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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Troubleshooting Your Internet Headaches (Part 1: General)

"My internet is slow!" "Facebook won't load!" "Why won't my email come up?" "It just won't work anymore!"  Do these sound familiar?  Whether you're a tech support representative, or an average user like the rest of humanity, you'll be quite familiar with phrases like that.  Adding to that is the irritation of trying to fix it without any help, and the problem is either still there, or has been made worse by something done wrong.  A good example is when a tech tries their best to explain how to fix an internet-related problem to an average consumer, and instead of following the techs instructions carefully, the consumer becomes agitated, clicks on something OTHER than what they were told, and now their email is gone.  I know I'm probably exaggerating, but the idea is the same.  Most consumers are much more comfortable to follow the instructions of family and friends than we are at following the directions of a technician that we have asked for help, and why is that?  I'll probably cover that in another blog, but my point is that when we take a tech for granted, we lose sight of the real problem at hand, and we become know-it-alls who don't know the answer.  Ironic, I know, but true in almost every sense.

My favorite example is when I worked as a technical support specialist in a call center, and received the kind of call every tech out there dreads to receive.  I'm talking about the so-called "Systems Administrators", "Network Admins", "Computer Technicians", and of course my favorite, the "Company Owner" who happens to be a jack of all trades!  These people are generally rude, abrasive, and very abusive to a tech support agent over the phone.  Whether they are simply of that personality, or it's because they are lacking something else, these people annoy the hell out of techs everywhere.  They will go on and on about what certification they hold (sometimes more than one), and will insult the tech at every opportunity, ignoring the fact that they are the ones who called for help.  Fear not, though, because a tech will find just the right moment to make even the most "educated" Network Admin feel stupid with a resolution that is so simple in its implementation.

The phone call I received was no different.  I had received a phone call from a supposed "System Admin", and for the first 3 minutes of the phone call, he berated me up and down, left and right, and called me everything but a white-boy.  He was absolutely PISSED!  What his issue was, I can't remember, and I don't care to.  I remember it had to do with an error of some kind that had to do with his internet connection.  Anyway, he demanded to speak to a supervisor, told me I didn't know anything (of course, he laced it all with much more colorful metaphors), and was generally insulting to myself and every other tech in the building.  After calming him down a bit, I got him to accept a little bit of help from me.  I told him that I would help him as best I could, and if I couldn't do so in 10 minutes, I would be happy to transfer him to a supervisor for whatever assistance they could provide.  Reluctantly, he accepted.  It didn't even take 10 minutes when I had him use a simple networking technique (I couldn't tell ya what it was that I had him do, because I don't remember), and the error was resolved.  Not only did he become apologetic to no end, but he still wanted to speak to a supervisor, and for a different reason altogether, but just before that was the moment of clarity.  The "ah HA!" moment if you will, where the guy was just dumbfounded, stupefied, and above all, speechless.

Internet troubles can be frustrating, especially when you are unsure of how to resolve the problem on your own, or even who to ask for help.  First, you need to have patience when approaching this very broad issue.  Not always will an issue be quick to resolve, and not always with a simple measure.  Keep in mind that a simple solution can still have frustrating consequences if not done correctly.  Second, never be afraid to say "I don't know what to do!"  Too many times have I come across someone (male and female) who simply is at their wits end trying to fix an internet problem, and then that person becomes quite agitated when they do not know the answer.  Admitting to yourself that it's time to ask for help is not an end, but a beginning.  This doesn't mean you have accepted defeat, you've only changed how you are approaching a problem.  Remember to look at my previous blog and read about tips to reduce the anxiety over asking for help, and to get some ideas on where to go, who to ask, and how.  These tips are life-savers!  Lastly, expect the unexpected.  I know that's a hugely overused cliche, but in the case of troubleshooting anything related to computers, and especially internet connection issues, it rings true to finding resolutions that seem out of the ordinary.  One quick note to mention.  When it comes to troubleshooting computers and the related issues, NOTHING is ever ordinary in solving a problem!

Because of the complexity and broad scope of this area of computer troubleshooting, I am going to do this topic in parts.  Mainly for the reason that there are steps different from one another for each part to this topic.  In this segment, I will try to go over some of the more basic techniques.  I will assume that most of us, by now anyway, should be using a broadband connection.  Also, I will attempt to cover some dial-up troubleshooting techniques as well, but only briefly since it's not as widely used as it once was with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like AOL, Earthlink, Netzero, Juno, etc.  Once more, it is worth mentioning that I am only providing these tips as a guideline, and are not intended to substitute professional advice and assistance from a trained source.

Let's go over some of the dial-up techniques first, shall we?
(**NOTE** Again, I am going off my personal use of Windows-based operating systems, so always check to see what your operating system equivalents might be)

1) Modem Functionality - 80-90% of all dial-up related problems occur from a single source, the dial-up modem itself.  You need to verify if the modem is the source of the issue.  The first thing to do is to establish that the modem itself is communicating with Windows.  This means that the communication between the software driver, and the modem (whether internal or external) exists to begin with.  To do that, you must go to Control Panel, then go to Modems (for XP users, this will be titled "Phone and Modem Options"), click on your modem (this will be the modem tab in XP), and click Properties.  In the properties of the modem, there should be a tab that says "Diagnostics" depending on your Windows version, you should see either your modem listed, or you will see both the COM port and the modem listed.  Either way, this is what you select and click either "Query Modem" or "More Info".  This is important, because what this test will do is confirm that the modem can be communicated with through its driver in Windows, and it will indicate that the modem can be initialized using the driver.  If the modem can't be initialized or communicated with (and this will be apparent when you do this test), it's safe to assume that the modem may not be working at all, and a replacement will be necessary.  You may want to verify the modem driver in Windows has been installed properly, or you may have to reinstall or update the driver.  This can also resolve many issues related to dial-up modem errors.

2) Hyperterminal - Another useful test is Hyperterminal.  This is a built-in program in Windows that allows you to test whether your modem can successfully dial a phone number, and connect to it via the "computer handshake" (Not sure if that is a proper term, but it's something that has stuck with me since my dad first said it).  It's always best to do this test after you've successfully determined that the modem is communicating properly with Windows, and that the modem can be initialized successfully through its software driver.  There are two parts to this test.  The first, and most obvious, is the dialing phase.  Can your modem successfully initialize and dial out to another modem on another computer?  You'll know right away if it cannot dial.  The second is the connection phase.  Do you hear the ever-famous "handshake" noise or is it quiet?  Being quiet doesn't necessarily mean trouble, since it could simply mean that the modem speaker is off.  Remember the modem properties screen?  You may want to check if the modem speaker is turned on and turned up through that prompt before attempting this test.  After the handshake, you should get a listing of various commands or even a message.  If the commands or the message comes back garbled, there is a possibility that the modem (either on your end, or the other) has a problem decoding the messages it is receiving.  It is recommended that you try at least three different numbers in Hyperterminal before assuming that it's a problem with your modem.

3) Different Access Numbers - Every dial-up ISP that I've ever used has almost always had, at the least, three different numbers to which I could use as access numbers.  Many of the popular dial-up providers I've used always had local numbers to use, since calling long-distance at the time was rather expensive.  Today, this is not a typical problem anymore.  If you are having trouble with connecting to your ISP, try a different number to access.  If all of the alternate numbers fail, you may want to contact your ISP and ask if there is a toll-free alternative phone number to use as an access number, at least temporarily.  On rare occasion, I've had to use a phone number that was long distance, but this was only to determine if my local access numbers were inoperable.

