10 Tips on Computer Problem Troubleshooting

1. Don’t Panic, Just Reboot: This simple mantra will keep you from going crazy. If you begin to get strange errors, mind boggling messages, or if things just don’t seem right, restarting your computer can often eliminate these problems.

How does this work exactly? When you restart your computer, several things happen. First off, all memory that the computer was using is released. This means that if there are programs running in the background where you can’t notice, any of the resources that your system needs to run properly are returned to their unused state.

Another reason to reboot is that it’s one of the most common solution to problems big and small. Programs that want to act quirky over the littlest of reasons, hardware that wants to drive you up a wall, and sometimes even Internet connection problems will vanish once you reboot.

This same method applies to many forms of external hardware, although it is referred to as ‘power cycling’. All power cycling entails is unplugging and then putting the device back on. Simple, huh?

Technical support will almost always have you do this prior to further troubleshooting, so it’s a good idea to just do it on your own and avoid the wait time. This works by both resetting the power to the machine, and it also allows you to make sure that the connection was tight enough to begin with.

2. Google is Your Friend: You’ve tried everything: Calmly trying to figure out what the problem is, sacrificing a small goat to appease the gods that must surely be laughing at your situation, tearing your hair out, and threatening the computer with a large hammer. None of this worked, as said computer simply blinked its lights at you pragmatically.

Now what can you do? Go to that savior of the masses, the shining light through the murky waters that is the Internet…okay well maybe it isn’t all that, but Google can help you out with some of the most obscure and aggravating error messages that occur.

What you’ll want to do is copy the error message down exactly as it appears. Now, type that error message into the Google (http://www.google.com) search bar, enclose it in quotation marks (example: “buffer under run”), and you should get a number of appropriate search results.

This method can be used on your search engine of choice, as there are many out there, but Google is the search that I used whenever a customer came up with a particularly tricky problem through phone support, and it should serve you very well.

3. Deciphering error messages: You can see any number of error messages per day and have no clue what they mean. Strange terminology, unexplained number codes, and pure gibberish reduces the comprehensibility of what is supposed to be a helpful error message to some archaic third rate language. Or does it?

If you look carefully, you can sometimes pick out gems among the rubbish that the error message gives you. Code numbers are good for looking up on the company’s website, file names can often help you pinpoint and isolate the problem files (especially helpful when dealing with BSOD [blue screens of death]), and careful analysis of the small bit of actual English it does provide can sometimes prove useful.

Some key phrases to look out for in error messages are: Any explicit instructions – at times, these error messages can actually tell you what to do to fix the problem (once in a blue moon). Just because it looks complicated or overly technical doesn’t mean that it necessarily is. Sometimes it is as simple as changing a setting, or restarting the program. Just read over the message a few times and piece the phrases together in context.

Another type of phrase to watch out for are warnings. These can include notices that you need to restart your computer, corrupted files, the resource is unavailable, or you’ve run out of something (paper, ink, memory, etc). As above, you’ll want to see what meaning you can derive from these messages, keeping in mind that many of these messages are not as technical as they appear at first.

4. RTFM: Being hit with odd acronyms day in and out, especially if you’re an instant messaging junky, means that I might have to spell this one out for you. Read the farking (or full if you want to be polite) manual. This is one of the top curses that a tech could have for their support base, and it’s something that woefully few people actually follow. You don’t have to read it cover to cover (although a company that makes a manual that readable would be a treat indeed), but pay special attention to the basic operating instructions, and also the troubleshooting section.

Many of the most common mishaps are documented in both paper and electronic manuals, and they can be among the best sources you have for self diagnosing the problem. So before you toss the manual to one side, or use it as a perfunctory paper weight, glance through it and see if you can’t learn something.

5. Working today, broke tomorrow?: It would be nice if computers never broke suddenly, but just like anything mechanical, parts do wear down, things inexplicitly go bad, and it just happens to be when you needed the computer the most.

