Computer Troubleshooting Overview


Computer Troubleshooting is a somewhat complicated process, especially if you aren’t standing right in front of the computer, reading the error messages.

Writing a web page about how to troubleshoot a computer brings to mind all of the possible causes of computer problems, and it seems to be an overwhelming task – where do I start?

Possible issues can be eliminated one by one if the computer is in front of you, giving you feedback while you try to determine the problem.

But it’s not so easy when you are trying to imagine the computer and the problems.

This is the reason, I think, for the computer troubleshooting websites I’ve seen where every possible problem and resolution is listed in the hopes that the shotgun approach will help.

And I’m sure that it does help in many cases. But it also makes finding the solution more difficult for the novice because there is so much unfamiliar computer information to wade through.

I hesitated to even write this page, because there are so many computer troubleshooting pages out there on the web, each much more comprehensive than I could hope to produce.

But in the end, I DO know how to troubleshoot a computer and in my 15 years experience, I've found that most computer troubleshooting can be done by anyone, if they have the right information. So I decided to share my way of computer troubleshooting here, in the hope that it helps someone in some way.

Over the years, I have found that most causes of computer trouble fall into one or more of three specific categories:

  1. Hardware issues: Problems in the hardware area cover the hard components of the computer; the power supply, the motherboard, the memory chips, the cpu, the cpu sink, the various cards and parts that make up the actual physical presence of the computer.

    Because the first thing a computer does when it is turned on is check out its hardware, issues in this area tend to show up immediately upon powering up.

    However, sometimes hardware issues don’t show up until the computer has been running for a while. If that happens, the cause of the problem will have something to do with the computer overheating and the heat causing the malfunction.

  2. Operating System Issues: For our purposes here, the operating system we will look at is Windows XP. Problems with Windows XP usually arise when some process or event has corrupted or deleted settings or files that Windows depends upon to run smoothly.

    At the core level, the method that Windows uses to track what is installed and removed is through the Windows registry. This registry file is quite often the source of Windows problems.

    You might see errors about dll files missing, or cab files being overwritten, or you might see that Windows just won’t start, or it will start, but then crash with the “blue screen of death”, a not so happy term for a the blue screen that is associated with Windows physical memory dumps.

    There are some good programs on the Internet that are written to fix registry errors, so some self help solutions are available. I personally use CCleaner. You can out more about it on my freebies page.

    Windows issues can also be traced to the user profiles that are set up for each individual user who logs on to a particular computer. These profiles can get corrupted, and cause weird behavior. At that point, the offending profile may need to be deleted and a new profile created to fix the problem.

  3. Software problems: Software issues are the main cause of most computer problems. There are so many different software programs, all written in different code, all trying to talk to each other and work together without having conflicts. Inevitably, just as in human interactions, there are conflicts, and these can cause overall computer issues.

    The best way to avoid these types of problems is to keep track of what you install on your computer.

    Watch how your computer behaves after you install a new program. If your computer begins to slow down or act strangely, you can troubleshoot the issue by uninstalling that program and seeing if the problem is resolved.

    That’s really the best way to view computer troubleshooting, in my opinion. Know your computer, and keep track of anything new you do with it. Then when a problem shows up, ask yourself, "Since the last time my computer was working fine, what changes were made?" In this way, you can quickly narrow down the possible causes to the most likely culprit.

Computer troubleshooting is easier I think, if you know how the computer works, and especially what happens when you turn it on. If you have that information, then you can use it to troubleshoot most Windows problems.

For example, let’s say our problem computer won’t start. It gets to the Windows splash screen and just stops. Because we know what a computer does when it first starts, and how it gets to that Windows screen, and what it is supposed to do once it gets there, we know immediately where to go to look for the problem.

So then, let’s first learn how a computer works, and more specifically how it boots up, since this is where most Windows trouble will begin and end.


On the page I linked to above, you read about what happens when a computer starts. Let's get back to our computer troubleshooting and go on to what happens when Windows starts:

Windows Overview and Troubleshooting


Now that Windows has started, and you’ve logged in (either by actual entry of your login information or by being logged in automatically), you are now working in your Windows profile. A user profile basically holds all of your Windows and software settings.

Within your user profile are your desktop settings, your printers, your Internet bookmarks, and any other settings for the software that you use.

If another person logs into your machine with a different name, Windows sets up a separate profile for them. All of the desktop, favorites, and other software settings can be completely different for this new user. That's how Windows handles different users on the same computer.

You can see the various user profiles on your machine by opening Windows Explorer and looking at the C:Documents and Settings folder.

You’ll see several folders:

  • a folder called Administrator, which is the default profile that Windows creates,
  • a folder called All Users, which Windows uses to load software settings that all users have access to on the computer,
  • a folder with your name or whatever name you gave to your login when you first set up the computer,
  • and folders for anyone else who has logged into Windows on your computer.

So how do we use all this information for computer troubleshooting?

Well, we now know that:

  • If the computer starts beeping at you when it first powers up, you’ve probably got a hardware problem. Check to make sure everything is plugged in correctly, at the least. If the problem persists, you may have to call a computer hardware service person.

  • If the computer gets past all the hardware tests and begins loading Windows, but reboots and tries to load the Last Known Good Configuration, we know there’s a problem with the Windows management modules, which means some Windows configuration files have either gotten corrupted or deleted. Choose to load the Last Known Good Configuration and see if the problem resolves itself.

  • If the computer gets to the Windows login screen, but never loads the Windows desktop, more than likely, a Windows file has gotten corrupted. Boot the computer into safe mode with a command prompt, and run a check disk to try and fix the corrupted files. Here's a more detailed page on this.

  • If Windows boots up fine but then starts to act strangely once it is loaded, (slowing down, hanging, just not acting right, etc..) the cause might be a corrupted user profile, or it could be a trojan, a virus or spyware causing the problem. Run a spyware and virus scan. Make sure the anti-virus software has been updated with the latest engine and dat files.

    There are links to a free antivirus and antispyware program on my Free Virus Protection page.

  • If Windows crashes after it has loaded, and shows the "blue screen of death" (which is to say it does a physical memory dump), it could be a poorly written device driver, a corrupt registry, an incompatible Dynamic-link library file (DLL) or bugs in the Windows kernel.

    To troubleshoot it, look at the blue error screen and write down the error and the 8-digit number it presents. Then you can use one of the many websites that will tell you about specific Windows stop errors. Here’s a website that I’ve found very helpful.

    You can get some great computer troubleshooting information at Microsoft’s Support Center. Search the Knowledgebase (Under Self Support) for specific error messages and resolutions.

    This is also a great place to look for Microsoft Office errors and resolutions.


Well that's my best shot on computer troubleshooting. I hope this has helped you understand how to figure out the cause of any computer troubles you run into.

If you have a specific computer issue with which you need help, you are welcome to contact me. I'll do my best to point you in the right direction to get it fixed.


Are you having problems with a slow computer?

Go to my Slow Computer page for tips on speeding up your PC.

Printer not working?

Here's a Printer Troubleshooting page that might help.

Done with Computer Troubleshooting, take me back to the Home page