Someday, your computer will break down — or disappoint you. Here’s how to fix the problem.
To repair a computer, follow these general principles.…
Ask for help. Instead of wasting many hours scratching your head about a computer problem, get help from your dealer, your computer’s manufacturer, your software’s publisher, your colleagues, your teachers, your friends, and me. You can phone me day or night, 24 hours, at 603-666-6644; I’m almost always in, and I sleep only lightly.
Most computers come with a one-year warranty. If your computer gives you trouble during that first year, make use of the warranty: get the free help you’re entitled to from your dealer. If your “dealer” is a general-purpose department store that doesn’t specialize in computers, the store might tell you to phone the computer’s manufacturer. For tough software questions, the dealer might tell you to phone the software’s publisher.
Most computers come with a 30-day money-back guarantee. If the computer is giving you lots of headaches during the first 30 days, just return it!
Most repair problems can be solved by cleaning your software (as I explained on pages 154-158). Many other repair problems can be solved by cleaning your hardware (as I explained on page 153) or by getting rid of viruses (as I explained on page 144).
If the broken part is cheap, don’t fix it: chuck it! For example, if one of the keys on your keyboard stops working, don’t bother trying to fix that key; instead, buy a new keyboard. A new keyboard costs about $25. Fixing one key on a keyboard costs many hours of labor and is silly.
If a 2-gigabyte hard disk stops working, and you can’t fix the problem in an hour or so, just give up and buy a new hard disk, since 2-gigabyte hard disks are obsolete anyway. Today, 2 gigabytes aren’t worth much; the price difference between an 8-gigabyte drive and a 10-megabyte drive is about $5.
Read the screen. Often, the screen will display an error message that tells you what the problem is.
If the message flashes on the screen too briefly for you to read, try pressing the computer’s Pause key as soon as the message appears. The Pause key makes the message stay on the screen for you to read. When you finish reading the message, press the Enter key.
If you’re having trouble with your printer, and your printer is modern enough to have a built-in screen, read the messages on that screen too.
Check the lights. Look at the blinking lights on the front of the computer and the front of the printer; see if the correct ones are glowing. Also notice whether the monitor’s Power light is glowing.
Check the switches. Check the On-Off switches for the computer, monitor, and printer: make sure they’re all flipped on. If your computer equipment is plugged into a power strip, make sure the strip’s On-Off switch is turned on.
Check the monitor’s brightness and contrast knobs, to make sure they’re turned to the normal (middle) position.
If you have a dot-matrix printer, make sure the paper is feeding correctly, and make sure you’ve put into the correct position the lever that lets you choose between tractor feed and friction feed.
Check the cables that run out of the computer. They run to the monitor, printer, keyboard, mouse, and wall. Make sure they’re all plugged tightly into their sockets. To make sure they’re plugged in tight, unplug them and then plug them back in again. (To be safe, turn the computer equipment off before fiddling with the cables.) Many monitor and printer problems are caused just by loose cables.
Make sure each cable is plugged into the correct socket. Examine the back of your computer, printer, monitor, and modem: if you see two sockets that look identical, try plugging the cable into the other socket. For example, the cable from your printer might fit into two identical sockets at the back of the computer (LPT1 and LPT2); the cable from your phone system might fit into two identical sockets at the back of your modem (Line and Phone).
When analyzing a hardware problem, run no software except the operating system and diagnostics. For example, if you’re experiencing a problem while using a word-processing program, spreadsheet, database, game, or some other software, exit from whatever software you’re in. Turn off your printer, computer, and all your other equipment, so the RAM chips inside each device get erased and forget that software.
Then turn the computer back on.
If your computer, monitor, hard drive, and printer pass all those tests, your hardware is basically fine; and so the problem you were having was probably caused by software rather than hardware. For example, maybe you forgot to tell your software what kind of printer and monitor you bought.
Don’t get upset! Just relax. Stay, calm, cool, and collected while you analyze the problem. Have the attitude of Sherlock Holmes!
Perhaps you’d react to error messages more calmly if they were written as meditative poetry. In February 1998, an online magazine called Salon.com held a contest to turn each error message into a haiku (a Japanese meditative poem that has 5 syllables on the first line, 7 syllables on the second line, and 5 syllables on the third line). Here are the winning entries (as edited by me).
