Never Call Tech Support Again!Why suffer though hours on hold when you can solve the problem yourself? Whether your PC won't boot, keeps crashing, is infested with adware, or can't get to the Net, we'll help you fix it.
Jeff Bertolucci is a freelance writer based in Southern California. Tom Spring is a senior reporter for PC World.
by Jeff Bertolucci
Illustration by Dynamic Duo Studios
Bad things happen to good computers: Motherboards fry, hard disks die, and spyware and viruses muck up Windows. You'd call tech support, but most of those folks are just reading from a script. You figure you can do better on your own--and you're probably right. To help get you started, we've assembled an expert guide to diagnosing some of the most common, tricky problems that befall a PC owner. And just in case you decide to throw in the towel, we've also interviewed some support technicians to find out what you can do (and, just as important, what you should avoid doing) to help them solve your problem with a minimum of hassle.
In This Article:
Oh, No--My PC Won't Even Boot!
Do strange sounds emanate from your PC? Some sounds can indicate serious problems. If you suspect the hard drive is on its last legs, the safest thing to do is to shut down the PC immediately. To find out if the drive is causing the noise, disconnect the drive's power cable before turning the computer back on.
If the hard drive is the noise source, your next step is to download a utility that can read the SMART (Self-Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology) diagnostic codes off the drive; SMART data can tell you precisely what's wrong. Get the one made by your hard drive's manufacturer: Point your browser here for a link to your drive maker's SMART utility download page.
Does the noise persist, even with the hard drive disconnected? Pinning down the problematic component is a bit harder--but at least you can take comfort in the fact that your data isn't about to kick the bucket. One way to troubleshoot is to use the low-tech (yet effective) cardboard tube method: Hold one end of a paper-towel tube to your ear and the other end to various system components, and listen.
Is the sound coming from a fan?If you are concerned about an unusual fan noise, use the free SpeedFan tool (see "Monitor Your Fan Speed") to see if a cooling fan attached to the motherboard is spinning too slowly. Some components will fry themselves if not cooled, and a new fan costs far less than a new CPU or graphics board. Another good (and no-cost) utility for monitoring system heat is CPUCool.
Got beeps? If you hear an unusually long beep (or several beeps) when you first power on the PC, your system is trying to tell you something--and it's not good. While the normal beep before boot-up--a single short tone--is a universal "all okay" signal, the more elaborate diagnostic beep codes aren't standardized; they vary by BIOS manufacturer and are sometimes customized further by motherboard makers. You'll have to look up the meaning of a specific beep pattern. On Dell Dimension XPS Dxxx systems, for instance, one beep followed by a pause and then two more beeps means that the graphics card isn't functioning correctly (maybe it's not seated properly).
Your PC vendor's support site should have a directory of its BIOS beep patterns, so that's the first place to go. If you can't find the information there, check out BIOS Central for an encyclopedic listing of beep codes and their meanings, organized by BIOS manufacturer. In addition, some vendors (including Dell) place diagnostic lights on the back of the computer case that give you a more detailed report about what's wrong. Meanings vary by system design, though yellow lights are usually a bad sign. Check your vendor's site for details.
Could a hardware problem be the source of your boot-up woes?If you recently added new internal hardware, such as more memory, it's possible that a component is seated incorrectly in its slot or that you bumped another component or cable, loosening its connection. It's also possible that the new component is either broken or incompatible with the PC.
Start by turning off and unplugging the computer, grounding yourself by touching a metal part on the outside of the PC's case, and then opening the case. Once inside, check that all the internal cables are connected properly. Also, ensure that each internal card and RAM module is properly seated by gently and evenly pressing along the length of the card or DIMM. If it doesn't seem to move when you apply pressure but you still feel uncertain about the seating, remove the card or DIMM entirely, and reseat it again. When you're done, put the PC back together, reattach any disconnected cables, and fire it up.
Even if the RAM modules are seated correctly, the system memory may still be the source of the problem--if the RAM has gone bad. Use the free Memtest86 utility to create a bootable CD-ROM that checks for memory failures. This tool performs detailed tests (and can catch problems that basic BIOS memory checks often miss).
In rare instances, a computer won't boot because of a hardware conflict between a new component and the rest of the system, or because the new component is simply not working. While this happens most often with older PCs, it can occur with almost any upgrade. To test this possibility, remove the new part and put the old one back in. If the PC boots up fine, you have a problem component. Get in touch with the component's manufacturer for additional instructions.
