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Pinpoint The Source Of Your Computer Problem

As time goes on, PCs continue to increase in complexity and our reliance upon them continues to grow. More often than not, both increases are perfectly complementary, as millions of people across the globe turn their computers on each day to use them for research, leisure, entertainment, or learning. But that paired reliance us relying on your PCs and our PCs relying on us for maintenance isn’t always a happy fairy tale; sometimes the experience breeds frustration, especially when the PC just doesn’t work, and we don’t know why.

Thankfully, however, troubleshooting a PC is largely an exercise in the process of elimination; following a standardized procedure with the right tools can go a long way toward diagnosing your computer’s ailment and getting you back on the right track. Knowing what is broken is the cornerstone of knowing how to fix it, so read on to become a pro at investigating your problem and discovering that crucial cornerstone.

Before You Dive In
Although it’s tempting to start troubleshooting your PC as soon as it displays symptoms, you’ll save yourself a potential headache if you back up your digital valuables first assuming that your PC’s problem doesn’t prevent you from doing so). Sure, the average software conflict, driver reinstallation, or loose monitor cord isn’t much of a threat to your files, but we’ve seen seemingly small problems turn into PC-crippling disasters before. If you’re in the “better safe than sorry” camp, jot down a quick list of the files you want to protect: documents, music or video files, emails, and maybe that list of Internet Explorer Favorites you’ve built up over the years (in Internet Explorer, click File, Import And Export to start the wizard that lets you back up Favorites). Move them to removable media or (if you don’t suspect that your PC has a virus) to another PC on your network. Now you can tackle your PC’s problem without worrying about losing your data.

Hardware Or Software?
It’s not always easy to determine whether your hardware or software is to blame, but it’s a good place to start troubleshooting:

If you’re fairly confident that the problem is one or the other, you’ve eliminated several troubleshooting steps.

Ruling out causes is the best path to troubleshooting success. Look for common hardware symptoms. Hardware problems, such as damaged components or loose cables, generally cause obvious, dramatic problems. For example, if your computer won’t power on at all, you’re looking at a hardware problem, rather than software. You should also suspect a hardware problem if your computer powers on, but no images appear on your monitor. If you can’t access any software (even the BIOS [Basic Input/Output System]), you’re not looking at a software issue. Of course, not all hardware issues display such obvious symptoms, and some hardware problems exhibit symptoms similar to those caused by software problems. For example, if your PC runs slowly, it may have too many unnecessary programs running at once or a virus or adware may be crippling your system; obviously, these are software problems. On the other hand, these same symptoms can be caused by an overheated processor, something that’s just as obviously a hardware issue. Look for common software symptoms. Whereas hardware problems often reduce your computer to an oversized paperweight, software issues are often more subtle, and usually let you access most parts of your computer. A conflict between two programs, for example, may prevent you from accessing certain applications, but may not crash Windows itself.

In many cases, the software that’s experiencing trouble will display an error message. Unfortunately, many error messages don’t offer much immediate help: The message will likely display a cryptic warning or a bunch of numbers and letters that don’t mean anything to anyone other than a programmer. Unless you receive an error message saying that hardware is to blame, the error message is a good indicator that you’re facing a software problem. If your problem doesn’t prevent you from accessing the Internet, try looking up the error message at Smart Computing’s Tech Support Center. The site offers an online database of error messages for hundreds of programs, including the Windows OS (operating system). To learn more about an error message, visit and then click Browse Error Messages Alphabetically or Search By Error Message Text. If you choose the Search feature, enter the text of the error message word-for-word to get the best results. Each error message in the database includes an explanation of the message’s meaning and at least one potential solution. Consider recent events. If you call a tech support service, one of the first questions the tech will ask is, “What were the last things you did before the problem occurred?” Remembering any actions you’ve taken over the past few days may help you narrow down the problem. If you moved your computer to a different room and now find that it won’t power on, for example, you should kick off the troubleshooting by identifying the components that may have changed during the move. Check the wall outlet to make sure it is functioning properly, and check the power cord to make sure it is plugged firmly into the outlet and the PC’s PSU (power supply unit). (Don’t forget that transporting a computer any significant distance can result in video cards and other devices vibrating loose.)

This approach will also help you determine whether you have a software problem. If you installed a new program last night and now your Desktop doesn’t display the family photo you were using as a Desktop background, you’re probably not facing a hardware issue. The longer you own a PC, the more often you’ll find that the simplest explanation for the problem is often the right one.

Find The Source Of The Problem
Once you know (or think you know) whether you’re dealing with a hardware or software problem, you can really dig into the next question: Which hardware component or program is the source of the trouble? If you can answer this question, you won’t have any trouble finding an article in this issue that addresses your problem. Here are some tips for narrowing the troubleshooting field. Hardware problems. Once you suspect a hardware problem, list the components (internal or external) that might be the cause of the problem and then check each component, one at a time. In some cases, this may mean checking external and internal hardware. For example, if your print documents don’t reach the printer or you see error messages that say your printer isn’t connected to the computer, you’ll want to check the USB cable that runs from your computer to the printer to make sure neither of the connections is loose. You’ll also want to be sure that your computer’s

