Don't look for magic fixes for computer; Do-it-yourself: Start with a methodical, common-sense approach -- but don't hesitate to call in a pro.


Imagine calling your favorite automobile mechanic and explaining that your Toyota is making a "plunka" sound as it climbs hills. Then you ask him to diagnose and fix the problem.

What do you think would happen? Most likely he would ask you to bring the car in. A lot of different problems can result in that sound. Even if he has a good guess about what the problem is, he'd probably need to open the hood to fix it.

But with computers, it's natural to think that a magical incantation exists that can be said over the phone, or some file that can be deleted, to fix any problem. It just isn't so.

Computers aren't just gadgets made of hardware; they're a magical mix of hardware and software. And since each computer has different programs installed, what would fix one computer might not help another.

So, unless you're a computer guru, you need to face the reality that, when something goes wrong, you need to be able to find and fix the problem yourself or take it to an RE (real expert) to get it fixed.

To learn a little about how you can diagnose a problem, we'll open the hood a little and peek inside.

First, you need to know that most computer problems are caused by the most recent change you made. If your computer was working perfectly yesterday and stops working today, it's smart to think about any changes you've made. At the first sign of trouble, look back and try to find what you've changed and consider that last change to be the main suspect for your problems. (Obviously, there are exceptions. Sometimes hard disks fail or components burn out, but start by assuming that your problem comes from software or a new device.)

If you're lucky enough to remember a change that you've made, then try undoing that change. If you've just installed new memory, take it out and return the computer to the way it was before and see if it works.

Or if you've hooked up a new modem, take it out and replace it with the old one. If you've added software, uninstall it (using the uninstall feature that you'll find on the Control Panel in Windows) and see if that returns things to normal.

Never make two changes at the same time. If you realize that you've recently installed a modem, added software and changed the way you log on to the Internet, don't reverse all those changes at one time.

If you do and the problem goes away, you won't know which change caused the problem in the first place.

Next, if things are still wacky, go through what may seem like a silly exercise. Begin searching for the obvious. Make sure that all the cables, including the power cable, are plugged in tightly.

I once got a call from someone about a modem that didn't work. I spent 20 minutes checking all sorts of complicated things before I noticed that the telephone line to the modem had become unplugged. I fixed the modem by plugging it back in. So don't ignore the obvious.

If that doesn't solve the problem, consider opening up the computer -- if you feel comfortable doing so -- and reseating all accessory cards (video card, sound card, etc.). Sometimes the heat inside the computer can cause metal to expand and a poorly seated card can get loose enough to cause intermittent problems.

Also remember to go to the Web sites for the programs you run. Look for technical hints there. You might find a note from another user, or from the company, that explains a glitch that could be causing your problem.

Finally, don't be afraid to ask a professional. I know that a lot of your friends are computer geniuses. You know it, too, because they've told you that. Some of them are, no doubt about it. But some aren't.

Unless you are sure of your friend's skills, spend the money to get expert help.

I've seen many computers that were "fixed" so well that they needed major surgery.

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