From the April 1998 issue of Startups

With spring in the air, it's time to start think-ing about giving your home office--and your PC--a thorough cleaning. Regularly cleaning your PC's components can make them per-form better in the long run and help prevent problems caused by ill-working equipment. So check out these pointers for keeping your PC running in tiptop shape:

*Component cases: Brush any dust off the out-side of your CPU case and keyboard to keep them clean. Also, use an anti-static cleaning spray on your monitor so it's easier to read.

*CPU: Take off the case and blow compressed air into any parts where dust might have settled; this is an important way to keep all parts running smoothly.

*Keyboard: Turn your keyboard upside down over a trash can and shake it gently to loosen any grit inside. A can of compressed air can make this task a little easier.

*Mouse: Remove the cover that holds the mouse's ball in place. Use compressed air (or your finger) to remove grime on the mouse ball and inside the compartment, paying special attention to the rollers.

*Hard drive: A little hard-drive maintenance is always a good idea. Without going too crazy, delete any unwanted files (steering clear of those with names ending in .dll, .exe and .ini). Make archive copies of files you don't want cluttering up your computer.

Get It Together

Tired of keeping track of separate bills for your long-distance phone services, calling card and Internet access? Want to expand your telecommunications repertoire to appear more professional? A new service from Sprint designed specifically for homebased businesses may be the answer.

Launched earlier this year, Sprint Sense Home Office bundles several key phone services for homebased businesses under one simple pricing plan. For one flat fee, the service provides an 800 number, a calling card and long-distance services. For instance, plans offering 1,000 minutes for $100 per month or 300 minutes for $45 per month are available; the minutes can be put toward any or all three services without different pricing structures or extra surcharges. There's also an option to add Internet access for an additional $14.95 per month.

According to Sprint, the new service provides a more efficient way for homebased businesses to manage their telecommunications services with one easy bill, while offering advanced services to help them grow. For more information about Sprint Sense Home Office, call the special number established for HomeOffice readers: (888) 280-0274.

Triple Play

Some computer prob-lems seem to get everyone's blood boiling. Here's a look at three of the most common computer frustrations and how to end them.

  • Slow modem access. With the Internet playing a larger role in business, sluggish access can be a real time-waster. If you're stuck in the slow lane, consider upgrading to a 56 Kbps modem. It will speed up the process significantly, especially if you're used to a 28.8 Kbps modem. The only dilemma: There are several competing standards, including K56flex and 3Com's x2, so be sure to call your ISP to find out which standard it supports. (At press time, vendors were nearing an agreement that would establish a standard.) You may also want to try switching ISPs to see if you get faster access.
  • Waiting on hold with tech support lines. If you can't reach a live person to solve your tech problems, take matters into your own hands. Check out the company's Web site to get answers to FAQs. Consider investigating other resources such as books and CD-ROMs, as well as online user groups. Also, if you have the time, call back when operators aren't so busy (preferably early in the morning or late at night).
  • Unidentifiable problems. You'd fix the problem--if you only knew what was wrong! In such cases, rely on programs like Quarterdeck's Real Help ($39.95, 800-683-6696, http://www.quarterdeck.com) that actually cure problems caused by PC crashes, hard-drive failures and more. Real Help has features that find solutions to common software and hardware problems and warn of any probable conflicts before you install new software. Also, familiarize yourself with the most common error messages and what they mean.

FAQ

Q: I've heard that it's now possible to make free phone calls over the Internet, even to foreign countries. How can I make use of this technology?

Name withheld

A: Yes, making "free" phone calls, even videophone calls, over the Internet is a reality. But the technology's not quite ready for use by small businesses. It's evolving at warp speed, though, so keep an eye out for new developments. Experts agree the telephone network will look more like today's all-digital Internet than the traditional analog-based setup we've been using for the past 125 years.

For now, Internet telephony is probably best left to hobbyists willing to put up with its rather serious limitations. For example, the sound quality is not as good as that of standard phones. And, for the most part, calls can be placed only between two PCs and only if both machines are running the same brand of telephony software.

If all that's OK with you, you can certainly talk for as long as you like, paying only your regular monthly Internet connection fee. Net telephony won't work over AOL's circuits, by the way; you'll need an account with a true ISP such as EarthLink, Mindspring, or any of the hundreds of local firms now operating.

As for hardware, you'll need a fairly powerful PC (90 MHz Pentium-based at least), a 28.8 Kbps modem, a sound card and a microphone. Then you'll have to choose a software package. Leading brands include VocalTec, NetSpeak and VoxWare. All work pretty much as well as the others. Trial copies and lots of information are available at each company's Web site, with even more information at the independently run site, http://www.von.com

This year we'll see Internet calling reach standard telephones--not for free, but at extremely low prices. Networks Telephony Corp. of El Segundo, California, for instance, is signing up ISPs around the world to help create a worldwide long-distance telephone company. Each ISP will help transfer calls back and forth between the Net and their local phone circuits. The savings: as much as 70 percent off standard international calling rates. For more information, check out its Web site at http://www.networkstelephony.com

Don't expect to get truly free calling. But at the same time, don't underestimate the power of Internet technology to change how you communicate.

John Verity is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered the computer industry for 21 years. Send your computer questions to John at http://www.networkstelephony.com