Sometimes a computer can get all the way to the normal startup sound that plays when Windows loads your desktop, but you see no image on your monitor. That's a sign of a problem with either your graphics board or your monitor. First check for a loose monitor cable, and for broken or bent connector pins. If everything appears normal, attach the monitor to another PC to test it. If it works, try hooking up a different monitor to the balky system. If you still get no picture, that indicates a loosely connected or bad graphics board, so power down the PC, open the case, and make sure the card is seated properly. (If you have integrated video and it is malfunctioning, you'll probably need a new motherboard.)
Does some text appear on screen, after which the PC stops responding? If your machine's startup screen is reporting an error code--also called a BIOS Power-On Self Test, or POST, code--you can look up its meaning in your motherboard manual or at BIOS Central.
If you see a 'Non-System disk...' boot error message (and no disks are in your floppy drive), unplug any external hard drives and remove any CDs from the tray, and then reboot the computer. If the problem persists, the hard disk's boot sector or partition table may be corrupted. The $39 Partition Table Doctor 3 can rebuild the partition table, a remedy that in some cases will restore a faltering PC to a fully working state. The program is available as an ISO file, which you can use (on a working system) to make a bootable CD.
Does your screen go entirely blue and display a few lines of text at the top? Congratulations--you're experiencing Windows' notorious Blue Screen of Death. And you're blue, too, because the cryptic error messages (for example, 'STOP: 0x0000021a Fatal System Error') that appear on BSODs aren't very helpful. You can sometimes get useful information about them by performing a Web search for the message using a working PC. Write down the Stop Error code that appears (ten digits starting with the number zero and the letter x); to decode the message, visit Common Stop Messages. You can also uncover a wealth of info via a search engine.
But what if Windows reboots as soon as the Stop Error pops up? Some genius thought it would be a good idea for Windows XP to automatically reboot whenever it crashed. Obviously, that engineer never conceived of a situation where the crash occurs during the boot sequence. For XP users that means the PC enters an endless loop of crashing, rebooting, and then crashing again--and you can never see the error code, which would help you figure out what's going on. Fortunately there's an easy fix (see "Stop the BSOD Reboots").
Why Is My PC Behaving Strangely?
Does Windows, or an application, crash frequently? Your first step should be to determine whether the problem is repeatable, and to make a note of the actions that led to the crash. Write down the sequence of events, and the contents of any error messages or dialog boxes, then head directly to the software maker's Web site. A patch or an update for the program that can solve the problem may already exist. If one doesn't, you can search for a workaround in the vendor's knowledge base (or conduct a Web search on the product name and symptoms).
Windows' Event Logs record details about many system and application crashes. Right-click My Computer, and choose Manage. Expand Event Viewer in the left pane, and click Application (on most Windows XP PCs, the Viewer keeps three logs: Application, Security, and System). Any recent, repetitive log entry that has a red X next to it means that Windows recorded a serious problem.
If you double-click the log entry, an Event Properties dialog box with more information will appear, though deducing the meaning of an entry can be hard. If you can't decipher the codes, you could use Microsoft's own Event ID database, but we prefer EventID.Net, a Web site where users post their own experiences--and solutions for--locating a problem's source (see "Decoding Event IDs Online"). A three-month subscription, which gives you access to detailed solutions and other useful information, costs only $9.
Does your software seem to have a mind of its own? If your home page keeps changing, if pop-up ads appear even when the browser is closed, or if icons appear mysteriously on your desktop, odds are good you're infected with some type of malware, such as spyware or a virus. In this case, the diagnosis is the same as the fix. First run a virus scan. If you don't have any antivirus software installed--and shame on you if you don't--try Trend Micro's free Housecall, which scans for both viruses and spyware. If you already have an antivirus tool but want a free spyware buster, download Microsoft Windows Defender (formerly known as Microsoft Windows AntiSpyware).
Once your PC is clean, make sure your Windows security patches and settings are up-to-date. The free Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer (or MBSA) will tell you what Windows patches are missing and what settings need to be changed. For more on preventing attacks, read October 2004's Security Tips article, "Keep Viruses, Worms, and Spyware Off Your PC."
