Pay Nothing For PC Help (Part 1)

1/20/2013 9:06:54 AM

It is possible to spend a small fortune on technical support. We explain how to get all the help you will ever need without having to pay.

Computer problems can be the most frustrating of all to fix. Unlike a leaky tap or a kitchen drawer that won't close, finding out why a program keeps crashing or a peripheral will not work properly is seldom straightforward.

Computer problems can be the most frustrating of all to fix.

Computer problems can be the most frustrating of all to fix.

The knowledge required to troubleshoot even simple computer problems explains why technical support is a thriving industry and it is possible to spend silly money trying to find a fix. But paying for help should really be a last resort. With the web on hand and some insider knowledge about where to look, all but the most complex of computer problems can be put right and it will not cost a penny.

Battling basic problems

Many computer problems are surprisingly easy to fix, usually because they are not really `problems' at all. The excitement (or even bewilderment) that comes with setting up a new gadget, for example, can make it easy to overlook such simple things as switching it on or properly connecting it to the computer. So always check plug sockets, power switches and both ends of any connecting cables when new hardware does not work properly from the start.

Problems that arise only after new hardware has been added are best dealt with by backtracking; remove the new hardware and re-install the old, if necessary. If Microsoft Word started to randomly crash only after extra memory was installed and the problem disappears when the memory modules are removed, for example, then the culprit is clear, even if the precise cause remains a mystery.

Similar basic checks apply when troubleshooting internet-related issues and these should always start with the internet connection.

Similar basic checks apply when troubleshooting internet-related issues and these should always start with the internet connection.

Windows System Restore means it is also possible to `rewind' a computer's state when a new program or update causes a problem. In Windows 7, make sure it is enabled by selecting System and Security, System then System protection in Control Panel (from the Start menu), and then clicking the Configure button to ensure the `Restore system settings and previous versions of files' radio button is enabled. In Windows Vista, the option is found in Control Panel in System and Maintenance, System and System protection (there is no Configure button). In Windows XP, it is under Accessories, then System Tools on the Start menu.

Similar basic checks apply when troubleshooting internet-related issues and these should always start with the internet connection. Most routers have one or more status lights that show when a broadband connection is active. A router restart is usually a quick remedy for a connection that does not appear to be working (routers can crash, just like computers).

Remember that internet services providers (ISPs) can also suffer from technical trouble and an unresponsive connection might be caused by problems with its network. Most ISPs have a service status web page to check this, although a 3G smartphone might be needed to reach it if broadband is not working - so bookmarking it for later reference is a good idea. Similarly, if a particular web page will not open, do not assume the web browser, router or internet connection is at fault. The site itself could be suffering in some way, so always check it with the service.

Dig Into Device Manager

If hardware appears to be connected and set up properly, but still does not work as expected, the chances are that a Windows configuration problem is to blame. This can sometimes be confirmed by checking the hardware's status in Device Manager, which is opened by right-clicking the Computer icon on the Windows Desktop (or the Start menu), selecting Properties and for Windows Vista and 7, clicking Device Manager in the left of the window that opens. In Windows XP, click the Hardware tab on the System Properties window that opens, then click Device Manager.

Any hardware that appears in Device Manager with an exclamation mark next to its name has a problem and this is almost always caused by its driver. Thankfully, Device Manager makes it easy to update a driver, or in the case of a recent faulty update, restore an earlier working version. You can read our in- depth explanation of how to troubleshoot problems using Device Manager at www.snipca. com/6514 and there is a Windows 7-specific follow-up at

Windows 7 Troubleshooting Tools

Unfortunately, a dodgy driver is not the only reason for hardware failing to work properly and, while finding the cause gets more difficult from this point, Windows can lend a hand. Windows 7 has a number of troubleshooting tools that can help pinpoint many faults.

Windows 7 has a number of troubleshooting tools that can help pinpoint many faults.

Windows 7 has a number of troubleshooting tools that can help pinpoint many faults.

Click Start followed by Control Panel then type troubleshooter into the search box at the top right. Control Panel will change to display four options but the last two can be ignored. The Desktop Gadgets option is for working with Windows 7’S Desktop Gadgets while the ‘Identify and repair network problems’ is simply a shortcut to an option found under the Troubleshooting option. The `Diagnose your computer's memory problems' option is more useful because it restarts Windows in a diagnostic mode that performs various memory tests. A bad Dimm is often at the root of random application crashes and weird errors, so these tests (which can be conducted at increasingly exhaustive levels by pressing the Fi key) can be invaluable.

The first option in this window, Troubleshooting, is the most useful one. Click it to view a comprehensive set of troubleshooting tools (download any updates if the option appears). The tools cover everything from running older Windows programs to fixing problems with Windows Update; clicking the green header for each will display yet more troubleshooting options. The tools are all wizard-based and will perform a series of tests to determine the problem, before attempting an automatic fix (usually by reconfiguring any necessary settings) or suggesting some manual solutions.

If a Windows 7 troubleshooting tool can't solve a particular problem, it offers two further options. The first is Explore additional options that offers links to online help resources, which we will be covering later. The second - View detailed information is more useful for DIY troubleshooting. Select this and a new Troubleshooting report window opens that contains details of the problems that were checked and potentially identified, along with explanations of their implications. These explanations are worth reading closely, since they may give an unexpected clue to a problem's cause.

Scroll down the Troubleshooting report window's content to the Detection details section and click it to see further details about the hardware and its driver. This information will be handy for reference when searching for a solution online. This section may also contain links to various diagnostic logs that can be saved for later uploading to a support forum or professional support service.

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