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PC problems? Troubleshoot them in 10 steps

Being methodical when you troubleshoot PC issues can save time and frustration — and it also gets users back to work more quickly, says Jack Wallen
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Topic: Developer
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1 of 10 Jack Wallen/ZDNet

Describe the problem

PC problems are a fact of life. Hardware, software or user error may be the cause, but so many things can go wrong that it's often difficult to know where to start the diagnosis.

I do a lot of remote support, so I've had to learn how to troubleshoot an ailing PC without being in front of the patient. Of course, everyone has a preferred method, but I thought I'd set out the steps I like to follow. This is what I do from the first call from the user.

1. Describe the problem
Before jumping onto the PC, I gather as much information as possible. I get the user to describe what's happening, when it started and whether any incident coincided with the onset of the problem. Often, this information gathering leads straight to the solution. Even better, it sometimes lets you know that a reboot is all that's needed to solve the problem.

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2 of 10 Boyan Yurukov/Flickr

Define the affected subsystem

2. Define the affected subsystem
In some instances a problem relates to a specific subsystem of a machine — such as printing. Some users articulate that fact, but others will just call, saying, "My computer isn't working," when what they mean is, "My printer isn't printing." Sometimes multiple subsystems are affected, such as printing and mapped network drives. The combination of those subsystems will often lead you straight to a solution.

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3 of 10 Don Fulano/Flickr

Is it hardware or software?

3. Is it hardware or software?
If an end user complains about an issue such as a slow PC, one of the first things I check is the hardware. Is there enough RAM? Is there enough free space on the C drive? And if the problem is network related, are the lights on the network card blinking, on, or dark?

If these areas don't yield an answer, don't immediately assume the issue is software related — there could be hard-drive issues. But before you delve deeper into the hardware, now is a good time to do some software checks. If nothing becomes apparent once you've investigated the software, come back to the hardware and do a drive-test or defrag.

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4 of 10 Jack Wallen/ZDNet

Deal with networking trauma

4. Diagnose printing woes
Printers can be tricky. But there are ways of simplifying this troubleshooting job. First, find out what type of printer you're dealing with. If the printer is networked, ensure the network is actually up. If it is, ask whether other machines can print to the printer in question. If they can, check whether any jobs are stuck in the machine's printer queue.

If you open the Printers And Devices window and the printer is not listed, find out if it recently disappeared. If it did, the driver is probably corrupt and will need to be removed from within Regedit. If the printer is still listed and no jobs are in the queue, ask the user to restart the machine and then try to print. A good restart cures many woes in Windows.

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5 of 10 Justin Marty/Flickr

Safe mode of computer

5. Deal with networking trauma
Can the user see the internal servers? If not, can they open their browser and see Google.com? If not, this situation becomes a challenge, as it eliminates the option of remote troubleshooting. But never fear, help is near. I start by walking the user through rebooting the machine and starting in safe mode. Usually, if there isn't an actual hardware issue, safe mode will circumvent the problems that are keeping the machine from getting online. Once in safe mode, let the fun begin.

Of course, if no one can get online, the first thing to be done is power-cycling the router, modem or switch hardware. If that fails, there is always DNS to troubleshoot. But that gets beyond standard triage — as it will often lead you away from the client machine and to a DNS server issue.

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6 of 10 Jack Wallen/ZDNet

Resolve login issues

6. Resolve login issues
How often do you hear users complaining that they can't log in to their computer. Have they forgotten their password? Is the machine on a domain? If it's on a domain, is the machine online? There are so many potential problems, that it's often hard to know where to start.

But here's the first thing you should do. If the user is on a domain and you have access to their Active Directory server, try to log in to that server with his or her credentials. If you can do that, the issue has been narrowed to either the network connection or the manner in which the user is logging in. Sometimes users think they are logging in to a domain, but are just logging in to their local machine.

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7 of 10 dissolved/Flickr

Troubleshoot specific software

7. Troubleshoot specific software
Sometimes, a single piece of software is the cause of the user's problems, which in turn becomes the source of the support specialist's grief — especially if it's a niche piece of software.

The first thing I'd do in such a case is double check to ensure the issue is, in fact, limited to one particular app. If the problem is network related and all other applications can get online, the issue is probably limited to the one piece of software. If so, and the software depends on a network connection, ensure neither the firewall nor the antivirus software has started blocking the software from getting packets in or out. Once I have discovered the problem is restricted to a single piece of software, often a repair install will solve the issue.

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8 of 10 talksrealfast/Flickr

Look for virus issues

8. Look for virus issues
I find that 50 percent of support calls turn out to be caused by viruses. Since viruses display a variety of symptoms, how can you quickly determine whether a virus is the cause? I know support techs who have spent hours trying to track down a virus on a machine that wasn't actually infected.

There are a few questions I like to ask. The first is, "What behaviour is your computer displaying that makes you believe it has a virus?" The answer to that question will dictate where you go from there. Other questions to ask are:

  • Has your computer drastically slowed down recently?
  • Are strange or unwanted pop-up windows appearing at random times?
  • Were you recently on a website you don't normally visit?
  • Did someone else use your machine?
  • Did you recently open an email attachment?
  • Has a strange security window recently started popping up?

These questions will guide you in the right direction in diagnosing a virus infection.

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9 of 10 Jack Wallen/ZDNet

Ask for a demonstration

9. Ask for a demonstration
If discussing a problem yields nothing and you can gain remote access to the user's PC, it's useful to see the problem in action. Most issues can be diagnosed from a description, but some simply need to be viewed at first hand. Ask the user to reproduce the problem for you and make sure it happens the same way every time. Seeing the issue for yourself not only confirms one exists, but also gives you a starting point for your troubleshooting.

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10 of 10 Jack Wallen/ZDNet

Use your tools

10. Use your tools
When all else fails, you should turn to your tools. I tend to start with the most innocuous software, such as Malwarebytes, and work upwards from there. This is also the moment to run hard-drive diagnostic tools, if the issue points towards a faulty or degraded drive. Sometimes this approach turns up more issues, but if you've tried every other avenue, it may be your best shot.

Other suggestions?
There are many ways to approach troubleshooting. These steps work well for me, but what about you? What methods do you typically employ for troubleshooting, either remote or local?

This story originally appeared as 10 ways to diagnose ailing PCs: Step by step on TechRepublic.


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