Computer problems aren't always what they appear to be, so start with the basics

First impressions aren't always correct, and this goes doubly so for computer problems. What seems like a software error may be a disguised hardware problem or physical memory issue. Here are a few tips that may save you time and effort in the future.

While working on a client’s PC recently, I was reminded that a problem is not always what it seems. Often, IT support professionals have only a few clues when arriving at a broken computer and must troubleshoot the problem on the fly. Even the most skilled IT support technician must often examine a problem from several angles before finding the solution. The following describes how I resolved a client’s problem with a little luck and lots of patience. The steps I used may save you time and effort in the future.

The problem
My client has an old PC that runs DOS and Windows 3.11. With only 16 MB of RAM and a 200-MB hard drive, it’s used primarily for word processing. The machine had recently been moved to a new location. When it was then powered on for the first time, it would not access the hard drive. The BIOS loaded fine, recognized the video card and the CD-ROM drive, but then halted and displayed the following error message:
Conflict IO port 2F8
Hard disk failure

Needless to say, when the client first described the problem on the phone, I was not optimistic. The hard disk in question was probably five years old and not one of the best brands. (I had not sold it to them.) If it had been damaged in the move, its data would probably be lost. Not one to give up, however, I accepted the challenge.

Check the cables first!
An old IT adage reminds technicians to, “Check the cables first.” Indeed, this simple philosophy is often lost in today’s complicated IT support environment. There have been countless times I’ve worked on sound cards, disk drives, or video cards only to discover that some cable was unplugged or bad. Checking your cables first can save you and your client time and money.

Following this philosophy, I promptly opened up the PC’s case and checked for an unplugged or damaged 40-pin ribbon. However, the ribbon looked in perfect condition, and the connections were secure. I then began chasing the myriad of power cables. After diligently examining all the connections, I finally found the problem. The Y power cable connected to the hard drive was bad.

The power cable’s yellow wire had come loose and was dangling openly. Because only one output on the Y cable was being used, I removed the whole cable and ran power straight to the hard drive. Confident the system would now work, I powered the PC on and waited. Unfortunately, I was not out of the woods yet.

Problems sometimes travel in pairs
The PC booted, and I could hear the hard drive spinning happily. After the video card initialized and the CD-ROM was detected, however, half of the previous error message reappeared:
Conflict IO port 2F8

I was annoyed, to say the least. I had just spent 20 minutes fidgeting with stubborn power cables and had even cut my hand trying to pry one loose. This machine was not giving up without a fight.

It’s all in the BIOS
Having just dealt with a faulty cable, my first thought was of a bad serial or parallel port. But which one? This particular PC had two serial ports and one parallel port. To solve this dilemma, I rebooted the PC and accessed the BIOS. I checked the port configuration and noticed that each serial port was set to a particular address, one being the offending 2F8. I changed this setting to AUTO, saved the configuration, and rebooted the PC. This time there were no error messages, and the system worked like a charm.

The final word
I hope you learn two things from my experience. First, not all problems are what they appear to be at first glance. What I initially thought was a physically defective hard drive turned out to be two separate issues. Second, check your cables first. This small bit of advice can save you hours of frustration and your client a few dollars. If I hadn’t checked both the data and power cables, I would have needlessly replaced the hard drive and lost the user’s data. Remember, the solution you expect isn’t always the right one.
Do you have any troubleshooting tips you rely on to help you avoid making a mountainous support fix out of an end user’s molehill computer problem? We’d like to hear about them. Post a comment or send us an e-mail.


Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...

Editor's Picks