also, it's OK to buy cheap, 20-pound copy paper for the youngsters, but reserve a package of high-contrast, 24-pound, business-quality paper for your own correspondence.
If the printer makers are engaged in a conspiracy to part you from your money, they're amateurs compared with the people who make batteries. The world runs on batteries -- but never the size you have in the drawer.
If there was a battery-powered device on your gift list this year, buy an extra set or two right now -- and make sure they're the right size. If you have several kids and lots of gadgets, buy in bulk.
Finally, if your household is like ours, it contains a hidden trapdoor leading to the Land of Lost Battery Covers. Every gadget has a snap-off battery cover. And given enough kid handling, every cover will drop off and find its way to the LLBC, never to be seen again. When the cover disappears, the batteries will inevitably fall out and disappear. Particularly when it's the television remote control.
My advice: put a piece of duct tape over every battery cover. Pry it off and put it back on, when you change batteries. You'll have a Happier New Year.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post news Service
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