Can you fix my laptop? The answer may be graphic

One day, Mike Jackman's laptop lapsed into a coma at home. At work, it recovered. Retrace Mike's steps and compare them with the way you would have fixed the machine. If you're new to troubleshooting, you'll appreciate this tip.

You've got a laptop that’s running Windows 98. Trying to avoid eye fatigue while you’re working at home, you decide to hook up your undocked laptop to your home computer's monitor. But when you attempt to install the monitor, the correct drivers aren't present. So, you shut down, disconnect the monitor, and reboot. Unfortunately, Windows 98 Plug and Play insists on trying to install new monitor drivers and refuses to let you cancel the installation. Stuck in what seems to be an endless loop, you are forced to power down. Earlier, you made a few changes to the configuration (after backing up the registry, of course). But now, instead of an improved laptop, you have a laptop that’s in a coma. What do you do?

Doctor, will the patient become a vegetable?
The above scenario recently happened to me. And it injured my laptop. Finding the solution was difficult, though, because I wasn’t sure which recent change caused the problem. Before I came home from work that day, I had disabled a bunch of unused features on my laptop in order to speed up my machine. For example, I had disabled the infrared port and uninstalled NetBEUI. So, several possible problems were vying for my attention. In such a situation, you have to be your own help desk and weed out information that’s not essential from information that is.

Fortunately, there are certain steps that you can take to troubleshoot a computer. When you troubleshoot problems, you should follow methodical procedures—like doctors do when they’re trying to diagnose diseases. A good first step is to examine the computer's vital signs by making a boot log. In Windows 98, you make a boot log by pressing [F8] as the computer powers on. You will see a menu of choices. Choose Logged and continue.

Next, you’ll want to read the boot log, which is comparable to reading a printout of a patient’s lab tests. Press [F8] to boot into DOS mode and open the Bootlog.txt file by typing either More Bootlog.txt or Edit Bootlog.txt. The More command lets you view the file one screen at a time. The Edit command opens the DOS editor. Note that Bootlog.txt is a hidden file—you won’t see it in a listing of the DOS directory, but it’s there.

The boot log told me that my laptop was booting up all the way—as far as drivers and system files were concerned. In reality, however, the laptop froze just after the login screen appeared. The boot log didn’t make much sense, but I decided to call it quits and take a fresh look later.

When I took my laptop back to the office and placed it into its docking station, (miracle of miracles!) it worked fine. The patient became conscious. Away from the docking station, however, it slipped back into a coma.

At this point, I stepped back from the problem and tried to list the symptoms that I had observed. Here's a summary of my examination:
  • The laptop booted past the login prompt but then halted
  • The laptop worked fine in the docking station—but not when it was undocked
  • Bootlog.txt claimed that all drivers were loaded successfully

Once the machine was out of the docking station, I pressed [F8] again to start Windows 98 in Safe Mode. When the computer was undocked, it worked fine in safe mode.

The answer is graphic
Treating PC illnesses—just like diagnosing those illnesses—involves following certain methodical steps. One good initial step is to restore the last version of a working registry. Since I had just made a registry backup, I rebooted and pressed [F8] to open Windows 98 in Safe Mode. Then, I double-clicked and reinstalled my backup registry file. But this action didn’t fix the problem.

Since the laptop worked when it was docked, there was a good chance that the trouble was located in the undocked hardware profile. Often, trying to use Windows 98’s Device Manager to fix every profile error is more time consuming than just rebuilding the profile from scratch. So, I deleted the undocked hardware profile and let Windows 98 create a new one when I rebooted. Again, the computer froze at the same point.

When troubleshooting the obvious fails, it's time to reconsider the information that you might be overlooking. In this case, I remembered that the problem began when I tried to install drivers to use my home monitor and then became stuck in a plug and play loop. I needed to examine the video setup. After all, the boot log showed that all the required Windows drivers were loading successfully.

Opening Windows 98 in Safe Mode, I right-clicked on the desktop and examined the Display Properties | Settings tab. As shown in Figure A, the correct drivers appeared to be installed, but the Screen Area and Color Settings hadn’t been reset for the new undocked hardware profile. Confident that I had solved the problem, I reset those features and rebooted, only to find myself back where I started: with a computer that showed minimal signs of life.

Figure A
The settings are correct, but the laptop still doesn't work.

Finally, I tracked the problem to an obscure tab within the Display Properties | Settings | Advanced settings. I clicked the Advanced button, which opened six new tables. As shown in Figure B, on the right-hand side sat a table with the uninformative title of Chips. Buried within this title was the solution to my problem. Clicking one radio button to change the display device from CRT to LCD solved the problem and brought my laptop back to full consciousness.

Figure B
Here’s the culprit. The wrong option was selected.

One nice thing about troubleshooting problems (perhaps the only nice thing) is that it provides you with the opportunity to learn. My lessons?
  • Laptops present their own unique problems because of docked and undocked hardware profiles.
  • Often, problems with the way in which laptops boot are due to wrong video drivers or video driver settings.
  • When you troubleshoot computers, logical and methodical steps will help you solve the problem.
  • The solution may be simple, but you have to learn to look in unexpected places because—no matter how experienced you are—some new problem will arise to stump you again.
Do you have a tip or solution that you’d like to share? We're always looking for new ideas for topics. Just send it to TPG, and you may see it published in an upcoming feature.

Mike Jackman is an editor-in-chief of TechProGuild and the editor of PC Troubleshooter and Windows Support Professional. He also works as a freelance Web designer and consultant. In his spare time (when he can find some), Mike's an avid devourer and writer of science fiction, a parent to two perpetually adolescent cats, and a hiking enthusiast.

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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