Some days, it seems we can't get anything done because we spend all our time tracking down issues on client machines. And no matter how simple the problem, we end up on a wild goose chase that sucks away precious time... which we won't get back. It would be nice if there were a way to quickly narrow down issues or at least weed out issues fast so the root of the problem can be found.
Naturally, there's no flowchart that will instantly guide us to the problem. And considering the vast array of problems we might face with a single machine, getting to the heart of the matter depends upon the chain of events dictated by the machine we're working with. Still, there are some good ways to quickly narrow down the issue. Let's see if we can expedite the process with a few tips.
1: Check for similar issues on different hosts
Unless the situation indicates the problem is isolated, this is always the first thing I consider — especially when a network is involved. If other machines are having the same problem, and the problem is network related, chances are the issue is not with the client but somewhere on the network. If this is the case, you have successfully (and quickly) zeroed in on one possible cause of the problem. Of course, once you have ruled out the client, the issue becomes a bit broader in scope.
2: Rule out malware
Many of the issues found on computers these days can be tracked down to malicious software. Instead of troubleshooting any given aspect of the various systems and sub-systems, I always find it best (should the symptoms even remotely suggest malware) to run a quick malware scan. Since this can be as quick as 20 minutes, and you can do other things in the meantime, it's an excellent place to start with troubleshooting. If the scan comes up clean, you can rule out malicious software — assuming the scanner is dependable. Then it's time to start digging deeper.
3: Check services
If something isn't working, a necessary (or related) service has often been turned off. I frequently find myself checking the print spooler, any Acronis-related service, database managers (such as those for QuickBooks and QuickBooks Point of Sale), and Volume Shadow Copy. But with various proprietary systems and services, the culprit may not be a well-known, well-documented service. Check for familiar names related to the problem. Should you find a stopped service is to blame, check the properties of the service and make sure it is set to restart upon failure. And if that service is to be running at boot, be sure the service startup type is set to Automatic.
4: Rule out hardware
Did you ever hear the "click of death"? Many times, hardware will give us a clear indication that something is wrong if we only will listen for it. If a machine is pegging the CPU or having trouble responding, listen for a troubled hard drive. If a hard drive has bad sectors or physical damage, it will often click, buzz, or even refuse to make a peep when you know it should. If these are the sounds (or lack of sounds) emanating from a client machine, chances are it's time for a new hard drive. With luck, backups have been made and this task will be nothing more than a reinstall of the operating system or a reimaging of a machine.
5: Look for user error
I hate to include this in the list, but the truth is, users are often the problem. How many times have you received a call from users saying, "I can't reach the network," only to find that they never bothered to reconnect to the network when they brought their laptop back in from their last trip? I'm often shocked at the frequency of elementary problems that are caused by user error. When users call in with problems that might be caused by something they're doing incorrectly, remember Occam's Razor. Assume that the simplest answer is the right answer — which is most always "garbage in/garbage out." This doesn't give you license to berate them for the waste of time. Remember, they are not nearly as savvy as you are about their machines, so give them a break —just like they give you a break when they're helping you with those things you know very little about.
Narrowing down the causes of a PC problem keeps troubleshooting time to a minimum. Instead of just tossing the kitchen sink at a machine, use a methodical process to get to the heart of the issue. Taking a systematic approach will save you more and more time as you become better at the process of elimination.
More on troubleshooting
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- Use Mac's Network Utility to troubleshoot networks
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- How to troubleshoot a computer problem
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- Five tips for troubleshooting Linux desktops
- Five tips for spotting the signs of malware
Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.