Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 163 / APRIL 1994 / PAGE 42

Troubleshooting your PC. (personal computer; includes list of diagnostic software)
by Richard C. Leinecker

It's every computer user's nightmare: You turn your computer on, and instead of the usual boot sequence, it just beeps at you. In severe cases, you might not even get beeps. On the other hand, if you're lucky, you might get a message on the screen indicating the problem. In any case, your computer has died. Is it time to take it up to boot hill? Maybe not.

The most important thing to remember is not panic. Don't scream. Don't pull your hair out. Instead, stop and think before you do anything to your comatose computer. Otherwise, you might make a bad situation worse.

What to Do

Rather than give you a long list of things to try when you encounter various problems, I'm going to take you through a problem-solving sequence that will probably lead to success--or at least to an accurate assessment of the failure--in most cases. I couldn't possibly cover--even in a lengthy book--all of the situations that may arise. I will, however, use examples to illustrate my points.

1. The first step is to clearly identify the symptoms. The symptoms are different from the root problem. The root problem might be that the video card has gone bad while the symptom is that the screen is completely blank.

You must focus on the symptoms first; you must study the evidence before you can determine what the problem is. There's an anecdote about a researcher conducting an experiment in which he teaches a frog to jump when it hears a certain sound. After each jump, he cuts off one of the frog's legs and repeats the procedure. Once all the legs have been removed, the frog doesn't jump when the researcher prompts it with the sound. The researcher concludes that frogs without legs can't hear. This illustrates how misleading conclusions can be if you don't consider all of the available information.

One of the best ways to make sure you factor all of the available information into your thinking is to take the time to write down your computer's symptoms.

Suppose you turn your computer on and absolutely nothing happens. Your first thought might be that your computer's power supply has gone bad. But by making this judgment, you've bypassed the problem-solving process by jumping to a conclusion that may not be correct. To systematically attack this problem, try to avoid drawing any immediate conclusions. Instead, simply note that after turning on the power switch, nothing happens. Now you have no preconceived notions that might lead you astray later.

2. The next thing to do is think about the entire system that is experiencing the failure. If your computer does nothing when turned on, you must consider the entire route of the electrical circuit from the generating plant to your computer's internal workings.

Electricity enters your building from the power lines. Your computer plugs into an outlet that's a branch of the building's wiring network. The power goes from the room's outlet to the computer's power supply through a cord. The power is converted in the power supply and then goes to the motherboard. There may be other items in the path, such as a power strip or an extension cord. Whatever your individual situation is, make sure that you've included every step of the process in your consideration of what might have gone wrong.

3. The third part of the process is to eliminate links in the chain as causes. Some people prefer to start at the beginning and work forward, others prefer to start the end and work backwards, and still others prefer to start somewhere in the middle.

Let's start at the beginning. Since the first part of your chain is delivery of electricity to your building, see if you have power: It's possible that the power in your area is out. The next thing to consider is the outlet. Plug a lamp into the outlet to see if it works. The fuse for that outlet might be blown. If you're using a power strip, make sure it's on and isn't defective. Plug a lamp into the power strip to test it.

Once you've established that the power is reaching the power supply, there are three major things that may have gone wrong.

* Something in the system may be drawing enough current to shut down the power supply.

* The connections between the power supply and the outlet may be bad.

* The power supply may be defective.

At this point you should consider contacting trained service personnel. If you're not comfortable working inside your computer, have it repaired. But if you don't mind getting under the hood, here are some things you can try that aren't too difficult.

Before opening the case, pull the power cord out of the outlet (or disconnect it from the power supply). When the case is open, put you hand on the power supply casing to discharge any stray voltage you might be carrying around in the form of static. These are two safety rules--for you and your machine--that you should always follow when you open the case.

Check for loose wires and connections, especially near the power supply. If you see a connection that's loose, try to tighten it and then restart the computer. Sometimes there are extra cables coming out of the power supply that are unused. Make sure you don't try to plug one of these in somewhere.

Try removing all of your peripheral expansion cards and then powering back up with them out. Sometimes a bad expansion card will draw so much current that the power supply shuts down and doesn't deliver any juice to the system. I've been had experiences where boards in low-profile cases touched each other and caused shorts that overloaded the power supply.

4. The last step in the process is to try solutions based on your observations. Many times, you'll need to try several things just to narrow the possibilities down. However, don't try anything that you're not sure about. Paying a technician to fix a problem is far cheaper than replacing an entire system should you venture into uncharted waters and make a major mistake.

