How to Fix the Most Common Computer Problems
Last updated in May 2017
Here are solutions to the most common hardware and software problems. Our article on how to minimize the chances of hacks can help you prevent many common problems.
Common Hardware Hardships
For hardware problems, before resorting to a repair shop—
- Trace power cords to make sure they are all plugged in to the wall socket (or surge suppressor) and to the device.
- Make sure all components are turned on and your surge suppressor is switched on.
- Make sure cables and modem lines are securely connected and that wireless routers are working.
- Make sure that your printer’s 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.
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—and before cracking open a laptop or tablet—check your device’s warranty to make sure it won’t be nullified.
Solving Software Snafus
Software can either misbehave on its own or find something about your computer’s setup that disagrees with it. Software can have millions of lines of computer code, and every device is just a little bit different. So who has the answers when things go bad? Unfortunately, there’s no single source—but you can use a combination of resources to try to get things back under control.
Often the best software solution is simply to quit out of it and restart. If that fails, restart your computer and router.
Keep Up to Date
Make sure your device is running the most up-to-date version of its operating system and other installed software. Both Microsoft and Apple frequently release new patches or fixes for their operating systems, and almost all software producers provide periodic updates. When manufacturers have written many patches for a particular piece of software, it may compile an entirely new upgrade version of the program. Failing to install these updates may make your device unable to efficiently run some types of new software or, even worse, make it vulnerable to attack.
Most software can be configured to check for necessary updates, and then automatically download and install the patches. You can also opt to download and install patches at your convenience. (After installing updates to Windows, check whether further updates are available. Sometimes updates can be downloaded and installed only in batches.)
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.
Give Help a Chance
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, or part of a program gets incorrectly saved to the hard drive. 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 click the Uninstall button. 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 details 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 the proper type of video card? 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, which are frequently linked to the software manufacturer’s website, computer information websites such as CNET, or special interest group areas such as Yahoo! Groups. On these message boards, you can describe 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.
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 and clean up duplicate files, unneeded files, and aberrant registry entries. TuneUp Utilities and Norton Utilities can improve hardware performance and offer assistance on some software difficulties. Apple offers its First Aid app. These tools can solve some software problems and minimize crashes, under certain conditions.
Clean Up Your Hard Drive
A bit of hard-drive housekeeping can help your system run better, and might correct your error.
Start by uninstalling applications you don’t use but that take up lots of storage space. 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.
Windows users can run ScanDisk or Error-Checking (depending on your version of Windows) to locate and correct errors on their hard drives. To get there, open Windows Explorer, right-click on the drive letter, select “Properties,” then select the “Tools” tab. In the same place you’ll also find “Disk Defragmenter,” a tool that rearranges data on your hard drive for better efficiency and consolidates all the blank space into one area. When a PC writes data to its hard drive, it looks for empty space. As you delete files over time, you create empty spaces that may be quite far apart, frequently making files associated with a particular program spread out in a very disjointed fashion on the hard-drive surface. This can slow program operation and, in some cases, produce errors.
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 the 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 by asking friends and neighbors for assistance.
How to Avoid Breakdowns
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. Our article on how to minimize the chances of hacks will help you avoid most intrusions, which can cause much 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. Repeated power fluctuations can immediately or gradually damage chips. Power fluctuations can result 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 making sure your computer system doesn’t share a circuit with any electric motors and by installing a surge suppressor on the power line to which your computer is attached.
Power surges can also originate from phone lines, not just from power lines. If you have a DSL connection, use a surge protector that allows you to plug your computer’s phone line into the protector.
Watch Out for Static
Walking across a rug on a dry day and touching a doorknob can produce unpleasant sparks. That same spark applied to computer components or data storage media can possibly be as destructive—ruining data or permanently damaging delicate circuits—as a 10,000-volt charge passes from your body through a chip designed to carry less than 10 volts. If you need to remove the casing on your computer to install hardware, be careful not to discharge any static electricity directly into your computer. Touch a metal object before touching the computer.
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.
Avoid Strong Magnetic Fields
You risk data loss—though probably not permanent damage—if you expose a device to strong magnetic charges. Keep computers away from magnetic latches and electric motors that might have strong electrical fields.
Keep It Clean
Open up desktop computers, drives, and printers, and clean out the dust. 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. 3