Just Troubleshoot Me – Technology Information – Tutorial

Dave Johnson

So what if your service technician doesn’t make house calls? Follow this guide to diagnose, treat, and prevent your own PC problems

It’s been said there are two types of computer users: those who’ve had a serious system crash at the worst possible moment, and those who will. Of course, there’s no good time for a PC or peripheral to fail, but you can lay odds that when yours does, you’ll be on a critical deadline.

Although your computer is fairly reliable, it’s also fiendishly complicated. Anything with moving parts, like your hard disk, will eventually wear out and fail. And each of the millions of lines of code that makes up today’s software applications is a land mine waiting to be stepped on by some other publisher’s software.

The good news is that before equipment keels over completely, it usually issues a distress signal. The bad news is that it can be tough to figure out what your PC is trying to tell you. To help you cure what ails your system, we’ll describe seven all-too-common symptoms and explain how to deal with them.

Symptom No. 1:

Your computer has started forgetting the date and other basic settings every time you turn it on.

Diagnosis: The most likely cause of your computer’s sudden amnesia is a drained CMOS battery–the little watch battery on the motherboard that provides a trickle of power to retain all your essential settings (including the date, time, and type of hard disk installed), even when the PC is turned off. The battery’s normal life span is from three to five years.

Ounce of Prevention: If your PC is about four years old, you can replace the battery before it dies. Alternatively, you can use a backup program that records your CMOS settings on disk, so they’re easy to restore when the battery dies. McAfee Office (Network Associates, 800-338-8754, www.mcafee.com; $99), for example, includes a CMOS backup utility. Or you can try this low-tech solution: Enter the setup program (which you usually do by pressing a certain key or keys while the PC starts up), and write down every setting. You can then manually restore those settings after a battery failure.

Pound of Cure: Replace the battery. Turn off your PC, open the case, and look for a small round battery clipped to the motherboard. Pop it off and replace it with a fresh one. Don’t forget to restore your CMOS settings when you’re done.

Symptom No. 2:

Your computer is strangely silent-it’s stopped making that quiet whir you’ve grown used to-and it’s crashing frequently.

Diagnosis: Danger, Will Robinson–your power supply is faulty! If you no longer hear that distinctive whirring sound, the cooling fan has failed, and your computer is in imminent danger of a meltdown. Even if you can hear the fan, voltage spikes from an erratic power supply can be causing your hard disk to crash, leading your PC to an untimely demise.

Ounce of Prevention: There’s nothing much you can do in advance to keep your computer’s power supply up to par. It’ll usually work just fine for years, and then fail suddenly. However, if you happen to hear any change in the sound it makes, be sure to shut down your system immediately. Every minute a defective power supply runs is perilous to your PC.

Pound of Cure: Unfortunately, you can’t fix a faulty power supply–you can only replace it. You can get a good 200- or 250-watt power supply at any computer shop, and installing it is fairly straightforward. Just be sure that you never try to open the power supply cage itself. There are no user-serviceable parts inside, and there’s a dangerous high-voltage capacitor that can retain a lethal charge long after you turn off the power.

Symptom No. 3

You hear a grinding sound or excessive thrashing coming from your disk drive.

Diagnosis: Momentary disk noise is normal when applications are loading or Windows is busy swapping data between disk and memory, but constant grinding means your hard disk is in trouble. The read/write head may have crashed and be physically damaging the platter on which your data is stored.

Ounce of Prevention: Backup, backup, backup. It’s imperative to maintain a solid backup routine to keep your data safe. A head crash generally results in irretrievably damaged data or requires the help of a costly data retrieval service (while recovery specialist Ontrack Data International recently started offering more affordable, downloadable disaster diagnostics at www.ontrack.com, such software is helpless to cure hardware failures). Also, be sure to run Windows’ Defrag and ScanDisk utilities periodically to ensure the hard disk isn’t developing an excessive number of unusable sectors–a warning sign of a physical problem.

