Some FAQs about PCs you wish you knew before you bought it!

Saturday, September 21, 2002

Q: Internet Explorer 6 is not displaying any pictures, and gives me all sorts of weird Javascript and DHTML errors. What's going on?
You may have ran into a Microsoft "upgrade" feature. Try this: Go to View / Encoding, and see if the checkmark is on "Western European (ISO)". If it is, choose "Western European (Windows)" should fix it on that page. Unfortunately, you have to do this at EVERY page.

According to Microsoft, the "character set" displayed is based on the information the server sends. So the server can say it's sending you French, but it's actually still sending you English characters. In this case, the server is sending Western European ISO, and your browser is taking the server literally. The bad part is... Taking the browser off "autodetect" does NOT work, because that only works if the server does NOT send that info. So why is the server sending WEISO? Because Microsoft apparently changed the default to WEISO instead of WEW without telling anybody.

Is there a way to fix this? I have no idea. The only "pure" fix is go back to IE5.5, which does not seem to have this problem, or use Netscape 7 / Mozilla 1/ Opera for a while until Microsoft get this mess sorted out.

Q: I don't like the way Windows looks and the themes are too limited. What can I do?
Try Stardock's Object Desktop. It's more of a subscription service than a product you buy. You get all the new stuff they release for a year as well as what they already have, basically. You can skin just about EVERYTHING in Windows, from titlebar to start bar, etc. You can make your PC desktop look like a Mac or X-Windows or just about ANY other GUI system available (or even those that does NOT exist). You can download 3 of the core components as a "demo" to see how you like the program. And it does work with XP.

Q: So how do I compare my 3DMark 2001 score against others?
Go to the MadOnion Online Results Browser, click on 3DMark 2001, then put in your system specs, and see comparable scores.

Also see "What is Overclocking and how do I do it?" question near the very bottom of this FAQ.

Q: What is 3DMark?
3DMark is a program from MadOnion that runs the PC through some typical game scenes in 3D and measures your PC's 3D performance in various resolutions and color depths and come out with a composite score that is a rough measure of your system's current 3D speed. Download it free from the website above. After you run your test, you can go to their website and see if your system is performing at / above / below average.

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Q: What can I use to edit my own "desktop themes" for my Windows desktop?
A free one that is good is Desktop Architect and PC Magazine's Themecrafter. For Windows XP, try StyleXP.

Q: What kind of cable does a typical home network use?
Typical home network use Ethernet. Most Ethernet networks use "cat 5" (short for category 5) cable, which looks like a phone wire but is thicker and has a slightly wider plug (RJ-45). (For trivia bufffs, a regular phone-jack is RJ-11). There is a later standard called cat 5e, but that's almost the same as cat 5.

Q: Where can I find information on how to tweak my Internet connection for maximum throughput?
The best link is Look in their forums, forum FAQs, and tools for a lot of information you can try.

Q: On the Internet, does download/upload speeds affect game ping/performance?
No. They measure different things. upload/download speed is a measure of bandwidth, i.e. throughput per unit time. Ping, on the other hand, measure latency, as in how fast can be computer respond fo the traffic.

Q: In my Internet Explorer, I seem to have somehow made my "address bar" disappear. How do I get it back?
View / Tools Bars / Address Bar, turn it on.

Q: Can I play DVD movies in my regular CD-ROM reader?
No. While the discs are the same size, the technology is totally different. You can read CD-ROM discs in a DVD-ROM drive, but not the other way around. (And any one who tell you otherwise is lying.)

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Q: What is DNS and why is that important on the Internet?
DNS = domain name server/service. It's a computer running a program that translates a domain name, like, into an IP address like

Computers on the Internet talks in TCP/IP protocol, and each computer has an IP address. DNS assigns "domain names" to those IP addresses. Instead of entering an URL in gobblygook of numbers, you can enter a domain name that is much easier to remember. DNS will translate that name into the gobblygook IP address for you.

There are THOUSANDS of DNS servers out there. Every network probably has one. Each Internet Service Provider (ISP) would have several. If your local DNS server don't know the answer, it'll forward the request to the next higher up, and up, until it finds an answer or comes back "no such entry".

Without DNS, you will be forced to enter IP addresses only. There will be no more of these easy-to-remember domain names.

Q: Can I have more than one operation system on my computer?
Yes, if you have something like V-Com's System Commander. As many O/S on a single computer as you want, Windows, Linux, DOS, SCO Unix, and more. All separate.

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Q: How can I put my Internet connection "on hold" so I can get a call on the same line?
Technically, you can't, since your call-waiting will usually disconnect you. However, with the newer V.92 modems and Call-waiting modems, it's possible.

