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"We've got ants in the kitchen again," I told my husband Patrick. "Hmph. That's nothing. My computer is buggy," he grumped in reply. "It's sluggish, and it just isn't working the way I want it to."

"Sounds like you when you have a cold."

"Ha ha. Just for that, you get to help me wipe its nose. Actually, its hard drive."

"It's gonna cost you in foot rubs."

"Story of my life."

Patrick blew me a kiss as I headed out the door and over the hill to Bullseye Computers in La Mesa (619-589-8096). Owner Bill Dettweiler smiled when I told him Patrick's request. "Typically, when people bring in their computers to have the hard drive wiped, we try to find out if that's what they really need. Sometimes, it's not -- they just have one little problem that will take care of everything. So, we try to talk to them, find out what the real problem is. People talk about a computer being slow or buggy. If the hard drive gets too full, the computer slows down. If files get corrupted, then when the file tries to tell the computer what to do, it doesn't do it, because it can't process the corrupted data and send a logical command."

Dettweiler could see that I needed him to back up a bit. "Inside a computer, basically, are a motherboard, a processor, memory chips, a hard drive, and a CD-ROM drive. The motherboard has the memory chips and everything on it; it controls operations. It talks to the hard drive, and routs data to the processor."

The processor, he said, "does the calculation. Everything in a computer is done in bits -- ones and zeroes. It processes all that data. If you type the letter 'h' on the keyboard, the motherboard registers that and tells the processor you've typed it. Then the processor says, 'Okay, I'm going to put the letter "h" in the memory I've allocated for what we're doing right now and show the letter "h" on the screen.' If you decide to print, the processor tells the printer how to print it. And if you want to save that letter 'h,' the processor sets up a file and puts the letter 'h' on the hard drive."

Dettweiler compared the hard drive to "a parking lot. All the files are cars in the lot. When you want to use a file, you get that car out of the parking lot and drive it to the regular memory -- the highway. The processor is directing it."

Then he got back to those corrupted hard drives. "A computer can be fouled maliciously, by viruses or spyware. Spyware watches what you do on the computer -- what Internet sites you visit, or what keyboard strokes you make. That slows a computer down. Viruses corrupt files," leading to the bugs Patrick mentioned. "But a power surge can also corrupt a file, because the data is magnetic."

The only way to fix a corrupted hard drive "is to erase everything on the computer and reinstall the operating system. That's called 'wiping' a hard drive. It's basically the same thing as formatting a hard drive. You're not actually erasing everything; you're resetting the indexes. Indexes are what the hard drive uses to keep track of data. When the processor sends a command to the hard drive, the hard drive uses an index to find the data. Without the index, the hard drive doesn't know where to find data." So if you remove the old indexes, the corrupted data can't be found.

It is possible to save files, he said, but not software. "If people want to save data, we can do that. We take the files -- the cars -- and move them to another parking lot: a CD or another hard drive. Then we reset the indexes and reinstall the operating system." After that, the data can be reloaded. Software, however, must be reinstalled from its original discs.

Bullseye does repairs at an hourly rate of $67.50 . "We typically quote an estimate when people bring the computer in, and then try to stick to it. To wipe a hard drive and restore an operating system will normally cost $67.50 ," with a two-day turnaround.

Bullseye Computers could not, however, work on Patrick's computer, because it was a Macintosh. "Apple has really limited the availability of information about their computer, and it is a very different computer," said Dettweiler. "All the other PCs run on gas; Apple runs on Kryptonite or something. We don't repair them."

So I rang up Phil Hammerling at Mad Macs in Miramar (858-454-8535). "Macs have an entirely different operating system," he confirmed. "It's like a different set of instructions. And for now, they use a different processor as well. We charge $75 an hour to work on a computer. Getting a hard drive wiped with data recovery can usually be done in the first hour or two. It depends on how much data, and what type of data it is. But the price is the same for laptops or desktops."

Hammerling also offered a little advice for keeping your hard drive clean: "Do as little as possible. I know the programs I use, and I try not to load a lot of superfluous items. If you don't need it, leave it off your computer. There are people who download a piece of software just because it looks cool, and it eats up resources. You may have trouble removing it, since it can be stored in little bits and pieces all over the hard drive, and it may cause conflicts."

Other prices around town:

CompUSA, Kearny Mesa (858-573-1000). Diagnostic check and wiping the hard drive: $99.99 for a desktop, $139.99 for a laptop. Data recovery, additional $69.99 .

Best Buy, Mira Mesa (858-831-9003). Diagnostic check and wiping the hard drive, $120 . Data recovery, additional $89.99 .

Cry Wolf Computer, Clairemont Mesa (858-277-9653). Rate, $89 per hour.

Gordon Computer Service, Spring Valley (619-466-8700). Rate, $95 per hour.

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