When you decide to buy a computer, sooner or later you will encounter technical problems. Fortunately, there are many ways you can get help.

Regardless of the problem, always recheck cables linking the computer and its various components. Make sure they're securely plugged in - and that everything is turned on. Pets often make it a mission in life to disconnect computer power cords.

Also, check the outlet by plugging in a lamp to make sure a breaker hasn't been tripped. Even the most savvy computer professionals occasionally (usually!) overlook the obvious.

Telephone Support Although you most likely paid for phone support when you bought your computer, waiting on hold for an eternity isn't your only option. There are many alternative sources to try before you decide to spend a few hours on the phone. However, the downside is that many of these methods work only if your computer is at least partly functional - or if you have a working spare handy.

Your computer's built-in help menu is the best place to start when in trouble. The instruction manual that came with your system and software is also invaluable. You did read it from cover to cover, didn't you?

The manual should also give you the address for the manufacturer's Web site, where you can usually find more detailed and up-to-date information.

If you can't find what you need at the manufacturer's Web site, chances are you'll find the answer somewhere else on the Web. Common search sites such as Infoseek (infoseek.com) or Excite (excite.com) are great places to start.

Provided you're willing to shell out some cash, there are software utilities that help detect and fix problems. CyberMedia's First Aid '97 ($49.95) even searches the Internet for fixes to problems it can't handle on its own.

You can also pay for technical support from third-party support vendors, which are easy to find in the yellow pages under Computers-Service and Repair. While the idea of paying isn't all that attractive, it's often quicker than manufacturer support.

PC Crisis Line (800/828-4358) is a 24-hour help desk that charges $3 per minute for the first 10 minutes and $1 for each additional minute.

Be Prepared To Ask For Help Next to parking meter attendants and U.N. weapons' inspectors, technical support people have arguably one of the worst jobs around. If youdo need to call, there are a few things you can do to make life easier for you and the support person at the other end.

Write down the problem. Get the serial number of your system, and be ready with a detailed description of the trouble. The more specific you are, the more likely someone can help you.

Be willing to wait. It's highly unlikely you'll breeze through a help line straight to someone who can solve your problem. Keep a good book (preferably a big one) handy.

If possible, make the call while you're in front of the problem computer and have it turned on.

Finally, try to remember that the person on the other end of the line didn't cause the problem. Even common politeness may make the tech support person go that extra mile for you. Still, don't be a pushover. You already paid for technical support and should demand that if they can't come up with an immediate solution, they refer you somewhere else or continue working on the problem and get back to you. Good luck.

Editor's Note: New Media Specialist John Martinsen is one of this magazine's technical supports. He'll regularly write columns on computers and the Internet for BEEF.

Q: Where can I find information on financial software for the farm?

A: There are a number of applications out there that are worth a look. Farmer's Software Association is a good place to start. You can find their site on the Web at www.farmsoft.com or reach them via e-mail at info@farmsoft.com or phone 800/237-4182.

Q: I picked up a virus when downloading files from the Internet. Can I do something to protect myself, or should I avoid downloading files altogether?

A: You should always have virus detection software on your computer. If you don't have it, get it. Most newer anti-virus packages will help protect you from viruses carried over the Internet as well as disk-borne pests. Most stores that carry computer software will stock Norton Anti-Virus 4.0, or can at least order it for you. If you would like to order by mail or over the Internet, try Software.Net at www.software.net or call 800/617-7638.