Computers Stink

PC Owners Are Mad As Hell, and Columnist Reid Goldsborough Is No Exception

by / August 31, 1997
Computers Stink.

That's the name of a book that crossed my desk a couple of weeks ago. The title made me laugh, but as I read through the book, I found myself nodding in agreement with the author, Jack Bellis. Computers really do stink.

Who among us hasn't felt frustrated at the complexity of today's personal computers? They're too difficult to learn and use, they lock up and break down too often, and they and cost too much.

Sure, PCs and Macs provide us with enormous capabilities. But trying to tap into this richness can leave you sitting on the floor with big clumps of hair in your hands that you've yanked from your head.

Clean Up Your Act

Home PC market leader Packard Bell has been having problems making quality machines and in supporting them effectively, a situation that's come to light through a number of surveys in various computer magazines. Although it has the worst quality and service record of the major manufacturers, the industry as a whole needs to clean up its act.

According to the surveys, more than half of personal computer owners have experienced at least one problem with their machine, while 15 percent of all PCs needed service within the previous six months. Astonishingly, 12 percent of new PCs are received "dead on arrival."

PC makers typically explain that they've been growing very quickly and are going to double their efforts to address quality and service concerns. "We're doing everything possible to improve," they say, year after year.

But instead of improving, in some respects, things are getting worse. It now takes tech support an average of eight days to solve a problem for you, up from five and a half days a year ago, according to a survey by Home PC magazine.

Pain In The Motherboard

PCs can also be maddeningly difficult to upgrade. I've personally been trying to add more memory to my Micron Pentium 166 for the past two weeks, without success.

I've gone straight by the book. I made sure my computer's motherboard could support the extra RAM (random access memory). I bought the new RAM from a highly recommended and reputable mail-order outfit that specializes in memory (and offers it at great prices -- the Chip Merchant.)

I made sure the new RAM is the same type as my existing RAM. I was careful to avoid damaging the RAM modules with static electricity. I filled the second of two memory banks on my computer's motherboard. All to no avail.

With the extra RAM, every time Windows 95 loads, my system locks up. When I pull out the extra RAM, I have no problems. I tried switching the location of the RAM modules, exchanging the new modules for different ones, and using just the new modules. I made adjustments to Windows 95's virtual memory settings.

I received other, and sometimes conflicting, advice from the Chip Merchant, Micron and fellow computer users. Nothing helped.

Before throwing in the towel, I'll take a stab at other options, such as trying to find RAM from the same manufacturer as my current RAM. But doing something as simple as adding RAM shouldn't take two weeks of troubleshooting.

Many computer users have reported similar difficulties in adding hard drives, exchanging motherboards and increasing their computer's multimedia capacities. The Mac makes upgrading easier, but the Mac operating system, more complex than ever, crashes far more often than it should.

Connecting your computer to the Internet can also lead to a serious case of teeth gnashing.

To sign up with some Internet service providers you have to deal with scantily explained SMTP and NNTP settings. Surfing to slick Web sites can be excruciatingly slow. It's far too easy to get overloaded with irrelevant information when doing a Web search. Getting bombarded with time-sapping junk e-mail is an everyday pain.

Software poses frustrations of its own. Although the popular programs are easier today than in the past, most people are able to master only a small fraction of the available features.

Software is the focus of Computers Stink, Bellis' self-published book, which is available from the Web site or at 800/356-9315. Bellis, who writes software manuals for a living, directs much of the book toward software developers.

He offers some good advice. Most important, he said in a telephone interview, put all of the program's features on the menus at the top of the screen, and make sure that each menu selection is labeled with words that clearly describe its function to those who haven't used it before.

The overall solution, though, is for the computer-buying public to collectively say, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore," then buy only from vendors who pay adequate attention to ease of use, reliability and service concerns.

In the meantime, whether you're wrestling with your software or your hardware, a number of new sources for solutions have popped up on the Web. Among the more interesting is Experts Exchange, at . You can get one to three questions answered for free a month, depending on their difficulty. After that, it costs from $5 to $20 a question. If you consider yourself a computer expert, you can answer questions posed by others, and maybe earn a few dollars to boot.

Reid Goldsborough is author of the book "Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway." He can be reached at or.

September Table of Contents

Reid Goldsborough Contributing Writer
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at or