4) Power to the Modem - I know it sounds corny, but true nonetheless.  Techs everywhere agree that the most overlooked troubleshooting techniques are usually the most obvious.  So, don't be surprised if you call and get a tech who answers, and during the call at some point, that tech will ask you "Is your modem turned on?"  I put this at #4, but really it should be at the top.  I bring this up only after the other tests, because let's face it, we all forget at some point to look for the obvious.  Hopefully, this will get you to perform this technique first and foremost.  Too many times have I run into a situation where someone using an external modem forgot to make sure it was plugged in, and turned on.  And it's not isolated to internet/modem problems, this can be any peripheral device, or even the computer itself for that matter.  I can't stress the point enough.  ALWAYS check to make sure the device you are using is plugged in to a power outlet (if applicable), turned on, and ready to be used.  You will save yourself a lot of aggravation by doing this simple task. 

5) New Replacement - If you've done everything else, and your modem still can't connect, it may be time to start thinking about replacing your dial-up modem.  There are some considerations to take in, but this can be a good way to determine if your modem is truly defective in some odd fashion.  External modems are relatively easy to replace, and in some cases, cheaper in the long run.  Internal modems are a little more involved, but generally easy as well.  After replacing your modem, if it becomes necessary, always perform some of the tests above like Hyperterminal, the modem query in Windows, etc to ascertain that your new modem is working and functioning in a way that is consistent with your old, defective modem.

6) Dialing Rules! - Yet another overlooked troubleshooting step is the dialing rules.  It's another obvious step that should never be underestimated.  In some areas, especially in the United States, a locality or region might require someone to dial an area code first.  This is known as 10-digit dialing.  For example, in my area, we have to dial in this format xxx-555-1212.  Also, unless you are using a dedicated phone line on your dial-up connection, you should make sure your modem is configured to dial call waiting before dialing the actual access number.  Most telephone providers require the use of *70 to turn call waiting off.  Although, I will admit, that wasn't always helpful during my time using dial-up providers.  Even turning call waiting off, I still got "bumped" from the internet quite frequently.  Another note to mention is that some places, like businesses and other office buildings, often use a phone system that requires you to use *9 prefix to get an outside line.  Make sure before you begin modifying the dialing rules in Windows.  This can be found in the Modem Properties area, or sometimes in the Dial-Up Networking window of the connection you are using, depending on what version of Windows you have.

7) Phone Line Extras - Some telephone lines have other features that are not standard, and can disrupt a dial-up connection.  The more popular, and frustrating, feature of dial-up users is the voicemail provided by the local phone company.  This is simply an inbox for messages that are stored by the phone company rather than your answering machine.  This is especially problematic when you receive a voice message on this service, because what happens is that your dial tone starts to beep, indicating that you have messages.  Dial-up modems are incapable of recognizing this beeping dial-tone as a dial-able tone.  Therefore, you will get an error with this.  Also, although it's not thoroughly documented, and most techs are unsure of why, but using a fax machine on the same phone line as your dial-up connection can also cause issues to arise.  Again, using a dedicated phone line will reduce this problem greatly.  If you have to have your fax machine on the same phone line, your best bet is to alternately switch from one to the other depending on what you need to use.  The most accepted reason that I've been told for not using the same phone line as the fax is that the fax machine continually is beeping on the phone line.  This means that the fax machine is constantly waiting for a fax signal to come in, so that it can be ready at a moment's notice to process the incoming message. 

8) Dead Phone Line - Too many stories to tell, and not enough time.  If you have tried everything else, try the obvious.  Connect a regular phone (preferably a corded telephone, and one that is NOT battery operated) to the phone line and try to make a phone call.  If you cannot, there's a problem with the phone line itself, and of course, the modem has to terminate the attempt to connect.  Also, make sure that your phone line is dedicated.  I know I've said this before in this blog, but it's worth repeating again and again.  If someone picks up the phone while you are connected, your modem will interpret that as an interruption (which it is), and will terminate the connection abruptly.  The same is true if someone is already on the phone line talking to a friend, relative, or placing some kind of order (pizza, anyone?), and the modem will interpret the absence of a dial tone for a dead phone line.

9) Reboot - This should always be tried FIRST and LAST in your efforts to troubleshoot and repair a problem with your dial-up connection.  If you are using an external modem, your first order of business should be to reboot the modem itself by powering it down, waiting 30 seconds to a minute, power it back on and wait for the initial power-up sequence to complete before trying it again.  If still unsuccessful, try rebooting the computer alongside rebooting the modem, and for the same amount of time.  Stories are abound with consumers who have tried everything above, with little to no success, and upon a reboot of either the modem, computer, or both in some cases, the issue is resolved successfully.  In the case of rebooting both your computer and your modem (external), always turn the modem on FIRST, then the computer.  This way we will know if the modem itself can power on, and do it's own initial power-on diagnostic sequence (the lights that go on sequentially).

During my time as a technical support representative, I found other steps that can be attempted when dealing with a dial-up problem, but I chose to omit them since they were procedures not known to the general public, and for good reason.  Doing the extra steps that I know can cause more problems than they solve.  It's best to perform the omitted steps with the guidance of a trained technical support professional to reduce the chance of something going horribly wrong.

Broadband users are a special breed.  They enjoy the wonderful benefit of not having to deal with dial-up problems, frustrations, and headaches, as well as enjoying the faster speeds to load webpages, download files, and all done without the use of an ISP provider's software program.  However, they too will encounter problems similar to dial-up, but not quite.  While each broadband internet provider is different with how the connection is achieved, most techs will agree that simple techniques can resolve 80-90% of connectivity problems.  Like the dial-up measures, I will attempt to cover some of the techniques used by techs to troubleshoot, diagnose, and resolve broadband internet issues.  The following tips are presented with the assumption that you have a modem or other broadband device directly connected to your computer, and NOT through a Router or Hub.

1) REBOOT! - Just like the dial-up methods of troubleshooting, your FIRST and LAST resort should always be to reboot.  My standard procedure is to restart through Windows doing the proper shutdown sequence first.  In other words, I'm not just pressing the power button on the computer!  That would be bad and in so many ways!  A proper sequence to shut down is to go to Start, then either Turn Off Computer or Shutdown and select Restart.  Again, DO NOT press the power button at this point.  Usually this takes less than a minute before the computer restarts, and brings you back to the Windows Logon screen or desktop screen.  If this doesn't resolve your issue, try what's called a "COLD BOOT" procedure.  This is where you actually do turn off the computer using the same steps as the restart, only you select "Shut Down the Computer" or "Turn Off" (for XP and newer users).  Although, most computers today will shut off automatically, so you may not need to do anything else, but for the older computers, you may have to wait until you see something that says "It is safe to turn off your computer" and then you may, at this point, use the power button.  Never assume that a computer is completely shut off.  To that end, always turn the computer off from it's "master switch" in the back (if your computer is pre-2002), and unplug the power cord (the thick black one).

2) Broadband modem - Whether you are using DSL, Cable, T1, or something much different, it's safe to assume that you will be using some kind of device that allows you to rid yourself of using a dial-up connection, and connect to the internet with blazing speeds that dwarfs dial-up any day of the week!  However, there are times when these devices need to be reset.  The procedure for doing a modem/device reset is simple, yet very effective in resolving a good portion of connection issues with broadband internet services.  To power your device off, unplug the power cord from behind the device, wait about a minute or so, then plug the power cord back in.  After the initial power-on sequence, you should try connecting to the internet again.  If not, it is always recommend to do a full shutdown of both the device, and the computer.  When turning the computer and the device back on, make sure to do the device first, THEN the computer AFTER the device has gone through the initial power-up sequence.  On a related note, this gets a tad more complicated when you add a router or hub to the mix, so I will cover that in another blog.  If you can now connect, your issue has been resolved.  If not, proceed to the following tips.