Actiontech makes call waiting modems. The URL is here:

There are external devices that supposedly can do this too. Emerson and others make them. They cost like $50 or so.

You can only put your internet call on hold for about 15 seconds, which is really just enough to say "I'll call you back."

It may be easier just to get broadband like DSL or cable Internet.

Q: How do I keep my software updated? I keep hearing about all these updates!
There are three websites you need to know:

CNet's Catchup discontinued until further notice

Try all three and they should be able to tell you about what software on your PC needs to be updated.

Q: Can I use ICS with the free version of Zone Alarm?
According to the free manual on ZoneLab's website, the answer is no. The free version is for a SINGLE COMPUTER only. To let ZA work with ICS, you will need the Pro version (which of course, costs money).

Monday, September 09, 2002

Q: How do I do a "clean install" of Windows XP?
Follow these instructions from Windows SuperSite.

Q: My broke my PDA! How do I fix it?
If you don't wish to pay for after warranty service yourself, try, which sells spare parts for the various PDAs on the market, from the old Visor to the Pocket PC machines and more. From memory to case, from screen to digitizer, they probably have it. You can also get spare stylus, hotsync cradles, and more. It's probably cheaper than getting a new one.

Sunday, September 08, 2002

Q: How do I reduce my PING time online? How can I make my Internet work faster?
You're mixing up two things: latency, and bandwidth.

Latency is the length of time you have to wait before the signal is sent. Bandwidth is how much signal can be pumped through the pipe at one time. The two are NOT related.

Don't see the difference? Let me use a metaphor. Let us imagine a motorcycle messenger and a dump truck. A motorcycle messenger can get to tight places very fast and is very maneuverable, but can't carry much. A dump truck is slow, clumsy, huge, but it can carry a LOT of stuff. In network jargon, the messenger would be said to have low latency, but low bandwidth, while a dump truck has high latency and high bandwidth.

Most latency is measured in PING time. Higher the PING, higher the latency. Most Internet multiplayer games want low PING time, which means they need your game to respond to changes fast.

On the other hand, if you DOWNLOAD more, you would care more about the bandwidth, or how much data are you pumping through per unit time, then about the latency. You want your connection to download a 200K /second, not 20K / sec, and so on.

Try reading this article I wrote for a while back on how you can (or cannot) improve your latency and bandwidth.

Q: How should I choose an antivirus package for my PC?
Try this article I wrote for It poses five questions you should ask of each antivirus package.

Q: How should I choose a soundcard?
Try this article I wrote a while back on It asks you six questions you need to answer before choosing your soundcard.

Q: Should I build my own computer or should I buy a pre-built system like Dell / Gateway / etc.?
the question depends on how much do you know about computers.

If you're a hardcore computer geek, who can troubleshoot systems and enjoys tweaking the system for maximum performance, you would be much happier with a self-built. You can order the exact components you want in your system, and since you put it together yourself, it's great for your ego. The price you pay for that of course, is you can't call on any one for support. You must do it yourself.

If you are NOT a hardware geek, you don't know what the difference between SDRAM and DDR SDRAM is (nor do you care), so on and so forth, then you should buy a pre-built system. Those are built to sell fast and cheap. They would work right out of the box. They probably do NOT contain the latest and greatest gadgets, but rather what the consumers would buy in general. They often come with nice support policies such as toll-free hotlines where you can call for help should something happen to your system.

Saturday, September 07, 2002

Q: I need to link two PC's together to transfer some data. What's the cheapest way that is fast?
If you don't want to put both on a network, that would depend on if they have USB ports or not. If both have USB ports, probably some Host to Host solutions like these listed on Otherwise, try LapLink, which includes Serial and Parallel cables, with optional USB cable for even FASTER transfers.

Friday, September 06, 2002

Q: Is there a way to get AOL mail with a regular POP3 mail client?
Yes, there are two solutions. The new guy on the scene is AOL2POP. The established guy is eNetBot. Both claims to work with your AOL account completely transparently.

Q: Is there a way to get Hotmail / MSN / Yahoo webmail with a regular POP3 mail client?
Yes there is... Izysoft makes two products, IzyMail and Pop3Hot. IzyMail syncs folders, while Pop3Hot just do inbox alone, no folders. Pop3Hot is under $20, while IzyMail is under $30, both are single-user licenses. Both products will allow you to use message rules and other features Hotmail/MSN/Yahoo. In case of Yahoo, it also means you don't have to pay Yahoo that "enhanced" mailbox fee.