Here’s who wrote them:
Here’s how to solve common computer problems.
Turning the computer on is called booting. When you turn the computer on, you might immediately experience one of these problems.
Unusual beeping When you turn the computer on, you’re supposed to hear a single short beep. If you hear unusual beeping (such as several short beeps or a long beep), your computer’s fundamental circuitry isn’t working right.
If you hear many short beeps or a very long beep, your computer is having an electrical problem, so do this:
If you hear just a few short beeps or several long beeps or a mix of short and long beeps, your computer is complaining about a defective part. By listening to the computer’s beeps, you can tell which part of the computer is ill. Lists of beep codes are on page 115 of the 30th edition.
Signal missing If the screen says “signal missing” or “no signal”, the monitor is not receiving any electrical signal from the computer. The monitor is complaining.
Look at the two cables coming out of the monitor’s rear. One of those cables is a power cord that plugs into the wall (or into a surge protector). The other cable is the video cable, which is supposed to plug into the back of the computer, so the computer can send signals to the monitor. Probably, that video cable is loose. Tighten it. To make sure it’s tight, unplug it from the back of the computer and then shove it into the computer’s backside again, firmly.
If tightening the video cable doesn’t solve the problem, maybe the computer is turned off. Make sure the computer is turned on:
Another possibility is that the video card (which is inside the computer) is loose (because you recently moved the computer) or got fried (from a power surge caused by a thunderstorm) or got damaged (because you were fiddling with the computer’s innards and you caused a shock or short or break). Make sure the video card is in tight; if a tight video card doesn’t solve the problem, borrow a video card from a friend; if that still doesn’t give you any video, maybe your whole motherboard is damaged, so give up and take your computer to a repair shop.
No video When you turn the computer on, the screen is supposed to show you words, pictures, marks, or at least a cursor (little line). If the screen stays completely black, probably your monitor is getting no electricity or no electrical signals.
Make sure the monitor is turned on. Make sure its two cables (to the power and to the computer’s video card) are both plugged in tight (since they can easily come loose.) Make sure the monitor’s contrast and brightness are turned up (by fiddling with the knobs or buttons on the monitor’s front, back, or sides).
If the monitor has a power-on light, check whether that light is glowing. (If the monitor doesn’t have a power-on light, peek through the monitor’s air vents and check whether anything inside glows). If you don’t see any glow, the monitor isn’t getting any power (because the on-off button is in the wrong position, or the power cable is loose, or the monitor is broken). If the monitor is indeed broken, do not open the monitor, which contains high voltages even when turned off; instead, return the monitor to your dealer.
If you’ve fiddled with the knobs and cables, and the power-on light (or inside light) is glowing but the screen is still blank, boot up the computer again, and look at the screen carefully: maybe a message did flash on the screen quickly?
SETUP Each modern computer (286, 386, 486, or Pentium) contains CMOS RAM, which tries to remember the date, time, how many megabytes of RAM you’ve bought, how you want the RAM used, what kind of video you bought, and what kind of disk drives you bought. A battery feeds power to the CMOS RAM, so that the CMOS RAM keeps remembering the answers even while the main power switch is off. If the computer says “Invalid configuration specification: run SETUP” (or a similar error message), your computer’s CMOS RAM contains wrong info — probably because the battery died and needs to be replaced or recharged. In most computers, the battery is rechargeable; it recharges itself automatically if you leave the computer turned on for several hours.
To react to the error message, try running the CMOS Setup program, which asks you questions and then stores your answers to the CMOS RAM.
The CMOS Setup program hides in a ROM chip inside your computer and is run when you hit a “special key” during the bootup’s RAM test. That “special key” is usually either the Delete key or the Esc key or the F1 key; to find out what the “special key” is on your computer, read your computer’s manual or ask your dealer.
Once the CMOS Setup program starts running, it asks you lots of questions. For each question, it also shows you what it guesses the answer is. (The computer’s guesses are based on what information the computer was fed before.)
On a sheet of paper, jot down what the computer’s guesses are. That sheet of paper will turn out to be very useful!
Some of those questions are easy to answer (such as the date and time).