3) Software - Yes, I know, broadband users don't necessarily have to install new software to use their connection (unless directed by the broadband ISP).  However, software still plays a big part in how we connect to the internet, whether by dial-up modem or by a broadband internet device/service.  In the case of broadband, though, the software used is mostly already installed on your computer.  Each version of Windows is slightly different, but relatively the same, while Linux, Macintosh, and other fine operating systems have much different ways to set up the equivalents.  While I don't know anything about other operating systems other than Windows, it's safe to assume that some software is widely used and accepted as a standard.  There will be two parts to this tip.  One is for the widely used (and popular) use of network cable (aka Cat5, RJ-45, or Ethernet), and the other is the slightly used USB part.
  • Network Cable - Most ISPs will have you using a device that have you using your computers network card or built-in port to use their internet hardware on your computer.  This means that you must have the driver properly installed for your network card or onboard port (remember, these are a part of the motherboard, and not an expansion card as some older computers were built).  Sometimes, though not often, a user might have to reinstall the driver for their network adapter.  This can be achieved through the Device Manager in the System Properties of the Control Panel.  Also, this is where you can manually update your network adapter's driver.  Another piece of software that is usually installed with the network adapter driver are the protocols themselves like TCP/IP.  Without this software, your computer wouldn't connect to the internet at all, regardless if you are using dial-up or broadband.  On Windows 9x systems, you will want to right-click Network Neighborhood and go to Properties.  This will allow you to view the network adapter, and the protocols and client software installed.  Usually you will have the name of your network adapter (usually either the dial-up modem adapter, the network adapter, or both), TCP/IP and Client for Microsoft Networks.  On Windows 2k, you see Network and Dial-Up Connections from going to Start, then Control Panel.  Windows XP has Network Connections under the same area, but can be accessed through Control Panel directly, and Windows Vista calls it Network and Sharing Center.  Each one can allow you to verify that your broadband device has a corresponding network connection set up.  Most often this will be labeled "Local Area Connection" and will have subtext that lists your network adapter.  When you right click these and go to Properties, you will see a listing of the protocols installed there.  Again, you should see Client for Microsoft Networks, TCP/IP, etc.  Wireless and Broadband connection listings are only different in name, but everything else is relatively the same.  Reinstalling these protocols will often resolve problems with your internet service connection, but I would only recommend re-installation of these protocols if nothing else works. 
  • USB Port Cable - Some devices that allow you to use broadband internet service also have a USB port if your computer has no network adapter (onboard or otherwise).  If you are going to use this type of connection to your computer, all the same principles of a dial-up modem software driver, and networking configurations will apply.  In other words, check if the driver has been installed, check the cable, and check if proper protocols are installed.  There's little else that I can tell you about USB broadband internet devices, except that you should expect little difficulty in their use.  
4) Reset and Restart - Just like restarting (or cold booting) a computer system, there are times when only the software needs to be reset.  Most techs will have you do one of two things, or both depending on the person who answers your call for help.  First, they will have you cold boot everything.  Expect to have to do this often when calling technical support.  It will be their first and last troubleshooting step, regardless of what you have done.  Second, they will have you use what is called the IP Configuration tool.  While I don't fully understand what specifically happens using this tool, I do know that this is similar to a cold boot of a system without the Cold Boot process, and more precisely it will refresh your network adapter driver and TCP/IP.  This does not mean that your TCP/IP settings have been reset, nor have they been modified in any way.  Think of it like the old Nintendo game systems (the old 8-bit system).  At a certain point, if the game was frozen, a lot of us (including myself) used that reset button on the front to get the system unstuck.  The same is true for the network adapter as well.  Sometimes it will just simply get stuck, and IP Configuration can release it from being stuck.  To use this tool, go to Start, Run, and on Win9x systems you want to type `winipcfg' and press Enter, or on Win2k and newer, you will want to use `cmd' which will bring up a DOS command prompt.  From there, you will want to type "IPCONFIG" and press enter.  This should give you basic information about your adapter including IP address, subnet mask, gateway address, etc.  Both versions of the IP Configuration tool, you have to "release" the adapter, and then about 15-20 seconds after, you have to "renew" the adapter as well.  On Windows 9x, your network adapter card (not the dial-up modem) should be what's currently selected, so if it's not, make sure to use the drop-down menu at the top and click your network adapter (usually Linksys 10/100, Cisco, Realtek, or something similar).  On Windows 2k and up, the tool will only reset the primary adapter, which in most cases will be the LAN/Network driver.

5) Other Considerations - While I won't go into much detail about it here in this first part, I want to touch briefly on the use of firewalls, proxy servers, and other security programs.  I'm not going to explain what each of those are in this blog, but if you want to know, post an email to me and I'll do a blog to specifically explain them.  What I can say is that these items can either help or hurt your connection.  Specifically, I want to talk about firewalls.  Firewalls are designed specifically to keep inbound connections OUT for the most part, and only allow the programs designed for internet connectivity to use outbound connections.  This can also include your network adapter, and its related software.  An analogy would be like an airport, and just like an airport, you have lots of airplanes coming in, and going out.  Well, a firewall is like both a control tower and boarding gates, and will allow some airplanes to land, and refuse others.  It can also allow or deny passengers to board a plane based on their assigned permissions from the user.  If the settings are set too high, your computer won't be able to connect to anything on the internet, regardless of what you do.  If the settings are too low, your computer is vulnerable, and prone to security threats.  The default settings usually will allow you to connect, but will allow the firewall to "learn" what programs are allowed to fly, and what inbound connections can "land".

6) Network Routers And Hubs - Using a Router or a network hub, wired or wireless, can be useful when you want to allow more than one computer in your home or place of business to connect to the internet.   However, problems can occur with either one.  A hub will simply allow your computer to share resources with another computer including internet connections, folders, files, and even printer resources.  There is one flaw with using a regular network hub, and that is when you do want to connect another computer using the same internet connection as your primary computer, you have to contact your ISP and obtain a 2nd IP address, which usually will cost an extra fee a month (usually anywhere between $5-$7/mo depending on your provider.  A router will allow you to not only connect multiple computers to the same internet connection without paying for a 2nd IP, it will also function as a network hub for resource sharing.  When troubleshooting, always try to remove the hub or router from the equation.  Connect your broadband device in directly to your computer first.  If your device allows your computer to connect to the internet, then your router or hub might be the problem.  I can't go into specific details on what that might be, since each router and hub are different in the way that their interfaces (if applicable) are accessed, but I can provide one simple trick that may or may not help.  Two words: POWER CYCLE.  Just like cold booting your computer or broadband device, try doing the same for your router or hub.  I would advise to power down the computer first, then unplug the power from the router or hub, and LAST to be turned off (power cord and all) should be the broadband device.  When turning them all back on, do the reverse.  Turn the broadband device on first and wait for the power-on initialization, then do the same for the router or hub, and then turn the computer back on last.  One quick way to know for sure if your router is the problem is to try accessing its user interface.  Usually it's an IP address such as (or something close to that).  If you can access your router's setup page, then there's a good chance your router just needs a firmware update.  Firmware updates are like software drivers, but they are embedded within the hardware.  Most manufacturers of devices that use firmware also provide updates to that firmware that may or may not resolve your issue.  Even if you don't have a connectivity problem, ALWAYS make sure your device whether it's the broadband modem or your router is up to date with the latest firmware available. 