Pound of Cure: If you’re having hard disk troubles, act fast. First, back up your critical files to a fresh disk (don’t overwrite a good backup disk or tape with what may turn out to be damaged data). Then run any disk utilities you have to determine the severity of the problem. You may be able to use a program like Hard Drive Mechanic Deluxe (Encore Software, 800-507-1375, www.encoresoftware.com; $50) to save the disk if it’s near death. Worst case: Replace the drive and restore the data from your most recent backup.

Symptom No. 4:

Your computer seems to have a mind of its own. There’s odd disk activity, Microsoft Word’s Save As command has stopped working, or files have disappeared from your hard disk.

Diagnosis: Your system might be infected by a virus. These nasty bits of code are often designed solely to destroy your data, encrypt your files, or make it difficult for you to save your work.

Ounce of Prevention: Every PC you own should have an antivirus program running at all times to detect the presence of malicious software and remove it before damage is done.

Pound of Cure: In most cases, an antivirus program can find and remove offending programs without tampering with data on your hard disk. Even if your PC is already infected, it’s often not too late to run a virus-checker and save your work. Popular germ-killers include Norton AntiVirus 5.0 (Symantec, 800-441-7234, www.symantec. com; $60); McAfee VirusScan (Network Associates; $50); PC-cillin 6 (Trend Micro, 408-257-1500, www. antivirus. com; $40); and eSafe Protect (Aladdin Knowledge Systems, 888-772-3372, www.esafe.com; $50).

Symptom No. 5:

Your modem refuses to make calls.

Diagnosis: Nine times out of 10, the reason your modem suddenly fails to work is that you’ve recently installed a new peripheral that’s hogging the modem’s serial or COM port. Digital cameras and PalmPilot or other PDA docking cradles are likely culprits.

Ounce of Prevention: Before you install new hardware, take stock of your serial ports and determine which ones (of the four built into the standard PC architecture) are currently in use. Usually, your PC’s external serial ports use COM1 and COM2 (sometimes assigned respectively to small and large connectors on the back panel). Internal devices use COM3 and COM4 ports. You can also figure out which serial ports are in use by opening the Modems icon in Windows’ Control Panel and switching to the Diagnostic tab.

Pound of Cure: Assess which new devices you’ve recently installed and try reassigning them to new COM ports. You might have to experiment a little bit with the device’s preferences settings.

Symptom No. 6:

Your mouse is amiss.

Diagnosis: A number of things could be causing your mouse to work improperly. Software conflicts occasionally make a mouse lock up. More often, the mouse is simply dirty, causing its trackball to stick or skip, or its internal workings are broken. Worst case scenario: Your computer’s PS/2 port could have blown.

Ounce of Prevention: Your mouse needs tender loving care. Remove the ball from the bottom of the device at least once a month, and clean it by dousing it in rubbing alcohol and drying it with a tissue. Likewise, clean the rollers with rubbing alcohol and cotton swabs. When using your mouse, be careful not to bang it around. Most important, never insert or remove a PS/2-style mouse while the computer is turned on. You risk blowing the port, which will lead to an expensive trip to the computer repair shop.

Pound of Cure: If your mouse locks up only when you run a particular program, contact the software vendor and explain the problem. A patch or workaround might be available. Otherwise, it might be time for you to buy a new mouse. When choosing one, make sure it comes with a scroll wheel, which will let you navigate through documents and Web pages with just the flick of a finger.

Symptom No. 7: Your laser printer outputs blank pages–no toner in sight–or prints pages with a distinctive pattern of splotches all over them.

Diagnosis: Completely blank pages usually don’t mean your toner cartridge has run out. Because toner doesn’t stop flowing all at once, you would have seen that problem coming. Instead, it’s likely that a thin wire (called a charging roller) that enables the toner to adhere to the paper has broken. If, on the other hand, you see a distinctive pattern of splotches on your pages, the drum has either worn out or become damaged.

Ounce of Prevention: You can expect to run 30,000 to 50,000 pages through a typical laser printer before you need to replace the drum or fix a problem like a broken charging roller. To keep your laser running in top form until then, never expose the inside of the printer to bright sunlight or leave it open for more than a few minutes at a time. Also, connect your printer to a surge suppressor to protect its delicate circuit boards from voltage variations.