A harder question is when the computer asks you to input your hard-drive-type number. If your BIOS chip is modern and your hard drive is modern (IDE), you can make the computer automatically figure out the hard-drive-type number: just choose “auto-detect hard drive” from a menu. Otherwise, you must type the hard-drive-type number, as follows:
If you don’t know how to answer a question and can’t reach your dealer for help, just move ahead to the next question. Leave intact the answer that the computer guessed.
After you’ve finished the questionnaire, the computer will automatically reboot. If the computer gripes again, either you answered the questions wrong or else the battery ran out — so that the computer forgot your answers!
In fact, the most popular reason why the computer asks you to run the CMOS Setup program is that the battery ran out. (The battery usually lasts 1-4 years.)
That’s the procedure. If you’re ambitious, try it. If you’re a beginner, save yourself the agony by just taking the whole computer to your dealer: let the dealer diddle with the CMOS Setup program and batteries for you.
Whenever you upgrade your computer with a better disk drive or video card or extra RAM, you must run the CMOS Setup program again to tell the computer what you bought.
In many computers, the ROM BIOS chip is designed by American Megatrends Inc. (AMI). AMI’s design is called the AMI BIOS (pronounced “Amy buy us”). Here’s how to use the 4/4/93 version of AMI BIOS. (Other versions are similar.)
When you turn the computer on, the screen briefly shows this message:
Then the number “000000 KB” increases, as the computer checks your RAM chips. While that number increases, try pressing your keyboard’s Del or Delete key.
That makes the computer run the AMIBIOS CMOS Setup program. The top of the screen will say:
Underneath, you’ll see this main menu:
The first and most popular choice, “STANDARD CMOS SETUP”, is highlighted. Choose it (by pressing Enter).
The computer will warn you by saying:
Press Enter again.
The computer will show you the info stored in the CMOS about the date, time, base memory, extended memory, hard drives, floppy drives, video card, and keyboard.
If that stored info is wrong, fix it! Here’s how:
When you’ve finished examining and fixing that info, press the Esc key. You’ll see the main menu again.
If you’re having trouble with a modern (IDE) hard drive, choose “AUTO DETECT HARD DISK” from the main menu (by pressing the down-arrow key six times, then pressing Enter). The computer will try to detect what kind of drive C you have, then it will say:
Press the Y key then Enter. Then the computer will try to detect what kind of drive D you have and say:
Press Y again then Enter. You’ll see the main menu again.
When you’ve finished using the main menu, you have 2 choices:
Non-system disk If the computer says “Non-system disk or disk error”, the computer is having trouble finding the hidden system files. (In modern Windows, the hidden system files are called IO.SYS and MSDOS.SYS.)
Those hidden system files are supposed to be on your hard disk. You can get that error message if those hidden system files are missing from your hard disk — because you accidentally erased those files, or a virus erased them, or your hard disk is new and not yet formatted, or when you formatted the disk you forgot to put a check mark in Windows format’s “Copy system files” box).
A more common reason for getting that error message is: you accidentally put a floppy disk into drive A! When the computer boots, it looks at that floppy disk instead of your hard disk, and gripes because it can’t find those system files on your floppy disk.
Slow If the computer acts slower than before, it’s clogged with too many programs or too much data. Here are six possible reasons:
If you’re using Windows, you might experience the following problems.…
Windows doesn’t finish loading When the computer starts going into Windows, if the Windows logo & clouds appear on screen but never go away (so the computer seems stuck and you never see the Start button or icons), the computer is encountering a software conflict. Cure for Windows XP:
Useless password request When the computer starts going into Windows, if the computer unexpectedly asks you for a password, you probably told the computer you’re on a network (which requests passwords) or your computer is being shared by several people.
Illegal operation If the computer says “This program has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down”, a program is trying to use a RAM section it’s not allowed to. That RAM section is being used by a different program, with which your program is having a memory conflict. Cure:
Start button in wrong corner The Start button is supposed to be in the screen’s bottom left corner. If your Start button is in a different corner, you accidentally moved the Start button.
To move the Start button back, just “drag the taskbar to where you want it.” Here’s how:
Start button missing If the Start button is missing and so is the time (although the rest of the screen looks normal), you accidentally shrunk them.