Just like other troubleshooting tips, there are some methods not known to the general public, and should be done under the guidance of a trained technical support professional.  If these general tips haven't helped you, it's time to call so that you don't take out your frustrations on something or someone important.  Remember to take a break once in a while, and try to write down anything that you think might be helpful when calling technical support.

Have a comment?  Suggestion? A topic you'd like to have discussed on my blog?  Email me at  And if I don't know the answer, I'll post up information on who to ask, where to go, or what to do to get your answer.  :)  Until then, have a great day, and I hope you've enjoyed reading my computer tips so far!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Upgrading Your Operating System

So, the other day I thought to myself, "WOW!  Windows Vista sucks ass!"  I was trying to install software drivers for my cousin's new Cricket Broadband modem.  That completely sucked ass, but what was worse was that it took so long on her computer, which runs Windows Vista.  On an XP computer, as demonstrated by the representative at a Cricket Corporate office in Wheat Ridge, CO, it went and installed seamlessly (and quickly).  No problems, and we were connected right away, but NOOOOOooooo, Windows Vista had to be a pain in the ass.

Well, this got me thinking, is anyone ever ready to upgrade to a new operating system version, whether by Microsoft or another company?  When I look back on how many times I've upgraded to a new version of Windows, which were frustrating at times, I found that there were some good reasons to upgrade, and some not-so-good reasons.  Whether good or bad, the reasons usually were based on new features, improvisation on existing features, or laced with enhancements to that are supposed to make the experience that much more enjoyable.  At the time of doing these "wonderful" upgrades, I thought I was improving my computer performance, and at the same time, I was learning a new operating system.  The latter was true, but not the performance.  A lot of times, it suffered greatly.

Some people might ask, "So, what do I gain out of upgrading my computer's operating system?"  There are a lot of pros and cons to upgrading your operating system.  I want to go over some of the pros (the positive side) of upgrading your operating system first.

1) Newer Features - Sometimes an upgrade to the latest operating system will allow you to do something that you couldn't before.  An excellent example was when Microsoft went to Windows 95 from Windows 3.x.  A lot of users were pretty skeptical, and some rejected upgrading up to two years after it had been available on the market.  One of the main, and most popular, features that Windows 95 offered was a more streamlined user interface (start button, program menu, control panel, etc) which allowed the user to access programs much more efficiently, and without so much clutter to go through (i.e. program groups).

2) Upgraded Drivers - Another sticking point of upgrading has been the idea that when you upgrade, certain drivers are updated as well.  Although this didn't happen from Windows 3.x to 95, it did once Windows 98 came along, and even better was Windows 98 Second Edition (Win98SE for short).  Drivers for things like your mouse, keyboard, and in some cases, your sound and video card were updated with the latest (but very basic) software.  Then Windows XP came along, and all of that changed drastically.  Instead of just worrying about basics like your keyboard, mouse, and sound drivers, it also carried with it some common drivers for networking, video, sound, modem, and USB drivers (which have since become very popular in almost all peripheral devices).  Even webcams, and other drivers were now available with Windows XP, and in a lot cases, no further install was necessary, except on rare occasion where the driver CD had to be used.

3) Greater Flexibility - With each new operating system upgrade came the greater flexibility of creating multiple users on one computer system.  Although Windows 95 through Millenium Edition didn't offer much in the way of user authentication, Windows NT through 2000 did, and then Windows XP was designed as a hybrid of Windows 9x/Me and Windows NT/2k.  Since XP, a computer administrator (aka "Owner" on XP Home Edition, and I think Media Center Edition as well) could create multiple user accounts, and set their access level accordingly.  Almost all versions of Windows since XP have now incorporated a "Guest" account where someone other than the household users could log in, and have basic access to most programs.  All guest accounts (except when the administrator does something crazy and allows it) are restricted from installing and modifying programs.  This is especially useful when parents want to limit their children's activity on the computer system.  New operating systems have also meant more control on what programs are available to users.  In the case of Windows-based operating systems since XP, an Administrator/Owner can restrict what programs are available to "Limited" and/or Guest accounts, even block them as necessary.

4) Support for Compatible New Products - An upgrade to a new operating system can be frustrating, but imagine for a moment if we never got past using Windows 95.  Although patches are available, support would not exist for products using FireWire, USB, HDMI ports, DVI, etc.  And the support Windows 95 would have for those kinds of ports would be severely limited.  In fact, some of the older versions of operating systems didn't start widespread support of some of these ports until early 2001 when it became clear that USB and FireWire were not going away as some might have hoped.  A study done years ago confirmed that USB is now the most commonly used port in use today (whether on PC or MAC) versus the much older parallel and serial ports.  It's not limited to USB, FireWire or any other type of port that operating systems expand their support of new products.  It can also be for hardware upgrading reasons, including hard disk capacity upgrading, memory, CDROM/DVDROM drives, etc.  Sometimes, an operating system upgrade will allow you to use a newer product than its predecessor would have.

5) Support for newer software - It's a well known fact that in order to use some of the latest software like games, productivity software, and some security programs, you have to be running a compatible operating system with the latest security updates and service packs.  Some software programs, like one I used to do technical support for, simply won't install based on the operating system installed.  Some hardware products are like that, too, where the device or peripheral simply won't work unless you install an upgrade for the operating system, or in some cases, the device or peripheral will work, but have limited capabilities. 

Those points, in my view, are the pros to upgrading your operating system to the latest and greatest version.  There might be more reasons to upgrade, but those are the common incentives to do so.  Now, I give you the cons.

1) Too much hassle - Although most operating system upgrades are fairly easy to do, problems can arise that make even the simplest of upgrades very frustrating, and time-consuming.  There's also the problem of having to purchase a hardware upgrade such as memory or a new hard drive, because the OS upgrade requires it, or you have simply run out of room. 

2) Incompatible Software/Hardware - While most upgrades can be done with existing hardware, there might be an issue or two with what is called "legacy" hardware or software.  In other words, products and software that are considered "old" and out-dated.  A problem like this came up for me when I upgraded from Win2k to WinXP and found that my Realplayer software was not going to work on XP (this was years ago, by the way).  After downloading the new version, it worked.  However, not all solutions will work the same way.  You'll either have to contact the manufacturer or provider for help, or simply abandon the upgrade until a patch or update can resolve the conflict.  Another great example was when I had done another upgrade on a different computer system of mine, and this time it was a fresh, clean install of Windows XP, and when all was said and done, my secondary CDROM was deemed unusable by XP.  I was NOT a happy camper, but at the very least it forced me to do a hardware swap.

3) Intimidating New Interface - This has happened more times than I care to admit.  Imagine using Windows 95 your whole computer-driven life, and all of a sudden you are using Windows Vista.  Talk about throwing you off your whole game, right?  I mean, you spent how many years learning a new interface (from Win3.x to Win95, and now Vista), and now you have to learn where programs and utilities are located in this new version that you are unfamiliar with!  Well, it can be a little bit like that, or sometimes, much more intimidating.  A lot of users refuse to upgrade simply for this reason alone.

4) New Problems and Other Fun Adventures - Yep, we all know it's happened, and on more than one occasion.  The stories are endless with my tech support brothers and sisters.  I've even been there a few times myself, doing an upgrade, and all-of-a-sudden it brings up the BLUE SCREEN OF DEATH!!! Yeah, pretty frightening, especially when you're as clueless as I was when this message came up.  Or worse yet, you get through the entire installation, and when you go to open a program, your entire computer crashes.  Any new software, including Operating Systems have always been prone to bugs, new types of hacker attacks, vulnerabilities, critical errors, conflicts with software or hardware, and an abundance of new security threats.

