How to Troubleshoot and Repair your PC: Part 2

by Ronald Pacchiano

In part two of our trouble-shooting guide, we turn our attention to software issues. There’s no lack of utilities that can diagnose and repair PC problems, and Ron Pacchiano shares his most reliable, go-to tools.

Last month, we discussed several utilities to help troubleshoot memory and hard drive issues. However, many of the problems you’re likely to encounter will be software related. Most will be minor problems, like a driver that fails to load or a program that consistently generates an application error. But others, like a virus infection or corrupted Windows system files, might prevent your PC from starting.

Fortunately, a wide variety of available utilities can analyze and resolve your issues. Many of these are free, and Windows comes with a number of tools capable of resolving most issues.

Diagnosis, Please

The first step is to isolate the cause of the problem. Not all PC problems have an obvious cause. So like a detective at a crime scene, you need to get the answers to some important questions before you can proceed. Here are a few examples:

  • When did the problem start?
  • What were you doing when you first encountered it?
  • Has anything changed on the system recently?
  • Was new hardware or software installed?
  • Have any drivers been recently updated?
  • Did you have any services running at the time of the incident, such as an automatic backup or virus scan?

The answers should help you develop a theory about the problem’s origin. While I can’t address specific situations, I can provide you with general guidelines along with some of the tools I use when troubleshooting systems.

Troubleshooting Utilities for Windows

Two of my favorite troubleshooting utilities are CCleaner and Glary Utilities. Both perform similar tasks and can be quite helpful when troubleshooting your PC. For instance, both can clean and optimize the Registry, and each contains a startup manager that can enable or disable the applications that load with Windows (a common cause of PC problems). Each can also uninstall applications and free disk space. Glary also includes a few additional utilities that deserve special mention:

  • Process Manger: Monitors all of the running processes on your system just like Windows Task Manager, but it also assigns a color-coded safety rating bar to each process. Green indicates a safe process, red a bad; or at least questionable one. You can click on any process to find out more about it, plus you can either block or terminate any running process.
  • Internet Explorer Assistant: Manages Internet Explorer add-ons and can restore hijacked browser settings, making it easy to eliminate unwanted tool bars, BHOs (Browser Helper Objects) and even downloaded ActiveX components.
  • Windows Standard Tools: Provides easy access to many of the utilities built into Windows, like Check Disk and Disk Defragmenter. The System File Checker scans all of the protected system files and verifies their authenticity. If it discovers that a protected file has been overwritten, it replaces it with the proper file.

When troubleshooting a PC you also want to look drivers. These small programs tell the operating system how to use a piece of hardware, and they’re notorious for causing problems. Windows Update will often replace a driver on a system because a newer one is available, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t work.

The simplest solution is to revert back to the driver you were originally using. You can do this in two ways. The easiest method is to open Device Manager and double-click on the device in question, move to the Driver tab, and press the Roll Back Driver button. Or you can just reinstall the driver using the original software.

System Restore, which is built right into Windows, is one of the most valuable troubleshooting tools I use is actually. It helps you restore your computer's system files to an earlier point in time when your system was working well. It's a safe way to undo system changes to your computer without affecting your personal files, such as e‑mail, documents, or photos.

It’s always a wise precaution to create a System Restore point before installing any new software. To create a system restore point go to Control Panel and select Backup and Restore. Windows 7 users click Recover system settings or your computer. Vista users select Create a restore point or change settings. You can use CCleaner and Glary Utilities to access your saved System Restore points, or you can launch it directly from Windows.

Antivirus Utilities

If your PC is infected with a virus or malware, you have dozens of good antivirus applications available to help. Two good (and free) examples are Microsoft Security Essentials and — my personal favorite — Avira AntiVir Personal. Sometimes these infections become so entrenched within the operating system that it’s practically impossible to remove them while Windows is running.

For those occasions, Avira offers the Avira AntiVir Rescue System. Just double-click on the rescue system package to burn it to a CD/DVD, and use it to boot your computer. The built-in scanner will then examine and remove any infections. Also, if your PC has a live Internet connection, you can download the latest definitions before your scan, for the best possible results.

Windows 7

If your system is so bad that you can’t even boot into Windows, you still have a few options.

One of the great reasons to upgrade to Windows 7 is that you have access to the Windows System Recovery Disc. A System Recovery Disc is a bootable CD/DVD that contains tools capable of repairing Windows should a serious error occur.

The first of these tools is System Repair, which automatically attempts to fix problems that are preventing Windows from starting. The next is the System Restore utility. So if you can’t get into Windows, you could still attempt to restore it to an earlier time when everything was working. A Memory Diagnostic tool and the capability to launch a command prompt window are also included.

The last utility on the disc, Windows Complete PC Restore, lets you create a System Image. Unlike a traditional file backup, which copies just your data, a system image is a backup of your entire hard drive, including a snapshot of the operating and all of its applications and settings. So when you restore it to your PC, the system is fully functional; no drivers to download, no software to activate, no missing CDs to locate and no printers to configure.

Once you create the system image, you can use Windows Complete PC Restore option to return your PC to a fully functional state. Vista users could do this, too, but it was limited to just Business, Ultimate and Enterprise versions. With Windows 7, everyone can do it.

However, if you’re using Vista Home Premium you can still perform image backups; you just need to do it using a third party utility like Acronis TrueImage or Norton Ghost. I did a column on this a few months back.

While you can’t create a System Recovery disc with Vista, if you have an actual Vista installation DVD, it doubles as a System Recovery Disc. Just use it to boot your system, but instead of clicking Install, press Repair your computer.

No matter what your computer problem, the odds are someone else has experienced it first. Remember, Google is your friend. Do a search on your symptoms, and you should find some leads. Maybe even a solution. Research is a big part of troubleshooting, so don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Don't miss Part 1 of this guide to troubleshooting computers.

Ronald Pacchiano is a contributing writer for SmallBusinessComputing.com.

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This article was originally published on Thursday Jan 7th 2010
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