Getting Your Computer Up and Running

This is the first in a series of posts by Rodney Wines, an independent computer consultant living in Paris.   If you still have problems with your own set up after what you’ve read here, send an e-mail to parisplaces@yahoo.com and I’ll send you his e-mail address.  I can personally vouch for the quality of his services.

by Rodney Wines

I unpacked my computer, can I plug it in?

 Surprisingly enough, the answer is probably yes.

 In case you haven’t heard, we’ve got globalization these days. The same companies that sell products in Paris, France also sell them in Paris, Texas and they probably build them in Asia anyhow. These companies discovered that it is cheaper in the long run just to install a universal power supply than to build a separate model of their product for each country. Most brand-name computer equipment (and much of your other electronics, with the exception of your TV) that you bought within the last few years will work here without modification and without an AC power converter.  (If you bought a special built computer from Bubba’s Computer and Bait Shop, then your mileage may vary.)

Although the end of the power cord that goes into the wall can vary from country to country, the end that goes into the computer or monitor is usually the same the world over. There are only a few flavors of these cords. If your gadget doesn’t have a detachable cord, adapter plugs are cheap and can be found at hardware stores and most of the bigger stores that sell electronics. Please note that there is a big, and possibly catastrophic, difference between an adapter and a converter, but more on that later.

The French plugs work in much of Europe except for Switzerland and the United Kingdom (UK), and some two-prong French plugs will also work in Switzerland. I bought local power cords for all of my equipment which has detachable cords. Okay, I scavenged most of the cords from equipment that was going to be scrapped, but don’t tell my former employer.

I have had very good luck getting equipment to work in both the US and France without voltage converters. Before you plug in anything, however, check the voltage information for the product. You should see a sticker (usually on or near the power cord or “power brick”) that says, “110-240 VAC, 50-60 Hz”. If it says that, then you should be able to plug it in (using only an appropriate adapter plug or a French version of the power cord) without a problem. If it does say that, you plug it in, and it smokes, please remember that I’m only a software person.

Some older products have a “110/220” switch somewhere. Even older products require you to open the case and change connections on the power supply transformer. I faced this problem when I first moved to Europe in 1992. If you have such a product today, beware of the dinosaurs. Electronically, you are in Jurassic Park. We are talking Stone Age equipment here. You’ll probably be better off just replacing the product.

One way to save money on adapter plugs is to bring a US power strip back with you the next time you visit the States. Then, you can plug all of your US equipment into this one power strip, and you need only an adapter plug for the strip itself. I do not recommend using US outlet strips with circuit breakers here unless you are particularly fond of flyaway hair with slightly singed ends. Okay, I suspect that all that’ll really happen is that the circuit breaker will immediately trip because of the excess (by US standards) voltage, but that is less fun to write about.

I couldn’t find that “240” wazzit.

OK, Fred and Wilma gave you this wonderful gadget that says “110-120 VAC 60 Hz”, and you’d love to use it here? It is possible, with the right kind of converter. (More about power converters, adaptors, and transformers here.)  I’ll just say that before you connect your prized gadget make sure that you are using the right kind of converter. Some travel converters are only intended for things like hair dryers and battery chargers and will not work at all with most electronics. A step-down transformer will change the voltage but not the line frequency; devices with motors in them, or devices that depend on the AC line frequency for timing, will run too slowly and could be damaged. Power supplies intended for 60Hz can run hot when you give them 50Hz even if the voltage is correct. I suspect that there are a lot of shops which would be very happy to sell you an expensive power converter when a simple adapter will do, so it is very much worth your while to look for that “240” wazzit.

But it doesn’t have a power cord.

Any device that draws its power directly from your computer, such as an internal hard drive or a device which draws power from its USB or FireWire connection (iPods and quite a few external hard drives, for example), will work just fine here. You can buy these devices in either country and safely connect them to (or install them inside) your computer. If you are used to installing hardware inside your computer, then you probably knew this already.

And yes, battery-powered devices work fine, silly.

It is broken.  Is my warranty valid?

As is so often the case, this rates a rousing “it depends”.  First of all, if you bought one of those Best Buy, or equivalent, extended warranties, and the vendor’s standard warranty has expired, then your only recourse is to ship the product back to the States for warranty service.  It is my belief that the major manufacturers will honor their standard warranties on products bought in the US, but I have never had occasion to test this hypothesis. Check the fine print on your warranty. However, dealing with a multinational company outside the US can be like dealing with an entirely different company than the one you dealt with in the States. The French version of the company may not know about your warranty registration in the States, so you may have to spend a bit of extra time getting help.