Do your input devices flake out? If you're having trouble with a wireless keyboard, mouse, or other input device, first check the batteries. If they're rechargeable, give the device some time to juice up, and then reboot the PC.
But what if the device is wired, or if batteries aren't the problem? Use Windows' troubleshooter wizard for input devices: Click Start, Control Panel (or in Category view click Start, Control Panel, Printers and Other Hardware), and then select either Mouse or Keyboard; next, click the Hardware tab, and then the Troubleshoot button. In addition, the DirectX diagnostic tool can give an input device a pass/fail grade: Click Start, Run, type dxdiag, and then click OK. Check the Input tab for the test results on all your input devices.
If neither the troubleshooter nor the DirectX tool points to a solution, and you have (or can borrow) a standard PS/2 mouse or keyboard, do so; then head to the manufacturer's Web site and download a new driver set for the balky device.
Has the PC gone silent? Make sure the computer's speakers are powered on and properly connected. Launch Windows Volume Control (go to Start, All Programs, Accessories, Entertainment, Volume Control) and determine whether the check boxes labeled Mute are selected. If they are, or if Mute All is filled in, that's your culprit; to fix it, simply uncheck the box. Problem still not solved? Find out if the correct sound source is being called (some computers have more than one audio device). In the Volume Control applet, select Options, Properties and make sure the item listed in the Mixer Device drop-down menu is your sound source (whether it's integrated or an add-in card).
Some other options to consider: Are your headphones or speakers plugged into the correct port? Is the audio cable loose or the audio connector bent? If you hear intermittent sound when you jiggle the connector while it's plugged in, the plug on the headphone or speaker cable is probably bad. If the audio jack wiggles when you remove or insert a plug, the actual jack on the back of a PC might be broken; in that case, a new sound card is the only fix. (If you're using integrated sound, that means buying either an add-in card--as long as you have a slot available to install it--or a new motherboard.)
If you installed hardware or software immediately before this problem started occurring, you might need to reload your sound drivers. Check the sound card manufacturer's Web site, or Windows Update (in the Optional Hardware section), for updates.
If all else fails, you can try to use System Restore, which comes with Windows XP, to return your machine to a previous, functional configuration. Select Start, All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, System Restore and choose Restore my computer to an earlier time. Windows automatically creates restore points (a minimum of one per day), so if System Restore works (which isn't always the case), you should be able to roll back your computer to a time when it worked properly.
Why Does My PC Run So Slowly?
Does Windows seem generally more sluggish than usual? A computer's age isn't the only factor affecting its speed: Your system is probably running more background junk than you're aware of. These stealth programs, or processes--including printer utilities and hard-disk indexers--gobble up CPU cycles and main memory. They can also cause the PC to boot up or shut down much more slowly. Windows' mediocre MSConfig utility (select Start, Run and type msconfig in the Run dialog box) lists some applications that load at startup, but its list is far from complete. Instead, run Merijn's free StartupList, which inventories every autostarting program on your PC. And Sysinternals' Autoruns not only identifies startup apps, it can disable them, too.
To recover your system resources, shut down, delete, or hide system tray applets that you don't need. (Read "Keep It Simple," and Steve Bass's Tips and Tweaks article "Remove Unwanted Icons From Your System Tray" for advice. With some applets, for instance, you just right-click the system tray icon and select Options or Properties. Then you uncheck a box that reads Place icon in the taskbar, or something similar. To see a list of all your currently running programs, click Task Manager's Processes tab. A real eye-opener is the amount of memory each process uses. To terminate a program in Task Manager, click its name and then the End Process box. Not sure what each program does? Download the free Quick Access InfoBar utility--it puts an icon next to every running program in the Task Manager; click the icon to find out what the program is, and whether it's safe to terminate it.
Do you experience graphics problems with games or videos? First make sure you have the latest driver for your graphics card. This step alone can correct a lot of video weirdness. You can find the newest driver at either ATI's or nVidia's site, as appropriate--the driver you'll get from these sites is often fresher than the one your graphics board vendor offers. Laptop drivers are the lone exception to this rule: You're stuck with the driver the notebook manufacturer provides.
You can also run some basic graphics hardware tests using the DirectX diagnostics utility (click Start, Run, type dxdiag in the dialog box, and click OK). Click the Display tab, and then run both the DirectDraw and the Direct3D tests to determine if you have a driver problem, or if something is installed incorrectly. Let all the tests complete, and then check the results at the bottom of the page.
