There's a new British sitcom called The IT Crowd that takes you behind the scenes of an office IT help desk. In a running gag, the team always answers the phone with "Have you tried turning it off and on again?"
But it's no joke. For those of us without the benefit of a help desk, particularly if you're running a small business, a tech shutdown can be devastating. You have two options: beg your long-suffering geek buddy to come over, or hump the box down to your local repair shop in a taxi.
But what if you didn't have to?
Adam Sanderson runs a company called Computer Overhauls (www.computeroverhauls.com), a repair shop that specializes in remote service.
The Manhattan resident got into repairs three years ago, turning a hobby of being that go-to "tech guy" for his pals into a full-time job. As long as you can get a working Internet connection, Computer Overhauls says it can hook up to your machine to find out what's going on under the hood.
Fortunately, I happen to have a test subject. My trusty Compaq laptop has been slowing down for weeks.
But the panic sets in when I start to be hit by multiple appearances of the Blue Screen of Death. You know the one: your machine crashes while flashing a lightning-like imprint of skeletal words on your irises. "Corrupt." "Fatal." "Error." I still gives me chills.
"If you say to most people, 'You can fix it without having to bring it to me,' they don't believe it. You never have to give your computer to anybody," Sanderson says, his broad, friendly Brooklyn accent calming my panic. "People say, 'Fix it! I don't care how, just fix it!' They can go to work, so it's convenient. And they don't have to install any software."
After connecting to the website and clicking through a repair agreement, a diagnostic window pops up on my screen. Soon my cursor is moving around of its own accord.
"So that took about a minute and a half," Sanderson says.
It's a bit eerie to watch as my cursor clicks its way through a number of windows, running a number of tests.
"Oof! Your computer is in pretty bad shape."
Not reassuring, considering that he does this for a living. Then again, it's not the worst case.
"This one guy had a Windows 98 machine that had been passed through three or four people. It had 4,500 infections, the most I'd ever seen. When we gave it back to him, he was like, 'Wow! This thing is flying!'"
While we're talking, before Anderson can even finish the diagnostic scan, we're hit by that familiar flash of blue.
"The legend of the screen of death has arisen because it's usually a hardware problem. It usually means something in there needs to be replaced. It's not an easy fix."
Sanderson tries again, rebooting from safe mode, running from DOS, but it's no use. After some clinical questions about a power cord I should have replaced months ago, Sanderson says it must be a hardware issue - the one thing he can't fix.
But I'm not done yet. The laptop may be dead weight, but I've got another corpse in the closet we can resuscitate. Sanderson says, "Well, I like a challenge."
And a challenge he'll get with this monster motherfucker. I gave up on it a year ago, convinced that it was so choked by spyware, it would never type again. I set it up, but before it even loads there's a sick groan from the fan working up the steam to boot up.
The beast is alive, but I still need some coaching to get it online. And that's when things get tricky. After a bit of poking around, Sanderson opens a window and finds out what the real problem is.
"So what you're running is Windows XP."
"Well, what you have here is like a Pentium II running at about 300 megahertz, about half the minimum requirements."
"And that means ."
"Well, it's like trying to put a Corvette engine in a Fiat. We're not even doing anything but running the computer, just turning it on, and running XP is choking this thing to death."
Ah. Computer Overhauls still seems like a good option for most people. It also offers a number of different performance upgrades and a monthly maintenance program that Sanderson describes as "your own personal help desk."
As for me, I'm thinking of kicking these PCs to the curb and getting myself a Mac.