USB port is functioning. (You can test this by plugging another USB device, such as a USB flash drive, mouse, or external hard drive into that port.) In some cases, you may suspect that an internal component is damaged, but not be in a position to confirm the defect. If you think that your computer’s lost network connection is due to a damaged or incorrectly configured Ethernet NIC (Network Interface Card), you probably don’t have an extra Ethernet card that you can swap out. This is where the Device Manager, a built-in Windows tool, can help you identify problems without opening your PC or bumming spare parts from your friends. To open the Device Manager, right click the My Computer icon on the Desktop, and then click Properties. When the System Properties window appears, select the Hardware tab and then click the Device Manager button. The Device Manager displays a list of your PC’s components by category, such as Disk Drives (hard drives), Processors, DVD/CD-ROM Drive, and Display Adapters. By default, the list shows only the component categories, rather than the components themselves. If you want to see the names of your specific CD-RW and DVD-RW drives, for example, you’ll need to click the plus (+) sign next to DVD/CD-ROM Drives. The list will then expand to reveal all of the components in that category. The exception to this rule, however, is the component that is damaged. If Windows knows your NIC isn’t working, it will automatically expand the Network Adapters category to display any networking components in your PC. You’ll see a red X next to the damaged NIC. To learn more about the NIC’s problem, right click it and then select Properties. The General tab of the NIC’s Properties window includes a Device Status section that offers a brief explanation of the problem. You can also pinpoint certain problems, such as excessive heat, by checking the PC’s BIOS. All PCs have a BIOS, which is a very basic operating system that allows your system’s components to communicate. Most BIOSes have a PC Health or Status page that lists system fan speeds and system and processor temperatures.

Things To Check First
Although a list of things to check won’t catch every PC problem you encounter, you’ll be surprised at how often the simple steps below can lead to troubleshooting success. Whether you’re kicking off a troubleshooting session or at your wits’ end after hours of fruitless research, here are some good tips to try.

  • Is the PC’s power supply switch turned on? Some PCs have a power switch at the back. Make sure it hasn’t been switched off.
  • Are all cables connected? Loose connections regularly cause headaches. Remove and reconnect each plug firmly, even if you’re sure it’s connected.
  • Are all peripherals turned on? Make sure a powered-off print server isn’t preventing your printer from working.
  • Does the Device Manager display any problems? Check this tool for red Xs, which indicate a malfunctioning or disabled device.
  • Is there a new driver? Updated drivers often fix hardware problems. If you can’t find new drivers (check the manufacturer’s Web site), try reinstalling your existing driver.
  • Have you installed software updates? Software publishers sometimes release patches via their Web sites. Also, check to see if your software recently installed updates automatically. In rare cases, a software update may introduce problems.

Software problems. If you’re fairly certain you’re facing a software problem, but you haven’t been able to identify the offending program, your best bet may be to use Windows XP’s System Restore. This feature is especially useful if you’ve installed multiple programs recently. System Restore reverts your computer to the condition it was in few days or even a few weeks ago, without destroying any of the documents, emails, music, or video files you’ve created. Thanks to System Restore, any programs you installed after the Restore Point (the date in the past to which you restore Windows) won’t appear on your PC. Once you complete the restore, you can reinstall the applications one at a time and check your PC for problems after each installation. System Restore is enabled by default in Windows XP, which means that System Restore has already created Restore Points automatically, even if you’ve never used the System Restore feature before. To access System Restore, click Start, All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, and System Restore. Once you click the Restore My Computer To An Earlier Time radio button and click Next, System Restore will display a small calendar with several of the dates in bold. All bold dates have at least one Restore Point. (Note that Windows refers to automatically created Restore Points as System Checkpoints; you can create your own labels for Restore Points that you create yourself.) Select the Restore Point and then follow System Restore’s instructions to restore your system to this earlier date. Finally, make sure your PC is operating without trouble. If it is, you’ve narrowed the problem to one of the programs that System Restore just uninstalled (or to another program on your PC that conflicted with one of these programs). Now you’re ready to hunt for the problem program.

Troubleshooting 101
As we mentioned earlier, troubleshooting is largely a matter of eliminating parts or programs that are working until you find the part that causes the problem. Consider this scenario: You pressed your PC’s power button this morning only to find that it didn’t start. The PC worked just fine last night, and you haven’t recently performed any maintenance on the system’s interior. If you start by making sure your PC truly isn’t powered on, you’ll save yourself several troubleshooting steps. Check the monitor’s light: Is the monitor on? If not, you’ll want to check its power cords. Once the monitor is on, take a second look at your PC. Do any lights appear when you try to power on the system? If you see lights, or if you can see or hear running fans at the back of the computer, the system doesn’t have a power problem. Instead, the PC may be having trouble sending an image to your monitor, which could indicate a problem with your motherboard, video card, or memory. If the PC doesn’t power on at all, check the power cord and the surge protector. Many surge protectors have switches that let you kill power to any of the devices that plug into them: Check to make sure your pet didn’t accidentally trip that switch. Next, check the wall outlet by plugging a different device into the socket your PC’s power cord occupied. If you’re certain that power is flowing to the PC, you’ve ruled out the most basic problems and can focus on more advanced troubleshooting tips, such as those discussed in “What To Do When: Your PC Won’t Start”

When All Else Fails
If you exhaust this issue’s troubleshooting tips without finding a solution, it’s time to turn to the Web or to contact tech support. You’ll find a searchable database of thousands of articles at Smart Computing’s online Tech Support Center. If you call your PC manufacturer’s tech support line, be sure to have some basic information about your system handy, including the model number and serial number. Many PCs display the model name and number on the front panel, whereas the serial number often resides on a side panel or the back of the computer.

Software To The Rescue
Whether you’re planning to download drivers for a device or simply want to search for information about it online, you’ll need its model number. In many cases, you can find this info via the Device Manager, but if you’re looking for your motherboard’s model number or the name of the motherboard’s chipset, you’ll probably need to download a third-party system information program, such as CPUID’s free PC Wizard 2006 ( Such programs scan your system and then display model numbers, chipset names, and other info.


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