A few ways to put off the inevitable (or to deal with it when it comes) is to make sure that all afflicted pieces are up to date as far as updates (and yes, hardware can also have patches just like software, they are referred to as firmware updates. This data is stored on the physical device itself and can be overwritten with information provided by the manufacturer. Installation is often a simple process, very similar to software, but make absolutely certain that you have the correct firmware update. Failure to do so can ruin the device). A few other methods to try is uninstalling new software, disconnecting new hardware (new being within the last few days), taking your computer out for a hot date, and ensuring that everything is how you left it before the problem occurred (there’s no accounting for what your kids, neighbors, computer science major drop outs, and pets can do to your poor computer).

6. Tripping over the cords: There’s thousands of different devices that you can buy for your computer. You might be tempted to A) buy all of these devices, and B) throw them all on your computer at once, but either one will cause you no amount of headaches. The first is rather unnecessary, get what you need, just because it’s shiny, new, and half off, doesn’t mean that you have to have it. The second runs into supply problems. Unless you have some kind of mutant computer, most likely you’ll run out of available ports in which to plug in your devices. There are hub and splitter devices, where you can multiple the number of ports, but that isn’t feasible for a variety of reasons.

The first problem lies with interface limitations. You might not pay much attention to what kind of connector you’re hooking up (so long as you get it in the right hole, right?), but the computer does. Firewire and USB devices rule the current day landscape, so you’ll very rarely have to deal with problems posed by parallel, serial, and other older connections. That said, there are a few reasons why Firewire and USB are so popular. Without getting into the nitty gritty of it, these connections are fast, hot pluggable (meaning that you can plug them in while your computer is on), chainable (you can hook multiple devices together in a chain. In theory, at least, in practice leaves much to be desired), and a few technical advantages to be had over its competitors.

Now if you want to connect all these devices at once, you’ll most likely need to be using a hub of some sort, which plugs into the port, and from that port splits the signal into four ports. Great so far, right? Now remember when you did the same thing for your cable TV…the picture quality sucked, didn’t it?

The exact same thing can, and most often will happen with these hubs. What makes it worse is if the hub is not self powered (has its own power adapter). Now not only is it pulling the signal from the port, it is also powering itself from the port. The gist of this is that only devices pulling very small amounts of signal and power (such as keyboards, mice, and thumb drives) will actually function.

In most of the cases I’ve seen, you don’t even get the luxury of having a concise error message letting you know that is the problem. Either you end up with transfer failures, non detection issues, coasters (in cd and dvd burning), or any other number of unknown errors that often cannot be pinned down exactly to the hub.

Given that you can switch out devices while the computer is on, it makes sense to only have what you need connected, it will save you much trouble down the road.

7. The Waiting Game: We have to wait in so many areas of life: For the pizza man, through traffic jams, for that girl to notice your sidelong glances…having to wait for that damned hourglass to get off your screen isn’t going to make you very happy.

Depending on the type of computer you have, and how much memory is available in the machine, the loading times for various programs can range from seconds to tortured minutes. This is a good reason as to why you need to read the system requirements that are on the software box, they are on there for a reason, and atrocious loading times (as well as strain on your computer) are among the top reasons for providing these requirements, as well as putting a line in the sand. Support for the set up on one side, and you’re on your own on the other side. Guess what side you don’t want to be on?

Sometimes programs can get hung up on processes, malfunction and try to draw more system resources to them, or decide that they want to run in the background. The best defense you have against this is the Task Manager. There are two different versions of this, one for Windows 9x/ME, and the other for Windows 2000/XP, so I’ll discuss them separately.

Windows 9x/ME

This is a very simple menu, accessed by pressing the cntrl, alt, and delete keys at the same time. In this menu you will see a list of all programs running in the background. For reference, the only two that you absolutely need to leave alone are Systray and Explorer. The rest are subject to being shut down. If the computer knows that a program is not responding, it will list it with (not responding) next to the entry, or if you know exactly what program is causing the problems, then all you need to do is click on the name of the program in the list, then hit end task. Windows will sometimes prompt you with a dialog box, just click End Task on that box as well.

Windows 2000/XP

This Task Manager is a bit more complex, with various tabs spread across the top of the menu. The two that you want to focus on are Applications and Processes. Applications is your first stop, where it lists the programs that are open in your system tray (that bar running across the bottom, side, or top of your screen with the clock). If a program is not responding, it will say as much in parenthesis next to the listing. It gets a bit tougher if you have to look through listings in the Processes tab.

