You might have spent big money on a great PC, installed only the finest software and spent years learning how to manage it all properly, but the First Rule of Computing still applies: things will go wrong eventually.
Hardware will fail, you'll delete the wrong file or find your system doesn't boot, and that's it – you're facing a major PC disaster. And if you're panicked into the wrong actions, then the situation can rapidly become worse.
We're going to look at common disasters, show you how to recover from them and also recommend software that can help.
My hard drive has died!
PC hardware failure is never good news. But if it's the hard drive then you're looking at a potential disaster, and probably a boot process that goes no further than a very basic BIOS error message.
As long as the drive is spinning though (open the case and listen), there is still hope.
Launch your BIOS set-up program, and check to see if it's recognised the drive. You might find it hasn't because the BIOS settings have changed – maybe it's corrupted due to a failing battery, in which case a quick settings tweak could fix it.
If the BIOS seems okay, but there's a definite drive problem, remove and reconnect any drive cables, ensuring they're making good connections. Try swapping the data cable for another one that you know is working.
It's also possible there's a hard drive controller problem: plug the drive into a different channel and see if there's any change. If you've just added new hardware, or your power supply is failing, there may not be enough watts to run the drive properly.
Unplug some other hardware, remove non-essential expansion cards and try again. Still no luck? If you're not going to pay for professional assistance, there's always the infamous last resort of data recovery: cryogenics.
Start gently, placing the drive in a sealable plastic bag, and another to keep it dry. Then put it in the fridge. Leave it for a couple of hours, then try booting again. If that's no help, move it to the freezer.
The chances of success are slim, and some say this is an urban myth, but plenty of people have reported that it's worked for them, so it has to be worth a try. Just remember, if you do get the drive working again, don't reboot. Get your data off immediately. It could fail again at any moment – you've no time to waste.
Windows won't start!
If the boot process begins but Windows refuses to load, you may have a corrupt or missing start-up file. This is occasionally confirmed with an error message specifying the file (usually NTLDR), but you may just be faced with a blank screen.
You can prepare for this under Windows XP by creating a start-up floppy. Locate the files ‘boot.ini', ‘NTLDR' and ‘Ntdetect.com' in the root folder of your hard drive (click ‘Tools | Folder Options | View', and select ‘Show hidden files and folders' if you can't see them), then copy them onto a blank, newly formatted floppy.
Now, if one of those files is corrupted on the hard drive, you can boot from the floppy instead. If you don't have a start-up floppy, you can do much the same thing from an XP CD.
Boot from the disc, follow the prompts to the ‘Welcome to Setup' screen, and press ‘R' to launch the Recovery Console. Then type the following commands, pressing [Enter] after each (replace ‘c:' and ‘d:' with your hard drive and CD drive letters as appropriate):
copy ntldr c:.
copy ntdetect.com c:.
You'll need to confirm the steps involved – after that, remove the Windows CD and try booting again. Fortunately, Windows Vista can solve many of these problems on its own with the new Startup Repair tool.
Boot from the Vista DVD, choose the ‘Repair My Computer' option, select your installation and click ‘Startup Repair' to give it a try. If you don't have a DVD, then hold down [F8] as Windows boots, select the ‘Advanced Boot Options' screen and then click ‘Repair your computer'.
Um, I've forgotten my Windows password
You turn on the PC, enter your password ... but it doesn't work. Have you forgotten the real password? Maybe someone's changed it? You can worry about that later. Right now the real question is: what happens next? In an ideal world you'll have planned ahead by creating a password reset disk.
Click ‘Control Panel | User Accounts in Windows XP', choose your account, click ‘Prevent a forgotten password' and follow the subsequent instructions (you'll need a blank floppy).
The instructions are a little different if your PC is part of a domain, but are simpler in Windows Vista (‘Control Panel | User Accounts | Create a password reset disk'), which also now lets you use a USB flash drive.
However the disk has been created, just press [Enter] when asked for a log-in password, and you'll be prompted to use it. This will ask for a new password, and you'll be able to log in using that.
Of course, while this saves you now, it's also a security risk, as anyone with the reset disk will be able to access your system (even if you change your password later). If you make one, keep it safe.
If you're not prepared then life becomes a bit more difficult. You could try logging on using another account: some PCs come with default user names such as ‘User', or with an account called ‘Administrator' and a blank password.
The other option is to use a tool that will discover or reset the password for you. The Emergency Boot CD still works on Windows XP, just about, but hasn't been updated for a while.
Now my PC has a virus...
The ideas we've suggested so far work fine under normal circumstances, but if your problems are caused by malware then it's often a different story. Conventional tools may not deliver results and if you can't boot your system to fix the problem with anything else, it's a major disaster.
The best approach here is to clean boot your PC from a rescue CD, then use malware detection tools to find and remove the infection. Your antivirus client doesn't provide one? Then simply build one of your own.
UBCD4Win is one of the best, frequently updated and packed with useful things. You'll need a Windows XP system to build it, but the resulting CD can be used on Vista systems too, with a few caveats (see the FAQ for details).
Download the latest UBCD4Win build and install it on your PC. Launch the program, then point the ‘Source' box at the root folder of your Windows XP CD: it'll use those files to build its own system. Click the ‘Plug-ins' button, scroll down the list and look for the entries labelled ‘Anti- Spyware' and ‘Anti-Virus'.
