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Five tips for narrowing down problems on client machines

There may not be a one-size-fits-all method for diagnosing issues on client PCs, but following a series of logical steps can help speed problem resolution.

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.

Be methodical

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

About

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 getjackd.net.

13 comments
maj37
maj37

You should have labeled Be methodical as number 6 then moved it to number 1. maj

Ron_007
Ron_007

I thought of another point for the list, change control. I ALWAYS ask, "what has changed recently?" Any kind of change: - laptop put on a desk represents lots of change, plugs not seated, laptop roughly handled etc - software installed, both new programs and patches/Windows updates Any point of change in a computer is a point of potential failure. So I like to ask, "What has changed recently?" That is the first place I look as a source of the problem. For me the trouble shooting procedure is in a slightly different sequence: - Be methodical - Reboot - What has Changed Recently - Look for User Error Another good link for MS software is: List of Best ???Microsoft Fix it??? Trouble shooters to Automatically Diagnose and Repair PC Problems - http://www.askvg.com/list-of-best-microsoft-fix-it-troubleshooters-to-automatically-diagnose-and-repair-pc-problems/ - Rule out Hardware - Similar issues on other computers - Rule out Malware - Check Services

Ron_007
Ron_007

I agree with the suggestions that #5 should be moved up closer to the top of the list. But, in #5 rather than quoting GIGO and Ocam, think PEBKAC: Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Computer, in other words, the (l)user, and take steps to eliminate that possibility. Getting them to calmly, slowly, talk and walk you through the "proper" procedure they have been taught is a good way to do that. Part way through the "talk through" you get one of those priceless verbal cues that the problem has been resolved: either the pregnant pause or an "OOPS!", followed by a small voice saying "...never mind..." Although I jokingly used the term "(l)user", jmartin.hlg's point that they are often in unfamiliar territory is one to keep in mind. One of the thoughts at the top of their mind is "oh carp, I broke it, I think." They are slightly panicked and not thinking clearly about "troubleshooting procedures." They just don't want to be blamed and want to get on with the task at hand (which for them is NOT fixing the stupid computer).

reisen55
reisen55

A good idea but all toooooo heartily endorsed by help desk drone units in Bangalore who believe that rebooting fixes JUST EVERYTHING on earth.

wfranklin20005
wfranklin20005

The first step should always be to reboot the computer and have the user reproduce the problem, which by itself fixes about 50% of all problems. This is a truly ugly and inexplicable solution, but a problem which doesn't exist does not need to be diagnosed or fixed.

jacobus57
jacobus57

Number 1 should ALWAYS be an inspection of the environment. I remember the emergency call to the server farm, PSU in hand, only to find some idiot had unplugged the machine and the NOC manager had failed to check. Environment can also extend to things like dirt clogging fans or heat sinks, or high-heat environments (thermal protection kicks in) especially in dusty. high-traffic areas or poorly-managed server rooms. Number 2 should always be your number 5. And once the above issues have been ROed, move to SIMPLE SW, FW, HW (like bad ethernet cables) issues. As they say in medicine, look for the horse before the zebra.

padraig1
padraig1

A+ 101: Start with the physical. Is it turned on? Is it plugged in? It's somewhat scary the number of times I've gotten calls from an upset user who complains that their computer is not working, only to find out they had kicked the mouse/ keyboard loose, had not turned on the monitor, kicked the network cable loose, etc. "My email won't update! I can't get on the internet!" Hmmm, maybe this flashing noitce down her that the "Network cable is disconnected" might have something to do with it... Ever hear the saying "When the only tool you have is a hammer, all jobs start to look like a nail"? Too often when training new techs I can usually tell if they are primarily a "hardware" or a "software" person. Especially younger techs who know all the intricacies of Windows but apparently have never cracked open a case to look inside the "magic black box" so every issue is approached by "What do I need to re-install?'" instead of "Is the computer turned on and connected?" Or worse, they only come to you after they have already spent an hour sitting at the users PC, uninstalling and reinstalling Office and is asking how to reimage the PC because the user reported that her email was not coming in, only to find that it works so much better when the ethernet cable is actually plugged in. Yeah, yeah, I know - it's called ethernet because the signal goes through the Ether and no cables are required, right? No darlin', that's WIFI... Actually, in my experience you have the steps in reverse order. Always start by ruling out user error then "Start at the wall" and rule out physical issues. Then check for malware, and check services. Only then do you expand it and look for similar issues on other PC's - your network admins will not appreciate your telling them that their network is having issues when John Q User can't connect to his favorite porn site... er, I mean "research site" after disconnecting the ethernet cable, or had picked up some nasty virus, or was mistyping the URL.

reisen55
reisen55

I have far more effective control of my systems when in an office environment, and for this reason I only very reluctantly, last year, began active work on home systems. I find a wide range of issues on these single, usually abused, systems. There are no like-kind comparison points, no wondering if the issue is network wide. And home users often have different systems altogether throughout the house, a Dell here, a Gateway over there, an Acer laptop here and a Mac upstairs. They are FAR more internet dangerous too. I had one local home account where the man LOVED porn sites so I finally gave him (customer education) a SAFE one and advised him to stay there. He did and I have not had problems therein anymore. Another consideration are problems caused by THE PREVIOUS CONSULTANT, picking up his wreckage. I had one new account recently where a SCSI drive was purchased six months ago for a failed on the server, but moron left it on the desk, never installed it and when rebooted, the server instantly crashed forcing all kinds of fun restoration work. The last notes the client had on the server were dated 2005!!! Bad management of a network. (The client turned out to be a slow payer and also complains about every single invoice so I back burner them, but watch remotely anyway).

jmartin.hlg
jmartin.hlg

I often have to remind myself that there are many areas where I expect patience from other people as they are explaining an unknown or little known subject. Thanks for the reminder!

reisen55
reisen55

I had a mind-numbing physical issue at a corporate job many years ago. Dell Latitude laptop, docking station, monitor and it was not getting internet. Personal visit. System on, monitor on, everything working. OK, must be physical, checked the network cable ... nope, light on in the back of the docking station. Hmmmmm. (Windows 95 days as a reminder). Gotta be IP stack issues. I pushed the laptop and it went "click" into the docking station. IP came in. JUST ENOUGH of the laptop WAS connected to the station for keyboard, mouse and monitor but NOT for the teeth that bit the network lines. That one extra shove did it!

gechurch
gechurch

I'm a consultant and we have recently picked up a few clients. The environments are inevitably left in a rubbish state with major problems and no documentation. It's frustrating, but the reality is if the previous guy was doing a good job then I wouldn't be doing the work now.

lshanahan
lshanahan

If possible, have the *user* reproduce what they were doing at the time. Can't tell you how many times the solution was obvious just saying "Show me what you were trying to do" and watching what the user does. Most times something really simple.

rw2000
rw2000

I once had a user demonstrate how something didn't work for her but it worked for me. The problem was a broken right Ctrl key. The left one worked fine. I replaced the keyboard, and the problem was solved.