Chapter 25 - Troubleshooting

You don't have to be a computer whiz to figure out what's ailing your PC. Many computer problems that seem complicated can actually be solved using logic and simple deductive reasoning.

Darryl says that it's important for those who troubleshoot to understand the difference between the machine and the software.

"I've had many folks say there was something wrong with the 'computer' when they were having difficulty getting the software to do what they wanted," he says. "Learning and troubleshooting techniques differ depending on what the 'problem' is."

Isolate the problem

Even if you have no intention of fixing the computer yourself, you'll still need to do a little troubleshooting so you can better communicate the problems you are having. Simply telling a tech support person, "it's broken" will be of little help.

It's best to start with the obvious. Many experienced techies have pulled a dead computer apart without first noticing that the power cord was simply unplugged.

Once you rule out the obvious, start asking yourself some questions to determine the events surrounding the problem.

When do I experience this problem? Does it happen randomly or with just one program? Has your computer started having problems since you recently installed a new program or component?

None of these questions are overly technical. It just takes a little common sense. Unfortunately, when you're dealing with a subject you're not comfortable with, it's common to not have confidence in your common sense. Trust your instincts.

Obviously, we can't cover every potential problem in one chapter. Lets look at some predicaments that aren't program-specific and talk about how we can deal with them.


If you're mouse is not responding too well, chances are you can take care of the problem with a quick cleaning (Unless you're using an optical mouse which has no rolling parts).

Turn your mouse upside down and remove the small cover holds in the roller ball. Take out the ball and clean it with rubbing alcohol and a soft cloth. Then clean the three rollers it rubs against. You should notice a drastic improvement.

If the cursor is just moving too fast or slow, adjust the mouse properties in the control panel. If your mouse freezes when another device such as a modem is used, you likely have a resource conflict (we'll discuss those later in this chapter).

If your mouse doesn't respond at all, make sure it's plugged in properly. If so, the mouse, its connector or the cord could be shot. The good news is that a replacement mouse can cost as low as $10, so it won't hit you too hard in the wallet.


Keyboard problems can best be avoided with a little preventative maintenance. Blast the dirt away from time to time using a can of compressed air.

But if you do a lot of typing - or use your keyboard to play shoot-'em-up games - you could eventually wear out a key or two. You might also encounter a key that gets stuck.

With the computer off, remove the misbehaving keys and clean the area with a cotton swab dipped in alcohol. Don't spend too much time on trying to revive a bad keyboard, though. With replacements costing as little as $15, it might not be worth your time.


When your computer suddenly stops making noise, the solution could be simple:

  • Check the volume control on your speakers
  • Check the volume control program in your operating system and make sure it's not set too low or on mute
  • Check to make sure the power cord to your speakers hasn't been unplugged
  • Check the audio cable running from your sound card to your speakers.

If you're getting no sound when trying to play an audio CD, the CD patch cable (which resides inside the box and connects your sound card to your CD drive) might be disconnected or was never put on.

Lack of sound could also indicate a resource conflict (again, we'll discuss this later in this chapter), but it's unlikely this would happen out of the blue. A resource conflict typically occurs after you add a new component into the mix.


Once printers are working properly with your operating system, they'll seldom cause problems. If you're having trouble getting a printer to behave from the start, make sure you're using the latest "drivers" (the software that runs your printer).

Also check to ensure that the cables are well connected. Printer cables do go bad, so if you're suddenly having trouble and nothing much else has changed, it may be the culprit. If you're using an ink-jet printer, you should always use its own power switch instead of a power strip to ensure the printer parks its heads properly when it shuts off.

Quality problems could be caused by many factors. Perhaps you're low on ink or toner. On ink jet printers, you might have to occasionally clean the jets (most printer software packages have a utility to do so). On laser printers, you might need to replace your toner cartridge or you could have a dirty drum. Drums can often be cleaned with a piece of clean, rolled-up printer paper. Check your printer manual for details.

Here are some other general things to check when encountering quality problems:

  • Is the paper wet, crumpled or damaged?
  • Is the paper too thick for your model printer?
  • Are your software print settings adjusted correctly?
  • Is your paper tray overloaded?

The computer won't boot!

Again, let's start with the obvious. Make sure the PC is getting power.

Strange noises from your power supply, the internal device with the fan on the back of your console, are often a sign of a failing power supply.