Pound of Cure: Some printers place the charging roller in the toner cartridge, meaning you can fix the problem by replacing the toner (also meaning that you pay a bit extra for the convenience of not having to replace the drum and toner separately). More likely, though, the roller is in the drum assembly. In that case, or if the drum is worn out or damaged, you’ll probably need to send in the printer for servicing–or at least ask for an estimate, bearing in mind that brand-new desktop laser printers start at less than $300.


Error Messages in English

Windows’ warnings have a way of making you feel like you’re wandering around a foreign country without a Berlitz guide. To help you speak your PC’s language, we’ve translated a few of the most mysteriously worded messages.

(+) KEYBOARD NOT FOUND. PRESS F1 TO CONTINUE. Your keyboard’s right in front of you, and your computer can’t find it? Actually, this message probably means that your keyboard cable came loose from the back of your PC or that you were pressing some keys when the computer tried checking for the presence of the keyboard during startup. Just make sure the keyboard is properly connected and reboot the PC.

(+) GENERAL PROTECTION ERROR or THIS PROGRAM HAS PERFORMED AN ILLEGAL OPERATION AND WILL BE SHUT DOWN. Despite the warnings, no one is being protected, and no crime has been committed. These messages indicate that two programs tried writing data to the same memory location simultaneously. It may sound minor, but it’s enough to crash your PC. Generally you can’t prevent this problem unless the software publishers offer updates or bug fixes (check their Web sites). You might also get some help from the crash-helmet or problem-interception tools in Symantec’s SystemWorks ($70) and Network Associates’ McAfee Office.

(+) THE TCP/IP CONNECTION WAS UNEXPECTEDLY TERMINATED BY THE SERVER. If you connect to your corporate intranet or to an Internet service provider (ISP) to get your e-mail messages, you may see this error more often than you’d like. It means that there’s a problem with the remote server–and there’s nothing you can do about it except grit your teeth and try checking for messages again later. It’s also a good idea for you to call your IS department or ISP and let them know about the problem, just in case they’re not already aware of it.

(+) DLL IS INVALID OR CORRUPT. If you see this message on your screen, the program you were trying to start probably won’t run. The cause? Since the last time you ran it, you probably installed a new application that uses a dynamic link library (DLL) file with the same name as the one this program uses. The two DLLs are incompatible, and that’s making the older program crash. One solution is to reinstall the older program. Another is to contact both software companies to find out if either offers a patch or workaround for this problem.

Before You Pull the Plug

Your computer is in trouble. One application has failed, and others are running slower than molasses. Or maybe your screen is frozen, and you think you’re stuck. Instead of going straight for the power switch–a last resort, as it could result in lost data–try these strategies.

(+) CLOSE THE CRASHED PROGRAM. If you can terminate the offending application, you might regain control of Windows. Press the old reliable Control-Alt-Delete key combination and select the program that’s crashed. Then click the End Task button to close it. You might need to repeat the process a few times to make the program really go away.

(+) UNPLUG AND PLAY. An external plug-and-play device, such as a USB device or notebook PC Card, might be causing your system to hang. This is particularly true of early USB devices, some of which came with flaky drivers. Remove the device and see if your PC springs back to life.

(+) AUTOSAVE YOUR WORK. If all else fails, you’ll have to power down your PC, so it’s a good idea for you to keep the AutoRecover feature enabled in your applications. For instance, you can configure Microsoft Word to make a safety backup of your open files every few minutes. Just open the Tools menu, select Options, and then switch to the Save tab to set a time limit.

Five Signs It’s Time To Buy a New PC

All good things must come to an end, and that includes your computer. Sadly, repair isn’t always an option–and even when it is, it’s not necessarily the most cost-effective one. Start looking for a replacement if your PC exhibits one or more of the following symptoms:


If you turn on your PC and discover that it won’t boot but rather plays a series of “beep codes,” odds are that a key chip on the motherboard has conked out. PC repair books usually include charts that help you determine what the beep codes are trying to tell you, but most boil down to “the motherboard is dead.” You can replace the motherboard, but it’s not an easy task. If the computer is more than a few years old, this is your golden opportunity to get a new one.