5) Useless Features - Again, I've been there myself.  I've got my computer upgraded, and found a feature that looks cool, but it is ultimately useless in practice for the home environment.  This is especially true when you've done like me and bought Windows XP Professional and found all sorts of new security features, but haven't found a way to incorporate them into your use of a computer system.  Some features have proved to be fairly useless in nature.  In Windows Vista, they have a capability where you can monitor your children's online activity, and even put in protocols to limit activity.  For parents, that might be a useful item, but for me, it's just not practical in use.

6) Support Options - In recent years, consumers still on an old and outdated operating system are being shut out of support by the companies that make them.  Microsoft has been one company in particular that has been methodically ending support for older operating systems.  Most OS makers do not charge for updates, patches, etc for their software when applying them from a web-based service, but if support for an OS version is ending, that option may not be available. So, if you still have Windows 98, and run into a situation where your problem would warrant going to Microsoft Update, you might not be able to get the fix that you need.  Even calling technical support for an OS may not be an option either.  Sure, there might be someone out there willing to post a fix or patch, but as more and more people upgrade, that option may soon fade, too. 

Of course, there might be more negative considerations for upgrading an operating system, but those are pretty much the core ideas.  While this next list is not exclusive, it is a good basis to use as a sounding board, maybe with a friend, or just some items to think about when trying to determine if an upgrade to your operating system is weighing on your mind.

A) Cost - Most of us techs can agree that operating system software (whether full version or upgrade-only versions) is expensive.  It can be difficult to justify spending a couple hundred dollars for an upgrade to your OS, and even more so will it be just as hard to validate the idea of upgrading hardware to suit the new OS upgrade.

B) Benefits and Disadvantages - If you have to, write your own list of pros and cons from upgrading your operating system.  Look over its features, capabilities, and other points of interest to determine if this will be a worthwhile expenditure or if you will be wasting dollars on a product you might not even need.  There are some consumers who will buy an upgrade to an OS simply for the fact that it's new, or that the new upgrade will allow them to use the program that they've been waiting to use, but couldn't with the old operating system.

C) Learning Curve - This has been covered earlier, but a lot of consumers who upgrade their PC's OS have reported that the newer version is simply too hard to learn or that they cannot find certain tools, programs, etc on new OS.  A great idea to this is to simply use a friend's computer that has the new OS version.  See how you like it, try a few programs, tools, and other features to get a feel for what you are upgrading to.  My personal recommendation is to try a new OS version for at least a whole day or two, and in some cases up to a week, before you begin to consider upgrading your PC to the new OS version.  If you have to, try to borrow a laptop from a friend or a family member so that you can get familiar with the new OS version as much as possible.

D) Experiences - Some of the gossip about new operating system versions have originated mostly from user-generated opinions, rather than expert advice and professional reviews.  Although, choosing to upgrade your OS version is a lot like picking out a suitable physician or an auto mechanic, and just like that kind of decision, you have to do your homework and research the facts yourself.  Don't just go off what you hear from family, friends, etc.  The bigger complaints that I've seen and read about new OS versions is that there is a problem with a hardware device or peripheral, or a software program won't work, because of some sort of error, or incompatibility issue.  Majority of the time, some believe that a problem simply exists for no reason, and that there is no solution for sole reason it's a new OS version.  In my ever so humble and little opinion (for what it's worth), a good way to research is to look for forums that talk about the problem or issue.  See what other users have experienced, and what might be a suitable solution to the same problem.  On the contrary, you may not even have to worry about the problem that others face with the new OS.  For instance, user A reports that their new OS upgrade isn't allowing them to use XYZ camera, because of an error, but you don't use XYZ camera, you use ABC Camera, or you may not even be using a camera at all.

To recap, this list is NOT exclusive.  There may be other ideas to consider when trying to decide if you need to upgrade your OS version.  Personally, I'd advise to look beyond the obvious and take a fresh look at what is motivating you to upgrade.  Maybe talk with a friend or a family member to see what their motivations were to upgrade.  Try to look at the overall value of what OS you will be upgrading to, and then Focus on what needs and wants it will satisfy in both the short- and long-term.

Have a subject to discuss about computers, or computer related questions?  Email me @  I'll do my best to discuss the topic as thoroughly as possible (and as my experience and education allows) on my next blog.  Hope you've enjoyed this article.  Have a great day!


Monday, August 24, 2009

Your Computer & You!

I’ve been asked this by many friends, and family members, “Why is my computer so slow?” and “How can I improve my computer system?” The simple answer is that there is no simple answer to that question. What I will do is provide some tips, tricks, and general ideas on what to search for when a problem arises with your computer. If you are looking to increase the performance of your computer (translated loosely meaning “beef-up” your computer), there are some points to consider. I’ll get to those in a little bit.

The first, and most important, point to consider is that computers do not make mistakes, humans do. It is roughly estimated that 75-80% of errors that occur on any given computer system are, by nature, the result of the operator trying to do a task that is neither possible nor practical. The other 20-25% is caused by a genuine problem. A valid example is when a person is downloading several files, uploading multiple pictures, switching back and forth from one program to another, and viewing several web pages (facebook, myspace, etc), and the computer appears to be “frozen”. This is when the operator of said computer begins to panic, and pushes all sorts of buttons on the keyboard in the hopes of “unfreezing” the computer. The infamous "control+ALT+Delete” button combination is ultimately the last resort anyone should ever try, but in recent years, that combo is frequently turning to a futile effort.

A computer may seem “frozen”, but the operator fails to realize that the computer is doing everything the operator has asked it to do; it’s just longer than normal to process all the tasks. That’s what the little blinking light is for on the front of most computer systems. It is there to signal the user that the processor and the hard drive are processing the information, tasks, and other calculations. My best example of this is when my mother tries to put on too many pictures in a single email message. Eventually what happens isn’t surprising as the computer seemingly “locks up”. After several minutes, the computer resumes a somewhat normal operation mode.

Another prime example is how a person might perceive a problem like an error. The first idea that pops into the average person’s mind is that there must be a problem with the program itself. In this case, let’s say a person decides to double click on a program icon, and nothing happens. The operator waits patiently (usually gives about 30 seconds or so), and tries again. This time, they receive a message that there was an “access violation” and that the program was terminated. That person may ask “Why?” The answer should be apparent, since the program was being loaded; it was just taking longer than usual. When it failed to load as quickly as the operator expected, the operator tried again and got an error, because the computer can’t access the same program twice, unless it was designed (or programmed) that way.

All of that aside, here are some tips that I’ve found to be quite useful when dealing with a computer that is “slow-going” or has multiple problems popping up. Admittedly, some of these tips I don’t follow as often as I would like, but they are useful nonetheless.


I have based these tips on my experience using a Windows-based operating system such as Windows XP, Vista, 2k, etc. Refer to your operating system’s user manual for their equivalents.

1) Scan your drive for errors – This should go without saying. An error on your hard drive could be potentially hazardous to the data collected. This means any pictures, music, or other files not mentioned here could be at risk for corruption. Do this frequently. A good rule of thumb is to scan once a week.

2) Use Disk Cleanup often – After scanning your drive for errors, see if you can free up disk space by using this simple tool. It detects things like Temporary Setup Files, Temporary Internet Files, etc. If you are finding that you are running out of disk space, try using this tool first before deleting your own files.