The steps I've set forth should see you through most difficulties.

* Identify the symptoms of the problem.

& Think about the entire system that is experiencing the problem and the sequence of events in which something may go wrong.

* Systematically work your way through the sequence to eliminate links and thus focus on the real problem.

* Attempt solutions based on your observations.

Specific Strategies

Now that I've given you a generic approach, I'd like to suggest some specific tips based on my own experience.

Problems with expansion cards. Turn the power off, make sure the expansion cards are securely in their slots, and then power back up. Many times the cards become loose when the computer is moved or cables are plugged in or unplugged.

No color on your monitor. If you don't have any video or the colors are wrong, make sure the monitor cables are in securely. Check the pins in the plug. If one or more have become bent or broken (they're very fragile), you might need to pay a technician to install a new monitor cable. If your monitor is distorted or the picture jiggles, look for other objects in the vicinity that produce a magnetic field. They wreak havoc on a monitor's sensitive magnetic structure.

Printer (or other external peripheral) won't work. If your printer doesn't work properly, try a different cable. For some reason, parallel cables seem particularly susceptible to malfunction. If a peripheral such as a printer doesn't come on or work properly, shut down the entire system and wait for 10-15 minutes before restarting. A number of peripherals such as HP laser printers have circuit breakers that turn back on after a period of about ten minutes.

External modem won't modulate/demodulate. If an external modem doesn't work properly, try a different cable. Make sure the power cord is plugged in and the modem is turned on. Check your power supply output with a voltmeter. Have your telephone company check your telephone line. A bad telephone extension cord can make your whole telephone system operate below par.

System demands a boot disk. If you get a message that asks for a boot disk startup, the setup values may have been lost from your CMOS. Restart and bring up the setup screen. Check to make sure your hand drive's specifications are correct. (It's for times like these that you should write down all the values in your CMOS setup and store them in a safe place.)

Hard drive failure on startup. If you get a hard drive failure or controller error when you first boot, turn the computer off and wait for several minutes before turning it back on. I've encountered many computers that occasionally give these errors but are fine when restarted after a short waiting period.

Poor disk performance. If you're having trouble with your disk drive, run Chkdsk. It's a DOS program that checks the logical structure of your hard drive. It can be run alone (by typing chkdsk at the command line) or with the /f switch (by typing chkdsk /f) to attempt repair of lost allocation units and cross-linked files. I usually run it without the /f switch first in case there are files that are cross-linked. If the Chkdsk report indicates that I have cross-linked files, I usually try to back them up to a floppy before I use the /f parameter, since it may destroy one of the files and render it unrecoverable. (See "IntroDOS" in this issue for an additional DOS 6.2 alternative.)

Prepare for Disaster

Make sure you always have a boot disk with the version of DOS your computer is running. It's a good idea to have a text editor (EDIT.COM, for example) on it in case you need to edit your CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT files. Also put CHKDSK.EXE, FORMAT.COM, and FDISK.EXE on this disk. All of these files should be either in your root directory or in your DOS directory.

If your computer boots and hangs up while it's running the CONFIG.SYS or AUTOEXEC.BAT file, start by booting with the system floppy described in the previous paragraph. Use the text editor on the disk to systematically remove items around the area in either file where you think the problem is occurring. Once you've found the cause of the hangup, you'll probably be able to deduce what the problem is and how to deal with it.

The next line to defense is diagnostic software. This is one of the faster-growing categories of software.

It's important that you use the right diagnostic tool. Some programs are good for solving Windows problems and conflicts. Some are good with floppy and hard drive problems. Some are good for determining hardware problems. I've collected and reviewed a number of current packages to help you decide which one meets your needs.

DOS-Based Diagnostic Software

These are the programs to use on DOS-based systems. Often, you don't have enough functionality in a failing machine to run Windows, and in that case DOS is your only option.

QA Plus. QA Plus is the most popular diagnostic software. It's been on the market for years and has entrenched itself as a leader. I found it capable, but not to the degree that it eclipses the other DOS-based diagnostic programs.

The same interface has been around for years. It's simple and text-based. But diagnostic software doesn't need to be pretty to work. QA Plus performed admirably on all tests. It performed well on the IRQ identification functions over a wide range of systems.

Here are the features that could make this your program of choice: It can save report data to a DBF file (that's nice if your company has a large number of systems and it's important to collect the data in one place), and it has a number of command line switches that enhance the program's operations, allowing you to create batch files for a wide variety of systems with different command line switches so that you don't have to worry about remembering a system's exact hardware configuration every time you run QA Plus.

