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Troubleshooting A Computer

Step 1: Stop

The first step is obvious: Turn the thing on and watch what happens. But this time turn the monitor on first and give it time to warm up-you want to be sure to see every message that flashes across the screen. Now power on the PC, make a note of the BIOS version number and watch the memory-check sequence. Make sure the final number agrees with the amount of installed memory. (Note: If your PC has Fast Boot BIOS, you won't see the memory-check sequence).

Step 2: Look

After the BIOS has flashed on your screen, you can resolve any problems that show up during the interval between power on and the successful display of the Windows Desktop. If you see one of those ominous "Hard disk failure" opening messages followed by instructions to press the F1 function key (usually) to continue, or F2 to run the Setup utility, don't despair. Not yet, anyway. Choose the Setup option and carefully examine the CMOS configuration screen. If it reports your hardware correctly, yet this message recurs frequently, the most likely problem is a bad battery.

Even if you don't get a function key prompt, check the configuration anyway. On many notebooks, you can view the configuration screen by pressing the Fn and F1 keys. On desktops you may need to press a key combination (Ctrl+Alt+Enter or similar) during boot-up. Depending on the PC's vintage, you might see a message to check the configuration, usually immediately after you hear a beep. You may even be able to view the configuration screen from within a DOS window-again, depending on specific system details-by using the same key combo. If you do this, look but don't touch. If you see something wrong, exit Windows, reboot and then make the necessary corrections.

Step 3: Listen

A well-behaved PC beeps only once (some Compaq computers beep twice) during boot-up. Anything else is a beep code that lets you know something's wrong-usually in an A-B-C sequence, where each letter is one or more beeps, and each hyphen a pause between beep sequences. With luck, the user's manual will explain the meaning of each code; then you just need to do whatever is appropriate to resolve the problem.

Step 4: Lift the Hood

If resolving the problem requires removing the cover, now's a good time to check the rest of the innards for potential trouble spots. Begin by disconnecting every cable at the back of the unit, except the AC power cord. Many user guides tell you to disconnect this one, too, but that's incredibly bad advice, especially if you're going to be mucking around with delicate electronic components. Assuming your PC has a decent AC wiring system, the power cord offers the only reliable ground path between earth and the computer (and, once you touch the computer, you too). Electrical and other engineers have gone to a bit of trouble to provide this safety path, but you can destroy it in a second by disconnecting the power cord. So just leave it alone, remember to keep your fingers out of the power supply and make sure the PC's power is off.

Step 5: Batten Down the Hatches

Now remove all the adapter cards and set them aside. Examine the motherboard for plug-in (not soldered) chips and gently push down on each one. "Chip walk" is not an urban myth. It can happen if you power your PC on and off regularly. Temperature shifts cause a certain amount of expansion/contraction, and it's not unusual for a chip to work itself loose. This may not be much of an issue on newer systems, where just about everything is soldered in place, but it's still worth a check.

With the adapter cards out of the way, check the DC power cables and the data cables running between the motherboard and the internal drives to ensure each connector is well seated. Gently clean the connector tabs on each adapter card (a pencil eraser will do), reseat them in their slots and reconnect any cables you removed earlier. Now, reconnect all those external cables, leave the cover off and turn the PC on briefly-just long enough to ensure all the internal fans are operational.

Step 6: Plug and Pray

Now it's time for power off/cover on/power on again, and a prayer that all your problems are history. It's amazing how many times the computer gods answer such prayers after you make these sacrifices to their power. Even if you're a nonbeliever, do it anyway-then pretend you're not surprised when everything works.

Step 7: Take Your PC's Temperature

Even if the system behaves itself at first, it might start acting up again for no apparent reason. Or you may find the opposite symptom: A device doesn't work properly when the system is powered on, but gets better all by itself over time. In either case, temperature could be the problem. As some component heats up, a marginal connection is affected and the problem shows up or goes away. You're in luck if you can trace such a problem to a component you can remove for repair or replacement. If what you have is an air-flow problem, you might be able to resolve it by giving your PC some space for proper ventilation.