3) Delete files that are unnecessaryWARNING: DO NOT delete ANY folder/file that could be used in a program or for the operating system as a whole. If you do, it can be VERY VERY bad. There’s no other way to describe it. With that said, you’ll want to delete files that have become unnecessary to keep, i.e. that important project you’ve already completed on Microsoft Word and have turned in, or some large video files that you’ve probably not viewed in months. A good practice is that if you haven’t viewed the file in over 3 months, it’s time to get rid of it. Also, if you click Delete using a Windows or Mac system, chances are it has ended up in either what’s called the “Recycle Bin” or “Trash” (Windows or Mac respectively). This means that what you’ve deleted hasn’t completely been erased. If you are positive about deleting an item, make sure this is emptied. I don’t know what the key command is for Mac systems, but right-clicking on Recycle Bin allows you the option to “Empty” its contents.

4) Use DEFRAG – Free space issues can be resolved by simply defragmenting your hard disk. It will position everything on the physical hard disk so that your files are stored at the “front” of the disk, rather than being “scattered” all over the place. This is also useful, because the computer’s processor, memory, and the hard disk itself won’t have to take forever to look up a file. Think of as a parking lot, and all the cars are parked in various spaces throughout the lot. This tool is the equivalent of a tow truck, but instead of towing the car off the lot, it’s simply moved so that all of the cars are parked in a more confined area, leaving more open space for new cars and trucks to park.

5) Use Anti-Virus programs – This probably is the most underused point you’ll ever read. No matter how many times this tip is viewed on any given site or forum, it has largely gone ignored. Fellow computer techs will agree with me when I say that a good practice to get into is to scan your hard disk at least once a week. Viruses (aka Virii, which is an unofficial plural for virus) can do nasty things to computers, and should be taken seriously, regardless of the severity of the virus, if one is detected. Make sure your anti-virus program is up-to-date with the latest updates possible.

6) Use Anti-Spyware/Adware programs – Just like anti-virus programs, these can also be useful when detecting “cookies” that are slowing down your browser’s ability to look up websites, pages, etc, and getting rid of them. There is no official tip on this, but my own rule of thumb is to run this scanner at least twice a week, if not more. As with the anti-virus program, make sure your anti-spyware/adware software is also updated regularly.

7) Shutting down your computer – While there is much debate over this tip, I personally recommend shutting down your computer at least once weekly or every other week. One of the points in this debate is the fact that the computer has built-in heat absorption technologies, i.e. cooling fans, heat-sinks, thermal absorbers, etc. What these items SHOULD do is keep your computer running cool. However, without these items installed, a computer can run very hot. Just like a car, it can overheat, even with the radiator operating with coolant and water. And just like a car that overheats, a good 30-minute shutdown will do wonders.  There are going to be problems that arise which, no matter what we do, are not going away easily. For this kind of problem, sometimes the only thing we can do is shut everything down, wait a minute, and turn the computer back on. The only explanation I can think of for this tip is that the computer resets all connections, puts files back in order, reorganizes resources, and reorganizes the pagefile ready to begin another session.

8) Use cooling systems – This tip ties in with the last. Unless you have custom built your own system, most computers available at retailers are “stock” computer systems. What this means is that your computer has been built with basic operating components. No frills, no thrills, no bells or whistles. This also means that the manufacturer has given the system only basic means to which it can be cooled. Usually, this will consist of a heat-sink or a fan for the CPU (sometimes both), and a fan for the power supply. Many retailers, especially online retailers like and, sell many different cooling fans and other devices to help keep your system running cool. A system that runs cool will run efficiently.

9) Use registry cleaning software – Just like any other aspect of efficiency, registry cleaning is also important. Remember that parking lot analogy? This would also apply for the Windows Registry as well. Every file and program used on Windows is registered, and if there are registry entries for programs and files that no longer exist, your computer is going to be busy looking for something that isn’t there.

10) Uninstall unnecessary programs – Just like deleting files that have outlived their usefulness, this also applies to programs you may not use any longer. This would be games, applications, and other software that you might have installed. Depending on the software manufacturer’s instructions, it would be recommended to use the software’s own uninstaller program first. If none exists, then you may use the Add/Remove programs feature in the Windows Control Panel.

11) Backup files – This is an optional item, but I highly recommend it. If there are files you need to get rid of, but are afraid you may need them later on, BACKUP BACKUP BACKUP! If you have a CD-Recordable drive, any blank 80min/700MB CD-R disc can be used to backup your data (it would probably be better if it were a CD-RW). Other media can include external hard drives (growing increasingly popular and can sustain an entire hard drive), USB drives (usually anywhere between 1-32GB), etc. DVD-R discs are also good if you have a DVD-recordable drive. Like CDs, DVD-RW would probably be more suitable.

12) Registry hacking – Not particularly recommended, but this can be useful. I strongly discourage this option if you are a beginner to intermediate user of Windows. Registry hacking is like performing surgery, instructions must be performed PERFECTLY! Using search engines, you could find some useful registry hacks. Again, I strongly discourage it unless you know what you are doing.

13) Temporary Internet Files settings – I personally recommend setting this to “Every Visit to the Page” and setting the size to something equivalent to your installed RAM. Mine is set to 128MB, but a good setting would be 256MB. However, the larger the size, the more time it will take to load a webpage.

14) Use MSCONFIG – I don’t know about Windows Vista or newer, but MSCONFIG can help in a number of ways. One way in particular is to decrease the number of startup programs when Windows loads up. There are plenty of articles on how to do this, so I won’t get into it too much. Needless to say, the fewer programs you have starting up in the background (and continually running), the more you will see an improvement in performance. A quick side note, startup programs (those little icons you might see at the lower right corner of your screen) are mostly a feature for those of us too lazy to double-click an icon.

15) PAGEFILE sizes – The pagefile serves as virtual memory for the computer to supplement the installed RAM. Let’s say you have 256MB RAM, and the pagefile is set to 768MB on Drive C. This means that on top of the 256MB RAM, Windows will use 768MB of hard disk space as memory as well. After much research, my recommendation would be to set the minimum file size to 1.5 times your installed RAM, and the maximum size should be set to 3 times your installed RAM, e.g. your installed RAM is 512MB, so the minimum should be 768MB. A word of caution: setting the pagefile to a size ridiculously large or similarly too small will severely impact performance.

16) Use a firewall - Firewalls are good, especially with the threat of hackers using various means of gaining access to your computer. They can also be bad when you are unable to connect to the internet. For most average computer users, the default settings are usually sufficient in protecting your computer. Keep it that way. The last thing anyone should try is to mess around with the settings.

17) Avoid potentially risky websites – Hackers love to put up sites that mimic sites that you probably visit frequently. Be wary, be on your guard, and most importantly, if it looks and smells weird, chances are you’ve been duped. Look for things that are obvious signs of fraudulency, i.e. words misspelled, and links that are not affiliated with the site, etc. Any internet security advisor will tell us that hackers like to prey on individuals who aren’t careful, are easily scared off, and are easily manipulated into believing what they see.

18) Avoid opening odd emails – We’ve all seen them, and at some point or another, we’ve all opened them. I’m talking about emails that look like they are from friends, but are not. Some emails are obvious ploys to get you to click a link that asks for your information like your name, address, phone number, etc. Those are emails that, I hope, we can all spot from 10 miles away without even breaking a sweat. There are some, however, that are really clever in tricking people. Some of the more infamous ones have been about U.S. soldiers who either died, are dying, or have loved ones in need, and are asking you for money. There are some emails going around that are from individuals pretending to be charitable organizations, even ones we all know, asking for your financial help. Exercise caution when reviewing an email from someone you do not know.

19) Avoid downloading suspicious files – This kind of goes without saying, but it’s still worth noting. If you receive an email, even from a friend or relative, and the file attached looks odd, DO NOT download it! Unless you fully trust the person sending you the file, it’s best to leave it be, and delete it. Most anti-virus programs available can scan the file as it is downloading, so you shouldn’t worry too much. However, if it detects a virus, immediately quarantine and delete the file. It is also a good idea to let your friend or relative know, BY PHONE, to check their systems as well to make sure they’ve not had a computer infection.