New multimedia applications are beginning to demand the presence of more-sophisticated graphics accelerators, including hardware-based 3D cards that perform complex polygon rendering that your ordinary 2D card can’t muster. Upgrading your graphics subsystem isn’t always possible with older PCs that have video chips on their motherboards.


Some manufacturers used to solder the CMOS battery securely to the motherboard. When the battery eventually dies, there’s no easy way to replace it by yourself. If the company that sold you the PC no longer exists, maybe you can take the dead battery as a sign that it’s time to get a snazzy new desktop.


Older PCs often have little growing room for additional storage devices. If you want to add an internal Zip drive, DVD drive, or another hard disk and have no easy way to install it, it’s probably easiest just to purchase a new computer. You can relegate the old PC to serve as a networked fax machine and scanner server.


If your house was hit by lightning, and you have poor karma, a power spike could zap your motherboard, modem, and hard disk all at the same time. It’s probably cheaper to buy a new computer than to repair or replace all those different components. Of course, to prevent that ultimate catastrophe from happening, you should always protect your mission-critical PCs with an uninterruptible power supply or surge suppressor.

Troubleshooter’s Toolbox

No matter how prepared you are, you can’t prevent every PC problem. But you can reduce your downtime during recovery by keeping these home office essentials close at hand.

(+) EMERGENCY STARTUP DISK. Windows will make a startup disk for you if you open the Add/Remove Programs item in Control Panel and switch to the Startup Disk tab. It has the bare essentials you’ll need to boot your PC in a dire emergency.

(+) BIOS BACKUP DISK. You can create a BIOS disk with a diagnostic program like McAfee Office, or just write all your BIOS settings down on paper. That way you’ll be able to restore your settings when the battery on the motherboard dies.

(+) ESSENTIAL DRIVERS. Stash all your device drivers–the software utilities that control your printer, network card, scanner, modem, and the like–in a nearby drawer in case you need to install Windows from scratch. Also keep a list of any network or Internet settings you may need to restore, such as your e-mail user name, password, and IP address.

(+) DIAGNOSTIC SUITE. Install either Norton SystemWorks or McAfee Office. Both of these programs have essential diagnostic tools that help keep your PC out of trouble as well as recovery tools that save your data after something goes wrong.

(+) DATA BACKUP PROGRAM. Frequent data backups are a must. McAfee Office includes full-featured backup software; Iomega bundles a program with each of its 100MB Zip drives (800-MY-STUFF, www.iomega.com; $150).

(+) HARD DISK RECOVERY PROGRAM. Buy a program like Encore Software’s Hard Disk Mechanic, which can repair many kinds of hard disk failures. Hard Disk Mechanic can also warn you when a disk is about to fail.

(+) ANTIVIRUS SOFTWARE. Always install an antivirus package–and download the vendor’s virus signature updates at least monthly from the Internet.

DAVE JOHNSON’S book, Upgrading and Repairing Your PC: Answers (Osborne/McGraw-Hill), was written from firsthand experience.

COPYRIGHT 1999 CURTCO Freedom Communications

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

You May Also Like

Adobe ActiveShare – multimedia asset management software – Software Review

Adobe ActiveShare – multimedia asset management software – Software Review – Evaluation Holly Aguirre HOC RATING 6 ADOBE ACT…

Living the Good LAN Life

Living the Good LAN Life – Product Information Marshall F. Lager A lawyer’s family extends unity to the home office MARDI ME…

You Won’t Believe It’s $149 – Epson America’s Epson Stylus Color 880 color ink jet printer – Hardware Review

You Won’t Believe It’s $149 – Epson America’s Epson Stylus Color 880 color ink jet printer – Hardware Review – Evaluation Eric Grevstad</p…

Acer TravelMate 340T – Hardware Review

Acer TravelMate 340T – Hardware Review – Evaluation Eric Grevstad A NOTEBOOK POWERFUL ENOUGH TO BE YOUR only PC? That’s no longer n…