Questions Beginners Ask
Tom R Halfhill, Staff Fditor
Are you thinking about buying a computer for the first time, but you don't know much about computers? Or maybe you just purchased a computer and are still a bit baffled. Each month in this column, COMPUTE! will answer questions frequently asked by beginners.
Q Is it safe to plug a whole home computer system into a single wall socket? I'm talking about a computer, TV, cassette recorder, disk drive, printer, and a modem. Will it blow a fuse? Or will I have to run extension cords from nearby wall sockets for some of the peripherals?
A As long as no other power-hungry appliance is on the same socket, plugging a whole home computer system into one outlet is perfectly safe. Home computers and their peripherals actually don't use very much electricity at all. In fact, the typical home computer consumes less power than the light bulb you'll burn to see it by.
For instance, one of our editors has a computer system at home which consists of an Atari 800 with 48K of memory, a disk drive, a cassette recorder, an Atari 850 Interface Module, a color monitor, an 80-column dot-matrix printer, and a modem. Everything but the monitor and the modem is plugged into a six-socket power strip, which in turn is plugged into a single wall outlet. The power strip has a 15-amp circuit breaker which has never popped. That means the system uses less than 1650–1800 watts, or a little more electricity than a blow dryer.
By far the most power-hungry component of a home computer system is the TV set or monitor. A small black-and-white TV or monochrome monitor won't use much electricity, but a large color TV can use more power than the rest of the system put together. If you're worried about overloads, plug the TV into a different outlet.
One thing you should avoid is hooking up the computer system to a circuit shared by heavy-duty appliances like air conditioners, dishwashers, clothes washers, dryers, refrigerators, and water heaters. Have you ever noticed your room lights dim for a second when a heavy appliance kicks on? The sudden demand for power momentarily drains the circuit and lowers the voltage. Those kinds of fluctuations aren't healthy for computers, whose chips are very sensitive to power sags and surges. (That's why some people invest in surge protectors or voltage stabilizers.)
If you aren't sure whether a certain wall outlet is wired to the same circuit as another outlet serving a heavy appliance, test it by plugging in a lamp. Then switch on some of the major appliances in your home while someone watches the lamp for any telltale dimming. If an outlet is affected, you may have to run an extension cord from a more distant socket to reach your computer system. This is particularly true in houses and apartment buildings with older wiring.
Q I'm moving to another state and I'd like to transport my computer by plane. Do you think it would be safe in the baggage compartment?
A Recently some of COMPUTE!'s editors went on a trip to the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas and witnessed some unpleasant violence to a Compaq transportable computer. Although the Compaq is one of the better transportables, by the time the poor computer tumbled off the airport conveyor belt onto the revolving baggage-claim carousel, it looked almost destroyed. The top of the case was torn off, exposing the built-in monitor screen and delicate disk drives. Heavy hard-shell suitcases kept sliding off the conveyor belt and bashing into the computer, knocking more parts loose. Wires and cables were hanging out. It wasn't pretty.
Based on what we saw that day, and on other airline experiences, our advice is not to ship a computer as baggage unless it's very well packed and padded, preferably in its original box with the form-fitting Styrofoam inserts. Have you ever seen the TV commercial in which a suitcase is batted around by an ape? If your computer is packed well enough to withstand that kind of battering, you're probably safe. Otherwise, you might consider another method of shipping.
Incidentally, if you're traveling by air with a computer as carry-on baggage, insist on having it hand-checked when passing through security checkpoints. We know of a newspaper reporter who unknowingly allowed his TRS-80 Model 100 lap computer to suffer exposure from an airport x-ray machine. "It just went crazy," he said.