20) Install more RAM – The installed RAM on a factory-built PC can be very limited at best, and even worse it’s often not enough to play some of the more popular games out on the market today. If you have a PC with 512MB RAM or lower, you have some choices to make. This option will increase performance of a system in a variety of ways, but primarily it will help relieve the processor from having to be limited to what processes can be completed based on RAM. While this option may not be cost effective in the short-term, it can be considered “long-term” relief of problems related to sluggishness of a computer system. Most PCs today are being built with well over that minimum, some even up to 4GB (that’s Gigabyte) of RAM, which is mind-boggling to me. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the amount of memory some small computer systems are built with. Depending on your system, and manufacturer guidelines, you may be able to install up to 2GB RAM. Refer to your system’s manual or user guide for information on that.

21) Install a newer hard disk drive – While I’m not entirely sure how this helps, I do know that a newer and bigger capacity hard disk can help with the virtual memory (or pagefile) end of things. It is also helpful to get a hard disk drive that is 7200rpm or better. I know from experience that drives with 5400rpm are deficient when it comes to performance, but are cost-effective in the longer run. With a 7200rpm drive, the computer can access hard drive data much faster, and will process information to RAM and the CPU in a much more efficient way.

22) Install a 3rd Party Video Card – Many computer systems available today have what is called “built-in” video adapters. What this means is that the video feed coming from your PC to your computer monitor is generated without the use of a “card” inside your computer. This is both a good thing, and a bad thing, and mostly a bad thing. The good part about it is that when you buy a PC, it can be plugged in, and ready to be used right away, no messing around with taking apart the PC to install something you may not need. However, and this is where the downside is (in my view), “onboard” video adapters (as they are commonly called), “share” the computer’s installed RAM in order to function. In other words, a PC may have 1024MB RAM, but what Windows is actually using is more like 1008MB RAM. This is because the onboard video adapter is using 16MB RAM to generate video (and the computer’s performance is impacted severely). Installing a third-party video card with its own onboard installed RAM (say 256MB or better) may not be cost-effective, like installing more of your computer’s RAM; it can be helpful in the long-term.

23) Install the latest drivers – Another overused, but understated message from techs everywhere. Always check to make sure every device driver is up-to-date for things like your printer, video adapter, sound drivers, etc. Many problems can be resolved simply by using a more updated driver. If you are unsure of how to get the newest drivers for your computer, refer to your computer user guide, or call the manufacturer tech support desk for more information. If you are using a custom-built computer, then you should be able to go to each device’s manufacturer website and download the driver from there.

24) Windows Update – Some might call Microsoft some sort of evil empire bent on world domination through the public’s use of Windows operating systems, and while that may be true, we still use Windows-based systems (for the most part), and we will also need to stay updated with the latest service packs, critical updates, hotfixes, etc. For that reason, Windows Update is your friend. Use it often. There may be a fix to a problem that you are having through an update here.

25) Avoid Static Electricity – A fried computer system is no laughing matter, especially when so many of us use one to collect photos, save important documents, and other fine items. Sometimes, even our emails are most precious to us. However, it can all be gone in an instant if the slightest ZAP makes contact with your computer. Does this mean you should wear an anti-static wrist strap or be sitting on a chair that sits on an anti-static mat? No, of course not, but there are precautions you can take to eliminate the threat of static-electricity making contact with ANY computer system or computer peripheral. First, make sure you are grounded. Touch any object that does NOT conduct electricity first before touching any computer part. Second, if it can be achieved, use a chairmat. This will eliminate your feet from building up a static charge. Lastly, avoid contact with others who have built up a static charge. If they can pass it on to you, you can pass it on to your computer.

26) Use Surge Protectors and UPS systems – No, a UPS system is not the same as the shipping company UPS. It stands for Uninterruptable Power Supply, and yes, it is expensive, but even more expensive is replacing a computer system altogether, and the information stored on a computer system is almost irreplaceable. A UPS system will ensure continued operation of your PC in the event of a power outage, giving you time to shut down your PC for the duration of that outage. A good alternative is to A) use Surge Protection power strips, and B) during a storm, SHUT DOWN your PC.

27) NEVER plug or unplug a cord or device from a PC while powered ON – I know this is a much over-stated tip, but it’s still never a good idea to unplug or plug any cord or device attached to the computer system while it’s still on, unless it’s “hot-swappable” like FireWire or USB. If you do, it can cause a short ZAP in the outlet or port that it’s plugged into. Remember what we said about ZAPs? They can be bad, and in some cases, it can permanently damage a PC beyond repair. So, the bottom line remains, DO NOT unplug or plug a device, cord, or anything else for that matter. This is especially true for the power cord.

28) Save your Software – SYS (Save Your Software) is a lot like SOS in the sense that you might need it later on. An example would be if you intend on wiping your computer clean for a quick sale, or if you are like me, and you just want a fresh start to when your computer was first opened out of the box, you’ll want the “Restore CD” to revert the system back to factory defaults. Being a pack-rat for computer discs (and disks) can be extremely helpful, especially when you keep your Windows CD-ROM disc.

29) Stay organized – Computer techs everywhere agree that an unorganized hard drive creates difficulty when it comes to fixing a problem. The “My Documents” folder is offered by Windows to allow for your “work-in-progress” documents and other projects to be stored in a single location, rather than scattered all over your hard disk. If you must put files somewhere else, maybe for security purposes, or you have some sort of disagreement with a boyfriend, girlfriend, jealous wife or husband, or just some nosy kids, create a TEMP folder off the root drive directory, and store your files there for short term storage. If you are really that concerned about your files being seen, get a USB drive. They are cost-effective alternatives.

30) Try a newer piece of hardware – A lot of times, I’ve been in a situation where everything I’ve tried has simply been unsuccessful. My best example is when my CDROM drive no longer wanted to read discs. I tried cleaning the discs, tried using known good discs (scratch-free and clean), and I’ve tried reinstalling drivers for the CDROM, but still had no success in fixing the problem. Finally, after much frustration, it came down to either replacing the IDE cable inside the computer or the CDROM, and it turned out to be the CDROM drive itself that became unsalvageable. There are two schools of thought on how one proceeds with this. The first school of thought is to try the malfunctioning device, peripheral, or computer part on another computer. I like this idea, but it has obvious flaws. One of those flaws is that the other computer may have issues capable of further damaging the part, peripheral, or the device in question. Another school of thought revolves around the idea of using a spare of the part, peripheral, or device that is malfunctioning. An obvious problem with that is the fact that not everyone has spares, nor can they be afforded at times. So, my personal advice, TRY BOTH! Here’s how I do it: A) I try the device, part, or peripheral on another computer, B) if said item works on another computer, but not mine, I go to my plan B which involves using a spare, if I have one. C) If neither plan works (nor can’t be done for obvious reasons), then I go inside my own computer and replace the IDE cable. You’re probably asking what happens if none of that resolves the problem. Well, in that particular instance, there’s really nothing you can do, except replace the entire PC. Any tech will tell you that trying the device, part, or peripheral on another system, or trying the same, but newer item on your PC is a good troubleshooting technique. This is especially true if you are coming across errors related to that item.

The tips above should be used only as a guideline, and not to be used as a substitute for a professional computer technician who is trained to service and repair problems related to your system. Always check your user manual, guides for specific details (if possible), and websites for the latest information. If there is a problem that these tips haven’t been able to cover, I suggest the following avenues for help:

1) Manufacturer websites – Probably the best sources for issues related to your computer system, or a specific computer peripheral device.

