You won't see sparks or smell smoke. But you probably will get other warning signs before a sick computer crashes.
The secret is learning not to ignore the electronic whispers that signal when a computer has developed terminal illness.
Count me among the slow learners. I've used more than two dozen different computers over the last 20 years, and two have crashed.
“Crash” in this case means that the hardware - the disk drive, for instance, the motherboard, or the memory chips - have suddenly gone bad, leaving the PC inoperable. The darn thing won't start, or it starts but won't work.
I let the third crash sneak up, ignoring months of distress signals from one PC that I've used since 1997. Then one Monday morning the monitor welcomed me with a warning message that became the PC's obituary.
That antique had no blistering-fast processor, enormous hard drive, CD burner, or state-of-the-art audio system. But it was a workhorse, perfect for word processing, e-mail, and Internet tasks - which account for more than 90 per cent of the typical person's computer time.
Hardware components are most apt to fail in computers that have been in use for several years. The damaging effects of heat and mechanical wear and tear on the hard disk drive accumulate with time, and eventually take their toll.
Knowing the warning signs of an impending crash is important. It gives you a chance to prepare for the worst.
Make backup copies of important files and e-mail address books; get help from the manufacturer's technical support hotline; check the costs of having a professional repair service diagnose the computer, and decide whether to spend money on repairs or a new computer.
The warning signs include:
*Error messages that never appeared before, or appear more often.
*Files that become corrupted and can't be read.
*More freeze-ups, when the computer won't respond to keyboard or mouse commands and must be restarted.
*Unusual activity of the hard disk drive, with the drive light flashing and the mechanism cranking away for no apparent reason.
*Strange noises from inside the system unit, the box that contains a computer's electronics.
Don't panic if they appear. Other easily fixed problems - including viruses - can cause similar symptoms. Even a sick computer may continue to work for weeks.
But do make backup copies of important files immediately.
You can do some diagnosing without buying special software (such as McAfee Utilities or Norton Utilities).
One step: Check the hard disk with Scan Disk, a built-in program. Click the Windows Start Button, select Programs, Accessories, System Tools, and Scan Disk.
Another: Use the computer's “help” feature to look for other diagnostic programs. Click the Start Button, select Help, and search for tips on “diagnosing problems.”
Don't forget to update your anti-virus software, if necessary, and scan for viruses.