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Fixing A Computer

Step 1: Kick It in the Pants

Sometimes, misbehaving software needs no more than a reboot-the equivalent of a kick in the pants-to get going again. Some applications leak memory when they allocate RAM and don't give it back properly. Eventually, you run low on memory and crash. Only the software vendor can fix the leak (by releasing a bug fix, update or patch). In the meantime, a reboot will reallocate your memory properly, and you'll be back in business-at least until the next time you run the faulty app. Bear in mind a reboot will fix a number of other problems as well. So, just because a reboot solves your memory leak doesn't mean that's your problem. You can further snoop for memory leaks by running Windows' Resource Meter (you'll find it in both Win95 and Win98) and watching what happens as you run your apps. If you close an app and resources don't go back up, you've got a leak.

Step 2: Try the Three-Finger Salute

When your system acts strangely, press Ctrl+Alt+Del to bring up the Close Program applet. This shows you what's running-and sometimes what's not: Anything flagged as Not Responding is hung and might be destabilizing your system. The Close Program applet's End Task option will let you shut down-with surgical precision-only the nonresponsive app or component.

Step 3: Snatch a Patch

If an app is consistently misbehaving, check the vendor's Web site for patches or updates. If you're running Win98, you can also try using Windows Update; this takes you to Microsoft's Web site, where you can download patches. Even if your software (or hardware) is brand new, a newer version may already be available because of the delay between the time the vendor completes the product and the time you buy it.

Step 4: Learn from Others' Pain

Check the vendor's FAQ pages, fax-back services and BBS areas, and visit the appropriate Usenet newsgroups to see if others have already solved your problem.

Step 5: Strategically Retreat

Backing out of recent changes is one of the best ways to troubleshoot a problem and restore functionality. If you recently made a change to your system or software settings, try restoring things to the way they were. If you picked the wrong networking software settings, for instance, your once-solid system can turn to jelly. (Note: If things are so bad Windows won't start properly, press F8 as the OS starts to load. Then select Safe Mode. This loads a special limited-function version of Windows that might be enough to let you undo whatever change caused the trouble.)

Step 6: Recycle the Bits

When bad things happen to good bits, one simple fix is to reinstall the malfunctioning app. Often, this will restore settings and DLLs to the way they should be. If this doesn't work, try uninstalling the software first, then reboot the system and reinstall the app from scratch.

Step 7: Bag the Betas

Betas are unfinished prototypes of new software. By definition, they're not ready for prime time. If they kept their trouble to themselves, they'd be okay. But some betas play games with file creation dates, which leads to all kinds of potential problems with system files and future updates. (This happened to huge numbers of people who, against Microsoft's recommendation, installed the final version of IE 4.0 over the IE 4.0 betas.) Use betas with caution, and always do a complete uninstall of any beta before you install the shipping version.

Step 8: Don't Hesitate to Inoculate

Although viruses and malicious macros are far less common than the news media (and the antivirus vendors) would have you think, the threat is real. Even if you're careful, in a typical office where people practice promiscuous file sharing, word processing documents, spreadsheets or other files shared by LAN, modem or floppy can infect your system. The fix is easy: Run a virus scan every day, or at the very least whenever your system starts exhibiting strange behavior and crashes.

Step 9: Unscramble

Some software problems can damage or alter files on your hard disk. In extreme cases, files can be cross linked so it's unclear what data does what with which app. Crashes and unusual behavior are the result. Windows' ScanDisk Standard mode can correct such problems.

Step 10: Dig Deeper

If you've gotten this far and haven't fixed the problem, or at least identified its origin, it's time to dig deeper. Every standard version of Win95 and Win98 ships with several diagnostic tools. We'll focus on these-as well as several third-party packages-next.

What If It Still Won't Work?

Sometimes, every trick in the book won't clear up a nagging software problem. And, frankly, other times it's just not worth the time and hassle to try to figure out every possible reason why something's not working right. That's when it's time for the "clean slate" approach.

The dreaded full reformat: Yup, it's ugly, it's time consuming, and it's a major pain. But it's one certain way to get everything back in pristine condition. You back up your files, make a boot disk, run FDISK to repartition your hard drive, format the partitions, reinstall Windows, reinstall your applications and then restore your data. (Whew!) As long as you have good backups, reformatting isn't dangerous, but nothing can make it fun.

The fast DelTree no-reformat reinstall: This puts a fresh copy of Windows on your system almost as if you'd done a complete reformat. But by using DelTree (a DOS-level application) to wipe out only selected sections of your directory structure, you can do a total reinstall of Windows without touching your data. This shaves literally hours off a normal format/restore cycle.

As with a full reformat, you start with a complete system backup. Make and test a boot diskette, and ensure it has the files you need to access whatever peripherals (such as a CD drive) you need to reinstall Windows. Then copy DELTREE.EXE from your WINDOWS\COMMAND directory to the boot diskette. Reboot so your system starts from the boot diskette.

Here comes the fun part: From the command line, type DELTREE /Y C:\WINDOWS C:\PROGRA~1 and go get a cup of coffee. While you're sipping, DelTree will wipe out every file in those two directories and then delete the directories themselves.

When DelTree is done, type SYS C: to place fresh system files on the C: drive, and copy the contents of your boot diskette to the C: directory.

A 10-minute total system restore: The key is a piece of software that can make an "image" of your hard drive. Try Drive Image 2.0 ($60 from PowerQuest) or Innovative Software's Ghost (sold by Symantec).

Drive Image lets you make an image of your system after everything's set up and working perfectly; then, when your OS or applications become unstable or go belly-up, you can restore your system to that original, perfect state simply by running Drive Image in Restore mode. Drive Image deletes the partition with the broken copy of Windows and replaces it with a copy of the perfect version.

The Gamut

As long as software contains bugs and hardware has hang-ups, we'll have to deal with some level of instability; some things just won't work as well as they should. But you're not completely powerless. Somewhere within the spectrum of fixes and workarounds we've covered-from simple reboots to swapping out a card to total system reinstallations-there's a solution to your problems.