When Problems Happen - Tips and Tricks

Last time we talked about slow computers and how to get them back running faster again.  Today, we’ll get into some “tips and tricks”with some ideas of what to do when problems happen.

First of all, problems may or may not be serious.  In fact, most aren’t as bad as they seem at first.  So remain calm, think logically, and don’t do anything that makes the problem worse.  In other words, use the least invasive solution first!

The good news is most problems are not hardware-related.  Although hardware certainly does fail,  the vast majority of computer issues are software related (Operating system, application software, and device drivers).

OK, let’s get to it.  Look at your computer.  Does it “beep” when turned on?  Is there any video on the monitor?  Does Windows start to boot and then freeze?  Are the computer and monitor plugged in and turned on? (Don’t laugh!)  Answers to these questions can help you identify where problems are coming from.  Also, did you just install a new device or some new memory?  If so, run tests to be sure the new component(s) are working.  Or remove them to see if the problem disappears.

Did some program or function stop working after you installed a new program or Windows Update? For example, maybe the sound card no longer worked.  It could be that a new driver was installed recently that is incompatible with the new software.  Or, did you intentionally install a new driver and now find that device doesn’t work? Window provides a handy tool known as “Driver rollback.” You can access it by going to Device Manager (start/control panel/system/hardware/device manager).  Then scroll to the device that is not working properly, highlight it and right click on it, and select properties.  This will open a window.  Select Driver.  On the next screen, you will see “roll back driver.”  Click on that, and confirm you want to roll back the driver.  The system will reinstall the previous driver version for you.  With luck, your device will start working again.  If not, just leave the earlier driver installed until you do find the solution elsewhere.  Or, if you want to reinstall the driver you started with, you can try clicking on Update. Windows may have it built right into the operating system.  Or you can load the driver from the device’s installation disc, or go to the manufacturer’s website to find the right driver.

Figure 1: Driver Rollback screen (greyed-out “Roll back Driver” screen shows, in this case, there is no earlier driver version.  Click image to enlarge.)

If this didn’t cure the problem, the next thing to try is the Safe Mode.  This is activated by pushing the F8 key while your computer is in the early stages of booting.  Safe Mode loads a bare-bones version of Windows, without a lot of drivers.  So it will often work when the computer won’t do a “full boot.”  One of the options you will see on the Safe Mode screen is called “Last known good configuration.” While that’s a long name, it accurately describes what this mode does.  Windows will use the configuration that was in effect the  last time your computer fully booted up.  So although you may have made some changes that prevented your computer from booting, the settings you need are still available.  Just select “Last known good configuration,” and your computer might boot normally.  Whew!  But two cautions: First, sometimes this won’t work, although it’s worth a try.  And second, try this before you do any other troubleshooting.  If you do other troubleshooting first, there’s a chance you could erase the data in the Last Known Good Configuration file, which could mean this tool won’t work properly. 

Figure 2: Safe Mode screen (click image to enlarge)

The next step in troubleshooting is to use another built-in Windows tool, Restore Points.

This is a great tool…it’s the “undo” you always wished you had!  Basically, just before you install a new program, Windows “takes a shapshot” of its system files, and then labels it with whatever you did next.  In other words, if you installed Microsoft WORD, you would have a restore point telling you the date, time, and it would say “installed Microsoft WORD.”

It’s a bit complicated to navigate to the “restore point” screen.  Here’s the path:

Start/programs/accessories/system tools/system restore.  You will then be presented with a screen asking if you want to restore your computer to an earlier time, or if you want to create a restore point manually now.  If you select “earlier time,” the next screen you see will have a calendar with various restore points.  Choose the most recent one that you remember worked.  Naturally, there are a couple things to be careful of.  You will need to re-do any changes you made since that time, since the restore point you selected will “take you back” to that earlier time.  Also, this technique will not affect your data files.  But be sure you have a copy of them before you use this tool just to be safe.

Figure 3: Restore Point screen  Shows various possible Restore Points (click image to enlarge)

If these troubleshooting steps have not solved your problem, now it’s time for the “heavy hitters.”  Users of Windows Vista and Windows 7 have a great recovery tool—the Recovery Environment, which runs in a graphical mode from the installation disc.  Users of Windows XP aren’t as lucky.  Their recovery method is the Recovery Console, a command-line (“DOS”) program that is also accessed from the installation CD. 

