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Marquee Series : General Resources : Practical Tips for Computer Users : Troubleshooting Your PC

Most people can use a television set, operate a microwave oven, or drive an automobile, but few of us would consider attempting to repair the sophisticated electronics in each. Yet somehow we assume that computer problems are something that we should be able to repair without instruction or experience. Consider that all computers and their architectures are not alike, and that their repair methods and diagnostics are significantly different. The age of a system also impacts the repair techniques used. Indeed, for many systems produced fewer than five years ago, replacement parts exist in used markets only. Therefore, as in your TV, car, and microwave, there are many situations in which the diagnostics and work should be left to someone who has the experience and diagnostic hardware and software to accomplish the objective. There are, however, a number of items that can be checked by anyone to help ascertain if the nature of the problem requires an experienced technician. After all, in a comparable situation, it would be embarrassing to return to a store a camera that doesn’t work only to find that the lens cap was not removed!

Problem: The screen is blank–nothing is happening.

The most important first step is to be certain that the power is getting to the computer. Most computers and monitors have an LED light that glows whenever the power is on. If no power is getting to the computer, check the wall socket and surge protector in an attempt to verify current flow. Switching sockets into one that is known to work could resolve this possible problem.

Problem: The start-up process is taking too long–or it can’t seem to be completed.

Several actions take place between the time a computer is turned on and the appearance of the desktop and icons. A number of checks are performed during the power-on self-test (POST) on the system basic input output system (BIOS) to verify that all required parts, such as the keyboard, mouse, memory, and hard disk drive, are functioning normally. If they are not, a message will appear on the screen or a series of beeps will announce the nature of the problem. If a screen message shows the keyboard or mouse missing, it is possible that the cable has become loose from its connection or that the raw metal contact surfaces have become corroded. Repeated connection and disconnection of the device will usually correct the corrosion problem. Be very careful to examine the small contact pins that make the connection to verify that none are bent or damaged. These connectors are very delicate and force should not ever be required to plug them in.

Inexperienced users sometimes mistakenly disrupt the CMOS setup. During the starting or boot-up process, systems will sometimes send a message to press a key to enter setup, often the escape (Esc) key or the function keys F2 or F10. This is a part of the setup process that identifies the installed components in the computer. One of the best features of modern systems is the capacity for the system setup commands to be initialized by the installing software. Virtually all components now are recognized by the operating system when they are installed. This initialization process is "automatic" in the eyes of the user, but much takes place behind the scenes to keep the system setup correct and to maintain the Windows system file, called the registry, that governs all machine applications. Inexperienced users should avoid the setup location. If the system setup or registry becomes corrupted, it is again time to seek out experienced counsel.

Problem: A message displays on screen saying there is a failure of the hard drive.

If the dreaded hard disk drive failure message were to appear on the screen, it may be a simple problem of a loose connection, or it could be internal corrosion problem. In either case it should be left to experienced hands to explore. This might be a suitable time to remind users that work that is worth saving is worth saving twice! If the data is critical, multiple backups are in order.

Internal components as well as peripheral hardware have a limited life expectancy. Most hard disks and CD-ROM drives will last typically five years, but failure can happen at any time. The cables that connect these devices are also subject to failure. The corrosion problem mentioned previously regarding metal surfaces can occur at any connection.

Problem: The printer is not working.

Printer cables are particularly vulnerable to failure since they can get moved either deliberately or accidentally. If printing problems cannot be corrected by working with the cables or by reinstalling the printer driver software provided by the manufacturer, then a new printer may be in order. It comes as a surprise to many users of inkjet printers that units up to about $300 in cost are essentially disposable. Replacement often costs less than labor and repair, and a more modern printer will likely have superior capabilities.

General Guidelines

An important point to consider is taking notes that describe your problem. In order to help a diagnostician locate a problem, it is helpful to be able to describe exactly what is happening. If the system "beeps" you should note how many times and identify if it is in a pattern. If system diagnostic error messages appear on the screen, write them down.

If you attempt to install new hardware or software, make changes one at a time. In this way, if a problem occurs you should be able to back up one step to bring the system back to life.

Do not be afraid to ask for assistance rather than dive into something for which you are not trained. Sometimes your attempt to fix a problem can make things worse than they were originally. As you observe the work and diagnostics of others, you will begin to develop your own experience base, increase your confidence, and be able to attack more serious problems the second time they occur. You would not be likely to tear into a problem with your microwave oven for lack of knowledge; your computer deserves at least the same amount of respect.

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