If the problem persists, use Task Manager (press <Ctrl>-<Alt>-<Delete>) to close all other applications and background tasks before playing a game or watching a movie. If that solves the problem, think about adding more RAM to your PC. Also, you should reorganize fragmented files--an essential step for smoother playback of huge video clips--by defragging your hard drive. You'll find Windows' Disk Defragmenter at Start, All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Disk Defragmenter. See the "Displays and Graphics Cards" section of "PC Problems? Fix 'Em Yourself" for more tests you can try.
Are right-click menus too slow? The likely culprit isn't malware, but a badly written shell extension, a bit of code that extends Windows' capabilities. (A context-sensitive menu is one type of shell extension.) To root out right-click-menu lag, try NirSoft ShellExView, a free utility that lets you disable shell extensions (see "Clean and Speed Up Context Menus"). Once you disable the bad one, your right-click menus should return to their former, snappy selves.
Do your CD and DVD disc burn slow, or do they stop before finishing? Your CPU may be overworked. Before starting a burn, load Task Manager and then click the Performance tab. Watch the graph to see whether CPU use hits 100 percent during a burn. Try closing some open applications, including antivirus programs and desktop-search indexers from Google, Yahoo, and others. (Make sure you reenable your antivirus software when you're done, though.) An excellent resource for disc-burning tips is VideoHelp.com, which offers detailed advice on numerous disc and video formats.
What's Wrong With My Network?
Can your PC or peripheral see the network? If your broadband connection isn't working--DSL or cable modems sometimes lose their connection, causing a dead Internet link--power-cycling the modem usually solves the problem. Turn the device off or unplug it from the power outlet, and then turn it back on. Do you have networking hardware, such as a router or hub, that's connected to the modem? If so, power-cycle that device as well--but only after you power-cycle the modem.
Is your networked printer not working? First, make sure you have shared the printer. Go to Start, Control Panel (or in Category view click Start, Control Panel, Printers and Other Hardware) and select Printers and Faxes. Right-click the printer you want to share, then click Sharing. On the Sharing tab, click Share Name and type the printer's name. Another possible explanation: The printer is connected to one network-connected PC, which is turned off. The obvious solution is to leave that computer on at all times. Or reduce your energy bill and buy a print server ($30 to $50) that connects the printer directly to the network. See "How Do I Share a Printer on My Small Network?" for more info.
Is your PC's connection to the network balky? If the network is too slow, or has stopped working altogether, first try running the Windows XP network troubleshooting feature. Go to Start, Help and Support, and under 'Pick a Help topic' click Networking and the Web, then select Fixing network or Web problems, and finally choose Home and Small Office Networking Troubleshooter. The troubleshooter asks you a series of questions to help pinpoint the problem, and as you drill deeper the troubleshooter will run a diagnostic program to try to locate the source of the difficulty. Unfortunately, the tool rarely discovers anything you couldn't have figured out yourself, but it's still worthwhile to use as a starting point, just to make sure you haven't overlooked anything obvious.
Does your laptop take several attempts to connect to your Wi-Fi router? First, check to make sure your network isn't clogged with other data. Do you have any devices connected to your network that are streaming music or video from one part of the house to another? Such activity could cause a delay in your notebook's getting connected, which you can test for by turning off the streaming-media device temporarily. RF (radio frequency) interference might also be to blame; a utility called NetStumbler can help you diagnose the problem. The software (see "Troubleshoot Wi-Fi With NetStumbler") checks for sources of signal interference, which could simply be a nearby household appliance such as a microwave oven or a cordless phone. NetStumbler also scans for other wireless LANs in your area, which could be using the same router channel as you. The 2.4-GHz range has three nonconflicting channels--1, 6, and 11--and you'll want to pick the least crowded channel of those three. In addition, check your laptop's wireless signal strength. (Wi-Fi cards typically place an icon depicting signal strength in the system tray.) If possible, move the portable closer to the wireless transmitter for a stronger signal. A weak signal may be the result of obstructions in your home. Lincoln Spector offers more troubleshooting advice in his January Answer Line column.
