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 Windows Tips & Tricks

Troubleshooting Windows
September, 2002

Bill Beverley is a retired U.S. Army Colonel and intermediate computer enthusiast. Early in his military career he was on the ground floor in the development of the U.S. Army's Field Artillery Tactical Fire Direction System (TACFIRE), a forerunner of subsequent digital computers / communications within the army.

The only thing constant is change. The same statement applies to computers. The only constant with them are numerous glitches and problems! Crashes, error messages, and freezes with your computer often occur because of overstressing it. Computer activities such as the following stress your system: large file download, large printing job, burning data to CD-R (CD-recordable), graphics editing, video recording and editing, audio recording and editing, digital scanning, and video playback. Many of the tips in this article will help you preclude, identify and/or repair many computer problems.

Diagnostic Tools
Whenever encountering problems, first make sure power cords, cables and connectors are all firmly connected to your computer/peripherals. Now attempt to identify your specific problem. Initially seek assistance from the “Help” feature of your computer, and then technical support from the manufacturer, friends, and/or manuals or other technical resources available to you.

Technical Support:
Web:  Before making a call for technical support that may cost you money, check out the following Computer Help resources on the Web. Protonic.com is a free support site staffed with experts. To register and ask a question, just click Ask A Question once on the site. Star Support also uses volunteers but there is no registration process. To ask a question, click Free Technical Support and fill out the submission form. HelpOnTheNet is a site designed to lend a helping hand by letting you post questions to a forum. It has a registration process that can be initiated by clicking Welcome! New Users Please Click Here. The next two Web sources offer online computer support and information through an extensive database of reference material covering hardware/software. They are:  Computer Hope and Microsoft’s Knowledge Base .
Online:  As long as you have a functional modem and an Internet account, you can use online utilities that scan your system, evaluate your computer’s problem and make recommended solutions. These utilities can perform remote virus scanning, performance diagnostics, and hardware/software troubleshooting and even repair with some problems. Online system scanners operate by downloading and installing a small application on your computer when you sign up for this service, so choose a utility with a very good reputation! Some of the better utilities include: PC Pitstop runs a free basic service with an extensive array of diagnostics from which you receive a graphical report of your system’s performance and security. PC Support.com and Triage both focus mainly on the corporate market and might be useful to small companies that don’t hire support staff. PC Pinpoint is by far the most exhaustive online diagnostic site and guarantees your problem will be fixed by them, however there is a weekly and/or yearly fee. First Aid Online is a performance diagnostic tool that will help you tune up your machine. McAfee also runs VirusScan Online if all you want is virus scanning services. 

Power-On Self Test:
When a computer boots up, it runs a test of hardware components called “Power-On Self Test”. Watch your monitor for system warnings and error messages. Press Pause to freeze the screen if the messages disappear before you can read them. Look for warnings, too, and note the last initialized device to appear before the computer locks up if that’s the problem. Also, listen to unusual sounds with your power supply fan and the hard disk. Don’t forget to use your sense of smell to detect smoke or overheated gear. To determine if you have a corrupt file(s), click Start, Run and type in sfc and then click OK.

ScanDisk (Check Disk)/Defragmentation:
Some problems can be resolved easily by just running your ScanDisk (Check Disk) and Defragmentation. As a rule of thumb you should perform these preventative maintenance functions at least once a month or more frequently depending upon computer use.

Device Manager:
If Windows, for example, won’t launch properly or you’re having problems with moving icons, screen lock-ups, page fault errors, occasional mouse pointer freeze-ups or audio difficulties start your computer in “Safe Mode.” Hold down the F8 key just before Windows boots and select Safe Mode from the resulting menu. Now you can access Device Manager and other troubleshooting tools. You can use the “Device Manager” to check the status of all the hardware installed on your computer. In WinXP you can access the Device Manager by going to Performance and Maintenance, right-clicking System or the Control Panel with other versions of Windows. Once in Device Manager look for old devices and discard references to those that are no longer in your computer.

Start-up Disk or Emergency/Boot Disk:
Another tool available to you at this point is your “Start-up Disk” and/or “Emergency or Boot Disk” if your computer requires its use to recover from a crash in order to resolve a particular problem. If you haven’t already made one, do so as soon as possible.
System Configuration Utility:
The “System Configuration Utility” lets you enable/disable software and configuration files for trial-and-error troubleshooting, so click Start, Run and type msconfig or click Start, Search to find and start it from the Results window. System Configuration is a good tool for isolating and testing parts of Windows configuration files.
System Monitor:
Win98, Me, XP are preinstalled on fast computers, but many still wonder if they are getting the bang for the buck. The fastest part of your process is memory and the slowest is reading disks. Using Windows tools such as the System Monitor will help to isolate the bottleneck. You probably don’t need a new CPU, but more memory and better disk cache management. To open the System Monitor, choose Start, Control Panel, and Performance and Maintenance. Click Administrative Tools and double-click Performance to open the System Monitor in the console root.

