Computer Problems

Last modified: 23-Jun-05 13:40:16

Lately I seem to be called upon more often than usual to help folks troubleshoot and fix their computers.  Always difficult to do from afar, I have been keeping track of their trials and tribulations--hopefully to gather enough information to preclude further problems.  In all recent cases, their problems have ALWAYS been the result of not keeping their operating system and application programs updated and current.

In order to help nip this continuing trend in the bud, I decided to write up these pages so my family and friends can at least have a fighting chance against the sloth, scum, and villainy that seems to have invaded our computer universe.


Most computer problems seem to fall into three general categories: software products and/or updates, worms and viruses, and spy ware  or ad ware.


Does your computer seem suddenly sluggish, "busy" all the time, so busy that it seems to--or actually does--freeze up?  Then you may well be into one of several stages of system problems.  First, let's examine the most basic items: hardware.


Despite what you may have heard, computer hardware is pretty bulletproof these days, and is rarely the reason for system failures.  Equipment life times typically run into the 10's of thousands of hours.  Although hardware is your least likely form of failure, if you do suffer a hardware failure, in most cases it's absolute. 


In other words, the "durn thang!" just won't run at all.  If none of the indicator lights come one, or you don't hear the fan running (for those that are so equipped) you've probably experienced a hardware failure.  In which case, unless you posses the means to troubleshoot and repair it, this usually means a trip to the repair shop--or the store for a new unit.


TIP:  If you use your computer daily, and when you do use it you use it for more than a few minutes at a time, you should probably NOT shut your computer down.  Leave it running 24/7/365.  Shut it down only if you're going to be gone several days or more--and even then only if you feel that need.  My computers are always on, and never turned off.


The average home computer, just running, draws very little power.  In most cases less than even a very small light.  Your computer experiences the MOST stress and strain during start-up.  The power-up process draws BY FAR the most power, and by doing so stresses the power supply. 


Your hard drive (the heart of your computer), must go through a stressful, high current startup process. 


In addition, starting up affects the chips inside your computer as well.  As they begin to run, they will heat up.  Some can get quite warm.  The stresses incurred during the thermal cycling that occurs during startup and shutdown, are at the root of nearly ALL hardware failures.


TIP:  If you have a CRT monitor, make sure your “screen saver” is functioning, in 5 minutes or less.  If you’re going to not be using it for a day or more, turn it off.  Leave all other display types running with your computer 24/7.


The only exception would be: your monitor--if it has a CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) display, you should make sure that you have a working screen saver in operation.  If you're not going to be using it, for several days, you should turn it--the monitor only--off.  Newer monitors, LCD (Liquid Crystal Display), Plasma, or LED (Light Emitting Diodes) are similarly in usage as your hardware:  Turn 'em on, and leave 'em on!


The next most likely failure cause is usually software.  If your computer was running well, and you installed any new software, the odds are high that the new installation caused the problem.  The way these problems can affect you are manifold and too complex for salient discussion here.


Software falls into 3 classes:  operating system, applications, and third-party products. 

A word of explanation here:  While the instructions here are general and apply to all types of software, they are intended to apply only to the typical software products as delivered from and by Microsoft ®. 


Despite some of howling and groaning by those that cling to other software and hardware products, for any number of real or imaginary reasons, the simple fact is that more than 96% of ALL COMPUTERS IN THE WORLD run on some variation of operating systems delivered by the good folks based in Redmond, Washington:  Microsoft, Inc.  


In my experience with more than 20,000 customer installations for nearly 2 decades, the Microsoft products are well and carefully tested—despite many strident claims by their detractors.  Further in my experience nearly all problems related to Microsoft products fall into these categories:

1.      Bad, improper, incomplete, or faulty initial installation.  This can happen to any one.  In the early days, this was an often complex and error fraught step.  Newer methods have nearly eliminated these kinds of errors.  But they are always possible.  If in doubt, take the defaults that are offered.

2.      Failure to keep your operating system software updated.  This is the silliest error of all.  Microsoft product updates are available free of charge and are (at least in my experience so far) dead simple to install.  You should make it a habit to visit: regularly and avail yourself of updates as they are made available. 

You can even sign up to be notified when new updates come online.  Almost all of the current spate of bugs and worms going around has had fixes in place—some for over a year—that could have prevented infections and their spread

3.      Installing a third party software product.  In most cases any such product must, of necessity, integrate closely into both your computer and its operating system—and sometimes fails to do it well.  This is BY FAR the most common failure I encounter.

Keep in mind that many software vendors take liberties with Microsoft implementation requirements.  There is a reason that MS releases such notes and then tests each registered vendor’s product for conformity.  Too many software writers take these rules as an affront to their “style”, and will willfully take steps or do things not in compliance with Microsoft’s (current or future) needs. 

While it may have no effect on the day you install it, MS knows more about upcoming operating system changes than an itinerant software peddler can ever hope to know.  While there are many, many excellent third-party software providers that work closely with MS to ensure your satisfaction, there are many more that don’t.  Therefore I always counsel caution when purchasing and installing any non-Microsoft products.  I do so only rarely…and then only if I must and there is no other option.  As always, YMMV!


TIP:  Install new or third party software products one at a time.  Reboot, and test your system for proper operation.  If something seems amiss, uninstall the product immediately and contact the software vendor for guidance.

Worms, Viruses, Trojans, and ads:

Together this group of foul deeds causes the most problems in today’s modern computers.  Each of these items is intentionally caused by someone with nothing better to do than attack, and possibly destroy, your system. 


