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Troubleshooting Skills

I spend a lot of phone time helping people discover they are able to diagnose and perhaps solve their computer problems themselves. Here are some things to think about the next time you are tempted to throw the computer through the window.

Develop good habits: Practice new techniques on a copy of your important file (especially with databases) and keep backups. Don't work off the floppy. Make an archival copy on a floppy when you finish a major revision in case (when) your hard drive dies. (Hard drives are supposed to last 5 to 7 years but they only come with 1 to 3 year warranties. How old is yours?)

Save frequently under new names: newsletter1, newsletter2 etc. If you do something disastrous you can go back to one of the other versions. I usually keep two or three versions back.

Use all the information the screen gives you: study the documentation, buy and read an "after market" instruction manual or take classes so you know what the program is telling you with all those icons, numbers and areas.

Show hidden characters in your word processing program. Called "show invisibles" in some programs.

Programs don't really come with manuals these days. You are supposed to make due with on-line help. Yeah, right. Before you start throwing things, here are some tips. Again, learning more from after market books or classes can help you learn the terminology before a crisis causes you to need it. When looking at the help files try to think like a programmer: use the language they use rather than what you normally call it. If you can't find something, try looking for its opposite or a related function.

Is it a problem with the software or something I did:

Can you make it happen again? If not, it is probably a small bug that won't affect you once you learn how the software works. If you can repeat it, it is either a bug or a feature and it's often hard to tell the difference. Features the company intended often cause bug-like symptoms: see below. Bugs are things the company didn't intend and didn't know about (or didn't think worth holding shipment to fix). Sometimes known problems are mentioned in the "Read Me" file on the installation disk or on inserts in the manual. Check the company's web site and that of a magazine reviewing the kind of software ( is good for most general software) to see if there is someone else with the same problem. The FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) section is often a good place to look for this. Be sure you have the latest patch. Keep checking: often a company won't admit to having a problem until they have it fixed. A related note:

AOL users have problems with attachments (MIME). Download Winzip (shareware at and use it to open your attachments.

Something weird just happened.

Something just disappeared:

Things are changing before my eyes. It won’t let me type what I want.

This one isn't like the last one.

It looks fine on screen but doesn't print.

Is the problem hardware rather than the software?

Often hardware problems show up in several programs, are intermittent or only show up after the computer has been on for a while. Generally, if the program loads and the problem is repeatable, it is likely to be software related. If the program doesn't load, runs very slowly or crashes frequently be sure you check the amount of memory you need and other requirements (usually listed on the box and the web site). You want to meet the recommended not just the required if at all possible. To see what you system has check your sales slip, the "System" icon in the Control Panel in Settings on Windows or the "About this Macintosh" under the apple icon (upper left) on the Mac when you are at the desktop (Finder).

Another similar problem is a conflict with your other software. There are utilities like Conflict Catcher which can help with this but the bottom line is that you have to do your own research: check the Read Me file, manual and company website as mentioned above.

As always, call us if you need further help with training and troubleshooting.

copyright 2000 Karen Seymour

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