Troubleshooting do's and don'ts

Even the best-laid plans of troubleshooters can go awry. Often, we make silly mistakes, such as forgetting to formulate a backup plan or making erroneous assumptions. To avoid these mistakes, read Joan Bard's list of troubleshooting do's and don'ts.

Sometimes even the most talented troubleshooting gurus make mistakes. I know I did. Once. All of those other times I’m positive that it was user error. Seriously, have you ever stared at a machine for what seemed like hours and wondered why in the world you were booting with only 64 MB of RAM and not with 128? Then, when you looked down, you noticed that one end of the little chip was unseated—and you just knew all along that it was seated properly. Well, such forgetfulness is only one of the dangers of troubleshooting, especially when you’ve been doing it for a while.

Recently, while I was reading through some old material, I came across a copy of a list that someone had given me. It was a list of what to do and what not to do when you’re troubleshooting. The author was Kate Chase. Now, I don’t want to trick you into thinking that it’s a perfect list, but it comes really close to being perfect. Take a close look at its points. Tape it to your terminal. Trust me; following these simple but effective steps will save you a lot of time and effort—not to mention the money that you’ll save from not having to spend so much on aspirin.

Here are the do's:
  • ·        Have boot or system disks and emergency recovery disks on hand and in working condition and equip them with any necessary additional files (like a driver and Mscdex.exe to run your CD-ROM).
  • ·        Have a regular backup plan so that you can recover any lost data after a crisis.
  • ·        Turn on logging in programs so that you can use it in conjunction with other systems logs in order to track down the sources of pesky errors.
  • ·        Note error messages that appear on the screen during booting, along with error messages that appear when Windows first loads (if it does). These messages may hold clues to any problems that you have.
  • ·        Use product resources (like technical pages) that are located at the manufacturer’s Web site and use information databases (like the Microsoft Knowledge Base) that suggest ways of resolving dilemmas.
  • ·        Use safe mode as a means of troubleshooting hardware and other problems in Windows 95 and Windows 98.
  • ·        Use a clean boot and a minimal configuration in order to minimize drivers and memory that are used in troubleshooting hardware or other issues.
  • ·        Reread documentation that accompanies a product; important switches or considerations may be noted there.
  • ·        Scan for viruses with an updated virus-scanning program and eliminate any infections that may become possible problems.
  • ·        Simplify your work by eliminating programs and special software that reside in the background, new hardware add-ons, management utilities, special monitor functions or screensavers, and anything else that’s nonstandard. Do this before you begin troubleshooting.
  • ·        Remember FIFO (First In, First Out). When a problem arises, look at the most recent installation or addition, however minor or unrelated it may seem. Try to remove or disable it and see if doing so corrects the problem.
  • ·        Eliminate any extra connections in order to reduce the variables. For example, if your PC is part of a network and you’re experiencing difficulties, disengage it from the network and test it as a stand-alone machine.
  • ·        Be aware of warranty and hardware purchase return policies. Some problems are worth spending time solving; others may be resolved more effectively (and inexpensively) by returning or replacing the unit in question.

Here are the don’ts:
  • ·        Avoid trying to overclock on a system that’s already experiencing difficulties. If you overclock a stable system and experience strange errors, step back from the system or return the system to its original configuration.
  • ·        Don’t use beta software unless you take the proper precautions. Remove the beta if you can’t resolve an issue that develops or if troubleshooting would become too difficult.
  • ·        Avoid creative or highly specialized configurations until you get a problem under control. Then, add elements one at a time.
  • ·        Avoid using aggressive BIOS tweaks and super-optimization techniques while troubleshooting.
  • ·        Don’t add additional hardware or software until you’ve resolved a current situation satisfactorily.
  • ·        Don’t try to troubleshoot when you’re too tired or frustrated. You’ll be too prone to making even more mistakes, and you’ll think that you’ve checked something when you didn’t check it thoroughly.
  • ·        Never assume. (It’s worth repeating: Never assume.) One of the biggest dangers of troubleshooting a hardware issue is making certain assumptions (like the machine is plugged in). They may be reasonable guesses, but they aren’t verified facts. Often, these guesses are treated as “facts,” and a whole foundation of troubleshooting is built around them. Precious time is lost, and everything that you do after forming an assumption may be wrong. Prove that the assumption is right or wrong before you proceed.

Joan Bard has been a developmental programmer for the past 13 years. During that time, she has spent many hours pursuing the art of Zen and PC maintenance. She holds degrees in computer science and in business administration from the University of Louisville.

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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