2) Online Forums – Many sites out on the web have forums for problems that come up with computer. Check them, and check often. Your issue may be posted. Alternatively, you may post your problem to an online forum, and receive feedback on possible solutions based on what information you provide. You may be asked for basic information such as the computer make, model, installed RAM, Operating System, etc etc. Provide as much detail as possible so that other online forum posters can provide the best possible solution. My personal side note to this is don’t use only one of the solutions posted, try each one until you get a resolution.

3) Use Search Engines – A good deal of my experience with repairing computer systems has come from the use of search engines. Usually I type a few keywords in, say “Error 455” and I get, literally, thousands of results. It is best to tie-in your error to a specific device or computer system, i.e. “Error 455 Compaq Presario” This will narrow down your search considerably.

4) Friends & Family – Sometimes a friend or a family member may have had the same problem as you. Check to see if they’ve run into the same issue, and see what resolved it. This is where the “Remote Assistance” feature can be very useful for those who use Windows XP or newer, which allows a trusted friend or family member to remotely access your PC, with your permission, and see what you’re seeing, and even (again, with your permission) take control of your PC to further investigate the problem.

5) Tech Support – As much as I hate to admit it, tech support (in my opinion) can be useful in a variety of ways. As a former technical support specialist for a large company, I can say with certainty that not all techs are useless sheep reading off a script. It is rare, but while walking through a procedure (that I’m sure we’ve all done by the time we call, anyway), a technical support agent can come across a solution that may or may not work, and if not, it can be thoroughly documented. I’d keep this to a “very last resort” status.

Most of the time when we call technical support we dread it, not for the whole ordeal of explaining our problem, but because we usually get someone with a language barrier. It’s easy to get frustrated, and while our views on the overseas workforce differ from person to person, just remember, these people are trying to help. I’ve known and worked with great techs who, admittedly, were a little hard to understand, but are absolutely brilliant technical minds. In their defense, some of them have been very impressive in their work. That being said, here are some general tips for when you decide you want to use that “very last resort” life-line:

A) Take 10 – One of the chief complaints of techs everywhere is that people call when they are angry or frustrated, and usually have taken it out on the techs themselves for no good reason. Before calling, take a moment to breathe calmly, take inventory of what you have already done, the steps you’ve tried, and what the outcome has been. Document everything, including the error (if one is present), and everything you did before the problem occurred. Above all, take a 10-minute break and walk away from the computer. It will do you some good to relieve the tension. The tech will thank you for it.

B) Be Clear and Concise – No offense to anyone who has ever called a support line, whether it was customer service, billing, tech support, etc, but please, when calling, be concise. In other words, get to the point. Don’t tell us about your life story, and how your dog was run over, and that your kids haven’t been the same since, and now the computer is a mess since your troubled kid got on it. We really don’t need that information to do our job. Focus on what the issue is, what happened when it occurred, etc. Also, be clear when giving details.  Again, no offense, but it helps a lot when you are in an area that isn't flooded with a bunch of background noise.

C) Be Honest – A tech will help you as best he or she can, but if you are lying to them, it’s only going to make the issue perpetuate. Be honest about how the issue came to be. Saying something like “It just did it by itself” is not an acceptable answer. By now, we should all know that computers don’t do anything without the user’s input. We’re not in a courtroom, what you say is NOT going to be used against you, and your conversation with the tech is kept confidential, so if you did go to that porn site, come clean, get it over with, and let us do our job as techs.

D) Be Respectful – Another complaint from us techs is that some callers often verbally abuse those who answer the phones. Whether warranted or not, it’s still rude and very inappropriate. Remember, techs are people who have feelings, too. Insults and other inappropriate comments are not well-tolerated, and most companies I’ve worked for have policies in place where an agent is allowed to discontinue the call with or without notice, and in some cases, the caller is instructed not to call again. With some minor exceptions, we (us techs) really do want to help you, the caller. That is what we get paid for, and that’s what we’re going to do.

E) Be Reasonable – Asking the impossible is simply over our heads, even for supervisors. If you are calling with the intention to ask us to do something that isn’t possible, you’re going to have a really bad experience on the phone, regardless of what the tech says or does to try to alleviate the problem. I could go on with stories of client callers who asked me to perform nothing short of a miracle, but I won’t. Bottom line, if your request is beyond the capability of even supervisor-level authority, you are better off with a compromise. In other words, we can’t just magically fix a problem without some sort of effort on your part, and at the very least, we can offer alternative methods, and yes, even a compromise.

F) Listen Carefully – Sometimes the worst part about being a tech is when average individuals pay no attention to our instructions. There are two main reasons why we ask you to perform tasks to solve a problem, even if you’ve already done those tasks. First, we want to make sure the steps are performed in an orderly fashion to rule out certain aspects of an issue. Secondly, we also want time to research the problem so that we don’t have to put you on hold and ask for help. We would rather that be OUR last resort.

G) Be Prepared – A solution to a problem may not always be covered in one phone call to tech support. Sometimes we will need to refer you to another resource. Again, the stories are endless. If we cannot help you on our end, we will provide you with information on resources that may or may not be helpful. Some information might be websites, phone numbers to another support desk, etc. Or we may have to (in some cases) send out a technician to either your home (if appropriate) or place of business to further investigate the problem and evaluate potential solutions, and we will give you a ticket or service number for reference. Be ready to write this information down so that you have a reference point. Also, if you feel the need to, write down the agent’s name and the date so you know who you spoke to with regards to your issue. Lastly, have any software CDs and other disks handy when calling. The computer tech advisor may have you reinstall a device, the software for it, or a patch that may be on the CD itself may need to be installed. Whatever the reason, be sure that you have these disks and other CDs ready to be used if asked.

H) Ask Relevant Questions – An annoyance of us techs is the fact that some callers might ask questions that have no bearing on the issue at hand. We don’t mind questions, and in fact, we value them, because we can provide good information, provided they are relevant. In other words, asking “Will I be charged for updates to my [product name]?” is relevant, but asking about prices on market items that we might suggest is not. We don’t answer billing questions, nor are we sales agents. If your matter is outside the technical arena, we will refer you to another number for those questions, and in some cases, we’ll offer to transfer you to that other department after we are done addressing your issue. Also, asking about a device unrelated to the issue at hand is ok, but we would rather save that for after the problem has been resolved, or at the least addressed in some way.

I) Be Present at the computer system – Nothing is more annoying for a tech when a call comes in from a consumer who isn’t anywhere near their computer system. We understand this happens, but it happens more times than we care to like. For this reason, and if it can be helped, try to be present at your computer. We want to know if the possible solutions work or not, and if you are not at your PC, it can be difficult to determine what could be causing your issue to occur. If you are unable to be at your PC for reasons that you may or may not want to share, we will ask you to write down steps to try, and to document the outcome so that when you call back, with a reference number of some kind and at your PC, we can further assist you more effectively.

Whether you need general help with a computer such as a “How-to” question, or if it’s something more complex like an error with a program or a peripheral device, or maybe something else in between, it is important to remember that these tips are provided as a general set of instructions. My best advice is to approach each and every problem, big or small, with an objective attitude, an open mind, and lots of patience. Remember, if a problem can be resolved without buying a new product, then you’ve saved yourself both time and money. And with how our current economy is going these days, it never hurts to try a few tips to give your computer a boost in the efficiency department.

Have a question related to computers that you are having trouble with?  Email me @, and I'll do my best to cover that topic in my next blog.