||PC Hardware Troubleshooting Tips
Though they tend to cause some of the nastiest
symptomscomputers that won't boot, scary and/or confusing error messages,
etc.computer hardware problems are usually the easiest type of problems to solve.
The trick, as with all troubleshooting ventures, is to figure out where to start and then
focus your efforts.
First, of course, you need to check the stupid
stuff. You'd probably be amazed how many "problems" are solved by connecting the
cables, or turning on the power switch that you swear you just did. Beyond that,
double-check the snugness of your connectionsjiggling in a new add-in card or
screwing in a cable connection can (and often does) make a difference. You may even want
to check the integrity of your cables and connectors. I once solved a baffling SCSI
problem by noticing that one of the pins in a miniature 50-pin SCSI-II connector was bent.
I had mistakenly presumed, prior to that, that a bent pin would have prevented me from
making a connection at all, but it didn't. Unfortunately, as a result, I wasted several
hours on something that could've taken two minutes.
Finally, whenever you install something new,
whether it's more memory, a new drive, a plug-in card or what-have-you, and something
doesn't work, it's more than likely because you made a mistake somewhere in the
installation process. Step back through the process again, double- and triple-check your
connections, and then try one more time. In the case of RAM that doesn't work or isn't
recognized, it could be an incompatibility with the specific manufacturer of the RAM and
your motherboard, so see if you can try a different brand before you give up hope.
Finally, in some instances installing something new causes a conflict with something
else--which is what the rest of this article is all about.
Once you're past the basics, its on to step
two. As long as your computer boots, then there's a good chance the problem is related to
missing, damaged, incompatible or improperly installed driver software, otherwise known
simply as drivers. (If your PC doesn't start up, you may want to create a boot floppy
disksee "How to Create a 'Real' Windows 95 (or
98 or ME) Boot Disk" for more. In addition, you should check out the "PC Startup Troubleshooting Tips" article for
Virtually every piece of hardware located inside
or connected externally to your PC requires a driver to communicate and function with the
operating system, applications, and other hardware components in your machine. Drivers
essentially translate messages back and forth between the hardware in question and the
operating system, thereby allowing your computer system to work as a unified whole (at
least, in theory). The truth is, though appearances may suggest otherwise, any computer
system is actually made up of a bunch of specialized pieces that don't speak the
"native language" of other components and, therefore, require a great deal of
translation to communicate and work effectively with them. When any of these various
levels of translation break down, well, that's when you get problems.
The Device Manager is Your Friend
If you're running Windows 95, 98,
or ME, your
first stop after the computer finishes the startup process should be the Device Manager, a
piece of operating system software that helps you manage the various pieces of your PC.
You can get to the Device Manager in several different ways: the two easiest are
right-clicking on the My Computer icon on your desktop and selecting Properties from the
context menu that pops up when you do this, or by going to the Start menu, going up to
Settings, selecting Control Panel from the list of choices and then double-clicking on the
System control panel. Either way, youll be presented with a tabbed dialog box; click
on the tab that says Device Manager, and youre there.
The first thing to look for is a yellow
exclamation point or red international no sign (you know, the circle with the slash
through it) next to one of your devices. You may need to click on all the little plus
signs next to each category of devices to see the full outline-like list of everything in
your computer. If you see the yellow or red symbol, you know something is amiss. My first
suggestion is to highlight the offending device and click on the Remove button. What this
does is essentially erase the driver software associated with the device as well as
references to it within the Windows 95/98/ME Registry. (The Registry tracks all the hardware
and software you install, the preferences you set for each, as well as lots of other
stuff). The fancy term for this is "logically" removing the device because, even
though it may still be physically attached, the computer no longer has any record of its
Next, you should restart your computer, let
Windows' Plug-and-Play feature "find" the device again, and redo the
driver installation process by either using the driver suggestions that
Windows finds and
makes or clicking on the Have Disk button and using the installer disks that came with the
device. (If both options are possible, Id go with the disks that came with the
hardwareunless youre sure they are an older version.) If the computer
doesnt find the device, then I would suspect the connections or the device itself.
Buy another cable, unplug and re-plug the connectors, remove and then physically reinstall
any new plug-in cards or do whatever you have to to ensure that the connection is solid.
Once youve done that, youll find that many times, simply reinstalling the
drivers solves the problem.
Other times the problem is due to an older
version of a driver conflicting with something else on your system. Its always a
good idea to check for and get the latest versions of drivers that your PC needs. Check
the manufacturers web site first and if you cant find the driver, or drivers,
there (or if the company is no longer in business), try searching for it at one of the
webs driver repositories, such as The
Driver Zone, WinDrivers.Com, WinFiles, or Frank
Condron's World o' Windows. If you're running Windows 98 or Windows
ME, you may also be able to get
a new driver for your hardware via the Windows Update feature off the Start menu.
