Thursday, July 26, 2007

Computer Triage

Q: What are the basic troubleshooting tips for computers that are behaving badly?

A: In my shop, we have a few basic troubleshooting techniques that may help if you if you suddenly find yourself with general computer problems such as lock-ups, slowness or error messages.

The first step in computer diagnosis is to determine if the problem is hardware or software related. One quick way to determine that is to open the case and inspect the system. If your first reaction is, “Ewwwww!” then you should purchase a can of compressed air and get rid of the dust. You also want to look for swollen capacitors or disconnected things. Dust removal and swollen capacitors were covered in previous articles. You can find those articles at or on my website.

If the initial hardware inspection passes, you should know that, besides user errors (what we call “loose nuts behind the keyboard”), the biggest cause of most computer problems is viruses and spyware. If you don’t have updated security software, chances are very good that whatever problem you are having is virus and spyware-related.

If your security software appears to be up-to-date, get a second opinion, anyway. A good place to go for a second opinion is Microsoft’s free online scanner located at This scanner performs most of the tasks we would normally perform for you in our shop including virus and spyware detection, registry cleaning and hard drive clean-up and defragmentation. Once caveat: This scanner only detects and removes junk. It doesn’t prevent anything and is not as effective as commercial products. It doesn’t remain on your computer after you complete the scan. It is handy as a ”second opinion” only.

If the system is still a little whacky, we look at RAM and hard drive problems. Problems with RAM modules are rare but do happen. Microsoft provides a free RAM tester. If it finds a problem, you simply replace the defective module. A link to this tester is available on my website under “Helpful Links.”

Next is a test of the hard drive. Each hard drive manufacturer provides free software (available from their website) that diagnoses problems with your hard drive. Some computer vendors include built-in hard drive diagnostics on their systems but I prefer the manufacturer’s own software. Before you can download the software, you need to know what brand of hard drive you have. There are a few ways of determining this but perhaps the easiest way is to open the side panel of the computer and simply look at the hard drive.

Once you know the hard drive manufacturer, you can go to their website and download their hard drive diagnostic utility. Using this utility is pretty easy and doesn’t erase anything from your hard drive but, as always, be sure you have a current backup of your stuff. You do have a current backup of your stuff, don’t’ you?

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