this page is written mainly for Windows PCs, but many parts are equally applicable to Macs or other versions of Windows.
Table of Contents:
- Generic Hardware Problems
- Generic Software Problems
- Internet Connection Problems
- Wireless Connection Problems
- When Your Printer Won’t Print
- When Your Screen (Monitor) Goes Blank
- When Windows Freezes
- When Your Windows Computer Starts Acting Strangely
- When Your Computer Won’t Shut Down
- When Your Computer Won’t Start Up
- CHECK THE CABLES – including the power cable AND your surge suppressor. See this diagram showing how your computer, router, and cable modem connect. If that doesn’t work…
- CHECK THE CABLES AGAIN – unplug the cables and plug them in again, firmly. Turn things around to get a good look at them if you need to. Note that although most cables go in only one way, the square end of a USB cable fits rather nicely into a telephone jack (often found on the back of printers with fax capability) — generally not a helpful matchup.
If your problem is with a particular piece of software, like Microsoft Word or Quicken or Adobe Reader, it can be surprisingly helpful to check the program’s “help” function: look for a “Help” menu or a little “?” symbol, or try hitting the “F1” key. Usually there are three different ways to look for help: you can search for a word or phrase; you can look in an index; or you can page through the manual using the Table of Contents. The table of contents approach is particularly useful if your search turns up empty or you’re unsure what word or phrase to look for.
If your problem is more general — in other words, it’s not a particular program that’s misbehaving, but some overall computer function like folders opening into strange views, your problems is most likely with Windows itself. In that case, your best bet is to go online to Microsoft itself: www.support.microsoft.com. There’s a LOT of information there, and much of it is even thorough, well written and easy to understand.
The following tips assume that you have a broadband connection (that is, you don’t dial up using a regular phone line, but instead have a cable, FIOS or DSL connection). These tips also assume that you had a working connection before, but now it has stopped working.
Some explanation of the relevant equipment may be helpful. First, using a broadband connection only requires one piece of equipment — some form of digital modem that connects your house to your internet service provider (your “ISP”, e.g. Comcast, RCN, or Verizon), which we will call here a “cable modem.” The cable modem is a book-sized item with some flashing lights, usually located near where your cable comes into your house. You can, but usually should not, plug your computer straight into the cable modem and access the Internet directly. What you should have, connected in between the cable modem and your computer(s), is a router. A router takes the signal from the modem, performs some technically obscure but very important security-related tasks, and then delivers the sanitized signal to one or more computers in your house. To confuse matters, the router may be a separate book-sized box (also with flashing lights, and, if it provides wireless access, with one or more stubby black antennae), or the router may be built in to the cable modem. Generally, if you have two boxes, then you have a modem and a separate router. If you have one box, but there is more than one ethernet port (an ethernet port looks like a fat phone jack) in the back, or the box has antennae, you probably have a modem/router combo. If you have one box, with only one ethernet port, we would heartily recommend that you go buy a router now before you do anything else.
On to the troubleshooting:
- If you use a wireless connection, see “Wireless Connection Problems” below.
- If you use a wired (ethernet) connection, has the cable come loose at either end?
- Are the lights on, on both your modem and router? If not, check the regular power supply first — did your surge suppressor/power strip blow a fuse? Is the outlet working? If the lights are on then…
- Unplug your modem and router (if you have one), count to 15, and plug them back in, router first, then modem. If that doesn’t fix the problem then…
- Unplug modem and router again, and turn off your computer. Plug router, then modem, back in, then restart your computer. If that doesn’t fix the problem then…
- Call your ISP to make sure there are no service issues, and to ask them to check your connection from their end. If you have a separate router, they may ask you to remove it from the loop and plug your cable modem into your computer directly. Then, they should be able to assess whether your cable modem is behaving properly. If that doesn’t fix the problem then…
- You have a problem either with your computer or your router. Your computer is the more likely suspect, but if you have a separate router, you can check it quickly: (a) make sure that your firewall is turned on, and (b) plug your computer directly into the cable modem. If you now have Internet service, your router is the problem — try looking for help at the router manufacturer’s site.
Wireless connections are flukey. If yours goes belly up, follow the following procedure strictly: panic; take a deep breath; refill your favorite beverage; then try again. Connections can be interupped by a microwave or a cordless phone in use nearby. You should also check whether someone has moved the wireless router (and of course, check all the cable and wire connections while you’re there). If you’re using a laptop, try moving it somewhere else and see if that helps. Remember that wireless connections are radio signals, which can be significantly impaired by metal (e.g. a filing cabinet — or even the thin layer of metal sandwiched inside a CD or DVD) or other solid obstacles. If that doesn’t work…
Try the next three steps from “When your internet connection goes out,” above.
The first few steps here are pretty obvious, but when things go wrong it’s easy to overlook the obvious. And if you’ve moved anything more than a light feather duster near your printer, go to step #4 first!
