How to Fix Common Computer Problems
Last updated December 2020
Don’t pay a repair shop’s minimum charge, possibly $75 or more, only to find out you could have easily solved a problem with a quick fix.
Here are solutions to the most common hardware and software problems. Our article on how to minimize the chances of hacks can also help you prevent many common problems.
Do No Further Harm
If you’ve dropped your device and hear strange grinding, clicking, or other noises coming from a mechanical drive, stop using it and get thee to a professional. You might be facing a drive failure, and continued use will make it worse. Immediately turn it off. Don’t try to get it running again, because that could cause more damage and data loss. Same rules apply if you’ve spilled something on it or dunked it.
If you don’t have a backup and your precious files disappear in a digital disaster, don’t panic. As we've previously written, lost data probably can be recovered.
Sometimes, Solutions Are Simple
Before schlepping your device to a shop, an Apple Genius Bar (or wherever), pretend someone from your office’s IT department is hovering beside you. What simple questions would they ask?
- If it’s a laptop or tablet, is it charging? If not, try switching power adaptors before assuming the device is down.
- Trace power cords to make sure they are all plugged in to an outlet (hopefully, you’re using one with a surge suppressor) and to the device.
- Make sure all components are turned on and your surge suppressor is switched on.
- If you’re experiencing slow internet speeds, make sure your wireless router or modem is working. Switch over your device’s internet signal to your cell phone’s signal or a different Wi-Fi network to check.
- Sites like Speedtest.net can help you figure out whether your internet service provider is the source of slow speeds.
- If you’re fighting with a printer, make sure its ink or toner supply is inserted properly, that all printer settings are correct, and that paper is properly inserted.
- Restart and see if the problem persists. If the device is frozen up, check the manufacturer’s website for instructions on how to do a forced restart.
- Beyond basic checks, you can make many internal repairs to desktops; you’ll find how-to videos online that will walk you through repairs and upgrades. But before attempting any repair or upgrade on your own, make sure your be-your-own-help-desk attempts won’t void your device’s warranty—most immediately cancel if you open the case.
It’s Probably the Software
Software (the programs and apps you use on your computer) can either misbehave on their own or find something about your computer’s setup that annoys them. Software can have millions of lines of computer code, and can interact differently with various devices. Unfortunately, there’s often no single answer—or source for the answer—when something goes wrong. But you probably can use a combination of resources to try to get things back under control.
Often the best software solution is simply to quit and restart Word, Firefox, or whatever other program you’re running. If that fails, restart the entire device.
Keep up to date.
Make sure your device is running the most up-to-date version of its operating system and other installed software. Nearly every day, security patches are issued by device manufacturers and software companies. Turn on auto-update options to keep your operating system, device drivers, and all other software current.
Failing to install updates doesn’t just make your device vulnerable to hackers, it might also create conflicts between your operating system and various software and apps.
Avoid using unsupported, old operating systems (Windows 7 and older versions, for example, no longer get security patches from Microsoft).
Figuring out where to start is often half the work. Search for solutions to your problem posted on message boards, manufacturers’ websites, troubleshooting indexes, and so on. By choosing your search terms carefully, you can often quickly locate at least a starting point for dealing with your issue.
A lot of detailed troubleshooting information can be found under the Help menus built into software programs (possibly useless if you can’t get the program to run) and on the manufacturers’ websites.
Sometimes a key file becomes corrupted. In these cases, reinstalling the software can fix the glitch.
For Windows users, search for “Add or Remove Programs.” Once there, select the program on the displayed list you wish to remove and then “Uninstall.” Mac users can uninstall a program by selecting the little “X” that appears when they click-hold its app-launching icon.
Now it’s time to reinstall your software—but first take a moment to read some fine print. Most software detail minimum system requirements for successful operation. These requirements are truly minimums, and in most cases you will want computer resources to exceed them. Is your computer powerful enough? Do you have enough memory? Do you have a graphics processor that can keep up? Do you have more than the minimum amount of available hard-drive space? Noncompliance with any of these requirements can cause your software to malfunction.
Go back in time.
You might be able to order your computer to revert to a time when you are confident it was operating properly. To revert to restore points in Windows, search for the “System Restore” function; for a Mac, look for “Restore from Time Machine Backup.” Pick a restore date that predates your problem.
