Troubleshooting a computer or its peripherals doesn’t
require the user to know how their system works in
detail or to be a certified computer technician. While
a specific problem may take more steps to solve, six
basic steps will permit a user to troubleshoot most
computer or peripheral faults effectively:
2. Isolate Problems
3. Research Information
4. Identify Solutions
5. Apply Fixes
6. 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 faster.
When troubleshooting a computer, how it behaves is
an important part of the evaluation. The following
questions will often help to narrow the troubleshooting “focus”:
the system is new or newly-built, did it ever work?
it did work, what changed?
• Can the problem
be reproduced? For example, does it appear when a program
• What other programs are running?
the system has been in use for some time, has a new
program or upgrade been added?
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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 hardware error.
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.
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
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
• Is the system or information
in the computer critical to my business?
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?
this a repair with which I have had prior experience?
I too frustrated or tired to complete this repair safely
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.
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.
Toolbar (Pop-up blocker, etc.)
• Lavasoft AdAware
• Memory (RAM) testing - www.memtest86.com
• Microsoft Anti-Spyware
Malware Removal Tool - www.microsoft.com/security/malwareremove
FireFox (Internet browser) - www.mozilla.org
Search and Destroy (Anti-Spyware) - spybot.safer-networking.de/en/
Toolbar (Pop-up blocker, Anti-Spyware, etc.)
Labs Zone Alarm (Firewall) - www.zonelabs.com
• Black Ice (Firewall)
Associates (Firewall, Anti-Virus, etc.)
• McAfee (Virus Scan, Personal
Firewall, Anti-Spyware, Spam Killer, etc.)
/ Symantec (AntiVirus, Internet Security, System Works,
• PandaSoft (Anti-Virus, etc.)
Micro (Anti-Virus, Anti-Spyware, etc.)
(Anti-Spyware, Anti-Spam, etc.)
• Windows Update
(Critical updates and security)
• Zone Labs Zone
Alarm Pro (Firewall, etc.)
found in Windows XP:
||Installing and setting up Windows.
|Starting and shutting down your computer.
||Video cards and adapters, including
your computer screen, outdated or incompatible video
drivers, and incorrect settings for your video hardware.
||Setup, Internet connections, sharing
files and printers.
||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.
||(Digital Video Discs) drives and decoders.
||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 connectors and peripherals.
||Sound and sound cards.
||Modem connections, setup, configuration,
||(Internet Connection Sharing) Connecting
and logging on to your Internet service provider (ISP).
||Browsing the Web, downloading files,
saving your favorites, using IE toolbars, or printing
||Outlook Express and Windows Messenger
|File and Print Sharing
||Sharing files and printers between
computers, connecting to other computers in a network,
installing network adapters, logging on.
||Printer installation and connection,
printer drivers, print quality, printer speed, and
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