Getting Back to the Basics

We tend to think of the latest and greatest, and the cutting edge, when we think of technology. There are some very minor, seemingly unimportant annoyances in our offices that really cost us time and productivity, which we can cure with very simple technology fixes. Even more importantly, they are issues related to our misapplication of technology.

The Wayward Mouse
Nothing infuriates me more than to sit down at a computer to work and find that the mouse acts erratically, as if it had a mind of its own, or as if I were trying to operate it through a layer of slow moving molasses. What is more amazing is the number of computer users who put up with this kind of behavior, knowing that things are not working quite right, and yet not taking the time or trouble to correct it.

I am referring to the universal tendency for a computer mouse that uses a mechanical ball to pick up debris and oil from your own hands, and transfer this to the internal rollers to the point it gums up their ability to smoothly move the mouse ball with any degree of precision. The mouse will still operate, but is visibly difficult to run smoothly, and will frequently catch and hang up as the ball attempts to run across the hopelessly clogged rollers.

For the most part, what you should do is throw every mechanical mouse in the office into the garbage and run down and pick up a good inexpensive optical mouse that will never require cleaning, and will always operate more smoothly. These can be obtained for $20 to $30 dollars, and are much more satisfying for a heavy computer user than the older mechanical ball style mouse.

If you are unable to replace the errant mouse, simply remove the ball from the bottom of the mouse by twisting the visible plastic panel that contains the ball. Then use the end of a paper clip to carefully chip away at the visible band of collected goo that has clogged the rollers, and that will look and act like hardened cement. It will come free if you are careful and persistent, providing another two or three months before the next cleaning.

Shaking Monitor Display Syndrome
Many Windows users operate a monitor that has never been properly adjusted for correct display of the information offered by the programs in use. Several factors need to be considered.

Most importantly, there is an adjustment called video refresh rate that will dramatically affect your long-term visual fatigue from using a monitor. If this number is set too low, such as 60 Hz (cycles per second), the picture will have an obvious flicker that will cause serious eye fatigue and thoroughly irritate any heavy user of that computer. I have seen processors use machines for months with this problem and never complain, and act shocked when I readjust their monitor for a more pleasing, non-flickering refresh rate.

Simply right click the mouse on the Windows desktop, and left click on properties. Then click on Settings, and Advanced, and Adapter tabs. Finally, click on List All Modes. Set the monitor for a resolution of at least 800 by 600, with 16 bit or higher color depth. Make sure that the final number is set for at least 70 Hz if you are using a conventional monitor. If you are using an LCD monitor, the normal default of 60 Hz is acceptable since the flicker is not noticeable on the persistent display characteristics of an LCD monitor. Try doing this with a conventional monitor and it will really improve your comfort factor with the monitor.

Memory Starved Processor
It is truly amazing how many company owners will hire a number of expensive employees, and then provide them with the latest computers with deficient memory configurations, just so they can save a few dollars when the acquire their equipment. For example, a minimally specified Windows XP based desktop computer will frequently be supplied with 256 (or even 128) Mbyte of silicon based Random Access Memory. With this memory-starved configuration, the operating system will barely load into the available memory without having to swap to the hard drive. When additional work is brought up on the machine, such as using Outlook and Word, the machine will consistently have to use the hard drive (much slower) than the lightning fast results that you get by having enough memory to allow normal operation without disk swapping.

This computer user may spend an additional 10 to 20 minutes per day waiting for programs to load on the computer, or in switching from one application to another. Over a year, this can result in a real productivity hit against an employee, not to mention their ongoing frustration and resentment about working with such an unsatisfying work implement. The answer? Never specify any modern computer, either at home or the office, unless it has 512Mbyte of RAM. Real power users should have 1 Gbtye of RAM. It currently costs less than $100 for 512 Byte of RAM (I run a Dell Latitude, with 1 Gbyte of RAM, and a correctly configured optical mouse and LCD display). If machines have less than 512 MBtye of RAM, then either upgrade them or replace them with an entirely new machine. While you are at it, always go for more RAM over a slightly faster yet significantly more expensive microprocessor. The faster microprocessor gets all the marketing hype, but the RAM does the real job in speeding up overall business productivity.

Preventing Installation Blues
Hardly a week goes by that one of my associates doesn’t call me upset because they have installed a new program, and now their computer runs like a sick animal. Having been through this a few times, I understand the frustration completely. For this reason, I actually run two computers at home. Computer one is my main work computer, and the only things on are my copy of Winfax Pro, so I can see my faxes remotely when I am out of town, and minimal installations of Microsoft Office and my basic installation of Calyx Point in case I need a quick back-up installation for my online classes. Computer two is where all the multimedia “toys” are. If I inadvertently install something on Computer two that doesn’t work right, I don’t spend a week trying to get it back to normal so I can at least get my important work done. My really important programs are installed on my Dell laptop, which I try to avoid installing frivolous programs into.

Actually there is a simpler solution that will bail you out, especially if you don’t like having six computers around. The answer is to always install a program after you have created a Windows Restore Point from within the help utilities accessible from the Start button. By creating a restore point, and then installing your latest programs, you can always roll back the computer to exactly where you were before installing the errant application. This will allow you to experiment without endangering your valuable workstation for serious work, in case you need to simply get the machine back to exactly where it was before you started with the new application. If you are unsure of how to do this, simply click on Start, Help and Support, and then Undo Changes to Your System With System Restore. This feature is easily the most valuable feature provided with Windows XP, and one you should use whenever the urge hits you to start “adding” to an already perfectly functional computer.

These are some of my favorite hints to save you time and irritation. Above all, we need to remember that the correct use of technology does not necessarily require always spending a lot of money, time, and acquiring a highly visible new toy or technique. We may be overlooking some of the most common irritants with some of the easiest repairs, such as the ones I have mentioned. I am sure you will find other simple, yet valuable things that you can also use to improve your productivity and lower your frustration level.

By Stephen Breden