Troubleshoot Your Computer

By Martin Jansen, Owner of Jansen-PCINFO

It takes years of experience to determine the probable causes of a computer malfunction.  That written, however, there are some basic steps that can be taken whenever a computer is not doing the right thing.  This article addresses both laptops and desktops including the differences in operating systems.

The Basic Restart

In the corporate world, help desks will often ask the person to restart their computer if it is doing something odd.  Restarts often result in the problem going away.  Users are often not appreciative of the help desk for this basic step because it seems too easy, but if it works, why complain?  The only exception I can think of in this case is hard drive failure.  A bad hard drive will only get worse with a restart.  This restart rule applies to tablets, cell phones or any smart electronics as well.  A restart will refresh the memory and reset the basic functions when the device seems slow or unresponsive.

My Computer Won’t Boot Up

There can be several reasons for this issue.  I’ve already mentioned hard drive failure, but there can be even more basic troubleshooting that can be done.  On desktops check to see if all cables are connected and tight.  Also, make sure the power supply is working.  One guy called the help desk because his computer wouldn’t start, turns out his whole floor was without power – duh!  On laptops, removing the battery for 10 seconds as well as disconnecting the power supply will allow a reset.  Modern laptops, however, have the battery permanently enclosed.  Hold the power button down for 10 seconds to allow a restart.

Still won’t boot up?  Could be the BIOS is not set to the correct drive for boot up.  On Dell computers, holding down the F12 key while the Dell logo appears allows the selection of drives for boot up.  Your computer may have a different boot up key: Esc, F8 and Del keys are common options.  Do some internet research to determine the boot key for your computer model.  Secure boot may prevent the selection of different drives, if so turn that option off in the BIOS.  If the BIOS no longer “sees” the primary boot drive, it could be that the hard drive has failed or is failing.  Failing hard drives in both laptops and desktops make a definite clicking sound as the read write heads fall on the platter.  SSD drives, however, don’t make any noise – they suddenly stop working. Users don’t like it when they are told their drive failed – especially if they have never done a backup.  Your data is backed up, right?  Sometimes data can be recovered, by booting up another OS via a USB stick.  The worst case scenario involves purchasing a new hard drive or SSD and reloading the operating system – not a bad choice if it’s an older Windows install.  I definitely recommend an SSD drive for speedy loading of an OS.

A Windows Recovery drive is good to have should the OS fail to load.  Dave, the guy with a British accent, has a decent tutorial.  In Linux, the OS can be recovered using the same USB stick used to load the operating system.  Timeshift (built in to Linux Mint) can be used to completely recover the system to a previous date if the system is not working well. Thor has a video discussing Linux Mint recovery.  MacOS users should be aware of Time Machine for recovery of their OS.

My Video Is Not Working

The computer seems to boot up, but nothing shows up on the display.  Back to basics, check to see if the correct cables are securely connected.  The old VGA cables often had bent or missing pins, but today’s HDMI and DisplayPort connectors are much better and rarely fail.  Still, I have seen mangled pins in all connectors.  Throw out bad cables before they come back to haunt you.  In laptops, the miniaturized display ribbon can also come loose over time.   Do a search in YouTube for “laptop display cable repair” for many videos covering this common malady.

Other causes for video problems can be found in settings.  Users seeking to modify display properties can set the resolution or refresh rate beyond the capabilities of the monitor, resulting in a blank screen.  Both Windows and Linux Mint are pretty good at suggesting optimal display settings that will work the monitor being used.

In Windows, drivers can be the culprit when video cards don’t work.  Dig in to find the Device Manager and update the driver from the manufacturer website.  Here’s another tutorial.

Many times the video chipset is embedded in the motherboard of the computer.  Should the chipset fail, desktop users can add another video card to get by.  Laptop users are not so lucky and may have to get USB to video adapters.  I wouldn’t trust a computer motherboard for long with a failing video chipset for one failing component can quickly lead to a dead computer.

Dual display users may have to go into display adapters to set the primary monitor.  Sometimes simply switching cables works best to set the primary (the one with the menu and icons.)

My Sound Is Not Working

Similar to Video, sound chipsets are almost exclusively embedded in the motherboard.  Gone are the days when Creative made sound cards for all kinds of computers.

Drivers are the most common issue associated with sound problems.  In Windows, the Device Manager can reveal if the sound chipset is recognized by the system and if the driver can be updated from the manufacturer’s website.  Modern Linux distros rarely have sound system issues.  The Terminal command, arecord -l, will list all the active sound cards in the system.

Fortunately, USB headsets are far less expensive than video cards and have their own Discrete Sound Processors.  I have seen motherboards with bad sound chipsets last for years.  Your own mileage will vary depending on the chipset.  Intel chipsets are easily recognized by Windows and Linux operating systems.  As you know, Apple sells their own hardware and rarely has video or sound issues – wrong! – as this video indicates, no computer or OS is immune to sound problems.

My Computer Is Super Slow

The sad fact is that Windows operating systems get garbaged up easily with new software being added and removed.  Microsoft Windows, having the largest market share, is still the primary target of malware and virus coders – bad people who want to profit from your misery.  Top quality Anti-Virus and Malware detection software is a must on Windows systems.  Without protection, remote bad guys can turn your computer into a (ro)bot sending out tons of request packets to websites causing denial of service to others.  Ransomware agents can take control of your computer and encrypt all your data.  They ask a fee to return your data – basic extortion.

For fixes, users can still defragment their hard drive, but this is not necessary for SSDs.  Watch for software that loads during startup and keep that to minimum.  Kevin shows you how.  Cleaning up the registry will also help, but Windows users with older installs benefit most from a complete reload of the OS.

I can testify that I do not have a slowness problem running Linux Mint.  I have had the same system for three years and my operating system loads quickly using a 240GB ADATA SU635 SSD drive.  Over the years I have added and removed software without issue.  I have gone through three distro upgrades without a problem.  Mine is not a new system: I bought it from a refurbisher.  In the full sized Dell Optiplex 7010 case, I have 12GB ram and the original i5-3550 3.3 GHz processor.  I also have an internal 640GB WD Black Hard Drive for media serving my Plex collection and USB drives for backup purposes. Knock on wood, everything is running great on my system that was manufactured in 2012.

Dell Optiplex 7010

What Else Can Go Wrong?

A lot.  Computers, operating systems and software are man-made and therefore have flaws.  I don’t like to give up easily, and usually work hard to resolve any problems I encounter.

I’ve tried to address the most common computer problems in this article.  What problems are you having with your computer?