How to Fix Electronics Without a Pro
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How to Fix Electronics Without a Pro

Has your cell phone or laptop gone haywire? Don't even think of paying a pro until you've tried one of these simple solutions.

DIY Fixes, Part 1

As you undoubtedly know, when it comes to cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices, just about anything can go wrong. Screens freeze, devices refuse to turn off (or on), important information evaporates into thin air. It's not cheap to get this stuff repaired, but you can solve many of the most irritating problems yourself using items you have at home. "You'd be surprised how easy it is to fix things on your own," says Veronica Belmont, cohost of the Internet TV show Tekzilla. Always start by going to the manufacturer's Web site and clicking on its troubleshooting guide. No luck? Then try one of these low-tech fixes, courtesy of Tekzilla, the Geek Squad, and Gina Trapani, author of Upgrade Your Life.

Your Cell Took a Spill

Happens all the time: The phone in your pocket slips into the bathroom sink or gets a drink spilled on it.

The Fix: Act fast! Fish the phone out of the liquid and remove the battery and SIM (subscriber-identity module) card, the chip that stores personal information. If you have an iPhone, turn it off right away. Shake the phone gently to get rid of liquid, then blot off excess. Next, take the phone apart by removing the case, slot covers, and panels to expose circuitry. Use a vacuum cleaner to suck out moisture (do not let the wand touch the phone) or place the phone in an airtight container of uncooked rice to draw water out overnight. Do not use a blow-dryer: The air pressure can force water deeper inside. If your phone took an ocean dip, you're in bigger trouble because salt corrodes electronics. If possible, take the phone apart right away and rinse it with fresh water before beginning the drying-out procedure described above.
Tech Tip: If the phone doesn't turn on after you reassemble it, plug it into the power charger. Still dead as a doornail? Replace the battery and keep your fingers crossed.

A Disk Stops or Skips

How many times has a DVD or CD gotten stuck in the middle of a movie or a favorite song? Dirt or a light scratch on the surface is the likely culprit.

The Fix: Examine the disk's surface to find the flaw, then rub the surface in a circular motion using a microfiber cloth soaked in furniture spray (like Pledge), hard liquor (vodka, say), or toothpaste containing baking soda.
Tech Tip: If doing the above doesn't work, hold the scratched area up to a lit 60-watt incandescent lightbulb for about 20 seconds to soften the surface, and then play it again while the disk is still hot.

Your Credit or Debit Card Can't Be Scanned

The person behind you in line may assume you've maxed out, but the real reason your card isn't working is that the magnetic strip is scratched or dirty.

The Fix: Wipe the surface clean (using a pant leg is fine) and try again. Still no go? Rub the card with one layer of a plastic bag, then run it through the scanner again. This trick sometimes works -- no one knows why!
Tech Tip: Store credit cards in your wallet magnetic strip side down.

DIY Fixes, Part 2

Your Computer Is Getting Buggy

Are you getting a lot of error messages? Does your computer freeze or shut down unexpectedly? Have files mysteriously disappeared? These glitches could mean that your hard drive, which stores your data, is finally about to fail (this happens to everyone eventually).

The Fix: If you regularly back up your computer files or subscribe to an online service that does this for you, you can rest easy. If not, it is critical that you take immediate steps to save your information or data -- letters, pictures, recipes, music -- before it's gone for good. Try what tech professionals do as a last-ditch effort to retrieve data: Put your hard drive in the freezer for 24 hours in a sealed zip-top bag. Because the cold causes contraction, a jammed part may start working again temporarily when you reinsert it into your computer. To locate the hard drive, open your computer or laptop panel and look for the part that is made of silver and black metal and is the width and length of a recipe card and the depth of a double CD case. There's usually a white label affixed to the component. The hard drive is attached to a cable that's hooked up to the motherboard (often green with lots of tiny components). You probably don't need any tools to disengage the drive; simply remove it and detach its plugs from the cable by pulling firmly. Once the drive has been in the freezer for a day, take it out and immediately reinsert the drive in your computer, then try to find your data and transfer your files to an external hard drive.
Tech Tip: You may have to repeat this exercise more than once.

Your Keyboard Got Doused

Keyboards tend to attract the very thing they don't need: spills.

The fix: For a minor spill, dip a cotton swab or microfiber cloth in 90 percent isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol and dab it over the affected areas to remove any stickiness. If you're dealing with a laptop keyboard, use the alcohol sparingly and only if the keys are sticking. With bigger spills, unplug your keyboard, turn it upside down and shake out the liquid. Turn a doused laptop on its side, with the CD slot facing down, to let liquid trickle out.
Tech Tip: the event of a major spill, pour a small amount of straight isopropyl alcohol into the affected area of the keyboard, then let it drain and dry before you try to use again.

Your Wi-Fi Has Cold Spots

You've set up an external wireless router at home, but the signal isn't strong enough to reach every room.

The Fix: First, move the router to a more centralized location or to a place with fewer walls. Still no signal? Go to freeantennas.com for instructions on building a six-inch-high passive reflector, or antenna boost, using household items like foil, glue, and an acetate sheet. Search for the Ez-12 template on the Web site, print it out, glue it and the aluminum to the acetate, make slots as indicated in the instructions, and attach it behind your Wi-Fi router. It may look goofy but it works.
Tech Tip: If you don't mind shelling out cash, pick up a router booster for about $100.

Prevent Problems Before they Start

1. Keep computer components clean.
A good rule of thumb is to wipe the outside of your laptop or computer monitor once a week with a water-dampened microfiber cloth and to follow up once a month using a cloth moistened with rubbing alcohol. Do not spray liquid directly onto your screen, as it could trickle down into the monitor or laptop and cause damage; also, never use window cleaner, since it can remove your screen's antiglare finish. Spray the keyboard with an aerosol air duster, sold in office-supply stores, to eliminate dust and dirt.

2. Be careful when it's cold.
If you've left your computer, MP3 player, or other device in the car trunk on a frigid day, allow it to warm to a comfortable room temperature, probably for 30 to 40 minutes, before turning it on. Cranking up a chilled machine in a warm room can cause condensation to short out the device.

3. Avoid heat.
If you carry your phone around in your pocket, the heat of your body can speed up the chemical processes in the battery that make it run down faster. To avoid this, keep the phone in your handbag.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2010.

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