Within the next year DiagSoft will be incorporating remote control software that will enable a user to contact DiagSoft's Electronic Technical Support Center (ETSC) for remote professional assistance. (The remote software has been a part of QA Plus for two years; the change is that it will be more tightly incorporated into QA Plus.)

CheckIt PRO: SysInfo. If you're having interrupt conflicts, CheckIt PRO: SysInfo will probably help you solve them. It made one mistake in reporting my setup. My modem is on COM4 at address 2EB and uses IRQ 3. The program reported it on COM3 at address 2EB using IRQ 3. Except for that, it correctly identified the ports and IRQs on my screwball system. That's no small task, since every slot is occupied--by CD-ROM controller, Sound Blaster, scanner interface, extra serial port, modem, network card, and MIDI card. I have some conflicts I'm aware of that I work around, and one I didn't know of until CheckIt told me about it.

The program does more than show you interrupts and ports. Among many other things, you can view and edit your CMOS, run CPU and video benchmark tests, test memory, and test hard drives. Its tests cover all the bases. I didn't find anything lacking.

One especially nice feature is the Windows setup information it provides. You can view a list of setup information, view and edit INI files, and view information about Windows 386 enhanced mode.

The full package, called just CheckIt PRO, includes SysInfo plus Test Tools (a collection of additional tests) and sells for $149.95.

Manifest. Quarterdeck Office Systems ships Manifest with all of its DOS products. It's a complete diagnostic guide to your computer's operation that quickly and easily displays the contents of your DOS system files (which you can edit within Manifest), the performance of your system and of installed cards, and the location of drivers in memory. It offers helpful hints for improving system performance (including a prompt to install QEMM, Quarterdeck's memory manager), along with detailed instructions that include reasons for and against instituting the recommended changes.

Placing the maximum amount of information on the DOS screen in the most readable mannerr seems to be Manifest's goal, and this is accomplished through logical grouping of tests and information under menu headings. A concise manual is provided, but the information the manua supplies is too sketchy to be made use of by a neophyte, a criticism that can also be leveled at the help screens. A solid gounding in PC architecture is needed to make sense of much of the information given.

Manifest can be used from the command line to return specific information from single benchmarks. For example, to see the status of your interrupts, you can type mft f i, and the information needed will scroll up on the screen. Or you can generate a complete report from the command line by typing mft**[greater than] filename.

Micro-Scope 5.0. There's something very attractive about a diagnostic program that boots from a disk with its own operating system and takes charge. By using its own operating system, Micro-Scope 5.0 from Micro 2000 eliminated a host of potential problems and at the same time eliminated several links in the sequence of events, helping to narrow the focus and spot the problem faster.

Micro-Scope was the most accurate in IRQ and port identification. Not only did it get everything right, but it identified my network card and its IRQ. It didn't look for my Sound Blaster card, though. I was surprised, given the number of systems that have sound cards.

I had trouble with the hard drive on the network server where I work. A lot of things can go wrong in such a complex system. We were at our wits' end until I brought in Micro-Scope. It did'nt identify the problem, but it did eliminate a number of possibilities that we could have wasted hours pursuing. The program was worth every penny of its retail price. There is a $100 discount to resellers and institutions.

PC Probe. PC Probe from Landmark Research International delivers most of what you'd expect from diagnostic software, but it really stands out in one area: Its memory tests are the best I've ever seen. I had to pull out the manual and do some serious reading before I understood what the long list of tests did. You don't have to do that yourself to use them. You can simply select the option that runs all memory tests and wait for the results. If any of the tests fail, you can use the manual to discover what the failure means.

A useful program option is the Landmark Benchmark System Speed TEst (available separately for $29). on a single screen it shows you basic system information along with performance graphs for the CPU, math coprocessor, and video system. This is a good way to quickly checking a system's performance. It's especially handy if you're responsible for maintaining a group of similar machines. If one doesn't seem to be performing adequately, you can run the Landmark test on several and do a comparison.

The system information PC Probe gives you isn't as complete as that supplied by many of the other packages. There's no list of interrupts and port assignments, so you'll have to work harder to identify conflicts.

