Troubleshooting Tips Before You Resort to a Reboot

By Joseph Moran | Posted March 02, 2007

Many of us have experienced the following problem at least once, but probably a lot more often than that. It goes something like this — you sit down in front of your computer, open up your browser, type in a Web address, and then...nothing happens. At least, nothing more than an error message informing you that the page or server you're trying to reach can't be found. Or, you might open your e-mail program only to find that it refuses to download any mail.

Even if your system is physically connected to the network and everything seems to be normal, the obvious conclusion to draw from these symptoms is that your Internet connection has decided to take a siesta. A common response for non-technical folks in this situation is to reboot the computer as well as the router and/or DSL or cable modem device.

That's what many ISPs will tell you to do if you call in for technical support, and as often as not it will restore your connection. But this approach is imprecise and can be time-consuming, so it should be the last resort, not the first course of action. After all, an Internet connection isn't monolithic, but rather a series of individual connections between devices. Rebooting everything may clear up the problem, but it won't shed any light on where the problem started in the first place.

In many cases, you can fix broken connections without inconvenient and lengthy device reboots. Armed with some basic information about your network and with the help of a couple of built-in Windows utilities, you can often pinpoint where in the chain your connectivity problem lies.

Pull Over for Repair
The next time your browser shrugs off an attempt to visit a Web site, your first step should be to look for the networking icon in the Windows tray. The icon looks like a pair of monitors if you're using a wired connection or a single monitor with some waves to the right of it when your system's connection is wireless.

You may have to click the expansion button (the left facing arrow) to see all the tray icons, but if you don't see either of these icons after doing so you probably need to enable the networking tray icon feature (because for some reason Microsoft doesn't do it by default.) To turn it on, open My Network Places off the Start Menu and click View network connections. Then right-click the icon for your network adapter, and put a check in the box labeled Show icon in notification area.

The next time your network connection goes south, right-click that tray icon and select Repair. This will disable and re-enable your networking adapter, re-issue an IP address request and perform a few related operations that will usually bring your Net connection back to life. The entire process should take all of 10 seconds, which is a whole lot quicker than restarting your entire computer — you could read a novel while waiting for many Windows to reload on some systems — and you don't have to worry about closing applications or saving files.

If repairing the connection as described above does the trick, then you know the problem was on your system and you saved yourself the trouble of restarting your other networking hardware. If you still can't reach the Internet, the problem is likely with either your cable modem/DSL device or your router, and you should try restarting each of those devices (in that order). If you've done all this and your Internet connection is still on hiatus, it's probably time to call your ISP and report an outage.

Connection Detection
Although the process described above is quicker and more efficient than blindly rebooting everything you've got, it's not necessarily any more informative. Sometimes you just want to fix the problem and don't care what the cause was, but if you lose your connection often you might want to get a better handle on what's going on. You can do this with the help of two built-in Windows utilities — IPCONFIG and PING — which can be invaluable when it comes to pinpointing and troubleshooting connectivity problems.

Before running either of these simple command-line tools, you should first open up a command prompt windows by clicking Start|Run, and typing CMD. Don't try to launch them directly from the Run box, because the results will be visible only for a split second before the window closes.

One of IPCONFIG's jobs is to provide basic network configuration info, such as your system's IP address, subnet mask, and default gateway. (If you type IPCONFIG /ALL, you'll get more detailed information.) The information IPCONFIG reports can clue you into where your problem lies. For example, if your IP address starts with 169.254 (as opposed to the more common 192.168), it means your system failed to obtain an address via DHCP so Windows assigned itself a default private address. This can usually be remedied by typing IPCONFIG /RELEASE, and then after the command prompt returns, IPCONFIG /RENEW. Even if your IP address seems valid, releasing and renewing your IP address will often restore connectivity. (The Windows repair connection process described above performs much the same function.)

Sometimes you don't have Internet access even if your system is properly connected and configured. This usually indicates a bad connection further up the chain. To see where your link is breaking down, you can use the PING utility, and a good place to start is by typing PING followed by the address of your default gateway as reported by ICONFIG (it might be 192.168.1.1, for instance). If you get replies from that address — you should get four — you know your system is in contact with the gateway. (The gateway is usually your router, but it's your cable/DSL device if your system is connected directly to it.)

The next step is to try and ping an IP address on the Internet. I've been using the address 4.2.2.2 for over a decade because it's easy to remember — it points to a DNS server that's changed ownership several times over the years but currently belongs to service provider Level 3. A response indicates a successful Internet connection; lack of one means either your router isn't communicating with your cable/DSL device, or your cable/DSL device isn't in touch with your ISP's network.

On some (relatively rare) occasions, you may be able to ping an Internet address but still not be able to browse the Web or access your e-mail. This can indicate a DNS problem that's preventing the IP address lookup for domain names like (www.smallbusinesscomputing.com). You can test for this by trying to ping a domain — e.g., ping smallbusinesscomputing.com (you don't need the www). Many servers don't answer pings for security reasons, but if the response you see includes the server's IP address, DNS is working properly. If not, you've likely got a DNS failure. Although DNS failures can sometimes be caused by router problems, they usually indicate a problem with your ISP's network.

Connection glitches aren't uncommon, so you shouldn't be surprised to experience them once in a while. But if your computer regularly loses its connection to your router or cable/DSL device, you might want to try removing the network adapter from Windows' Device Manager and reloading the drivers. If, on the other hand, your woes stem from a problem between your router and your ISP hardware, check with your router vendor's tech support site or look for updated firmware.

Adapted from PracticallyNetworked.com, part of the EarthWeb.com Network.

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