Does your Wi-Fi connection seem slower? Your neighbors may be piggybacking on your network and using your Internet pipe without your consent. The solution: Activate the Wi-Fi gateway's security. This involves several tasks, including changing the gateway's vendor-supplied default password and enabling WPA Pre-Shared Key encryption. These security steps vary by hardware vendor; you'll find good instructions for most popular gateways at GetNetWise. You might also update the security options available by upgrading the firmware in your wireless devices; see Andrew Brandt's MarchWireless Tips for help.
Is your firewall causing conflicts? Software firewalls sometimes will block a program you want to use to access the Internet. You may have accidentally clicked 'Keep blocking this program' (in Windows Firewall) or 'Block' (if you use the ZoneAlarm software firewall) rather than 'Unblock the program' or 'Allow' the first time the application ran.
To correct this in Windows Firewall, select Start, Run, type wscui.cpl In the Open dialog box, and click OK. Click Windows Firewall, choose the Exceptions tab, and then click Add Programs. Select the app you wish to unblock from the list, or click Browse to locate it.
To fix the problem in ZoneAlarm, double-click the ZA icon in the system tray, click Program Control on the left side of the window, and click the Programs tab. Scroll down the list until you see the program you want to use, and if you see any red X icons next to it, click the icon and choose Allow from the drop-down menu.
Support Tips From the Pros
Illustration by Dynamic Duo Studios
Sometimes you just can't avoid a call to tech support. You concede defeat, reach for the phone, and hope for the best. But most of us who have resorted to calling can relate our own personal horror stories--times where it felt like tech support was purposely yanking our chain. Tech support is a tough job, no question, and many technicians sincerely want to help you get to the bottom of an issue, but a few Machiavellian support representatives seem to enjoy making you suffer. Still, when we spoke to ex-support staff to get some tips about the best ways for customers to work with phone support to solve problems, we never expected to hear the types of stories they told us.
"We had one person who didn't like the tone of the customer's voice, so he put the caller on hold, drove 7 miles to pick up a Pepsi at a gas station, came back, and finished the call," says a former employee of Alorica, which handles support calls for Gateway. "Callers just assume when they're on hold we're looking something up trying fix their PC."
The Alorica employee we spoke with, who asked that we not use her name, says rule number one for calling tech support is, "Do not be rude." When a caller to Business Processing Outsourcing in New Delhi, India, curses three times, says support technician Akanksha Chaand, who used to field calls for Hewlett-Packard PCs, company policy permits the technician to hang up.
But even with perfect phone etiquette, getting quality tech support can be hard. These tips--provided by actual help desk operators--will help you learn how to avoid the tech support runaround.
Problem: You're experiencing an advanced PC problem but the tech keeps asking questions like "Is your computer plugged in?"
Tip: Telephone tech support consists of two, and sometimes three, levels of assistance. Level one handles basic PC questions. If necessary, ask to have your case elevated to the next level, or ask to speak with a supervisor--nicely. "If the technician thinks you're a nice person, they will often give 110 percent to help you," says David Hill, tech support pro with Stream International.
Problem: A tech keeps putting you on hold--more than twice--to "take a look at something" to help you fix your PC.
Tip: The tech probably doesn't know what he or she is doing. How do you get to a higher level of support fast? Alorica requires that customers ask three times for their problem to be escalated before it honors the request. However, a tech support technician can't escalate the problem without gathering basic computer and warranty information.
For more tech support tales of woe, read "Tech Support: Life on the Other End of the Line."Tom Spring
Tools and Tips for the Most Frustrating PC Problems
If you suspect that either a system fan or your hard drive is having problems, the free Speedfan utility is for you. In addition to tracking the PC's fan speed (which should, in most systems, range from 1000 to 4000 rpm), it can analyze the hard drive's SMART data, so you can head off a data disaster.
Boot into Safe Mode (press
Event IDs tell you what caused a problem noted in Windows' Event Log, but the codes are almost always abstruse. EventID.Net tells you what's really going on. Enter the Event ID (a number) in the site's form. That leads to a page where you can see what other users have posted about that problem, along with suggested solutions.
Scan your Windows Registry with ShellExView. When it is finished, sort the list by
NetStumbler can tell you if radio interference is affecting your Wi-Fi gateway. Note the signal-to-noise (SNR) readings. A high level of noise, indicated by a low number in the SNR column, could be caused by another nearby wireless gateway using the same Wi-Fi channel.