The Start button and time are part of a bar, called the taskbar (which is blue in Windows XP & 7, gray in Windows Vista). The taskbar is supposed to stretch across the bottom of the screen and be about half an inch tall. You accidentally shrunk the taskbar.
To solve the problem, first close all windows (by clicking their X buttons).
If doing that makes the taskbar reappear, your problem is just that you accidentally set your taskbar to “Auto hide”. Stop hiding the taskbar, by doing this:
If closing all windows does not make the taskbar reappear, look at the screen’s bottom.
If you see a gray (or light blue) line running across the screen’s bottom, that line is your shrunken taskbar; make it taller by doing this:
Icons missing If some icons are missing from the desktop screen (the main screen), they’re probably just hiding behind other icons or past the screen’s edge. To see them again, do this:
If that doesn’t make the icons reappear, the icons might be in the Recycle Bin, so do this:
Dialog box too big For the screen’s resolution, you can choose “800 by 600” or “1024 by 768”, by using a settings dialog box. If the settings dialog box is too big to fit on the screen (so the box’s “OK” button hides below the screen’s bottom), the computer is confused about what resolution you want. Instead of trying to click “OK”, press Enter. If pressing Enter doesn’t work, do this:
Resolution refuses to increase If the computer refuses to let you choose more than “800 by 600” resolution, it’s because the computer thinks your video card doesn’t have enough RAM to handle such a high resolution.
Yes, the computer thinks your video card is inadequate or damaged!
But if your video card was working fine yesterday, the most likely “damage” is just that the video-driver software got corrupted. Here’s the cure.…
If you’re using Windows7, do this:
If you’re using Windows Vista, do this:
If you’re using Windows XP, do this:
Indented underneath “Display adapters” you see the name of the video card that the computer thinks you have. Click that name. Press the Delete key.
The computer will warn you that you’re going to uninstall that video-driver software. Though that warning looks scary, be brave and press Enter (because your computer secretly has an extra copy of that video-driver software).
Then just follow the instructions on the screen. The computer will recommend rebooting; let it. While the computer is rebooting, it will begin by thinking you have no video card, but then it will get surprised when it finds video-card hardware, and it will reinstall that video card, using a copy of the video-driver software that’s still hiding on the computer. (When the computer asks where the video-driver software is, tell the computer to look just on the hard disk, not on a CD.)
The computer will find the video-driver software and finish booting. The screen’s colors will look slightly better. To make the screen look exactly the way you wish, go to the display-settings dialog box again doing this:
Then choose as many colors and as high a resolution as you wish. This time, your request will be obeyed!
Mice can cause problems.
Mouse pointer lurches When you move the mouse, the mouse pointer (on the screen) is supposed to move also. If the mouse pointer lurches erratically (sometimes going fast, sometimes going too slow or not at all) or moves in just one direction (just horizontally, or just vertically, but not both), the mouse is dirty. Clean it by using the procedure on page 153; then the mouse will probably work well.
If the mouse doesn’t work well yet, try this experiment:
If the mouse still doesn’t work well, just buy a new mouse. You can buy a plain mouse for about $10.
Mouse pointer hard to see While moving the mouse fast, you might have difficulty seeing where the mouse pointer went, because the mouse pointer seems to become temporarily invisible.
That means your screen, video card, or eyes are too slow to keep up with you. That’s probably because you’re using a notebook computer that has the slowest kind of screen (passive-matrix). It could also be because your eyesight is poor or you’re a beginner who feels lost. Like a magician, your hand is quicker than the eye or your screen.
To make the mouse pointer easier to see, create long “pointer trails” (by following the procedure on page 100) or buy a bigger monitor or a better notebook computer (having an active-matrix screen, which is faster than a passive screen).
Dead mouse If nothing happens on screen when you move the mouse, try these strategies.…:
Perhaps you’re just in the middle of a routine that doesn’t use the mouse. Try these ways to get out of a routine:
If the mouse still doesn’t work yet, maybe the task you’ve been performing has crashed, so end that task by doing this:
If the mouse still doesn’t work, maybe the mouse’s cord is loose (tighten it!) or the mouse is dirty (clean it by following the procedure for “mouse pointer lurches”) or it’s a wireless mouse whose battery died (open the mouse and replace the battery) or the computer forgot what kind of mouse you have (reinstall the mouse-driver software that came with your mouse, or reinstall Windows) or just buy a new mouse.
