General Troubleshooting Guide

Who is this for

This guide is intended for people who are reasonably computer literate (i.e. can navigate folders, use common programs, and generally know basic skills) but who are not necessarily experts.

Something important to note is that professional Technical Support people are usually provided by the makers of most commercial software products. They are always a great resource. This guide is intended for people who are trying to figure out the problem on their own, either because the technical support was incompetent (hopefully not the case), they just want to learn how to do it, or they simply don't want to call Technical Support unless they have to (sometimes because it costs extra money). Just keep in mind that they are yet another resource in trying to solve these problems.

Things to remember

Keep these things in mind while you're trying to figure out what's wrong. They apply to almost any problem.

Do NOT skip this part!!

  1. Don't panic.. There are very few things that you can do (with software, anyway) to a computer to completely destroy it. My personal philosophy is that there is always a way.
  2. Be patient. Troubleshooting computer issues is never a quick thing unless you're a sysadmin or somebody who deals with the same kind of problem repeatedly. It can take hours of painstaking attempts at solutions before you finally try one that works. Learn to be patient, and not get too frustrated (it's very difficult).
  3. There's always a way. I find that too many people are too anxious to reformat when all seems lost. Although reformatting works, it's a drastic step, and a last-ditch effort. To my recollection, I've never had to do so to fix a problem (and I have fixed some very painful problems). To be sure, it's always a "nice" thing to do, in that it clears out all the junk Windows programs like to install, but it's far from necessary and rarely worth the effort.
  4. You're not the first one. With very few exceptions, you are almost certainly NOT the first person to ever have this problem before. You can save yourself a great deal of time and effort by seeking out those who may have had this issue before, and finding out how they fixed it. This brings me to the next major point...
  5. Google is your friend. See #4. The easiest way to find out who else has had your problem is to search online. If you have a specific error message, try quoting it and entering that into Google. Using quotation marks makes sure that the words appear as a direct quote on a page (and thus limit you to very specific information regarding the message). But don't be too specific! Example: if you try to access "http://www.a-made-up-server.com/" and get an error message "Connection refused when attempting to contact 'www.a-made-up-server.com'", it's unlikely that you'll find that exact message. Try just "Connection refused when attempting to contact" and then the name of your browser.
  6. Don't panic.
  7. Be patient.
  8. It's probably not a virus. Although possible, in my experience, viruses are fairly rare. To be sure, if you suspect something, run a full scan. Or if you think you know which virus it might be, search google for it to see what it's symptoms are.
  9. Computers do not spontaneously break. Something must have changed recently for new problems to develop. If you can isolate what it was that has changed, you will save yourself a great deal of time and effort in trying to figure out what's wrong.
  10. Be patient.

Step One: Is something actually wrong?

Generally, people remember what steps they used to do to get something to work, and something's wrong when the same steps stop performing the desired action. Make sure that you are taking the same steps you used to take when whatever feature you're using worked, and that the same steps now fail to work.

Are you sure that this feature used to work? Are you sure you're accessing it the same way? If it never worked before (or you don't know), things are harder. Check instructions and online references to find out exactly how to set up whatever you're trying to use.

If it used to work and now it won't, well then continue on.

If it's something you've never used before, read the manual. The functionality (or apparent lack thereof) you're noticing may be a feature, not a bug, as the expression goes. See if you're using it the right way.

Step Two: Has something changed recently?

Computers don't spontaneously break. I can't emphasize this enough.

To understand better, It helps to know a bit about how computers work. Programs are generally like mathematical functions: a given input always results in a given output. Input can come from a variety of sources, including configuration files, the Windows registry (on Windows, of course), the operating system, and of course, user input. Output is usually what shows up on your screen, though it can also be files generated or printouts created. Theoretically, with the same environment (configuration) and user input, you will always end up with the same output. So if something suddenly stops working, one of these two has failed. We've already ruled out user input (see step one above!), so the configuration has changed.

Common causes for changes in configuration include (but of course are not limited to):

In my experience, people always say "I didn't change anything." Invariably, though, they missed something, because (as I said before) computers don't spontaneously break.

If you can figure out what has changed, see if you can reverse it (if you decide you want to), or (especially for upgrades and settings changes) search Google to see if there's a workaround for whatever problem you're having with the new version or different setting. (Do you see yet why Google is your friend?)

Step Three: Figure out what's wrong

If you can't figure out what's wrong based on things you have recently changed, you have to start taking educated guesses and doing some research.

Manuals (hard-copy and online)

Although more and more software is coming without documentation, it is still an essential tool to figure out what's wrong. If there's no hard-copy manual, see if there's an electronic one. Especially for individual programs, there should be a Help menu from which you can access an index or search for what you're looking for. With Windows or Linux in general, it's not so easy, although with the latter you can always try man <program> to find out what programs do, and how to use them. Finally, try the developer's website, which you can probably get by going to Help -> About <program name>, or else searching google or even just guessing.

Often answers to frequently asked questions (FAQ's) are in the help system, whether it's a hard-copy manual, an electronic manual shipped with the software, or on the manufacturer's website. Many manufacturer's even have forums in which issues can be discussed, and answers found (this goes along with what will be mentioned about searching online). Unless you have some obscure problem, there may have been somebody else who has already experienced (and hopefully solved) your problem.

Error Messages

Despite their often cryptic nature, error messages can be your friends. Often a simple search on google (excluding very specific information, like filenames and the like, unless they are system files) of the error messages in quotation marks will yield lots of results. Many will be forums where people asked a question matching yours. These can be especially helpful (mostly the responses). Experts-Exchange is an especially common (and often useful) place to find such answers.

Symptoms

If you don't get an error message, or your searches turn up too few (or too many) results, try describing the symptoms. These searches usually are best not in quotation marks, because you can use keywords that won't necessarily appear right next to each other. It's still a good idea to quote certain phrases (or even compound words) that you know should be near each other, e.g.

"hard drive" respond slowly after "right-click" windows xp

or

sluggish response to right-click windows explorer

I used these search phrases to find out why my computer started behaving very slowly after right-clicking documents. It took several different searches using various combinations, but I eventually found some answers (though I still haven't fixed the problem completely - one of the only ones that continues to plague me....).

It helps to include the program name and/or the operating system, if applicable. Even hardware names are useful, if it's related to that, e.g. Diamond Stealth 3 s540 causes "illegal exception".

Step Four: Apply solutions

Sometimes you can find exact answers to your questions, in which case you're all set. More often, though, you'll get vague responses that will point you in the direction of some solutions, or at least give you ideas for more search queries. It's hard to give specific advice, because I'm trying to keep this document relatively general. Try things you think might work, especially if you're pretty sure you can reverse the changes if you have to. Keep track of what you change so that you can easily go back and restore things to the way they were.

Good luck with solving your problems. For questions and comments about this guide, feel free to email me, but please understand that I cannot help you with fixing individual computer problems.


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2003 Dave Pacheco
Last updated 2003-09-16