A high fever, a weird chugging sound from your car's motor and a computer that freezes up like a Minnesota lake in
January have something in common.
These are all symptoms - the fever, the engine noise and the freezing. You don't cure a symptom. You use it to find
and fix the problem behind the symptom.
Today we'll talk about diagnosing computer problems using symptoms. When we're done, you won't be able to cure the
common cold or tune up your car, but you may have a leg up on solving some common computer problems.
Let's say your computer freezes at times. We'll use that symptom to see how computer diagnosis works. The best place
to begin is Google. Simply type in the words: computer freeze.
Wow. Just the first few search results will tell you that just as a fever can be the symptom of many different
maladies, a computer freeze can result from all sorts of problems.
The hardware could be faulty, or the drivers - tiny software programs that let your computer talk to its devices -
could be bad. Or there may be glitches in the way you've configured the computer's basic instructions in its set-up
Then there are esoteric problems that probably won't even make sense to you. Try aluminum migration and ESD on for
size as an example of that.
It sounds odd to wish for this, but if you're lucky, the computer will have more than one symptom because it could
help in the diagnosis. You could use Google to check out that second symptom and look for problems that cause both
Also, consider any recent changes you've made. Adding new programs or hardware can create problems. And use your
ears. For instance, a hard disk going bad makes a metallic clanking or chattering sound. Add all this information to
the Google search - sounds, error messages and any other symptoms.
In most cases you'll still be left with several possible causes. Your Google search probably will tell you what the
most likely one is.
So you can assume that's the culprit and follow the corrective tips you found in your search. If that doesn't work, try the next most likely cause.
Several things are important as we move from diagnosis to treatment. The first is, only try one fix at a time. Here's
why: Sometimes the fix can make things worse. If that happens, you'll need to backtrack and undo the changes. If you
tried several things at once, you won't know which fixes to undo.
Some suggested fixes will be just plain wrong. To guard against these dead-ends, cross-check the suggestions against
other pages generated by your Web search. And weigh the credibility of the sites.
Any fool can create a Web page and provide advice. Sites maintained by universities are good, as are brand-name sites
such as cnet.com.
As you go to work, remember that fixing any problem is dangerous if you fail to follow the directions precisely. It's
better to do nothing than to engage in wild-eyed fixing.
Also remember that there are safe ways to attempt a fix, even without a diagnosis. System Restore is a terrific
low-risk way to attempt a fix. If you don't know how to use it, enter those words in the Windows Help menu.
Windows can also start in what's called Safe Mode. That starts the computer with just the bare essentials.
It's a good way of finding out if the cause is some tiny program or utility that loads each time you start the
computer. If Safe Mode is new to you, just type the words in the Windows Help menu.
We've just scratched the surface. Here are a few online resources that go into detail:
Here's the good news: The more you practice your diagnostic skills the easier it gets.
Pretty soon, instead of running laborious Web searches, you'll recognize symptoms and their most obvious causes.
Just keep in mind that the best advice any new physician gets is to first do no harm.
email@example.com. Bill Husted writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.