System Restore:
Win98/Me/2000/XP all have Windows’ System Restore capabilities. Win98 has a Registry backup utility called ScanReg that saves five days’ worth of backups. Win2000/Me let you restore the “Last Known Good Configuration” from the Advanced Options Menu. WinWP/Me have the System Restore utility.

Remost Assistance:
WinXP also has a “Remote Assistance” feature. It allows you to have a knowledgeable friend or technician using the Internet to take control of your system and directly fix problems with it.

Recovery Disk:
As a last resort, if you haven’t already done so and still can, save and backup your files and then use your “Recovery Disk” to get your computer back online. Before using a recovery disk, though, check it out. To my surprise a newly purchased Compaq computer only came with a “partial” recovery disk. When the hard drive had to be replaced on this machine, I had to order for a small fee a “full” recovery disk from Compaq to restore all of the original software on the computer. A computer magazine recently reported that Hewlett Packard may no longer provide recovery disks with its new computers. 

A driver is a small software application that controls many of the devices on your computer. They are often troublesome and you may need to update or replace faulty ones. There are several driver Web sites that can help you obtain drivers for your computer’s peripheral devices. DriverGuide is a free site with more than 60,000 drivers. Driverzone and DriversHQ are also free sites with many drivers.  Conventional wisdom says that if a patch is available to apply it. That is true for your operating system. However, if your application software is working properly, leave it alone. The same is true with your hardware. Sometimes drivers can cause rather than resolve problems especially with applications/hardware.

Lockup Recover
From time to time your computer may lockup for some seemingly unknown reason. Whenever this situation happens to your “frozen” computer, press Ctrl-Alt-Delete (It makes a difference in the order to press these keys. Press Ctrl or Alt first and then Delete. Delete must be the last key.) to open the Close Program dialog box. Select the task that caused the problem. It should say “not responding” in parentheses and then click the End Task button. After a few seconds, an End Task dialog box will appear explaining that the program is not responding. Now click End Task again and Windows should close just that program. The other alternative, should this procedure not work for you, is to reboot your computer. In Win2000 Server, you could have similar problems and may not be able to resume using your computer by moving the mouse or pressing a key. If your computer doesn't respond properly after it turns off the hard drive, restart your computer, access the Power Options window, and in the Power Schemes tab, select the Never option from the Turn Off Hard Disks drop-down list. These steps ensure that your hard drive never turns off and produces fewer system lockups.

Program Installation
To prevent potential problems, before installing new programs on your computer, close all open programs to include your anti-virus software. You should also close or disable those programs running, noted by icons, on the System Tray next to the clock on the bottom, right hand side of your screen. Stop any active programs in the System Tray by right-clicking its icons and choosing an exit option. Now you are set to install your new software using Window’s built-in Add/Remove Programs tool. After running the new program’s setup, simply restart Windows to bring back all of the icons. Next you need to make sure your system is in an optimum state. Again, close all open programs to include those on the System Tray. Then press Ctrl+Alt+Delete to launch Windows Task Manager and halt all tasks listed with the exception of Explorer and Systray (the System Tray). Run Windows’ maintenance programs ScanDisk (Check Disk) and Disk Defragmenter or third–party utilities. Finally restart Windows to flush the active or volatile memory. 
Registry Checker
Occasionally, something happens to cause damage to your Win95/98 registry. As bad as this can be, there is some help.  If your computer is completely dead, and it appears that the registry may be the culprit, shut down, or turn off your computer. Turn on your PC, and while booting, hold down the F8 button until the startup menu appears. Select the "Command Prompt" option. When the DOS appears, type SCANREG/RESTORE at the prompt. Press Enter at the MRC (Microsoft Registry Checker) screen to restore the most recent of the five backups that Windows creates. Now, reboot. If this also fails, you may have had a serious virus attack.  As a word of caution, this tip should only be used by experienced computer users.

Microsoft Windows ages as it is used every day. As you use it to install, uninstall, patch, save, load, and all the other functions, Windows actually goes through a decaying process. After a point, Windows becomes unstable and unusable. Therefore, knowing that a computer will ultimately have some type of problem, the wise user will always backup his/her files to one or more of several options, such as floppy disks, CD-Rs, tape drives, zip drives, duplicate hard drives, etc. This step is the first and most important preventative maintenance task that will lessen the impact of any major computer problem. Thereafter, you will have to format your hard drive and reinstall Windows and your applications and data.

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