I’ll pay to get it repaired. What do I do?

I would start by checking with the vendor, or your owner’s manual, for the location of an authorized repair center in France. The major stores such as Darty, FNAC, and Surcouf will also repair many products.  If you are an Apple customer, Apple opened their first store in Paris in November 2009.  It is in the Carrousel du Louvre, and it is impressive. There is even a YouTube video of the store. It is my understanding that Apple is planning other stores for Paris and other cities in France.  Editor’s note:  Apple service is by appointment only.  You can make an appointment by phone or on-line.

If your computer is on the fritz, and you don’t want to take it to the big stores, there are technicians who advertise in FUSAC who will make house calls. I have no experience with any of them (friends and acquaintances have had very mixed, and sometimes disastrous, results), but you can have a reasonable expectation that anyone who advertises in FUSAC speaks English.  Please note that the FUSAC web site address is “fusac.fr”, and not “fusac.com”. The fusac.com site is not affiliated in any way with the FUSAC paper. In my humble opinion, the folks at fusac.com are being unethical, but they didn’t solicit my advice.

And, if your problem is a very simple one, I work for food. I do not charge for phone or e-mail help. If it is more complicated, my rates are reasonable.

It is time for an upgrade.  Where do I shop?

That is an easy one. If you stayed awake through the section on globalization, you’ll know that you can buy most things in the US and save some money (but don’t tell French Customs that I told you this).  If your income is in dollars, then you might want to shop for big-ticket electronics and computers in the US unless you got a very generous relocation package.

If you do decide to shop here, then most of the usual suspects are available in France; Dell, HP, Apple, and amazon.fr have Web sites where you can order direct, and I mentioned the Paris Apple store above. You might pay a bit more in France, but at least you’ll have a local merchant to deal with if there are problems.

There are quite a few large French online and bricks and mortar stores as well. I won’t try to list them all here; you will see them advertised everywhere. I have the most personal experience with the Apple store, FNAC, Darty, amazon.fr, and Surcouf.

For the geek, Surcouf is probably the biggest. They claim that their store on Avenue Daumesnil gets more visitors per day than Versailles. I can believe it. I take advantage of my  unstructured weekdays and go there during off hours. They seem to have a bit of everything, and I enjoy wandering around the store. When my French fails me, I have always found someone who speaks English. In the surrounding neighborhood, like pilot fish around a shark, there are dozens of small shops that take advantage of the foot traffic that Surcouf generates. I haven’t shopped at any of these, so I don’t know anything about their prices or quality.

Those French keyboards sure look strange.

Keyboards are generally named for the five keys on the row above the left hand “home” keys (“QWERTY” and “AZERTY”, for example) except for “Dvorak” which is named for its inventor. Don’t ask me why.

In the US we use QWERTY keyboards, and in mainland Europe they use AZERTY keyboards. Unfortunately, things are more complicated than that. There are also US QWERTY keyboards and UK QWERTY keyboards (and French, German, etc. AZERTY keyboards). If you buy a computer in France with an “English” keyboard, you’ll probably get a UK QWERTY keyboard. That’s okay for most situations, but there are a few differences; the “double quote” and the @ keys are reversed between the two keyboards. I have so far been unable to find a decent American keyboard with a € symbol on it.

If you are a touch typist, then you can lie to your computer and tell it that you are using the keyboard type of your choice regardless of the keyboard type that is connected to your computer. Otherwise, you’ll have to adapt to one of the keyboard types available here or get a keyboard (without a € symbol) from the States.

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3 responses to “Getting Your Computer Up and Running

  1. You forgot to mention that if you have a problem and you call a company in France, you will be charged by the minute for the call. So if you’re calling from your cell phone, it could get quite expensive.
    The € sign can be done on most keyboards by holding down the right ALT key and typing the %/5 key.

  2. on a mac US QWERTY keyboard, pressing “Shift Option 2″ will give you a € sign.

  3. If you’re a PC, Acer keyboards have that symbol, it’s on one of the directional keys (I don’t remember which, maybe the up key!)

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