Preventive medicine: Protect an iPod with a hard rubber case. Inspired by those dancing ads on TV? Lest you jar your player senseless, keep it on an armband. The battery will last longer if you let it run down completely once a month before recharging, says Shannon Jean, founder of TechRestore, a repair service in Concord, California. This ensures 12 to 18 months of play before the battery must be replaced.
Most common ailment: You try to tune in and your personal sound track drops out.
Diagnosis and treatment: If your iPod plays dead, try reloading the playlist. (You have a backup file of the playlist, right?) Keep the hard drive running smoothly by updating the software (go to apple.com). If your iPod isn’t responding at all, the hard drive may be broken. Replacing it could cost more than buying a new player.
When to pull the plug: A pre-2002 iPod (identifiable by the raised scroll wheel) that has no sign of life is not worth fixing, says Jean. You’ll get more for your money by upgrading to a new model. A later-addition iPod merits salvaging, but not if a repair estimate tops $100.
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Your Cell Phone
Average life span: Four years.
Preventive medicine: Do you recharge your cell phone more often than you brush your teeth? Ease up. The battery works most efficiently if you let it drain fully once a week or more. “Avoid exposing a cell phone to very low temperatures, direct sunlight, or excessive heat,” which can damage the battery, adds Muzib Khan, vice president of product development and engineering for Samsung.
Most common ailment: The phone conks out just as your friend is giving you the address of the restaurant where you’re meeting.
Diagnosis and treatment: The battery may not be holding a charge for as long as it should. If you’re sure the charger isn’t broken, the battery needs to be replaced. Buy a new one from a reputable source. In rare cases, batteries from unauthorized dealers “can explode” and cause injury, says Grant Clauser, editorial director for E-Gear magazine, in Philadelphia.
When to pull the plug: An inexpensive phone with problems beyond a dead battery should be recycled (ask your service provider for details). Try to save a more costly model, even when it has taken a hard knock. “If you drop it in water, take it apart, let it dry for a day or two, and it may work,” says Kasey Farrar of Nokia. But if the repair estimate tops half the price of the phone, junk it.
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Your Flat-Screen TV
Average life span: Ten years or longer.
Preventive medicine: Keep your fingers off the screen. “The pressure causes pixel burnout,” says Robbie Baldwin, a flat screen-TV salesman at Best Buy in Baltimore. Because parts can fail (read: melt) if a TV overheats, keep the vents clear so they can “pull in air to cool the unit,” says Dan Wiersma, senior vice president of service for Sony Electronics. Dust with a soft, dry cloth, and skip the cleaning spray, which can cloud the screen.
Most common ailment: The screen has a burned-in image that never seems to go away, and the picture is a little fuzzy.
Diagnosis and treatment: Plasma screens, especially older ones, are sensitive to “burn in” problems. Leave Comedy Central on all day and its logo may never disappear. (Newer models don’t have as many burn-in issues, but it’s best to turn off the TV every few hours.) A repair service can recalibrate a slightly hazy picture for as little as $250 or as much as $750, depending on the damage and the shop.
When to pull the plug: A malfunctioning flat-screen TV that’s more than five years old should probably be replaced. Labor and parts run high, so a new model may cost you less than fixing an old one.
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Your DVD Player
Average life span: Four to five years.
Preventive medicine: Keep it cool. Avoid stacking other components on top of or under a DVD player, and clear space around it, especially if it’s in a cramped cabinet. When moving your player, always turn it off before unplugging it, and walk around corners slowly. Delicate interior parts can malfunction when they’re jostled.
Most common ailment: Skippity-skip goes the DVD, if it bothers to play at all.
Diagnosis and treatment: It’s possible that the DVD lens, which sits under the pop-out tray, has a film of skip-inducing dust. Use a DVD-player cleaning kit on the lens. Other kits can remove scratches from discs―another potential culprit. To keep discs free of scratches and dust, store them in their cases.
When to pull the plug: When you’ve tried cleaning the machine and your discs still won’t play, move on. While repair shops can fix many mechanical problems, DVD players are now so inexpensive that it might be wiser to replace a malfunctioning model.
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Your Computer Printer
Average life span: Five years or longer.
Preventive medicine: High humidity can cause paper jams and ink clogs, so if you’re having problems, you may need to run an air conditioner or a dehumidifier while using the printer. Cover the printer with a dust protector when not in use, especially if it’s near an open window. Wipe away any dust and grit inside it with a soft cloth, says Paul De Pasquale, a technician with Image 1, a printer-repair company in Oak Park, Michigan.
Most common ailment: Your printouts look pointillistic (like an Impressionist painting). Or, worse yet, like a Rorschach test.
Diagnosis and treatment: When the printing is spotty at best, remove the cartridge and gently get rid of inky residue with acetone and a soft cloth. If that doesn’t work, replace the cartridge. If you have an ink-jet printer, consult the instruction manual to see if you can clean the print nozzles using built-in software.
When to pull the plug: If the printer isn’t working and you’ve ruled out human error (like failing to connect to the computer properly), you probably have a mechanical problem, such as a broken ink sensor. In this case, “it’s better to buy a new printer than to pay for parts and labor,” says Calvin Green, a computer technician for Geek Squad, a repair shop in Philadelphia.