How to troubleshoot your computer's audio capabilities

Some of the most common computer problems are caused by faulty peripherals. This month, we'll look at sound and video cards, with some simple tips that might save you a call to technical support or an expensive trip to the repair shop. As always, if you don't feel comfortable doing this on your own, don't do it.

Sound Problems As more software - especially games or educational titles - includes music or some form of audio, sound cards have become an important part of any computer setup. They can be difficult to work with, though, and when they cause problems, it can be difficult to troubleshoot.

Often, the problems are caused by hardware or software failure, faulty cabling or other factors. However, there are simple things you can check:

First, unless you have a Macintosh, are you sure you even have a sound card? While most computers manufactured in the past couple of years come with one, some older models don't. You will also need speakers, unless they're already built in to your monitor. Should you find that you don't have one or the other, you can easily buy what you need from a computer store.

If you do have a sound card, the first thing to check is the power cable to your speakers. Also, make sure the speakers are properly connected to the sound card through the back of your computer. Some cards have separate plugs for speakers, microphones and other equipment, so check the labels carefully and consult the manual if necessary.

Still no sound? Try to plug in a set of different headphones or speakers. Next, check the card's volume. It's not the same as the volume knob on your speakers, but rather the level of sound the card sends to the speakers. Special software usually controls this, and there should be a way to access the volume control from your operating system.

If you're working in Windows 95, the volume control is a tiny speaker icon in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. On the Mac, there's a volume control panel under "Control Panels," "Sound." There might also be an on-screen icon for volume, depending on how the operating system was installed.

If this doesn't help, it's time for the dreaded reinstall. Get out the disks or CD-ROMs, make some coffee, follow the instructions in your sound card or computer manual, and reinstall the sound software as if doing it for the first time. And, if you end up stuck, pick up the phone or box up the computer.

Video Problems Problems with the video card are usually easy to notice: Your screen is blank. No friendly Macintosh smile, no Microsoft logo. Nothing. Unfortunately, it's not as easy to diagnose or fix.

Assuming your screen is completely blank, start by increasing the brightness and contrast of the monitor. Most screens have controls at the bottom of the monitor's case, but they could be hidden behind a plastic panel. Look in the instructions that came with your monitor.

If you're still in the dark, check the monitor's power cord and all other cables to ensure connection. But, be sure to turn off the computer. The cable that runs between your computer and monitor is very sensitive. Disconnecting it while the system is on can lead to irreparable damage and a hefty bill.

If all the connections seem firm, unplug the monitor cable from the computer (remember, it has to be off). Look at the pins inside the connectors. If any are broken, take the monitor to a dealer for repairs. If a pin is merely bent, you could try to straighten it. Just be aware that if you break it, you'll pay more at the repair shop.

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