How to Troubleshoot and Repair Your PC

By Ronald Pacchiano | Posted December 29, 2009

Sooner or later you’re going to experience a problem with your PC. It could be minor, like a virus infection, or something more serious that prevents Windows from loading. It might be something major, like a failed hard drive, or even the dreaded blue screen of death (BSOD).

While these scenarios can be unnerving, none of them are insurmountable. You’ll find a wide assortment of utilities to help you correctly diagnose and correct almost any problem you run across. The first step is determining whether the problem you’re dealing with relates to software or hardware.

Random PC lockups, slow performance and BSOD occurrences lead many people to assume that the problem lies with Windows, but that’s not always the case. Many times it’s faulty hardware. Defective memory and failing hard drives can account for numerous PC problems. BSOD is quite often caused by bad memory, and hard drives with bad sectors can cause the system to slow down dramatically or simply to lock up when trying to access a program or data that resides on those sectors.

So the first step in troubleshooting a PC is to rule out problems with the hardware. This means running diagnostics on various system components. Typically, memory and hard drives (HD) are the hardware devices most prone to failure. For that reason we’re going to focus on memory and hard drive diagnostic utilities. When testing hardware it’s always best to do it outside of the operating system whenever possible.

Memory Diagnostic


Two of the best memory-testing utilities I’ve found are Memtest86 and the Windows Memory Diagnostic CD. Both utilities are free and incredibly simple to use. Basically you just download the software and then use the ISO file to burn the application CD. Boot your PC off of the CD, and the tests start automatically.

The utilities give you a few options, but frankly it’s boot-it-and-forget-it. The process runs automatically, and it prompts you if it finds a problem. I’ve used these utilities for years and consider both a must-have.

Hard Drive Diagnostics

When it comes to checking your HD, you have a number of options at your disposal. The simplest test available is the Windows Check Disk utility. To run the test, right-click on your HD in Windows Explorer and select Properties, move to the Tools tab and under the section Error-checking, press the Check now button.

Under Check Disk options check the boxes Automatically fix file system errors and Scan for and attempt recovery of bad sectors. Now click Start.

You should see the message “Windows can’t check the disk while it’s in use. Do you want to check for hard disk errors the next time you start your computer?” Press the Schedule disk check button. Then reboot your PC to start the drive check. While this is a good starting point, it’s by no means the most thorough test available.

Whenever possible, you want to run diagnostics outside of the operating system. Most PCs have HD testing capabilities built directly in the system BIOS. Since there a various system BIOSs available, I can’t give you step-by-step directions on how to access it. On my HP laptop for example, I press the F10 key on boot up, move to the Diagnostics menu and select HDD Self-Test. It might be slightly different on your PC, but hunt around, and I’m sure you’ll find it. You can also check your user manual, or go to the PC manufacturer’s tech support site for assistance.

Perhaps the best option is to use the diagnostics tools available directly from the HD manufacture’s Web site. Each manufacture has its own custom utility for checking the status of its drives. For example, Seagate has a utility called SeaTools and Western Digital uses Data Lifeguard Diagnostic, and each has the capability to create a bootable diagnostic CD. 

The folks over at TACKtech.com have compiled quite a comprehensive list of links to all the diagnostic tools available from each of the major hard drive manufacturers, including Maxtor, Seagate, Samsung, Hitachi, IBM and more.

Most of these utilities are vendor specific, which basically means you shouldn’t use the Maxtor PowerMax utility to diagnose an IBM or Seagate HD. It’s important that you download the right software for your drive. If you’re not sure who produces the HD in your system I suggest downloading Speccy, from UK software house Piriform.

Speccy is an advanced system information tool for your PC, and it gives you detailed information on every component of your PC, including advanced HD and memory specifications. This free utility is very small and has some of the most detailed information I have ever seen. This information is incredible helpful, especially if you should you need to replace parts.

Diagnosing With Linux

One last bit of advice. Sometimes you might suspect that a piece of hardware is defective but, you don’t have a utility available to actually test the device. For example, I had a client complaining that the network adapter on an HP workstation had gone bad. I replaced the motherboard (which had an integrated network adapter).

When I got back into Windows I tried to access the Internet, but the network adapter still wouldn’t work. So I reloaded drivers, verified IP settings and performed numerous other tests. Still, I could not get this PC online. I concluded that something inside of Windows was causing the problem, and the only thing left to do was to reinstall Windows. The client wasn’t willing to redo a system based on a hunch, so to test my hypothesis I booted the system using an Ubuntu Live CD.

Ubuntu Live CD is a version of the Linux-based Ubuntu operating system that runs completely off of a CD without having to install it to the PC. This let me boot into a completely different operating system on the same PC, without modifying the current Windows configuration.

By bypassing Windows, I was able to test the network adapter in a clean environment.  And wouldn’t you know it; the network adapter was back online and working fine. This verified that the hardware was OK, and that the problem was within the Windows software.

Now don’t misunderstand me, this a test isn't for every situation. Linux has its own compatibility issues with various pieces of hardware, and it not the easiest operating system to use. However, there are times when using another operating system to verify the status of a piece of hardware, such as network or audio adapter, can save you a whole lot of frustration. Not to mention it’s free. That alone makes it a worthy addition to your troubleshooting tools.  

Don't miss Part 2 of this guide to troubleshooting computers.

Ronald Pacchiano is a contributing writer for SmallBusinessComputing.com.

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