- Observe Symptoms
- Isolate Problems
- Research Information
- Identify Solutions
- Apply Fixes
- Confirm Function
In the computer industry, around 80% of the time spent in troubleshooting
is involved in accurately defining what’s wrong. Even if you choose
to check a computer in for repair, a clear definition of the problem saves
the technician’s time, which puts the computer back in your hands that much
When troubleshooting a computer, how it behaves is an important part of the
evaluation. The following questions will often help to narrow the troubleshooting
- If the system is new or newly-built, did it ever work?
- If it did work, what changed?
- Can the problem be reproduced? For example, does it appear when
a program is started?
- What other programs are running?
- If the system has been in use for some time, has a new program or upgrade
- Is there an error message?
Answer these questions as clearly as possible. Remember, an approximate problem
description will only yield an approximate solution. And, of course, If It
Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It!
As a computer starts up, it usually produces a single short beep,
telling us that the first internal checks have passed. However, other sounds
are an indication of an internal problem, most often in the computer’s hardware.
A series of short or long tones or "beep codes" can indicate the nature of
a self-test fault. These can be interpreted with information from the computer’s
motherboard manual or from the manufacturer’s Web site.
Once the operating system is up and running, it performs a series
of "housekeeping" tasks, guided by "system information" and other files which
direct the computer. In Windows systems (98, ME, & XP), you can use MSCONFIG
to view and control what the system runs at startup (Click Start, Run, type
msconfig and click OK). Testing programs, such as Norton System Works,
can also create log files (reports of what a computer did while being
tested), which can be read or printed to help find the problem.
Windows Safe Mode provides an environment where most startup programs
are not running, but still allows you to run some programs that can clean up
or test for problems. If a virus or spyware program is running in normal mode,
and it is blocking the very tools that could be used to remove it, Safe Mode
may allow you to run your Anti-Virus or Anti-Spyware program successfully. Windows
Defrag utility may run fine in safe mode where it won't be interrupted by screen
savers, anti-virus or other background programs. Accessing Windows Device Manager
in Safe Mode allows you to see all devices that have drivers installed, even
if that hardware is no longer present.
Ancient History: In Windows 95, 98, and even in Windows Millennium Edition
(ME), it is possible that multiple copies of hardware drivers can get installed,
causing conflicts or intermittent problems when Windows is running in normal
mode. Start Windows in Safe Mode, open Device Manager and expand each of the
hardware device categories listed. If you find multiple listings for the same
device, delete ALL duplicated copies you find and then restart Windows. Windows
should re-detect the missing hardware at the next startup and reinstall a single
copy of the driver. Remember, in some cases, you will need the driver CD or
diskette to complete this step.
Before pursuing a repair strategy yourself, we suggest you consider
your answers to a few more questions to make the most of both the troubleshooting
and any potential repair:
- Is the system still under warranty?
- Is the system or information in the computer critical to my business?
- Is this a laptop computer, or a system which uses proprietary
- If the system is damaged during a repair or cannot be repaired, how
will it be replaced?
- Is this a repair with which I have had prior experience?
- Am I too frustrated or tired to complete this repair safely and
Quite a number of potential computer problems are simple enough that they can
be addressed by a "quick fix". One example of a quick fix would be
to troubleshoot a newly-installed "dead" system by checking for loose
connections between the computer and its monitor, keyboard, mouse, printer and
so forth. In applying any repair, however, remember the advice Dr. Hippocrates
gave his first class of med-school students: First: Do No Harm.
Think your repair strategy over, including any potential loss of data, and take
the time to work safely.
[caption id="attachment_90" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="System Restore is usually buried in the System Tools folder under Progras, Accessories."][/caption]
In Windows, you may be able to correct problems by restoring the system to
a previous restore point. (Your system must be able to boot to the Windows desktop,
and restore points must be enabled for this to be an option.) System restore
is available from MSCONFIG under XP and some other versions of Windows. You
can also look for System Restore under Start, All Programs, Accessories, System
After any repair is performed, take one more look at the system
overall. Ensure that not only was the observed problem solved, but that the
rest of the system is still working well. Then, make a fresh, full backup
of the repaired system to protect the integrity of your data.
As mentioned previously, the behavior of a system holds
important clues in troubleshooting a system successfully. For example, if
documents printed from a word-processing program are not formatted correctly,
does the same thing happen when printing a spreadsheet, or a Web page? If
documents from many different programs print incorrectly, the fault may be
in the printer’s drivers or supporting software. If only one particular program
fails to print, that program is the likely culprit.