The Processes tab lists everything that is running on your computer, from what you are using to what is in use by the system. If you are on Windows XP, it will list your username next to processes that aren’t part of the operating system’s normal line up. If you’re on 2000, you just get a big list. Big problem, isn’t it??

One of the more sure fire methods is to look through the memory usage column, anything that is drawing a significantly large number of system resources can often be your trouble process. And don’t worry if you shut down something that you aren’t supposed to. None of this will seriously wreck your computer, so all you’ll need to do to start over is reboot.

8. I don’t see what you see: A vast majority of the population has access to the Internet, and one of the things that we like are dependable sites, sites that will be available to us day in and day out. So it often upsets this status quo when you get the dreaded 404 error message. This is possibly the most common error message that you will see, and it indicates that the page cannot be found. Before you decide to curse all that is holy, there’s a few things that you can do.

First off, you did type the name in correctly? Even if you are certain, humor me and go check. So that’s not the problem? Okay well depending on if you are trying to access the top level of the site, try truncating the site address. For example, if you are typing http://selenia.shadow-moon.com/?section=links, try erasing the bit after the /. The Internet is given to change, and many times site owners will switch over to a new code, decide to rearrange things, or just rename the page to annoy people. What do you mean, that’s still not the problem? Well hell…

Check and make sure that you can access any pages in that case. A test page I often use is http://www.msn.com, simply because that site doesn’t go down all that often. Many times if you cannot, it is either because your Internet connection is down at the time, or because you decided that a firewall sounded like a nifty program to install (and then you neglected to configure it…).

9. Death to the paper clip: Here’s a serious question. Does that stupid paper clip in Microsoft Word actually help anyone? And no, I don’t believe driving someone to seek mental help because of its annoying manner as help. One of the best resources in Word, or any other word processor for that matter, is the help function. The universal button to hit for help is F1, and works for any number of word processing software packages that I’ve used. Word, Open Office, Star Office, you name it, F1 brings up the help menu.

Once the menu is up, the normal set up is that it offers you an index and a search bar. Normally just typing in plain English what you want to do brings up relevant results. Other times you aren’t so lucky, and you might need to go hunting further into the help section. This section also covers common error messages, what they mean, and include tutorials to get you started.

10. Bogged down in work, play, and spyware: Just a few months old, and already your computer seems to be fighting through a big pile of muck to do a thing. Your penchant for installing interesting, random, and questionable software from download.com hasn’t helped matters either, trust me.

What you probably have is a case of spyware and adware. What are all these rather threatening sounding terms? Spyware is a program that can transmit information about your computer, browsing habits, and other statistics across the Internet. Adware is often the cause of all those fun little pop ups that you get even if you don’t have an active connection to the Internet. Both of these can cause mishaps in the day to day functioning of your computer, as well as causing a whole lion’s den of problems when considering the breach of privacy.

The main way to take care of this is to make sure that you use a combination of protection. Some people believe that anti virus software is the be all end all of protection. They are absolutely wrong. Most anti virus software is no where near comprehensive enough to include spy and ad ware scanning. However, there are a great many programs out there geared towards the removal of this kinds of software. Because of the absolutely overwhelming amount of spyware and adware out there, as well as how very easy it is to accidentally install, you’ll most likely want to use a combination of scanners.

My personal favorite is a one two punch with Ad-aware and Spybot. They cover each other’s weak points in scanning, and provide a more comprehensive protection method than just one or the other. Oh and they’re both free, which is always a selling point for me. You’ll want to run these at least once a week, especially if you have a broadband (DSL or Cable) connection.

One last note of caution. There are spyware software removal packages that actually advertise with adware, using this method so that their advertisement pops up, warning you that you could have spyware and adaware on the system. No, really, well maybe that’s because your company installed some! Hypocrite. Ahem. Needless to say, stay away from dealing with such unscrupulous businesses, as there is no telling whether their ‘scanner’ will actually do any good.

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