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Cut the static

Plus, laser printer self-service.

Q: I hear a lot of noise (like static) when I listen to audio CDs or play games on my PC. Any idea what I can do about it?

A: Static and other sound-quality problems are often traced directly to your speakers. For example, there may be a faulty connection between the sound device and your speakers. Check the speaker connection and see that the speaker plug is inserted properly in the corresponding jack. If the connections are fine, check the speakers themselves. See that they’re receiving adequate power (a power LED should be lit) or replace their internal batteries. Adjust the speaker volume control up and down several times to see if the volume adjustment is dirty or faulty.

Next, open the system’s Volume (aka Mixer) applet and check the audio levels. As a rule, keep the audio levels turned up (e.g., CD audio, WAV, and other sources), and keep the physical speaker volume turned down to an adequate level. When the source volume is turned way down and you have to boost the speaker volume, it tends to bring out static, hum, and other unwanted noise in the signal. If the problems persist, try another set of good-quality powered speakers.

Q: I’ve been using an older laser printer for a while now, but I’ve noticed that the pages are starting to look dirty and grainy. The print seems dark enough, but the contrast is starting to go. I replaced the toner cartridge, but the problem is still there. What else should I do?

A: The type of problem that you’re describing may indicate that the printer’s EP (electro-photographic) drum is nearing the end of its life. These EP drums are only rated for a certain number of pages, and start to wear out as they’re charged and discharged over time (the actual working life of the drum varies with the particular printer). Many modern printers (like my HP LaserJet 1200) include the drum with the toner supply in a single replaceable cartridge. However, older laser printers and other multifunction devices (i.e., fax/scanner/printer/copier units) incorporate the drum as part of an EP engine assembly, and the toner cartridge is added separately. If you’ve replaced the toner cartridge already, you should consider replacing the EP engine. Check the printer manual or manufacturer’s Web site for specific replacement instructions and ordering numbers.

If the problem persists after the EP engine is replaced, it is possible that the printer’s power supply is failing. High voltage is needed to prevent toner from racing to the drum surface, and only the points discharged by laser light should attract the toner. If the drum’s power supply is below an optimum value, the drum may not charge quite enough to resist toner properly. This can cause a slight haze of toner to appear in the background of each page. It can make the overall page look a little “dirty” or gray (as if the page lacks contrast). In this case, check the printer manual to locate any contrast or high-voltage adjustment. It may be possible to tweak this adjustment to improve the print quality. Otherwise, the printer will need to be repaired.

Q: I bought a new custom-built PC from a small shop in town. The system works great, but there are no CDs (discs) with the system. The shop owner says that he’s not required to provide CDs, but friends of mine say he should. What do you think?

A: Your PC builder may indeed not be obligated to provide you with any media, but I would be concerned. Many PC makers often include little or no original media with the system, but virtually all reputable PC makers will include some system recovery media. Even if you don’t receive a box full of separate CDs for the operating system, drivers, and other software, I would still expect any reputable PC maker to provide a set of bootable recovery CDs. When trouble strikes, you’ll have some means of restoring the system to a “factory default” state. Without recovery media, you’re stuck with a serious disadvantage. If the system crashes and becomes unbootable in the future, you’ll need to rely on the system’s builder or other repair shop to service the unit (a time-consuming and costly option).

Keep in mind that the absence of original media with your PC doesn’t automatically indicate any underhanded or illegal activity on the part of your builder. You may not be entitled to any media unless it’s specifically listed on your purchase order or other written documentation. Some entry-level PCs like the HP Pavilion 514n do not even include recovery media (but the unit provides a software utility that allows you to burn your own recovery CDs on the system). In other cases, you may be able to make a complete system backup to CD using any popular CD burning software such as Roxio’s Easy CD & DVD Creator 6. Be sure to check the PC and user manual (if any) for such a feature. Also, check with the system’s builder for their particular instructions.

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