[mu]PC-Doctor. Besides all of the regular tasks (hard drive diagnostics and testing, COM port and IRQ identification, memory testing, and identification of basic system components), [mu]PC-Doctor does two things I found especially useful. It offers specific tests for systems with non-Intel chips such as AMD, Cyrix, and Weitek. One of my systems has a Cyrix 486DLC, and this program not only correctly identified it as such, but offered tests specific to that chip. The second thing I found useful was it second thing expanded memory benchmark. I've been through the HIMEM versus 386 Max versus QEMM wars everywhere I've ever worked. I could have quickly settled the issue with the set of benchmarks that measure the performance of high-memory drivers. The program correctly found my sound card, but didn't find my modem on COM4. On the other hand, it didn't mistake the modem's location for COM3, as some of the other programs did. It only showed the existence of COM1 and COM2. Sorting out the interrups and the COM ports is a major problem for most systems today.

This was the only DOS-based package I found that tested my Sound Blaster card. It also tests Sacker, if you have it installed. The 1.1 version of the product covers IDE adn SCSI testing and an I/O address list.

Rescue. If you're looking for a program that performs a long list of tasks, this isn't the one. Rescue does only one thing: It recovers data from damaged floppies and hard drives. But if you're in need of such hellp, that's all you care about. And Rescue performs its single task with great skill.

Rescue goes directly to the hardware. That's why it works even when you get a General Failure Reading error. You can't recover a sector that's been physically damaged, but you can recover everything around it. Even, AllMicro claims, if there's a hole punched in the disk.

The new 4.5 version supports DOS 6.2 DoubleSpace, Stacker, and SuperStor.

WIndows Diagnostic Software

These are the diagnostic programs to use under Windows.

Chechit PRO: Analyst. This version of CheckIt for Windows does everything well. It correctly identified hardware and software components on a variety of systems. It contained several pleasant surprises. And because of them I'll make sure I keep this program close at hand.

The first notable feature is the Setup Advisor. It attempts to recommend IRQ, I/Q port, memory locations, and DMA channels for almost every common hardware expansion. To see its recommendations, click on the device name in the program window.

I wish I'd had this program when I installed all of my network cards; it would have saved me a tremendous amount of time. It lets you know what IRQ and I/O port it thinks you should use for NE2000 cards. Registering the software and receiving regular updates in an important part of maintaining this feature.

There's another nice feature called the Software Shopper. It lists the most common software available today. once you select a software package from the list, it shows you the system requirements, such as the processor, memory, storage space, and graphics. Since the system capabilities are listed right there as part of the package, you can easily determine if you have what it takes to run a particular software package. This would be perfect for MIS personnel or purchasing agents.

QA Plus/WIN. Ten large icons greet you when QA Plus/WIN for Windows runs. Because of this graphical look, it's easy to figure out how to access each test and information area. Clicking on the icons reveals capsule information that provides pertinent facts about each of your computer's subsystems.

The areas covered are the system board, video system, multimedia interface and components, hard disks, floppy drives, keyboard, COM ports, printer, mouse, and any existing LAN interface. When you access infromation about the LAN interface, besides showing you standard information such as the server name, the software version, and the miximum number of connections, QA Plus/WIN will also tell you who's logged on to the network.

QA Plus/WIN also includes a remote diagnostic TSR that lets you log on to a system from another computer via a modem. With it, you can diagnose problems in a remote system, or you can show remote system, or you can show remote locations how to perform tasks.

WINPROBE. WINPROVE isn't fancy. But diagnostic software needs to be useful and accuratre, not fancy. WINPROBE correctly reported IRQs and I/O ports, memory and system resources, and other installed hardware. There are plenty of reports that give you the scoop on your system.

One thing Landmark Research spent time with was providing lots of information on the Windows system metrics. This is useful when you need to know the exact settings and capabilities of subsystems such as your installed video or printer.

There's an interesting part of the main display that graphs the system processor usage. I wrote a similar program several months ago that ran in the background. I wrote it to compare the amount of processor time that different Windows appliacations took. This information was important to me because I was comparing similar software packages for Test Lab. You can also use this information to decide whwther running a particular application in the background will significantly degrade performance.

A complete toolbox called the Windows Troubleshooter's Toolbox contains WINPROBE, Landmark DOS for Windows, and PC Certigy and is available for the suggested retail price of $247.

WinSleuth Gold Plus. Diagnostic software can seem complicated. To use it, you must have a knowledge of hardware systems, or the software must present the information clearly, in a way that's easy to understand and use. WinSleuth Gold Plus is easy to understand and use, even for relatively inexperienced people.

The program designer figured out how to show options and present the information from a single screen. Along the top is a row of buttons with icons that indicate the computer subsystem that's being displayed in the information window. Along the right side of the information window is a column of buttons that let you perform tests and see various kinds of information for the selected subsystem.