With Windows XP, insert the installation CD and select repair your computer.  Then it gets harder…the Recovery Console uses cryptic DOS commands.  So you may need to do some Internet research to get a list of commands and what they do, as they’re beyond the scope of this article.

Figure 4: Windows XP Recovery Console screen (click image to enlarge)

The Vista/Windows 7 Recovery Environment makes things easier for those users.  Again, insert the installation disc and  click “Repair your computer.”  Then select Startup Repair and the system will attempt to repair the problem automatically. 

Figure 5: User-friendly Windows 7 Recovery Environment screen (click image to enlarge)

After following these steps, if your system is still not booting, it’s time to go to a backup you made earlier.   So we’re back to backups!  (See article 1 of this series)  You DID create a back up, right??

But first, a little digression to talk about hard drives.  Modern hard drives are pretty remarkable devices, and today they’re available with huge amounts of storage.  But they are mechanical, and that means they are prone to failure.  In fact, there’s an old saying about hard drives: There are two kinds of hard drives…those that have failed, and those that haven’t failed yet”!!  And there’s a lot of truth to that.

So, now we have at least two very important reasons why you want to have a backup plan and follow it:  First, you may do something that causes a severe software problem with your computer, or you could experience a hardware issue—often a hard drive failure.  Either of these could separate you from your data unless you had at least one working backup of your entire system.   So overcome complacency and denial, and implement a backup plan today!

As mentioned in that earlier article, Windows XP home does not include Windows Backup, but you can add it via either using your installation disc (if it includes Service Pack 2 or 3), or via download.  And Windows XP Professional, Vista, and Windows 7 all include Windows backup.  Or, you could purchase third-party software from Acronis, Symantec, or other vendors.  If you have a complete system backup, you can usually get back to a working system by using that backup software.   (If your hard drive “crashed,” you could buy a new hard drive and use your backup image to “recreate” your entire system.)

However, if you didn’t ever make a backup, are you totally out of luck?  Maybe not: Even though your hard drive might be damaged, and it doesn’t boot, it probably does still have most of its data intact.  One way to gain access to this data is by booting your computer from what is known as a “Live CD.”  This is a CD that is self-booting.   One popular choice for these is Ubuntu Linux.   A free download for this is located at: http://www.ubuntu.com/desktop/get-ubuntu/download.  You’ll need to burn this to a CD or a USB thumb drive, so there are a couple of steps, but it’s not difficult.  Then you’ll have a CD or USB drive that will boot your computer.  (You may need to go into your BIOS system to adjust the “boot order” so your computer looks to boot from the CD or USB drive before it tries to boot from the hard drive.  Typically the BIOS access information is displayed on your monitor at the beginning of the boot process.) When Ubuntu starts up, you’ll get a screen asking if you want to install or try Ubuntu.  Select try.  While not identical to Windows, the Ubuntu screen is graphical, has resizable windows, and recognizes CD and USB drives.  If the hard drive is working at all, you will be able to “explore” it and copy your data to a different medium!

Figure 6: Ubuntu screen (click image to enlarge)

So, what if you never made a backup—or, if the backup(s) you had failed, so your system still doesn’t boot, and the “live CD” technique didn’t work?  Your options are limited, and your data is probably lost.  First, if your system shipped with a “recovery partition,” you may be able to activate it if your hard drive is still intact,  This will completely restore the computer to “factory fresh” condition—minus your date and applications, of course!  Second, you can re-install the operating system from your original CD’s.  (Again, good-by applications and data!)  Finally, of course, if your hard drive is bad, you’ll need a new hard drive.  Be sure to get a compatible one, and use your original CD’s to install your system.  Then begin the process of installing your applications and data.  

So that’s all we’ll say about what to do when problems happen.   Hopefully this discussion has given you some good ideas and the knowledge to attack problems on your own.   Our next topic in this series will be security issues.

Mark Klocksin is the Net Director of the NSRC.  He recently took some computer courses and later qualified for the A+ computer industry certification.  He is sharing some of his recently-acquired knowledge with his fellow radio amateurs.

© 2011 Klocksin Consulting

Mark Klocksin, WA9IVH