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Hardware Emergency Room:   Clinic Reception Area
Contents: Clinic Reception Area
Preventive Maintenance
When Things Go Wrong
The Troubleshooting Process
What to Expect From These Pages

Clinic Reception Area
Troubleshooting computer problems can be rewarding, frustrating, or (and most likely) both.  PCs are sophisticated and complicated machines that require attention to detail and extreme care when you work on them.  And, because a computer's hardware and software are entwined in a closely-knit hierarchy, it can be difficult determining if a given problem is hardware-related or software-related.

Hierarchy
Bullseye Pix
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When you diagnose a problem, or simply add a new component to your computer, is it essential to make sure you have all the required information before you start -- always keep all the documentation associated with your computer and its parts.  It is also important to take your time and to keep detailed notes when you are working.   Don't assume that you'll remember which cable went where.  If your computer is giving you error messages, write them down word for word.  Always start with the easiest, most obvious possibilities (power, cables, etc.) and move to the more difficult.  Be methodical, and make any changes one at a time.

Preventive Maintenance

Practice pro-active computer care -- keep your computer clean and dust free.  Be careful if eating or drinking when using your computer - water and electronic devices do not mix well.  Try to keep your computer in a relatively dust-free and temperature controlled environment.  Buy a can of compressed air at your local computer store (it's well worth the money, but follow the directions for use carefully) and blow out the fans and vents regularly.  If you keep your computer in a dusty place, open the cover and gently spray compressed air over the components inside as well, every so often.  At the same time make sure all your cables are not frayed or crimped, and that their connectors are snug.

Compressed Air
duster
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Keep your computer and its peripherals on a surge protection strip, if possible.  Surge protectors are inexpensive devices that can absorb certain types of power fluctuations.  If you don't have a surge protector, unplug your computer from the wall when it will go unused for an extended period, and never leave it plugged in during an electrical storm.

Surge Protector
powerstrip
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The things that you use the most get dirty the fastest.  Keep your keyboard clean by turning it over every so often (it's best to disconnect it first!) and shaking the dust and dirt out of it.  You can also use a vacuum cleaner (with the proper attachment) to gently clean it.  Use your can of compressed air to blow out the stuff that doesn't want to shake out.   
Your mouse's roller can get gummed up over time.  You can clean the dirt and lint that slows down your mouse by removing the little ring at the bottom (some pop out, others twist out) and using denatured alcohol on a lint-free foam cleaning swab to get the gunk out that accumulates there.

Mouse Roller
grossmouse
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One of the most useful tools you can have is a clean start-up, or emergency boot diskette.  This diskette will come in handy over and over again.  Use a utility program or Windows built in routine in the "Add/Remove Programs" area in the Control Panel to help you make a start-up disk.  You can follow our simple directions for making a boot disk, or the instructions supplied with Windows.  It is very important that this disk be virus-free, so make sure your system is clean of any viruses before creating your boot disk.
Become familiar with your computer's properties.  Windows 95/98 users can right click on the My Computer icon on the desktop and select Properties, then Device Manager.  Device Manager can be a powerful troubleshooting tool.  Once opened, it displays a list of the various categories of components on your computer.  Click on the [+] to expand an item and show the individual components within each category.  To see detailed information on a particular component you can either double-click on the component name or select the component and click on the properties button.

Device Manager
devicemanager
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By double-clicking on the Computer entry at the top of the Device Manager listing, you can View Resources and easily see all the IRQs, I/O ports, DMA channels and memory addresses in your system, and the devices using them.  A device is that is in conflict with another, or not installed properly, or disabled, will have a yellow exclamation mark or a red "X" symbol next to it -- sure signs of a problem.

View Resources
viewresources
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Symbols
devman
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When Things Go Wrong

But even with the best care and feeding, computers do sometimes stop working.  If you decide to work on your computer, it is important to know that your PC's components are very sensitive to electrostatic discharge (ESD).  We generate static electricity easily -- by such simple actions as putting on a sweater or brushing our hair.  Unfortunately, when ESD is discharged through a computer's integrated circuits (often called ICs), they can be destroyed without any outward sign such as shock, sparks,  or smoke.   When working on your computer it is important to control ESD through the following means:

  • Use grounding wrist straps that attach to your wrist at one end and to a grounded surface at the other end.  Wrist straps dissipate charges on your body or clothing.
  • If you do not have a wrist strap, touch a ground like the power supply before handling sensitive components like expansion boards.
  • Handle boards by their edges, and don't touch the chips or the edge of the board that plugs into the slot.
  • Anti-static containers should be used as packaging for all sensitive electronic devices.  Any electronic device that you buy for your computer should be enclosed in one, and you should always keep computer parts in their special packaging until you are ready to use them.
  • Static builds up more easily in dry, cool environments.  A humidifier in the room where you do your work can help you to bring up the relative humidity.
  • Try to avoid doing work in a room with carpeting.
  • Always remember to keep your PC unplugged when you are working on it -- it is not sufficient to just turn it off.

Wrist Strap
wrist
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Anti-Static Package
packaging
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Here's a few common sense pointers to keep in mind any time your work with your computer's hardware:
  • Check your warranty first!  Be wary of doing any work on your computer if it voids the warranty.
  • Never use brute force to do anything to your system.  Don't force plugs or cards or cables.
  • Tighten screws until they are snug, but do not over-tighten them.
  • Whenever seating chips, always support the underside of the board with one hand while applying downward pressure with the thumb of your other hand to the chip.
  • Make sure all on/off switches are off when you are reconnecting your system's power cord to the wall outlet or power strip.
  • Back-up important data (including  your Registry files) before doing any serious work on your system.
  • Back-up important data (did we say that already?) AND check that your back-up is good by doing a test restore of a file or two.
  • Don't use magnetized tools when working on your computer.
  • Put all your tiny parts like loose screws into a cup or a bowl.
  • Read The Manual -- don't buy anything without instructions and read the directions before you start.

The Troubleshooting Process

There is a well-known universal troubleshooting procedure that is broken down into four basic steps:

  1. Define the symptoms
  2. Identify and isolate the problem
  3. Repair or replace the defective component
  4. Test

If your test is successful, you're done.  If it is not, you go back to the first step.

Always exercise patience, and focus on analyzing the problem before jumping to conclusions about the solution.

Be cognizant of the human factors involved in troubleshooting your computer:
  • Avoid panic.  Try to place yourself in the right frame of mind.
  • Don't overestimate the problem.  Many hardware problems are quite simple to solve.
  • Give yourself adequate time.  If you will be forced to rush, don't start.  Put it off for another time when you are less hurried.
  • If you are fatigued, your concentration will suffer.  Wait until you are well-rested to tackle the problem.

What to Expect From These Pages

The following troubleshooting pages are designed to help you diagnose what is wrong with your computer when it won't start, or is not functioning properly.  These pages deal with hardware-related issues, and as such are limited in scope.  Each page provides information on a particular issue or component in your computer.  Brief introductory material is followed by sets of one or more troubleshooting steps, progressing from the most obvious and easiest to the most difficult. 

The order of the troubleshooting steps is significant -- it does not make sense to take elaborate action when a simple change (such as plugging your computer into a different wall outlet) will fix the problem.
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Disclaimer:  These pages are provided for information purposes only.  We cannot be held responsible for any damage you might inflict on your system while using the information contained herein.  We recommend you always refer any technical matter that is "over your head" to a qualified computer technician.
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2011 Double-Hammer Computer Services.  All rights reserved.
Last Updated: September 04, 2011

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