Q: How can I save paper by printing multiple pages onto a single page, and/or print on both sides?
Try FinePrint, which allows up to EIGHT pages on a single side of regular paper. It can also do booklet, convert color to B&W printing, watermarks, headers/footers, and much more. Download an eval version and give it a try.

Q: How do I watch my computer on my TV?
That depends on your PC's video card capability. If the video card has built-in "video out", just use the right cable, install the right driver, and enable the output. Otherwise, you need to use a "scan converter", such as these from AverMedia.

NOTE 2006: the scan converter links are moved to PC to TV devices section.

Q: How do I watch TV on my PC's monitor?
Do you need the PC on or off? You could buy a separate tuner for the monitor if you don't want to turn the PC on. If you want to keep the PC on, you can buy a TV tuner card for the PC like these from Hauppauge or these from AverMedia.

Q: How do I create my own "Tivo"-like personal video recorder (PVR) with my PC?
You will need a TV tuner card, and supporting software, like SnapStream. You can get a bundle on Snapstream's website. They supposedly even has the ability to download a segment to a PocketPC so you can watch it on the road. I've seen people do it with VirtualDub, but it's a bit more difficult.

Q: My Microsoft Word won't start. I get strange error messages like "out of memory", or PC freezes, and odd things like that.
Try deleting the NORMAL.DOT file in the template directory. The NORMAL.DOT is the default template used to create all MS Word documents. If that is somehow corrupted (by a virus or other things) it can prevent you from creating new documents or open existing documents altogether. If you delete the file, MS Word will simply create a "blank" one as replacement.

Q: What is a monitor's "refresh rate"? Why is it important?
A computer monitor works like a TV by scanning lines left to right, from top to bottom, many times a second. The VERTICAL refresh (how many times the scan gun makes the top to bottom trip) is usually the "refresh rate" being refered to.

In general the higher the refresh rate, the better. Usually you want 60 Hz refresh or faster (that's 60 times per second). Some people have sensitive eyes that can notice "flicker" at low refresh, while others would not notice.

The available refresh rate will vary depending on what resolution you have the monitor set at. The higher the resolution, the lower the refresh rate. Good monitors can maintain high refresh rate even at high resolutions.

Your video card must also support the refresh rate in order for you to set the refresh.

Thursday, September 05, 2002

Q: The icon labels on my desktop have a colored background. How can I make it transparent so I see ONLY my wallpaper and the text, not the background color?
If you have Windows XP, this is a control panel option you can enable or disable. Otherwise, you need to load a program that'll keep resetting the color to a transparent value. This is part of Window's design that needs "fixing". Try the link here to The first three or four programs listed should do it.

Q: How do I "share" a DSL or Cable Internet connection among several computers?
In general, you need to establish a network among the computers first with a "network starter kit" (like this one from Linksys). THEN you add a cable/DSL router (like this one from Linksys) to link your network to the Internet.

You must have a router (of one form or another) on your network to connect to the Internet properly. You CAN setup a software router by using two network cards and some software such as Windows Internet Connection Sharing (ICS), or software like WinGate. However, unless you are VERY good with your PC a hardware router like the one listed above is the way to go. This assumes you have a DSL/Cable modem with Ethernet port.

If you have a USB-port DSL/Cable modem, then things get trickier. There is like ONE router out there that works with USB port DSL/Cable modems, and it's quite hard to find. You may be stuck going the software route.

Q: How much RAM should I have in my PC? WIll having more make my PC go faster?
The answer depends on your operating system. In general, Win9X is quite satisified with 256 megs of RAM. WinNT/2K/XP can use 512 megs or 1 gig of RAM, depending on how many programs you run at once. One of the reasons computer slow down is Windows must make some more main memory available by swapping some stuff to the virtual memory. If you are short on memory, the swapping occurs very soon after bootup and will continue to happen. If you have a lot of RAM, swapping will still happen, but it'll may be a while later, perhaps several hours later.

You can further optimize the way Windows works with the swap file by a bit of tuning, like put swap file on the SECOND physical HD, make the swap file a FIXED size, size the file properly for your amount of RAM, and things like that, but that's a different topic.

Having more memory than you need is a waste of money.

Q: What is OpenGL? Why do I need it? How do I get it?
OpenGL is a graphics programming standard, similar to Microsoft's Direct3D (part of DirectX). ID made OpenGL popular for PCs when back then Direct3D wasn't very powerful and ID needed a better standard for their game "Quake". Now most games support both OpenGL and Direct3D.

