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Top Ten Steps For Computer Troubleshooting
by Dan Pinnington
June 2004

Your computer is never going to crash at 4:29 p.m. on a Friday before a long weekend when you couldn't care less if it stopped working. It will crash twenty minutes before a critical deadline when you are trying to get something done. Needless to say, this will be extremely frustrating.

While solving computer problems can often be complex, more often than not, some basic troubleshooting will help you quickly fix the more common problems, which are often the simplest ones. Here are the ten steps you should go through to systematically troubleshoot basic computer problems:

1. Take a deep breath and don't panic. Stand up and step back from your computer. You want to approach things in a systematic, calm, and controlled manner. Panicking likely won't help solve your problem, and it could make it much worse, including causing you to lose valuable data.

2. Save your current work. Before doing anything, make sure you save your current work so that you don't lose it. Save it on the hard drive or on a floppy disk. It doesn't matter where, just make sure you save it.

3. Backup your critical data. If it looks like your hard drive may crash or the computer may not start up again, take steps to backup your critical data while it is still working and before you turn it off. Hopefully you have a recent full backup and will only have to backup your most recent documents. Consider copying the data to a network drive or burning it onto a CD-ROM.

4. Reboot your computer. Turn your computer off, let it sit for two minutes, and reboot it. Sometimes one command of the hundreds a computer executes every second can cause corrupted memory or other temporary unexplainable problems. Rebooting will clear out all the gremlins and gives everything a fresh-start.

5. Is everything plugged in properly? Asking this a question may seem very basic, but you will be surprised how often it can often be the fix you are looking for. Cables get bumped or work themselves loose over time. Make sure they are all snug and tight. If you want to look under the hood, and are comfortable doing so, ideally you should check the cables and connections within your computer case as well. You should also make sure all cards and memory are firmly seated by gently but firmly pushing them into their respective slots.

6. Ask yourself what you did last. Did your problems start just after you installed new software programs or updated hardware drivers? This can be a great clue as to the source of a problem.

7. Is your hardware happy? Unhappy hardware is often the source of problems. To check your hardware, right-click on My Computer, select Properties, click on the Hardware tab, and then the Device Manager button. This will open the Device Manager dialog box. It lists all the hardware devices on your computer. Devices that aren't working properly will have a yellow exclamation mark next to them. Double-click on the problem devices to open a dialog box that may have details on the problem, and a listing of suggestions on how to fix it.

8. Check you computer for nasties. Run a complete system scan with your anti-virus software (make sure you update your virus definitions before you run the scan). You can do a free online scan at TrendMicro's Web site (http://www.trendmicro.com/). You should also scan your computer for adware, spyware, or other malware with a product like Ad-aware (http://www.lavasoftusa.com/) or SpyBot (http://www.safer-networking.org/). Scanning your machine with two of these products can be helpful as sometimes you will find something that one product missed.

9. Install software or driver updates. If it seems one program or hardware device is acting up, check the manufacturer's Web site for updates. The code in most software is thousands if not millions of lines long and it is impossible for software companies to find all the bugs in their programs. As users discover problems, software and hardware manufacturers often release revised software or updated drivers that include new code to address newly discovered problems.

10. Check online support. If you get as far as this step, your problem is probably more complex. Most hardware and software manufacturers now have extensive support information online in searchable databases. These are often called Knowledge Bases. Microsoft's support page is at http://support.microsoft.com/. Odds are someone else has already experienced the same problem you have, and you can often a solution online. Good luck with your troubleshooting.


Dan Pinnington (dan.Pinnington@lawpro.ca) works for the Lawyers' Professional Indemnity Company (www.lawpro.ca) to help the 20,000 practising lawyers in Ontario avoid malpractice claims. He speaks and writes frequently on a variety of risk management and legal technology topics. Through practicePRO (www.practicepro.ca) he provides Ontario lawyers with practical how-to resources aimed at helping them succeed in the practice of law.