If your PC is failing right before it loads Windows, try starting it in Safe Mode. Hit the F8 key at the top of your keyboard when you see "Starting Windows" on your screen, which will bring up the boot options. Choose Safe Mode, which is used to troubleshoot your system. Save Mode starts Windows with minimal device drivers to help you narrow the problem.

Errors such as "Hard disk controller failure" and extensive loud clicking noises from your box are usually a bad sign that the hard drive could be failing. If your hard drive has been working normally and suddenly cannot be recognized on boot-up, that could mean trouble. If you're not comfortable opening up the box to troubleshoot and check cable connections, it's best to have a consultant or service tech take a look.

Freezes and lock ups

We discussed freezes back in "Chapter 4," but they can occur often so let's revisit. When you're computer freezes, the first step is to find out if your system is responding. Hit the Caps Lock or Num Lock key to see if the lights go on and off. If they don't, you're locked up and will probably have to reset. If they do, the computer might just be busy.

If your keyboard is responsive, you might still be able to recover before rebooting:

First try: On a PC, hold down the CTRL key and the ALT keys and hit Delete. It launches the Close program dialog box, listing everything that is currently running. If one says "[Not responding]," highlight it and hit close.

On a Mac, hit Command (Mac Command key)- Option - Esc to do a "Force Quit." A dialog box will ask you if you want to Force to quit the program that's currently running.

Another try: If you're still having trouble on a PC, try to force your computer to shut down properly. On a PC, bring up the Close program dialog box again by pressing CTRL-ALT-Delete and click shut down.

Last resort: On a PC, find the reset button on the front of the box.

Most Macs let you restart by holding down the Command (Mac Command key) and Control keys while pressing the power button. If that doesn't work, you can force a reset on newer Macs by either pressing the restart button (marked by a triangle facing left). Reset older Macs (some iMacs, Powerbooks and iBooks) by pushing a straightened paper clip into the tiny restart hole.

Last, last resort: Sometimes, none of the buttons work. In a worst-case scenario, unplug the computer, wait about 15 seconds and plug it back in. That should get you back up and running.


PC Display problems are often caused by not running the latest or correct drivers, but once your video card and operating system are cooperating, they'll seldom cause further problems. If the problems began after you installed a new component or piece of software, you might have a resource conflict or your drivers might have been replaced without your knowledge or permission.

Check the Web site of your video card manufacturer to see if there are any know problems or conflicts between your video card model and other pieces of hardware or software. The company might have released a new driver that takes care of the problem.

Many display problems, however, can be traced to simple causes. Let's look at some easy things to check:

  • Check to make sure the monitor's power switch is on
  • Check the power and video cables to make sure they're properly connected (Make sure that the pins on the connector are not bent)
  • Check to see if someone has accidentally turned down the brightness or contrast.
  • Check if a screen saver or power saving mode has temporarily blanked the screen.

If you're noticing discoloration in the corners, it may be time to degauss. Find the button or on screen control marked with "degauss" or a symbol that resembles an upside down U with a slash through it. This removes the magnetism from the screen.

Zap the PRAM (Mac only)

On the Macintosh, Parameter RAM (PRAM) is small amount of always-on memory, which stores such system configuration data as mouse, volume and clock settings.

PRAM is kept alive by a small internal battery, but it occasionally gets corrupted. The solution is to zap it. To reset the PRAM, first turn off the computer. When you turn it back on, hold down the COMMAND(Mac Command key), OPTION, P and R keys. You'll lose some of your default settings, but you'll be back up and running.

Extension conflicts (Mac only)

Macintosh extensions are memory-resident programs that run in the background. (They're the little icons you see when you boot up).

Once in a while, two extensions won't get along and you have to settle the dispute. If you hold down the space bar when you turn your computer on, you'll get a list of all of the extensions and can turn each on or off with a simple click.

They're names identify themselves, so you might find one you know doesn't need to be running. Try running your computer with different ones turned on and off until you find the culprit.

Resource conflicts (PC only)

PCs also can experience problems when certain devices don't cooperate with each other. The place to solve these conflicts is the Device Manager.

Right click on My Computer and choose Properties. Click on the Device Manager tab and you'll see a list of installed devices. A yellow warning symbol or a red X next to an item indicates a problem with that device.

Most device conflicts involve two components fighting over the same IRQ (Interrupt Request). Such conflicts won't happen out of the blue. They're typically caused by a new device that's trying to grab a resource that was once used by another device.

NEXT - Chapter 26 - Preventative maintenance