Your video card may or may not support OpenGL. It may support a subset of OpenGL sometimes called "miniGL", just enough to run Quake and similar games instead of a FULL implementation of OpenGL. You should check your video card maker for OpenGL compatibility. Usually, OpenGL support is just a matter of adding the right video driver. There is a "generic" installer out there called "GLSetup" (at that will detect your video card and install the appropriate drivers. However, it doesn't always work and in order to be compatible to a lot of cards, it's a pretty large download. Try it at your own risk.

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

Q: What does "flash the BIOS" or "update the BIOS" mean? Why would I need to do it?
BIOS, or "Basic Input/Output System", is the MOST basic thing the PC knows. BIOS usually comes on a ROM chip that is installed on the mainboard. Modern BIOS chips are usually "flash ROM", which means it CAN be updated via software if you need to do it.

Mainboard vendors often release new BIOS versions to enable support for new CPUs, correct any existing bugs, and so on. As different vendors have different procedures, PLEASE contact your mainboard vendor for exact instructions on whether the update is even needed, and how to do it. Newer BIOS will NOT increase performance, so don't update BIOS like you update video drivers. In general, updating the BIOS is NOT done unless you REALLY REALLY need to solve a specific problem, like add support for a new CPU, and so on.

Q: How much can I overclock __________ safely?
That's like asking "how fast will this car go?" The only way to know is to actually TRY IT.

Q: Is product __________ any good? Between __________ and __________ which is better?
Why don't you try reading some reviews and see for yourself? Look at the sites I listed on the right and they probably have a review or preview of that product.

Q: How do I know what hardware do I have in my computer?
First thing to try is DXDIAG. Start / Run / type in 'DXDIAG', hit RUN. That should tell you quite a bit about your system, including what drivers are installed. Some systems also include MSINFO32, which is a good utility as well.

For more detailed information, you'll need to get utilities such as SisSoft SANDRA. If you have Norton Systemworks, Norton Diagnostics is a good alternative.

Q: What is overclocking? How do I do it?
A: Rather than waste my time typing, I'll just refer you to the excellent guide here:

Anandtech FAQ: What is overclocking?
Overclockers Guide: Beginner's Guide to Overclocking

Q: What are "gray market" items? Can I get into trouble buying them?
Q: What is "debundling" or "unbundling"?

A: Gray market items are basically items that must be sold with something else, but are sold separately. For example, Microsoft Operating Systems like Windows XP Home OEM edition MUST be sold with a PC system. So if you bought an OEM edition without the system, you bought gray market stuff, which is technically illegal. Often, you'll find warning signs all over like "must be sold with a system" or "can only be sold in Asia" and things like that. Other companies can have similar arrangements.

Another example is "unbundling". Let's say a video card comes with 3 games free. If someone sold the video card by itself then the 3 games separately, the bundle has been "unbundled". The games are then "gray market" items.

Another example is "zoning". As software piracy is quite rampant in Asia, game prices in Asia is quite a bit lower than in the US to combat piracy. Sometimes in computer fairs you can find some vendors peddling software marked "can only be sold in Southeast Asia". Sometimes, titles that had already been released in Europe can be imported from Europe for lower cost than getting them from the US publisher. All are "gray market" items.

Can a regular consumer get into trouble for buying gray market items? Probably not. However, don't expect customer or technical support for gray market items. You can ask, but they may say no. Just beware of the risks.

System vendors can get into trouble for gray market items. If found, they may not be able to buy any more items from the original equipment maker.

Q: What is OEM? Should I buy OEM part vs. Retail Parts?
OEM = "Original Equipment Maker". OEM parts are sold directly to system assemblers to be assembled into systems sold to you. Its counterpart is "retail parts", which are meant to show up on store shelves so you can buy them directly.

OEM parts lack a lot of the pretty packaging, extra software bundles, etc. as the system assembler don't want those. OEM parts are cheaper as they come with less stuff, are made at larger quantities, and often sold at quantity discount.

Some vendors will sell OEM parts direct to public, thus "pass the savings onto you".

OEM parts usually do NOT come with any warranty, as opposed by the "retail" products. The "retail" AMD CPU's comes with 3 years warranty. The OEM AMD CPU's are warrantied by the individual vendors, and most only offer 30 days of warranty. Some can go as low as 7 or 14 days. Check with the retailer regarding any warranty issues BEFORE your purchase.

Sometimes, the OEM parts are of slightly inferior quality than the retail version. They use components of slightly lower spec than retail version. This is rare now, but it has happened before.

Should you buy OEM instead of Retail? Assuming the items are identical, then the answer depends on how much do you care about warranty. If you constantly tweak your system, you are in danger of blowing up the system (or melt it down or whatever), thus warranty may be good for you. If the difference is less than 10%, I'd probably go for the retail part. If the difference is MORE than 10%, I may go OEM and forego the warranty.