Step 8: Go Out to Lunch

If you have an intermittent problem of another kind, it pays to run an exhaustive diagnostics utility continuously in order to catch it the next time it happens. Run the tests while you're out for lunch (preferably a long lunch) or, better yet, overnight. With luck you'll find an on-screen report in the morning.

Step 9: Consult Your Device Manager

With even more luck, the problem won't be intermittent-if it's always there, you have a better chance of discovering what causes it. A good place to start your search is in Device Manager (if you're running Win98, try the Maintenance Wizard). You should see the installed devices listed by type, but with no specific details displayed-that is, next to every item on the list there's a plus sign you can click on to see what's installed. If a specific device shows up before you've clicked on the plus sign, there's probably a problem with it, usually indicated by an exclamation mark overlaid on a yellow background.

If Device Manager indicates a problem, highlight the device in question, click on Properties and select the Resources tab. If some other device appears in the Conflicting Device list, you might be able to resolve the problem by reconfiguring one of the devices. Or click on Cancel to return to the main Device Manager list, click on Remove and then repeat the procedure for the device that appeared on the Conflicting Device list.

Step 10: Reboot

With both device configurations removed (though the devices are still physically present), close and reopen Windows. Play it safe and do a full reboot. Windows will find the removed devices again, reinstall the necessary drivers and perhaps resolve the conflict. If this doesn't work, you may need to remove one of the devices. If an older peripheral device is involved (especially one with jumpers on it), leave it in place and remove the other one. With one half of the hardware conflict gone, Windows should have no problem reinstalling its support for the other half. Once that's done, reinstall the other device and Windows may be able to find other resources for it, now that it knows what the legacy device demands.

If you make regular visits to Device Manager, create a new shortcut with the command line: CONTROL SYSDM.CPL,,1; double-click on the shortcut's icon for direct access to the Device Manager tab on the System Properties sheet. If you make regular house calls, you can copy the shortcut file (probably DEVICE~1.LNK) to a floppy disk and put it in your toolbox.

Step 11: Give It a Smack

Performing diagnostics via Device Manager is a viable solution only if you can get to its screen. If your monitor is dark and you're not sure the problem is directly related to the video card or the monitor itself, try booting from a floppy disk you know will (or should) leave you at a DOS prompt. Then type DIR C:, press Enter and watch the drive-in-use light. If it doesn't blink, you probably have a drive problem. Try copying any small file from the floppy disk to drive C: and again watch for hard drive activity. And listen carefully. If you hear nothing but the whisper of a fan, perhaps the drive has gone into a state sometimes known as "stiction." At least a few technicians have reported drives that don't always start spinning on cue. The fix isn't elegant, but it often works. Give the drive a smart rap on the side to unstick it. If you hear it come to life, reboot and hope for the best. Make a backup immediately, and if this ever happens again, start shopping for a new hard drive.

Step 12: Get It in Writing

Now that everything works, see if you can recite your entire IRQ, DMA and I/O port list from memory and describe the characteristics of every device attached to your PC. If you can actually do this, you're long overdue for a vacation. If you can't, there's surely some little bit of overlooked information that could help you, or tech support, resolve your next big hardware configuration issue. You could always go to Device Manager to hunt for whatever's needed, but this assumes you can actually open Device Manager. If some problem prevents that, all this useful information isn't going to do you much good. So, make a permanent hard-copy record before you need it.

The simple way is to click on the Print button and get a multipage document to file away until you need it. But a print job such as this might be a bit of a space waster. So, instead, open the Add Printer Wizard, select Local Printer and scroll down the Manufacturers list to Generic. With Generic/Text Only highlighted, click on Next and select File: from the Available Ports list. Follow the prompts to complete the installation. Now open Device Manager, click on Print, select System summary or "All devices and system summary" and check the Print to File box. Name the file TODAY'S DATE.DOC and save it. Later, you can review it in your word processor, save it to diskette (so you can view it elsewhere if the system goes down), or print parts or all of it.

But don't get too comfortable. The war isn't over yet. You may have your hardware problems licked, but an army of software problems could be assembling over the horizon. Read on for our top 10 software fixes and for information about some excellent free diagnostic tools.