If you find and download a new driver version,
you can often update the driver by clicking on the device listing in the Device Manager,
clicking on Properties, selecting the Driver Tab and then clicking on the Update Driver
button. From there, depending on what version of Windows youre using (the original
Win95A, the revised Win95B, Win98, or Windows ME), youll either need to manually find where the
file is located on your hard disk, and then select it, or the computer will attempt to
find it for you. Either way, once the correct file is found, you initiate the update
process by simply clicking a button.
Some driver updates force you to create new
floppy disks, which you then use to update the driver. Frankly, though its more work
initially, this is a good solution in the long run, I think, because if you ever have to
completely reinstall Windows (such as, when you buy yourself a big new hard
drive), youll generally want to have copies of your drivers on floppies anyway.
Mind your Ps and IRQs
Finally, if that still doesnt work, you may
need to futz with the dreaded IRQs, or Interrupt Requests. Most hardware devices on your
computer need attention from the processor on a fairly regular basis (to check their
status) and the mechanism for doing that is called Interrupt Requests (because the device
politely asks the processor to interrupt what its doing at the time and give it some
attentionwell, sort of). Because of the need to maintain compatibility with older
hardware, todays PCs are still limited to 16 IRQs (numbered 0-15), which is turning
out to be a fairly big problem on many newer, well-equipped computers (read one of my InfoWorld
Electric "Plugged In" columns to learn more on the subject).
The general principle with IRQ troubleshooting is
that two devices cannot typically share an IRQ (an important exception is with some
PCI-based add-in cards), and if they try to, one or sometimes neither of the devices will
work properly. If you find that you have an IRQ conflict, where two ISA cards or other
non-PCI devices are trying to use the same IRQ, youll need to change the settings on
one of the devices to an open IRQ. The problem is, not every device is able to use every
IRQ, so even though you have other IRQs available, the problem device may be incapable of
using one of the open IRQs. If thats the case, you may need to move another device
using one of the IRQs that the problem hardware does work with first, and then free up an
IRQ for the problem hardware. So, for example, if IRQ 8 is open but you have a SCSI card
that only works with IRQs 9 or 11, you may first need to move whatevers on 11 to 8,
and then set the SCSI card to IRQ 11. Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead to an
infuriating puzzle game where you try to match devices with your IRQs.
To find out what IRQs are in use by your
computer, double click the computer icon at the top of the Device Manager. Youll see
a new window pop up that shows which devices are using which IRQs. Unfortunately it
doesnt leave a blank for any IRQs that are not in use, so if you need to find an
available IRQ youll have to look close, count the numbers and see if any are
missing. If a number between 0 and 15 is missing, that means that particular IRQ is
Some older plug-in cards require you to change
the IRQs by setting tiny DIP switches on the card itself, or via a dedicated configuration
utility. Most newer Plug-and-Play cards can be changed via Windows 95 or Windows 98. To do
so, go to the Device Manager, highlight the product in question, click on the Properties
button and then go to Resources Tab. Generally, youll have to deselect the Use
Automatic Settings button to make any changes. Most devices offer several Basic
Configuration choices, which is what you should try first. These are different
combinations of IRQs, memory ranges, and I/O ranges. All you typically need to worry about
is the IRQ. Some devices also let you adjust these parameters individually by clicking the
Change Settings button.
Thankfully, you rarely have to worry about IRQ
problems if youre using Windows 95, 98 or ME because they all do a pretty good
job of automatically fixing them before they arise. In fact, this is one of their most
important, yet little discussed improvements over Windows 3.1. Unfortunately, Windows 3.0
and 3.1 users still have to worry about this kind of stuff on a semi-regular basis. The
problem is not unheard of under Windows 95, 98 or ME, however (I ran into it myself),
which is why Ive included it here.
These tips wont solve all the hardware
problems you may run into, but they should solve a good number of them. The important
thing to remember when doing any troubleshooting is that computers really are logical
devices and theres always a logical reason for why something isnt working.
Discovering what that reason is and then applying the right solution isnt always
easy (or intuitive), but if you think about the problem logically and work through it
step-by-step, theres a good chance youll be able to solve it on your own. And,
if worse comes to worse, you can always just nuke everything and start over (see "Starting Over: Repartitioning, Reformatting and
Reinstalling" for more on exactly how to do that). Good luck!
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