Despite what you might often read, that Microsoft systems are so often attacked with the rational that they are poorly built--to explain why they seem to be the target of so many bugs, worms, and viruses.  This is patent nonsense!  The Microsoft operating system in concert with Microsoft applications run on more than 95% of all of the computers in the world.  What “pleasure” would a hacker gain by only being able to infect a tiny fraction of users, when there’s such a rich, easy to crack, and for more accessible user-base available?  It’s far too hard for a hacker to “waste” his time trying to crack into the few systems outside the Microsoft world.  That is why Mac, Linux, and Unix users (numbering 10’s of millions of installations on their own) so often bray their stupidity as they pointlessly congratulate themselves for their brilliant system choices <yawn!>.


A “worm” is a bit of software that insinuates itself into your system.  Once infiltrated, any number of actions is possible, from benign to fatal.  At best they’ll do nothing except stand in stark tribute to your lack of care when you browse the web or receive eMail.  At worst, they can break and send out the details of your security, passwords, credit card numbers, and even render your entire system inaccessible.  Attacks of this kind can only be “fixed” by a complete format and reinstallation of the operating system, all of your applications, and restoration of your documents, letters, and data—IFF you have a good backup!


A virus is a simple form of infection that does little beyond replicate itself.  Depending on how comprehensive it is, it may simply do nothing, or—most likely the case—it will send out copies of itself to others in a variety of ways.  None of them good!


Trojans are a similar class of scum-ware.  They get their name "Trojans" in reference to how the Greeks got access to the city of Troy during the “Trojan wars”.  Whether myth or fact is unknown.  But as the story goes, Greeks were hidden inside a hollow wooden horse.  The Trojans, thinking they’d driven off the Greeks, brought the horse into their city and proceeded to have a large celebration.  That night, the Greeks climbed down out of the horse and opened the gates.  The city fell, and all of the Trojans were killed.  The Trojan type of virus rides in on, or masquerading as, a legitimate program.  Once insinuated in your system, their impact can vary.  They too can range from benign to deadly, as well as leaving a legacy to your singular carelessness in permitting it to have entered “your city!” in the first place.


This leaves “ad ware”.  Also often referred to as “spy ware”, these kinds privacy robbers can infiltrate your computer in a variety of ways.  Mostly they come in as intrusive cookies.  Although lately clever programmers have caused them to hide in all sorts of mediums, including web pages and eMail.


The best defense against worms, viruses, and Trojans is good anti-virus software.  There are many, and different folks will have different opinions as to their usefulness and safety.  I use the “eTrust armor” package from Computer Associates.  It’s served me well.  There are others, many of them excellent as well.  As of this writing, the only one I cannot recommend is the Norton AV tool.  I’ve simply had too many system problems with them on the systems of my clients.  I recommend that you chose another.

How to go about fixing your system:

As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense.  You have to take charge of the care and feeding of our machine.  Make sure you purchase legitimate copies of your software from reputable vendors.  It’s very easy to sneak in Trojan in what seems to be a legitimate software install received from a shady character at a “hard-to-beat” price.  The old adage that when something seems to good to be true, it probably is; still holds true even for software.


If you think you’re having a problem; here’s the general sequence of events you want to do:

1.      If you’ve just installed an upgrade, update, or a new hardware or software product; check that you installed it correctly and that it’s working properly.  If that seems okay, uninstall or remove it.  Remember, you have the original source for it, so you can always reinstall it.  Check your system.  If the problem goes away, contact the vendor of whatever you installed and see if they can help.  If they can’t, don’t, or won’t; throw the damn thing away and make a note to never do business with them again.  And be sure to tell all your friends about it as well!

2.      If you haven’t already done so, upgrade your operating system files.  Visit and let the Microsoft installer get your system up to snuff.  From that point you can also update most of your other Microsoft tools or applications.  Remember, these are free.  So take advantage of them to keep your system in the peak of performance.  It almost 100% certain that long before you find a bug or security hole in your product or software, someone way above your pay grade will have found it first.  There’s no advantage to Microsoft to leave a blatant security hole in their software.  They will always fix them.  Usually well before word of that hole gets out to the scum suckers that want to willfully damage your computer.
NB: Just a few weeks ago I ran across a worm that prevented the user from updating their system.  This worm would intercept the query stream that your system exchanges with MS, and would invalidate the result.  This had the effect of rendering an update, and killing that worm, impossible! 

3.      If that happened to you, then you’ll have to take more direct action before you attempt another update.  If you still have Internet access, you should download the latest version of Stinger.exe from McAfee here.  Simply download it onto your “desktop”, and run it.  "Stinger" works on all Windows operating systems.  Stinger is one of the best general-purpose virus killing tools around. 
NB:  Windows ME & XP users must disable their system restore function first.  If you don't know how, read all about it here:  Just don’t ask me, I run Win2KP.

Also, if your worm is flooding the Internet with messages, your ISP may already have complained.  So it’s probably a good idea to disconnect your Internet connection while you’re killing those pests.  So be advised that you may have to have an uninfected friend download these files for you.


In addition, if you suspect infection, you should also get a Swen worm removal tool from Symantec here.  Download it to your desktop, and run it.  I keep a copy of ‘em around…just in case!


If executing the preceding steps, shows you that you did have critters on your machine, you should go back to step #2 and make sure that everything you have is completely up to date before you go on to the next step.