Seven common PC problems and what to do about them

As a small-business person, you might bemoan the fact you don’t have 24/7 IT support like your larger-scale competitors. Don’t panic.

You can solve many of the most common computer problems yourself. Here are some snafus you can tackle on your own, thanks to the advice of the support staff at several major hardware and software vendors:

Symptom: Sluggish response time

Could be: A software problem.

The fix: Run a full antivirus scan to make sure you don’t have any malicious software tripping up your computer.

If malware isn’t the problem, get into your System Configuration utility and look at whether applications are continuously running in the background that don’t have to be, such as an application you rarely use that’s constantly looking for updates. Then uncheck it, freeing up resources.

“This tool will allow you to disable any third-party programs that will perform functions when the computer starts up,” explains Michael Obenshain, technical lead for support escalations in the customer service and support group at Microsoft.

If you don’t find the applications that are slowing down your computer — or this step doesn’t help — check with vendors to see if you need any software updates.

Also, run a disk defragmenter, which reduces the amount of fragmentation in the file systems, thus freeing up space.

Sometimes a computer is slow because of hardware problems, Obenshain says. Run a Check Disk utility (chkdsk) to see if there are any bad spots on the drive. The program will mark those spots as bad, and Microsoft won’t write to them anymore. (He suggests that you do this monthly anyway, noting that lots of bad spots indicate that your hard drive is failing.)

Symptoms: Distorted video, crosshatched lines on your monitor, sudden loss of power

Could be: Overheated components in your computer, such as the central processor, which will kill power to the machine, or the graphics card that connects to the monitor.

The fix: Turning off your computer and letting it cool will resolve the problem temporarily, but it doesn’t fix the underlying cause, which is often dust inside your computer, says Bill Bivin, community liaison for the Community and Conversations group at Dell. Get out your manual, or get to the manufacturer’s Web site to find instructions on dusting out your computer. (And keep up a regular dusting schedule to avoid future problems.)

Symptom: Computer won’t boot up

Could be: A software issue.

The fix: Sometimes the inability to boot up and get into the operating system indicates a corrupt system file, says Bob MacDonald, vice president of technology services for Staples’ EasyTech service. Some off-the-shelf diagnostic tools will scan and, if possible, repair the problem.

The alternative, though, might be to reinstall the operating system — a time-consuming task that could mean data loss, particularly if you’re not backing up regularly, he says. More advanced diagnostics and repairs are best left to IT professionals, who can usually protect against data loss.

Symptom: Computer won’t boot up past POST (“power-on self-test,” the preboot sequence)

Could be: A hardware issue.

The fix: Take note of any messages or beep codes — even if they seem cryptic — because they give details of the problem, Obenshain says. You can use them to search online or to search a vendor’s Web site for information about what might be wrong and how to fix it.

In addition, try to isolate the problem by disconnecting any external pieces of hardware connected to the machine and rebooting to see if any of them could be the problem, Obenshain says.

If you added a new piece of hardware and couldn’t boot up, it could mean that there’s something physically wrong with it, or that there’s some incompatibility between it and your computer, or that the driver on that device isn’t compatible with a piece of software on your machine, he explains. “So the quickest, simplest test is to take off the new addition and see if that’s the fix,” Obenshain suggests.

After a few weeks without additional problems, you’ll have a better idea of whether you addressed the real problem, he notes.

Also, those who are more tech-savvy can open up the desktop casing to make sure all the cables are secure. Sometimes a cable can be jostled loose when a computer is moved.

Symptom: Problems launching a software application (e.g., won’t launch, freezes up computer, produces an error message, etc.)

Could be: A conflict with other applications.

The fix: Try the System Restore function to remove any recent changes. “It removes any system settings, like if you changed your desktop from a picture of a puppy to a picture of the beach, or any software added since the last restore point,” Bivin explains.

If your computer has problems launching applications soon after you’ve installed new software, uninstall the new application and then install it again to see if that solves the problem, he advises.

You should also check for and install updates on existing software, he adds.

Symptom: Blue-screen error
Could be: Hardware or software problems.

The fix: You can look at Event Viewer in Computer Management to get a brief description of the error and maybe even reference support articles. (To access Computer Management, click Start and then click Control Panel. Click Performance and Maintenance, click Administrative Tools, and then double-click Computer Management.)

“It will tell what file caused an issue, so you can identify whether it was hardware or software that caused it,” Obenshain says. You might just need a software update to get things rolling smoothly again.

Otherwise, you can use the messages that appear to search for a probable cause and solution. If the computer is successfully able to boot and you’re working in Windows and getting error messages, you can go to Microsoft’s support site to find troubleshooting info or, if it’s a known problem, the steps to resolve it, Obenshain says. He notes that the messages might not make sense to the user but could mean a lot to IT professionals.

Symptom: Peripherals won’t work

Could be: Corrupted software.

The fix: It’s tempting to think that your printer is kaput or your PDA is on its last legs when it won’t work with your computer, but it’s often just faulty software, Meister says. “The software that allows the computer to talk to the hardware sometimes gets corrupted or deleted or changed,” he explains.

The fix could be as simple as uninstalling the software for the device and then reinstalling it, he adds. Look for and install any updates, too.

Fatal error: Your PC’s down. Now what?

Do you feel helpless, frustrated and defeated when the error message rears its ugly head? Learn some first steps to help you identify the problem and seek the kind of help that is widely available for do-it-yourselfers online.

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