In my previous article, “Computer problems aren't always what they appear to be, so start with the basics,” I highlighted the fact that many computer problems have solutions that may not be what you’d expect. Recently, I was reminded of this fact when I tried to resolve an issue with my brother’s laptop. Read on to find out why a fresh OS installation may be just the solution you’re looking for and why trying this upfront can save you time and energy.
A good deal gone bad
About three years ago, my brother ordered a new laptop from Progen Systems. He got a good deal at the time, paying about $2000 for a PII 266 with 64 MB of RAM, a 4-GB hard drive, CD-ROM, and 13.3” active matrix display. The system came preinstalled with Windows 98 and was perfect for his needs, which consisted of mainly e-mail, Internet browsing, and word processing. Unfortunately, about six months ago his 3.5” drive stopped working. Whenever he tried to access the drive, he received the error message shown in Figure A.
The laptop had never been damaged, nor had any new software or hardware been recently installed. We tried several different 3.5” disks (ones that I knew worked in other machines), rebooted the PC at least 50 times, and even powered the laptop completely off and removed the battery—all to no avail. My brother and I were beginning to believe the drive itself had just gone bad.
No big deal. It’s not uncommon for 3.5” drives to go bad. We would just call Progen and have it send us a replacement. This is where we hit a snag. We called Progen’s technical support and customer service department, but both telephone numbers had been disconnected. After digging around on the Internet for a few hours, we learned our unfortunate fate. Progen had gone bankrupt in 1999, leaving its customers with no one to turn to for support. Things were not looking good.
Doesn’t anyone do laptop repair?
Unable to turn to the manufacturer, my brother set out to find a local PC shop that could order a replacement drive. After two months of looking, he was unable to find a shop that would service his laptop. Indeed, he was having trouble finding a shop that would service any laptop. He checked large computer chain stores, small PC shops, even office supply stores, but no one wanted to work on his laptop. It had now been six months since the problem first appeared and my brother was getting desperate. That’s when we decided to try one last solution before giving up: reinstalling the operating system.
If at first you don’t succeed, reformat the hard drive
For as long as I’ve worked with computers, the golden rule of problem resolution has always been: If at first you don’t succeed, reformat the hard drive and install a fresh copy of the operating system. This process is the only sure way to rid yourself of the clutter that builds up on your PC. I was skeptical, however, that this was going to fix my brother’s floppy drive. I was convinced that his problem was the hardware and not the operating system. But he’s my brother, and so I thought I’d go along with his suggestion to reformat the OS anyway. In fact, I proposed that if we were going to reformat the hard drive, we might as well install Windows 2000 instead of 98. He agreed, and we got to work.
I popped the Windows 2000 Professional CD into the laptop and rebooted. Since the CD is bootable, the installation began promptly and proceeded with no problems. I partitioned the hard drive into one NTFS partition and the complete installation took about an hour. Once the laptop was up and running again, it was time to put my brother’s idea to the test. Had reinstalling the OS fixed the floppy drive?
A process of elimination
I inserted a 3.5”, which I knew had files on it, and tried to access the drive. To my surprise and delight, it worked. We copied several files from his hard drive to the floppy and vice versa. Each time, the drive worked perfectly.
Before everyone starts posting comments asking why we didn’t try this at first, let me just say that hindsight is always 20/20. As with many computer problems, troubleshooting this one involved a process of elimination. We tried various solutions until we found one that worked. Now when we encounter this problem in the future, we’ll know that the operating system may be a possible cause of a floppy disk failure.
I hope that by reading this article, you’ll take away a new appreciation for the importance of keeping an open mind when troubleshooting computers. The next time you come across a seemingly unsolvable problem, try reinstalling the operating system, and you might be pleasantly surprised, like I was.
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Bill Detwiler has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
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 support specialist in the social research and energy industries. He has bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Louisville, where he has also lectured on computer crime and crime prevention.