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    Ailing computers and online answers

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2008 First published in Business in Vancouver April 29-May 5, 2008; issue 966

    High Tech Office column

    If you’re cursing your computer, you may find this hard to believe, but having worked with personal computers for a couple of decades now, believe me when I say that they’re much easier to set up and use than they used to be. That doesn’t mean they’re anywhere close to problem-free, however, as I suspect most readers can attest from personal experience.

    Many of the problems stem from interactions between different pieces of software or are caused by poorly written drivers for the many pieces of hardware that we plug into our computers. Apple’s Macintosh computers are less prone to both types of problems. Mac software developers seem to pay more attention to Apple’s design guidelines. That creates programs that are generally more consistent and work better together than corresponding Windows programs.

    And because Apple builds both the hardware and the operating system for its Macs, it’s less plagued with device driver problems than Windows. That doesn’t mean, however, that odd problems don’t sometimes happen to Mac owners, too.

    A colleague recently asked me to take a look at her iMac – a relatively new G5 model manufactured just before Apple switched to using PC-style Intel processors. It had an adequate amount of RAM and an updated operating system.

    The problem: while it played sounds and music in most contexts, if the owner went online to websites like YouTube, the video clips played fine, but without any sound.

    I verified that the problem was as she described it. That meant that there wasn’t a hardware problem. The computer’s sound circuitry and speakers worked just fine. I also confirmed that the computer could play music files saved on the hard drive and could use its QuickTime plug-in to play many sorts of audio and video files over the Internet. (Along the way, I downloaded and installed the free QuickTime plug-in from, a must-have for any Mac owner.)

    All the video files on YouTube, however, are in Adobe Flash format; maybe there was a problem with the Flash installation on her computer. I downloaded and installed the latest Flash plug-in, without improvement. Standard Mac troubleshooting tactic: look in the /library/preferences folder for any files related to the problem software and delete them. The program should create new, default preferences next time it runs. That didn’t solve the problem.

    OK, maybe the problem was with Apple’s Safari web browser. I downloaded the Mac version of the Firefox browser. No luck; it too played YouTube Flash video clips silently.

    For any software-based problem on any computer, there’s always the last resort apocalyptic solution: erase the hard drive and reinstall the operating system and applications. (Hopefully backing up the user’s data first!) It’s traumatic and time consuming and so should be avoided if at all possible, but it does almost always work. But before nuking someone’s hard drive, it’s worthwhile checking online. For Mac users, Apple hosts user discussions on technical support issues:

    Searching the Apple discussions page for “YouTube no sound” showed me that a lot of people have had this problem on their Macs. And the first discussion of the problem offered a suggestion: open Apple’s Garage Band audio application and play anything; apparently this resets system-wide sound settings, along the way fixing the YouTube problem.

    The proposed solution worked for the person posting the problem online, and – a moment or two after reading the tip, it worked for me. Who would have thought it?

    The moral: computers are complicated systems and all are prone to problems. Most can be fixed, however, and most of the time, someone has had the same problem as you and posted the solution online. Often, as in this case, the solution may be quick and easy, but non-intuitive. Before giving up, check online. Remember, Google is your friend. •

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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