Your keyboard might seem broken. Here’s what to do.
Wet keyboard If your keyboard got wet (because you spilled water, coffee, soda, or some other drink), turn the computer off immediately (because water can cause a short circuit that can shock & burn the keyboard and computer and you). Unplug the keyboard from the computer.
Turn the keyboard upside-down for a few minutes, in the hope that some of the liquid drips out. Then let the keyboard rest a few hours, until the remaining liquid in it dries.
Try again to use the keyboard. It will probably work fine. If the keyboard doesn’t work yet, do this:
Dead keyboard If pressing the keyboard’s letters has no effect, either the keyboard is improperly hooked up or the computer is overheating or you’re running a frustrated program (which is ignoring what you type or waiting until a special event happens). For example, the program might be waiting for the printer to print, or the disk drive to manipulate a file, or the CPU to finish a computation, or your finger to hit a special key or give a special command.
Try getting out of any program you’ve been running. Here’s how:
If the keyboard seems to be “defective”, it might just be unplugged from the computer. Make sure the cable from the keyboard is plugged tightly into the computer. To make sure it’s tight, unplug it and then plug it back in again.
If fiddling with the cable doesn’t solve your problem, reboot the computer and see what happens. Maybe you’ll get lucky.
Maybe some part of the computer is overheating. Here’s how to find out:
That kind of test — where you leave the computer on for several hours to see what happens as the computer warms up — is called letting the computer cook.
Sluggish key After pressing one a keys, if the key doesn’t pop back up fast enough, probably there’s dirt under the key. The “dirt” is probably dust or coagulated drinks (such as Coke or coffee).
If many keys are sluggish, don’t bother trying to fix them all. Just buy a new keyboard (for about $20).
If just one or two keys are sluggish, here’s how to try fixing a sluggish key:
Caps While you’re typing, if each capital letter unexpectedly becomes small, and each small letter becomes capitalized, the Shift key or Caps Lock key is activated.
The culprit is usually the Caps Lock key. Probably you pressed it accidentally when you meant to press a nearby key instead. The Caps Lock key stays activated until you deactivate it by pressing it again.
If you have trouble printing, try the following experiment. Shut down the computer and the printer (so you can start fresh). When the computer’s become quiet, turn it back on; then turn the printer back on.
Go into WordPad (by clicking Start then “All Programs” then “Accessories” then “WordPad”). Type a document that contains three words (such as “I love you”) and also the word “abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz”. Print that document by doing this:
If the computer prints that document okay, all your hardware is okay. Any remaining problem is probably just software: for example, you forgot to tell your program or Windows what kind of printer you bought, or you told it incorrectly.
If the computer does not print that document okay, you’re probably having a hardware problem (in your printer, your computer, or the cable connecting them); for example, make sure the cable connecting them is plugged in tight at both ends, and the printer is turned on and has enough paper & ink, correctly inserted.
Here’s another possible reason for failure: you have a messed-up printer queue (your hard disk’s list of documents waiting to be printed) because an earlier document was too complicated to fit in the printer’s RAM. To solve that problem, empty the printer queue by doing this:
Here’s info about special printer problems.…
Incomplete characters When you look at the printed paper, you might see that part of each character is missing. For example, for the letter “A” you see just the top part of the “A”, or just the bottom part, or everything except the middle. That means you’re using an ink-jet or dot-matrix printer, and some of the ink jets or pins aren’t successfully putting ink onto the paper.
If you’re using an inkjet printer, probably one of the jets is clogged and needs to be cleaned.
If you’re using a dot-matrix printer and the bottom part of each character is missing, your ribbon is too high, so that the bottom pins miss hitting it.
If you’re using a dot-matrix printer and some other part of each character is missing, probably a pin broke or is stuck.
Substitute characters When you tell the printer to print a word, the printer might print the correct number of characters but print wrong letters of the alphabet. For example, instead of printing an “A”, the printer might print a “B” or “C”.
