Most people don't realize how dependent they are on their computers until that moment when the computer won't work as usual. Computer users and IT professionals should know how to troubleshoot basic computer problems. A structured troubleshooting approach will get you back up and running as quickly as possible with minimal cost and headaches.
This excerpt from ITF+ CompTIA IT Fundamentals All-in-One Exam Guide, Second Edition, published by McGraw-Hill Education, provides a practical framework to follow when troubles arise.
Standard troubleshooting steps
Step 1. Identify the problem.
- Break large problems down into smaller problems.
- Consider scope; who or what is affected?
- Gather details about the issue; ask users, view logs.
- Determine whether anything has changed.
- Duplicate the problem.
Step 2. Research.
- Refer to past help desk tickets.
- Search through private or public knowledge bases.
- Ask friends or colleagues.
- Internet search.
Step 3. Establish a theory of probable cause.
- Eliminate the simple and obvious possible causes.
- Consider factors that can indirectly cause problems.
Step 4. Test the theory.
- Change and test only one potential solution at a time.
- Determine the root cause of the issue.
- Escalate the issue to a professional if necessary.
Step 5. Establish a plan of action.
- Prepare a specific method to implement the solution.
- Test the plan in an isolated sandboxed environment.
- Notify other users if the solution could possibly affect them.
- Escalate the issue to a professional if necessary.
Step 6. Implement or escalate.
- Back up configurations and data first.
- If the problem is complex, monitor implementation progress.
Step 7. Verify functionality.
- Ensure the solution has solved the original problem.
- Ensure new problems have not been introduced.
- Consult a subject-matter expert if needed.
- Configure preventative measure if appropriate.
Step 8. Document the solution.
- Document the problem and steps taken in the solution.
- Update old documentation with new knowledge.
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Solvable common computer problems
You can solve common problems by recognizing symptoms and implementing solutions. Typical problems you'll run into include no power, physical damage, failed boot, application failure to load and peripherals that don't function as they should. Let's take a look at some of these issues.
Won't start up normally
If the computer won't start up, think about it like a detective would. What has changed? Did you install any new hardware or software? Has the computer been moved, such that some cables might have come loose? Did the OS restart itself after installing an update?
Occasionally after an OS update, the computer might start up badly (that is, slowly or with errors). Sometimes you can fix that by simply rebooting. If that doesn't help and you're using a Windows client operating system, try using the System Restore feature to revert to a previous day's restore point.
If the OS won't start at all, you might see a prompt offering to boot into a recovery or troubleshooting mode. Do that, if it's offered. If it's not, try booting from the operating system's removable installation media, if you have it, and choosing the Repair option to enter the Windows Recovery Environment (RE). You can also get there in Windows 10 through the Settings app (Update & Security > Recovery > Advanced Startup > Restart Now).
A certain app won't install or run
Problems with a specific application are often because of hardware incompatibility, especially with the display adapter. The latest games often require specific, high-powered display adapters with the latest driver versions. The application's installation program should check your hardware and let you know whether there are any problems. If it doesn't and you experience problems after starting the application, check online for any known incompatibilities between that application and certain hardware. Try updating your video card (display adapter) driver by downloading the latest driver version from the adapter manufacturer's website.
Next, look at the application manufacturer's website to see whether there is a patch or update available for download. If you can't find patches for or information about problems that match what you're experiencing, it's probably a glitch in your own system, such as a minor incompatibility between the application, the OS and some piece of hardware. Try uninstalling and reinstalling the application; this fixes the problem more often than you might think.
Still no luck? Check to see what version of Windows the application requires. If it's designed for an older Windows version, see whether there's a newer version of the software available. If not, try using Compatibility Mode to see if you can get it to run better by emulating an earlier Windows version. To use the Program Compatibility Troubleshooter, right-click the shortcut for running the application (or its executable file) and choose Troubleshoot compatibility. Click Try recommended settings to let Windows try to guess the right settings. You can also manually troubleshoot compatibility from the Compatibility tab in the program's Properties box, choosing a specific older Windows version to emulate.
Apps run but sometimes freeze
Today's operating systems, including those for mobile devices, are designed to run many processes at once. The processes are scheduled to consume processor time such that it appears many apps are running simultaneously. But, these software applications occasionally misbehave; they freeze, and you can't close them using the normal methods. In this case, there are ways to force them to exit:
- Windows. Press ctrl+alt+del to open the Task Manager; from the list of running processes you can right-click the misbehaving app and choose End task to kill the process.
- macOS. Choose Force Quit from the Apple menu.
- Linux. Issue the ps command to view process identifiers (PIDs) assigned by the Linux kernel to running processes. Given the PID, the process can be terminated using this: kill -9 <PID>; -9 is the SIGKILL signal that can terminate misbehaving processes.
- Android-based smartphone. Open the Settings app, choose Apps, select the app from the list, and tap the Force Stop button.
- iOS 11.x. Press the left edge of the iPhone screen, move your finger to the center of the screen, and swipe the app card up and off the screen.
Test your knowledge of troubleshooting and more IT fundamentals with the practice quiz from ITF+ CompTIA IT Fundamentals All-in-One Exam Guide.