Beyond a computer product’s printed manuals, there are many other
sources of information available to a computer user. Check the CD-ROM media
that came with your software or hardware. Many manufacturers include additional
troubleshooting documentation or "ReadMe" files on the disk. Use
the troubleshooting "Wizards" included with Windows. Most wizards
can be found or accessed from the Windows Help and Support menus or by searching
on "Troubleshooting" in the Help and Support search box. Check out
the Internet web sites of the hardware and software manufacturers, as well
as user forums, where the people who use various products "meet online"
to share helpful hints and solutions to problems.
Internet search engines, such as www.google.com,
have recently become the electronic "clearing houses" for a great
deal of troubleshooting information. For example, we can type an error message
from a program just as it appears "in quotation marks" in a search
engine, and be taken directly to an online resource just for that problem.
[caption id="attachment_95" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="If you get an error message, write it down (or take its picture.)"][/caption]
When searching with google, less information may provide better results. If
you get a blue screen message for example, try entering just the error code
such as 0x0000000a. You can also limit results
to specific sites, where you know information should exist, by adding a "site:domain"
tag such as site:microsoft.com or site:support.microsoft.com
Many manufacturers also offer toll-free telephone-based support.
These resources can be very helpful, if the user accurately describes the
problem to the support representative.
There is, unfortunately, no one-step procedure which will always
pin down a computer problem to a specific fault. This is because a computer
cannot "re-think" a software command: it only performs whatever commands are
possible, be they for good or for ill. We can, however, divide the
problem into smaller pieces, making it easier to solve.
For example, pressing the [F8] key on a Windows system just before
the Windows logo screen appears will call up the Windows Startup
menu. Selecting Safe Mode from this menu will load just enough
of Windows to "get things going". If a system starts up fine in Safe Mode,
but not in a normal log-in, there is probably a software fault outside of
the Windows "core", such as a background program or driver, rather than a
- ESET Online Virus Scanner - http://www.eset.com/us/online-scanner
- Google Chrome (browser) - http://www.google.com/chrome
- Lavasoft AdAware - www.lavasoft.com
- Malwarebytes - www.malwarebytes.org
- Memory (RAM) testing - www.memtest.org
- Microsoft Security Essentials -
- Microsoft Malware Removal Tool - www.microsoft.com/security/malwareremove
- Mozilla FireFox (Internet browser) - www.mozilla.org
- Spybot Search and Destroy (Anti-Spyware) - spybot.safer-networking.de/en/index.html
- Zone Labs Zone Alarm (Firewall) - www.zonelabs.com
- Black Ice (Firewall)
- Computer Associates (Firewall, Anti-Virus, etc.)
- ESET NOD32 Antivirus or Security Suite
- McAfee (Virus Scan, Personal Firewall, Anti-Spyware, Spam Killer, etc.)
- Norton / Symantec (AntiVirus, Internet Security, System Works, etc.)
- PandaSoft (Anti-Virus, etc.)
- Trend Micro (Anti-Virus, Anti-Spyware, etc.)
- WebRoot (Anti-Spyware, Anti-Spam, etc.)
- Windows Update (Critical updates and security)
- Zone Labs Zone Alarm Pro (Firewall, etc.)
Troubleshooting Wizards found in Windows XP:
|System setup||Installing and setting up Windows.|
|Startup Shutdown||Starting and shutting down your computer.|
|Display||Video cards and adapters, including your computer screen,|
outdated or incompatible video drivers, and incorrect settings for your
|Home networking||Setup, Internet connections, sharing files and printers.|
|Hardware||Disk drives (including CD-ROM and DVD drives), game controllers,|
input devices (such as keyboards, mice, cameras, scanners, and infrared
devices), network adapters, USB devices, modems, and sound cards.
|Multimedia and games||Games and other multimedia programs, DirectX drivers, USB|
devices, digital video discs (DVDs), sound, joysticks, and related issues.
|DVDs||(Digital Video Discs) drives and decoders.|
|Input Devices||Keyboards, mouse and trackball devices, cameras, scanners,|
and infrared devices.
|Drives & NICs||Hard discs, floppy discs, CD-ROM and DVD drives, network cards,|
tape drives, backup programs.
|USB||USB connectors and peripherals.|
|Sound||Sound and sound cards.|
|Modem||setup, configuration, and detection.|
|ICS||(Internet Connection Sharing) Connecting and logging on to|
your Internet service provider (ISP).
|Internet Explorer||Browsing the Web, downloading files, saving your favorites,|
using IE toolbars, or printing Web pages.
|Outlook Exp.||Outlook Express and Windows Messenger Service.|
|File and Print Sharing||Sharing files and printers between computers, connecting to|
other computers in a network, installing network adapters, logging on.
|Printing||Printer installation and connection, printer drivers, print|
quality, printer speed, and fonts.