Detective's approach gets computers fixed

Clues: First, suspect the software. Which arrived most recently before tragedy struck?

January 03, 2000|By Bill Husted | Bill Husted,COX NEWS SERVICE

If your television broke down as often as most computers do, you'd have a lot more quality time to spend with your family.

I get a lot of e-mail from across the country, half of which asks for advice on how to fix something that has gone wrong with a computer. I'm not a computer genius, but even if I were, I'd have a hard time fixing these problems remotely. I'm in the same position as an auto mechanic who receives a phone call demanding to know what's wrong when the family car makes a chugga-woo-cher-cuck noise as it goes up steep hills.

There are methods to use at home that could help you find and possibly fix some computer problems.

The first thing to know about computers is that unlike your car, hardware failure is not the most likely suspect. It happens, but it's not the best assumption to begin with.

Instead, begin by being a detective. Think back to the last change you made to your computer before it began to malfunction. Anything from a new computer program, an updated browser, a new modem or scanner, even changes to an existing program, will often be the culprit.

A friend recently profited From thinking that way after his printer stopped working. He fussed and fooled and fulminated with settings and controls until he walked away and began thinking.

Then he remembered that he had just installed a new word processor. There is no logical reason why that would cause a printer to stop working, but it was his best clue. So, he removed the word processor (using the Windows uninstall program you'll find under the Add/Remove Programs icon in the Control Panel). End of problem.

He doesn't know why the word processor (WordPerfect) caused the problem, and he doesn't care. Unless you are a computer technician, you probably shouldn't care either. He just knows that his computer works again, and he will call Corel, the publisher of WordPerfect, to get advice on how to reinstall the word processor correctly. He has important information in hand: He knows what is wrong. Without such information, it's impossible to fix a lamp, a car or a computer.

There will be times -- plenty of them -- when you can't find a logical suspect for the computer's behavior. You'll swear nothing has changed, and you'll want to blame something trendy like a virus. Viruses are real, but at least in my experience they aren't the most likely cause of an unknown problem. If you want to reduce the odds that a virus is the culprit, get a good anti-virus program and use it.

Now that we've ruled out a recent change in your computer and a virus, what do you do next?

The smart next step is to go to the Device Manager you'll find under the System icon to see whether Windows can help. In many cases, it will flag a conflict between two devices (when two gizmos try to share the same computer address, they make cruddy roommates). If you find an exclamation mark (like this !) beside a device's name, that's an excellent clue. Windows has a help feature that will guide you through fixing the problem it finds (although the prose is pretty thick if you aren't a techie).

If all else fails, consider reinstalling Windows. Sometimes things get so messed up that, unless you have the time and the skill to pinpoint the problem, only a reinstall will fix them.

Some experts suggest editing what Windows calls the Registry file, which keeps track of almost every setting in a computer. I don't. But I'm not always right, so my advice is to read a good book on Windows (something other than the manual that comes with it) and make up your mind on whether to edit the Registry.

If all else fails, do as a good physician would, instead of trying something that could make it worse: If you're stuck and in over your head, call an expert.

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