That’s probably because the cable going from the computer to the printer is loose, so do this:
If tightening the cable does not solve the problem, the cable is probably defective.
If buying a new cable doesn’t solve your problem, you have defective circuitry in your printer or in your computer’s parallel-printer port.
Extra characters When using a program (such as a word-processing program), the printer might print a few extra characters at the top of each page.
Those extra characters are special codes that the printer should not print. Those codes are supposed to tell the printer how to print. Your printer is misinterpreting those codes, because those codes were intended for a different kind of printer — or your printer cable is loose.
First, make sure the printer cable is tight.
Then try again to tell your software which printer you bought, by doing this.…
Then follow the prompts on the screen.
Misaligned columns When printing a table of numbers or words, the columns might wiggle: some of the words and numbers might be printed slightly too far left or right, even though they looked perfectly aligned on the screen.
That’s because you’re trying to print by using a proportionally spaced font that doesn’t match the screen’s font.
The simplest way to solve the problem is to switch to a monospaced font, such as Courier New or Lucida Console.
Unfortunately, monospaced fonts are ugly. If you insist on
using proportionally spaced fonts, which are prettier, remember that when
moving from column to column you should
press the Tab key, not the Space bar.
Margins On a sheet of paper, all the printing might be too far to the left, or too far to the right, or too far up, or too far down. That shows you forgot to tell the computer about the paper’s size, margins, and feed, or you misfed the paper into the printer.
Software makes assumptions:
If you make a mistake about how tall the sheet of paper is, the computer will try to print too many or too few lines per page. The result is creep: on the first page, the printing begins correctly; but on the second page the printing is slightly too low or too high, and on the third page the printing is even more off.
If all printing is too far to the left (or right), adjust what you tell the software about the left and right margins; or if you’re using pin-feed paper in a dot-matrix printer with movable tractors, slide the tractors to the left or right (after loosening them by flipping their levers). For example, if the printing is an inch too far to the right, slide the tractors an inch toward the right.
If you don’t hear sounds (such as beeps and music), the problem could be caused by hardware or software.
Make sure the speakers are plugged into the computer. Make sure they’re plugged into the computer’s speaker jack tightly, not the microphone jack. If the speakers contain batteries, make sure the batteries are working. If the speakers need to be plugged into a wall socket or power strip, make sure they are. If the speakers have an ON button, make sure it’s in the ON position.
Make sure all volume knobs are turned up:
If you’re still not hearing sounds, do software cleaning (by following pages 154-158), which reduces memory conflicts, because when the computer faces a memory conflict it gives up trying to produce sounds.
At the screen’s bottom right corner, next to the time, you might find a Volume icon (which looks like a blaring loudspeaker). If so, do this:
Click “Start” then “Settings” then “Control Panel”. Double-click “Sounds”. Make sure the Schemes box says “Windows Default”. (If it doesn’t, click that box’s down-arrow, then choose “Windows Default” from the list.) Then do this test:
If you’re still not having any luck, you can try having Windows redetect your hardware (click “Start” then “Settings” then “Control Panel” then double-click “Add New Hardware” then press Enter), but that’s typically useless. An approach that’s slightly more likely to succeed, if you have the patience, is to reinstall Windows. Phone me at 603-666-6644 if you want further help.
If the CD drive stops working, the cause is probably dust, bad disks, a loose cable, or CD driver software.
First, get rid of dust. Dust off the disks and tray. Take a deep breath and blow air into the CD drive, but avoid spit. If you wish, buy a CD head cleaner at Radio Shack; it’s a fake CD-ROM disk that has brushes on it, to brush dust off the CD lens.
If a CD has scratches on it, that disk might be damaged and never work. Try other disks instead.
If you’re using a “homemade” CD-R or CD-RW disk created on another computer, the signals on that disk might be too weak to be detected by an old CD drive. Try disks created in other ways instead, or try using a different CD drive.
Open the computer and check the cable that runs out of the CD drive. Probably one end of that cable is loose and flimsy. Try to plug it in more snugly.
If you’re using modern Windows and your screen’s four corners say “Safe mode”, you can’t use the CD drive while your computer is in that mode: you must shut down the computer and restart in “Normal mode”.