If the problem seems to have been caused by the installation of new software, updates, or drivers, this may be a quick fix. But before taking this step, back up any important files to an external backup drive or a cloud-based backup service. When you revert to a restore point, the computer is supposed to make changes only to software or system states, but it’s always better to be safe than very, very sorry.
Visit the software manufacturer’s website.
In addition to software updates and patches, most manufacturers maintain databases of errors, problems, and solutions in the “support” areas of their websites. Some sites, such as Microsoft’s Knowledge Base and Apple Support, are enormous. Most will allow you to search based on keywords or error messages.
Visit message boards.
Even if the manufacturer does not aggressively maintain troubleshooting information on its website, devoted users of many popular programs spend hours documenting, and even fixing, many software problems. You can find these fellow users and their expertise on message boards; most manufacturers’ websites link to them. You can post a description of your problem and request advice, with the level of help ranging from simple commiseration to a guru who has mastered your specific problem. Often message boards access communities that have developed over many years, with members committed to helping each other out whenever they can. When posting a problem, include specifics on your device and the version numbers of your operating system and afflicted software.
Use diagnostic software.
Many programs on the market can help you minimize computer difficulties. For example, for Windows, Advanced Uninstaller PRO can help you uninstall programs more thoroughly than Microsoft’s basic tool, search for driver updates, and clean up duplicate files, unneeded files, and aberrant registry entries. AVG TuneUp and other utilities and Norton Utilities can improve hardware performance and offer assistance on some software difficulties. Apple offers the First Aid feature of its Disk Utility. These tools can solve some software problems and minimize crashes, under certain conditions.
Clean up your hard drive.
Some hard-drive housekeeping can help your system run better.
Start by uninstalling applications you don’t use but that take up lots of storage space—many manufacturers load up their machines with dozens of preinstalled programs. But before uninstalling an app you don’t recognize, do a quick internet search to make sure it’s not part of something you really do need.
In Windows, you can run Microsoft’s disk-checking utility to make sure your hard drive is undamaged. Open File Explorer and double-click on “This PC” in the far-left window. Then right-click on the hard drive (usually labeled “C:\”) and then select “Properties.” Select the tools tab and then click “Check” to run the diagnostics. You can also select “Optimize” to perform a disk cleanup that will improve data organization.
Mac users don’t have to worry about defragmentation issues, but they can run Apple’s “Optimize Disk” tool to solve some types of hard-drive problems.
Meet with your maker.
Sometimes calling or initiating a chat session with the manufacturer’s tech-support line can resolve a problem. If your product doesn’t come with free technical support, however, it can also be quite expensive—some software companies charge $200 or more per session.
Regardless of the pricing structure, be prepared to wait—and then wait some more. If you have already tried many of the steps described above, save valuable help-session time by immediately informing the technical advisor that you already did the basics—rebooted, checked for patches and updates, reinstalled the software, etc.
Bug your friends.
Luckily, many computer-savvy people live in this area (including, probably, the 15-year-old kid next door). You may be able to get help from tech-genius friends and neighbors.
Taking Care of Your Gadgets
You’ll extend the lifespan of your digital friends by practicing good computing habits.
If you’re not an IT professional, you’ll probably be shocked to know how often thieves and other intruders probe your devices for vulnerabilities. The article beginning on page 110 provides steps to protect against intrusions, which often cause great damage.
Exercise it early.
Although you won’t necessarily avoid repairs, you’ll avoid paying for them by identifying problems while the manufacturer’s warranty or the store’s return policy remains in effect. So test any new device right away.
Avoid sharp electric power fluctuations.
Sudden fluctuations in voltage can damage chips or cause data errors. Power fluctuations can come from power company activities, lightning, or downed power lines, and also when you switch on and off machines with electric motors such as power tools, vacuum cleaners, and other small appliances. These motors momentarily soak up electricity when starting, and then release energy into the line. You can minimize the danger of power fluctuations by plugging devices into surge protectors, and then plugging protectors into outlets that don’t share circuits with any electric motors.
Heat can cause temporary malfunctions and even permanent damage. Don’t expose computer devices to prolonged direct sunlight or heat, and be sure there is room for ventilation around them.
Keep it clean.
A heavy accumulation of dust can contribute to your computer overheating. Use a small aerosol can of compressed air to dislodge stubborn dust deposits. Use a hand-held vacuum cleaner with a small nozzle to clean keyboards—and aim the exhaust away from the computer.