Each subsystem has an animation that appears in part of the screen. The animations are not only attractive, but give you a better idea of what's in the subsystem you're looking at. When you look at the memory information, for example, you see a cross section of a person's head with electrified memory chips. This isn't essential, but it's a nice touch.

The program performs well. It had no trouble identifying the parts of my system and provided all the important information, such as memory layout and testing, interrupt usuage, specific video system information, and hardware configuration.

Skylight 3.0. The folks at Rena-Sonce Group took a different route to arrive at their idea of the perfect diagnostic software. The program has almost no graphics. each report window open and gives you information as pure text. The only exceptions are the memory maps, which are depicted graphically. After I became accustomed to not seeing any pictures, I began to appreciate what the designers had done. They opted to concentrate on text so that they could present as much information on the screen as you need.

Most of the other Windows diagnostics give you a report in a single window. To get other reports, you must discard the window you're looking at. (With these other programs you can print the information to remain available, but that's not as useful as having several reports onscreen at once.)

Skylight opens a separate window for each reprot. You can size the report windows and view all information simultaneously. This might be important in tracking down problems that your system is having. I found it useful to view the program memory report in one window while looking at the resource usage for current tasks in another.

One bonus os a utility called Salvage. It helps you figure out why Windows won't start. (That happens to me sometimes after software installations or configuration changes.)

A new version of Skylight is due to before this appears in print. It promisses more video detection (detecting more than ten video card mnaufactuers), SMARTDrive reporting, Double-Space reporting, Windows for Workgroups support, and a separate editor with drag and drop.

Freeware and Shareware

Many useful tools use available on the nets. LIke their commercial cousins, all of these programs have idiosyncratic strengths and weaknesses. Let's take a close look and see what yo can get for a small registration fee-or even for nothing at all.

SofPak. This set of four programs identifies basic system components abd lets you perform several measurement tests. You can test your video system, hard drive, disk drive cache and memory, and the computing engine. The fike can be found on CompuServe in the IBM Hardware forum, in the library section under General, filename SOFWIN.ZIP. There is no registration charge for SofPak. But there are professional measurement tools available from the company that do carry a registration fee.

The current releases are dated July 1993.

PCAUDIT measures basic system performance and does a survey of your system. PCMEASURE us an engineering performance measurement and analysis tool. CORSPEED measures and displays core engine performance. Each of these advanced tools is $350. PCSELECT is a special version of PCMEASURE used by members of the High Performance Team on CompuServe. PCSELECT is $69, which includes High Performance Team membershp. In January, Softwin Laboratories released RUNSPEED, which measures software running speed for Windows, Windows NT. OS/2, and DOS applications. The price of RUNSPEED is $39.

The Modem Doctor 5.2. A comprehensive program that tests serial ports, UARTs, and modem hardware,

The Modem Doctoros very thorough and will probably give you more information than you thought you'd ever need about your modem's operation. The file can be found on CompuServe in the IBM-COM forum, library 7, filename MDR52-.EXE. The program is sharware and the registration fee is $19.95.

Mircrosoft Diagnostics. This is a fantastic program for finding otu what's going on in your system. It offers most of what many commercial packages offer and can be downloaded free. The file can be found on CompuServe in the MSDOS forum, library 3, filename MSD.ZIP, and it's available with most versions of DOS 5.0 and higher. To see whether you have it on your hard disk, just type MSD at the command line. The odds are on favor of its being in your DOS directory.

Dr. Watson. This is Windows diagnostic tool that updates a log file when there are unrecoverable errors. When the error occurs, a dialog box appears in which you can type in comments about what you were doing prior to the error. You can review the log file with Notepad. The File can be found with Notepad later. The file can be found on CompuServe in the ZENITH forum, library 15, filename WATSON.ZIP, and it's inlcuded with every copy of Windows 3.1.

Computer Healtcare

As in caring for your own health, keeping you computer in the pink involves nearly equal measures of preparation and prevention. When something goes wrong, let patience and logic be your watchwords. Usually, it's something you can fix yourself. The moment you become unfortable, however, sensing that you've ventured out of your deoth, close up the case and call a professional. If you suspect the type of problem that can be determined by diagnostic software, use the package recommended in this article for that particularl kind of problem. Always practice electrical safety precautions when the computer case is open--your health is far more important than your computer's.

Above all, talke the time to think before attempting to dive into solutions. Your computer was designed to give you many years of servce, but everything breaks down eventually. Just bear in mind that most things that break can be fixed.