Hardware Tips: Fix PC Crashes via Conflict Resolution
Bad software happens, despite the substantial efforts of Microsoft and other software developers around the world. PCs freeze up with annoying frequency, sometimes due to a corrupted program file and sometimes due to poor software design. Either way, you have to find the software scofflaw before you can take it out of circulation, and that entails examining all the programs running on your PC.
Just how many programs are running on your PC? The number may surprise you. To find out, hit Ctrl-Alt-Delete once--and only once--to see a list of all programs currently active (and taking up CPU cycles).
You'll probably find a few programs running that you didn't know about. Mice, keyboards, and other PC devices often place small utility programs in your StartUp folder during installation, and many application programs do the same. You probably neither want nor need these programs, but they load at start-up just the same. Often--but not always--each utility is accompanied by a new icon in the system tray in the lower-right corner of your screen.
Identifying the program responsible for causing system crashes involves working by a process of elimination: Disable a running program via Ctrl-Alt-Delete, reboot your system, and see whether the crashes stop. If they continue, enable the program you disabled previously, disable the next one, reboot, and see whether the crashes stop this time. Fortunately, Windows 98 and Windows Me provide the System Configuration Utility to speed up this process.
Find the False Starts
To launch the System Configuration Utility, click Start, Run, type msconfig, and press Enter. Choose the Startup tab to see a list of programs that automatically start when you boot your system. Check or uncheck the boxes on the left side of the list to select or deselect programs for automatic start-up.
Before you test each program individually, make sure your troubles are due to one of your start-up programs. Go to the General tab, uncheck Load startup group items, and then reboot the system. If your problem goes away, one of your start-up programs must be guilty. Now go back to the Startup tab and enable one program at a time (rebooting each time, of course) until the problem recurs. When it does, you've isolated the trouble.
A housekeeping suggestion: Disable the programs you don't need. They slow Windows' start-up, and they waste system resources. If you don't recognize a file name on the Startup tab and you aren't sure what the associated program does, look for a familiar name in the file's path on the right. If that strategy doesn't help, look for a readme file or another text file in the file's folder, open it, and hunt for clues to the program's identity there.
(Con)Figuring Out Failures
The same process of elimination will work for the hardware drivers and other programs listed under each of the other tabs in the System Configuration Utility dialog box. Each program can be disabled or enabled with a single click, just like those in the StartUp group.
Before you test or change any configuration file, take a moment to back them all up. In Windows 98, click the Create Backup button at the bottom of the System Configuration Utility's General tab. This step will copy all your configuration files to your PC's root folder, where they'll appear with the extension.pss. In Windows Me, click Launch System Restore. Windows Me does the rest automatically.
Each of the System Configuration Utility's tab headings is also listed under 'Selective startup' on the General tab. Unchecking a single check box in this list disables all the programs in that group, so you don't have to test one program at a time. (A grayed-out box indicates that the associated group doesn't exist on your system.) If the problem goes away when you uncheck a group, one of the programs in that group is the source of the trouble.
When you find the file causing your headaches, open the appropriate tab and disable each item line by line. Some tab names in Windows 98 differ from those in Windows Me, but they work similarly.
Win.ini and system.ini: Windows 98 and Windows Me still use these old configuration files to load software. System.ini holds many hardware settings and is the most likely cause of the trouble. Because it's also a big file with many command lines organized into subsections, save time by checking whole subsections instead of one line at a time.
Win.ini holds software settings. Lines in win.ini that start with 'Load=' or 'Run=' launch programs, so try checking them first.
Autoexec.bat and config.sys: These configuration files are holdovers from the days of DOS. They're usually present in Windows 98 systems, and you may also find them on a Windows Me PC. Both files could contain command lines for launching software and setting software parameters that can cause conflicts.
Load environment variables: This tab does for Windows Me what autoexec.bat's Prompt, Path, and Set commands did for Win 98. Windows Me eliminates many trappings of DOS, but it maintains the dear old operating system's functionality.
Load static VxDs: This option, which is also found only in Windows Me, selects certain virtual device drivers (VxDs)--mostly relating to networking and communications. Virtual device drivers are another common source of conflicts.
Web Site Soundings
I recently moved to a new town, signed on with a new ISP, and added a new V.90 modem to my computer. Since the move, I've had trouble connecting to many Web sites that I used to access easily. I suspect the problem is my new modem, but I'm not sure. Is there any way to tell whether my modem, the ISP, or the Web site I'm trying to contact is to blame?
Peter Russo, Bloomington, Indiana
Problems of this type can be tricky to solve, but a handy utility included with Windows 95 and Windows 98 may help. It's Ping, a small DOS utility that network administrators and techies who enjoy tinkering with their networks frequently use.
Ping sends a signal from your PC to another computer on the Internet and then waits for it to return a signal--much like a sonar ping--to acknowledge a successful connection. If the target device doesn't respond, there's a hardware problem, but if it does respond, you can be certain that all of the equipment between you and the target computer is working.
To run Ping, open a DOS window. In Windows 9 x, click Start, Programs, MS-DOS Prompt. In Windows Me, click Start, Programs, Accessories, MS-DOS Prompt. At the C> prompt, type ping followed by a space, and then type the URL or IP address of the computer that you're trying to contact. For example, to check your connection to the ESPN Web site, you would type ping www.espn.com.
A successful ping returns three or four lines starting with the words Reply from. An unsuccessful ping returns a single line stating only that the target computer was not found.
Ping is primarily a tool for the network savvy, but three ping tests are useful for everyone. First, you can test your own PC's configuration by pinging the IP loopback address: Type ping 127.0.0.1 and press Enter. If you don't get a reply, there's a problem with your TCP/IP settings.
Next, ping your PC's default gateway. To find your default gateway address, click Start, Run, type winipcfg, and press Enter. The default gateway is the first computer your PC connects to when trying to reach the Internet. It may be located at your ISP or within your company's network. If you can ping the default gateway, the problem resides outside your local network.
Finally, ping the Web site's server. If you get no response, the problem is outside both your PC and your local network.
Out of My (Color) Depth?
I work with graphics and frequently have to change my monitor's color depth from '256 Colors' to 'High Color (16 bit)' and back again. On my old Windows 95 system, I had to restart my PC each time I changed the setting, but on my new Windows 98 system, I can choose to reboot or not after making the color-depth change. I always choose not to reboot, but I wonder whether I am damaging my PC or monitor by not rebooting. Can you clarify?
Terry Smith, New York
Chances are good you're not hurting your PC. The only reason to reboot when you change color depth--that's the number of colors your PC is capable of displaying at one time--is if you are running old software that's incompatible with the new color depth you set. If you haven't noticed any problems by now, you probably have nothing to worry about.
If it appears that a single color has come to dominate your monitor's screen, you may be better off checking your monitor's cables before you try any color adjustments. Single-color dominance is often the result of a loose or poorly seated connection between your monitor's port and cable. Remember to check the connections at both ends of the cable. If that doesn't fix things, remove the cable and look for bent or depressed pins in the connector. These can be easily repaired with needle-nose pliers.
Hardware Tips welcomes your tips and questions and pays $50 for published items. Kirk Steers is a PC World contributing editor.