- Look at the printer—are any lights flashing or glowing red or orange (instead of the more usual green or yellow)? Maybe you’re out of paper, or there’s a paper jam, or you’re out of ink or toner. Most printers have elaborate patterns of blinks and lights that actually convey information about the problem: find your printer manual, or go online and type “manual” plus the name of your printer model into your favorite search engine to locate it online.
- Go to the document you’re trying to print, click “print…” again, and in the print dialog box, make sure you’ve selected the right printer.
- Open the print queue to check for “stuck” documents (documents the printer thinks it’s printing or waiting to print, but has somehow choked on). There are a number of ways to get to the print queue; the most universal one is to go to the Control Panel (in the Start menu) and choose printers, and then double click on the printer in question. If you see a list of one or more documents waiting to print or reporting errors, in the “Printer” menu, select “Cancel all documents.” Now try printing again.
- Check the printer cables—see “Generic Hardware Problems,” above.
- Last but not least, turn off your printer, shut down your computer, count to 10 or so, then turn on your printer and re-start your computer.
Once again, the very obvious: your monitor may have gone into power-saving mode — jiggle the mouse and/or hit a “shift” key and see if it comes back. If you’re using a laptop, press whichever key wakes the computer up from sleep mode (usually the power key: if so, don’t hold it down too long, or it may shut down the computer instead of waking it up).
If that’s not it, and you had important, unsaved data on your computer when your screen went suddenly and inexplicably blank, then before you do anything else, follow the keyboard-shortcut steps for “Save” in the program you were using (Ctrl-S is the most common one in Windows). If you’re not sure what those steps are, and you really, really don’t want to lose the data, try to think of someone who has the same program, and can walk through the steps with you by phone.
Other things to try:
- Turn the monitor off, and then on again (or, if you’re using a laptop, close the lid, open it again, and then press whichever key you use to wake the computer up from sleep mode).
- Check the power cable and the video cable—see “Generic Hardware Problems” above.
- Look at the power button on your computer: is it glowing? Is your computer actually on?
- Unplug the screen and plug another screen in — borrow one from a neighbor if necessary.
- Turn off the computer and the screen, and turn them on again.
Press “Ctl-Alt-Del” (hold down the “control” key, the “alt” key, and the “delete” key, all at the same time). This should bring up the Windows task manager, an information display box with several tabs at the top. Under the “Applications” tab, look for any programs that report that they are “Not Responding,” highlight them, and click on “End Task.” If your computer does not unstick, highlight and “End Task” any other applications that are running, whether or not they report that they are “Not Responding.” If normalcy is not restored…
Reboot your computer. No, it’s not fancy footwork. But it usually works.
There are a number of places to start if your computer starts acting strangely; which to try first depends somewhat on your situation. For example, if you don’t have current, fully up-to-date antivirus software running (if, for example, your antivirus software subscription has expired or your software is more than about 2 years old), you should definitely run an online virus/spyware check first. On the other hand, if you’ve recently downloaded some great new freeware, you should probably try uninstalling that software first. Here are the obvious places to start:
System Restore can be a good place to start — in theory, it should be the best place to start; it exists to fix your computer by restoring it to a previous, well-behaved state — but it doesn’t always work. You can try it first, or if you prefer, try the other steps and try system restore last.
- Click on Start
- Select “Help and Support”
- Choose “Undo changes to your computer with System Restore”
- Select a date before your computer started acting strangely, but no further back than necessary (to avoid unnecessary disruption and confusion).
Whether or not you have recently installed new software or new hardware, click on Start, choose “Help and Support” and click “Keep your computer up to date with Windows Update.” Follow the instructions and install any high priority updates. If there aren’t any high priority updates, choose one of the optional software updates and install it. All of this sounds counter-intuitive, but Windows automatic updates frequently cause uncaught errors, which can be fixed by running the Windows update installer again. If errors continue….
If you have recently installed new software, uninstall it using the “Add/Remove Programs” tool in the Control Panel.
If you have recently installed new hardware, or updated the driver software for existing hardware, uninstall or roll back the driver. Do this by right-clicking on My Computer, and selecting “Properties.” Choose the “Hardware” tab and click on “Device Manager”. Look for little warning triangles. Right-clicking on any device will give you the option to uninstall it, or, if you select “Properties” and “Driver”, the opportunity to roll back the driver to the original state. If errors continue…
Go to one of the free virus scanners on the internet and follow the instructions. There are many; here are two reputable ones:
If the virus scan doesn’t find and fix your problem, it is probably time to seek outside help.
Press the power button and hold it down for the count of 10. If that doesn’t work, unplug it. If you have a laptop, you may need to remove the battery as well in order to actually turn the machine off (turn the laptop over and examine the back and edges for the latch to release the battery).
Check the cables. If they are fine, but you get no power at all — no whirring sounds from fans or the hard disk starting up — you need a technician.
If your computer starts, but Windows refuses to load, and does not offer you any other options (like booting in “safe mode” or in the “last known good configuration”) then you probably have a hard disk problem. You can try to boot from your Windows CD (or your recovery disk, if you have one) and try to recover or repair the hard disk, but guiding you through that procedure, alas, is more than this guide can do at the moment.