Monday, June 30, 2014

How to Fix Your Computer Yourself

Computers are remarkable devices. At their best, they can do amazing things. But when they break down, they can make you want to pull your hair out. Here are some tips to try for common computer problems, before calling in a professional:

- Sluggishness

If your computer is running slowly -- taking a long time to open applications or switch between windows, for example -- there are many things you can do to try to speed it up. First, unclutter your desktop by removing old or unused shortcuts. (Deleting the shortcut does not delete the actual program.) Then run Disk Cleanup to remove unnecessary temporary files, and empty your recycle bin to free up some more disk space. (In Windows XP and Vista, you can access Disk Cleanup by right-clicking on your hard drive in My Computer or Computer and choosing Properties.)

Next, defragment your hard drive to better organize your files. Defragmenting will usually take a while (probably most of an hour) and you shouldn't use your computer while it's running, but if the hard drive hasn't been defragmented in a while, running the defragmenter can possibly result in a noticeable increase in system performance. To run the defragmenter in Vista, simply type "defrag" into the Windows search bar. In XP, it can be found under the System Tools folder (All Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Disk Defragmenter).

If your computer is still slower than you think it should be, you may have a virus or other malware -- run anti-virus and anti-spyware scans. (See the next section.)

- Virus or spyware

Viruses and other malicious programs (spyware, adware, or malware) can infect your computer and do nasty things. Sometimes you'll know when your computer is infected; other times you won't.

If you believe your computer is infected, run both an anti-virus and anti-spyware scan. Delete or quarantine any malicious files found, then reboot your computer and run the scans again. If the same files keep popping up, the virus has hidden itself in your computer's registry and it will keep reinstalling every time you remove it. If this is the case, have a professional clean your system.

You should have both an anti-virus and anti-spyware program installed on your computer. Most people have only an anti-virus program, which is good to have but will not keep out all unwanted programs. Several free anti-spyware programs can be found online, including Ad-Aware and Spybot.

- Device or memory error

Sometimes Windows will crash or freeze up because of an error. Usually when this happens, it will give you some indication of what caused the problem. If it's a device error and Windows tells you which device is causing the problem, you may have a faulty device, or it may simply be a software issue. Try reinstalling the device driver, or downloading a new driver from the manufacturer's website.

If the error is an application error, you need to figure out which application is to blame. Usually when you get application errors it's right after you've installed a new program. Uninstall your most recent program (through the Control Panel) and see if the error goes away. If it doesn't, you may be able to use System Restore to load previous settings that didn't cause that error.

Memory errors can sometimes be application errors as well. When a memory error occurs, Windows shows you the address in memory where the error took place. Write this address down - if the same address keeps popping up, you most likely have faulty RAM. Either replace your RAM sticks yourself or have a professional do it (usually only for a modest fee).

If the memory address constantly changes, you most likely have an application error. Follow the steps listed above for application errors.

- Audio or video problem

For an audio or video problem (blank screen, no sound, distorted sound, etc.) the problem might just be a loose cable. Shut the computer down, then disconnect and reconnect all of your audio or video cables - these are usually the monitor's data cable (going to the computer) and power cable (going to the outlet or surge protector) and wires for any audio devices, including speakers, headphones, microphones, or headsets.

If the problem doesn't go away, it may be a damaged or faulty device. For cheap devices like headphones, try replacing them to fix the problem. In rare cases, audio and video problems can be caused by intermittent electrical problems with the motherboard, for which you will probably want a professional's help.

- Network connection problems

Network issues are usually simple settings adjustments, but searching through the settings to find the right one can be a real bear. It's often easier to pay someone else to do it. But first, you might want to try reconnecting all of your networking cables - Ethernet or coaxial cables, and any cables leading to or from your router, switch, or hub. Also, if you are running a home network, make sure all of your computers are in the same workgroup and make sure they all have File and Printer Sharing enabled.

For an issue scanning from a dedicated scanner or multi-function printer, check your firewall to be sure it's not blocking the scanning attempt. If you can print to the device (or ping it, or otherwise interact with it from your computer) but you can't receive scans from it, it's likely that some program is blocking the transmission. If it's not your firewall, it may be a security program, or a hardware device, such as your router.

If you can connect to other devices on your home network, but can't connect to anything outside your network, try rebooting your router. It will likely be either a problem with the router itself, or with your Internet Service Provider (ISP).

If you've tried the solutions listed above and haven't been able to resolve the problem, it may be time to call in a professional. Find a person or company with a good reputation and reasonable rates, and if you have to leave your computer with them, make sure you know up front how long the repairs will take.

(Originally posted on, December 2009, updated with new information)

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