These tools may not have the most up-to-date virus signatures, so select each one in turn and click ‘Config' to download the latest files. Click ‘Build' when you're done to create a CD ISO image file, then use the ‘Burn to CD/DVD' option to create the finished disc.
Now boot your infected PC from the new rescue disc. If you persevere there's a good chance the infection can be fixed.
I've accidentally deleted my files
It might have taken weeks, months, even years to create your document, but you can still delete it in a second. And if you empty the Recycle Bin before noticing, or it doesn't get there, then you'll need third-party help to restore the situation.
If you don't currently have any undelete software on your PC, use another system to download a copy of Tokiwa DataRecovery and copy it to a CD or flash drive.
It can then be run from there on your own PC, no installation required, which reduces the chance that you'll accidentally overwrite the data you're trying to save. You'll get better results from more powerful programs, such as SoftPerfect File Recovery or Undelete Plus.
The latter is most impressive, working on just about every version of Windows from 95 to Vista, so it's best to install one of these now in order to ensure you're prepared when any problems crop up.
Somebody stole my PC
Having your system stolen means not only have you lost access to your data forever, but someone else could be browsing it, recovering usernames, passwords, credit card numbers and more.
All you can do to guard against this is encrypt the contents of your hard drive. If you have the Enterprise or Ultimate version of Vista then you'll be able to take advantage of Microsoft's new Bitlocker encryption system.
But if you haven't, there's no need to feel left out. CompuSec is a free alternative that, if anything, is more powerful, as it encrypts hard drives, CDs, DVDs, memory sticks and more, and works with Windows 2000, XP and Vista.
The CompuSec set-up process can take a long time – unsurprising as it has to encrypt your entire drive. (That's a scary prospect in itself, so we'd recommend you run a backup first, just in case there are problems.)
But once installed, it's all very straightforward: enter your password before Windows starts and all encryption and decryption is automatically carried out in the background.
There's a small performance hit for this, but if you've got any confidential information on your hard drive, the extra security makes it worth the effort. If you'd like a chance to get your stolen kit back, then you can also sign up for one of many alert services.
These typically install something on your PC that will tell the service whenever it goes online, helping to track down the thieves.
My Internet connection doesn't work
You never quite realise how much you depend on Internet access until, suddenly, it isn't there. You can't use your email, download things or do that research. Rebooting your router could be a quick solution.
Or there may be a local networking problem: right-click the network icon in your system tray and select ‘Repair' to give your system the chance to fix things. Check your modem, too.
There's probably an indicator light that tells you whether it's receiving a signal from your local exchange (assuming you're using ADSL). If the signal is down and restarting the modem doesn't help, it looks like there's a significant outage and you should let your ISP know.
If your broadband is down, you could try the alternative of a dial-up connection – assuming you've got a dial-up modem and a suitable cable. Free UK ISP is a good example: you can get online with them using the number 0844 711 0059, the username ‘freeisp@internet' and the password ‘Internet'.
This costs 3.95p per minute, 1.49p in the evening and 1p at weekends. If you can get online but find some sites are inaccessible, your ISP may be suffering from routing or ISP issues.
My PC keeps locking up and I have to restart it
It's the ultimate in frustration: you've been working for hours on a document, your PC locks up and you've lost everything. Or have you? The first rule is to be patient.
You may get control back without doing anything at all, so wait for at least five minutes to see what happens. Press [Ctrl]+[Alt]+[Del] to try to launch Task Manager, too.
If this loads, press the ‘Processes' tab to see what's using the most memory or CPU time. You might be able to recover the situation by right-clicking that process and setting it to a lower priority.
When these options fail, the keyboard status lights don't change and the mouse cursor is frozen, then there's little hope left. As a last-ditch effort, try a hardware change, such as plugging in a USB flash-drive, or removing and reconnecting your mouse and keyboard (if they're USB models).
If Windows is working at some level then you've a small chance that this might change the situation. If these lockups or reboots happen frequently, your PC may be overheating.
If these indicate problems, then remove your PC's case, clean the dust from its fans and vents, and tie up loose cables so they're not blocking air flow. Use your BIOS set-up program for increased fan speeds, and move your PC away from heat sources.
You'll be surprised at the difference this can make.
I'm getting errors on my DVDs
It's good to back up your data to CD or DVD occasionally. But it's bad to leave your files there indefinitely: some cheaper discs can become difficult to read within a year or two, even if they're kept in good conditions.
If you keep anything precious on CD or DVD, make sure you have at least two copies (ideally on discs from different manufacturers) and check them every few months. But you'll still occasionally run into discs with unreadable areas.
This is where specialist assistance is needed. Unstoppable Copier is one of the best free disc recovery tools. It'll repeatedly try to read problem blocks of data, and reconstruct a file even if part of it can't be recovered. CDCheck is good for a second opinion, while ISOBuster comes in both a free and commercial version.
It makes sense to try the free version first, but the commercial edition adds many features, including the ability to recover packet-written data and support for high-def discs. It costs around £16 and the extra capabilities could save you time in the long run.
The full version of this article is published in PC Plus magazine, issue 268.