The 5-step guide to fixing almost any PC problem

PC troubleshooting secrets distilled down to an essential oil

10 things that generally don't help fix your PC

1. Scanning for viruses. Because it's never a virus.

2. Buying computer books. They are big, heavy, expensive and out of date. They are also much too general to fix any actual problems. The internet is your friend and faster, and more relevant.

3. Defragmenting the hard disk. Disk fragmentation is much less of a deal than it used to be and it was never much of a deal to begin with. Any benefit you see is entirely down to the placebo effect.

4. Posting questions on random forums. Although forums do provide a useful source of advice, it's rarely worth posting your own question. If it's a common enough problem, someone will have done it already; if it isn't, no one will know the answer. But this won't stop them speculating fruitlessly.

5. Ringing tech support. There's nothing they can diagnose that you can't work out for yourself in half the time on the net. All the good tech support people get poached away from the front lines very quickly, anyway.

6. Reinstalling Windows. This just replaces your previous problem with another one – the more immediate task of getting a stable operating system installation up and running again. And when you eventually complete that particular task, your old problem will probably come back.

7. Switching to Linux. Frying Pan -> Fire.

8. Registry cleaning utilities. Another placebo remedy. It's like worrying about how tidy the shoe cupboard is. Nobody sees it, so who cares?

9. Partitioning your hard disk. There's nothing you can do with separate partitions that you cannot achieve more easily and with fewer side effects using folders.

10. Arbitrary lists. Because the last item is always made up.

How to fix your neighbour's PC without sustaining unacceptable casualties

Fixing a neighbour's PC is not like fixing your own. It's more like the plot of Blackhawk Down. You go in, full of enthusiasm and good intention, fully expecting to be back in under 30 minutes. And a day and a half later, you're still there, ordering replacement motherboards by overnight courier, flashing the BIOS and reinstalling Windows 95 from floppy disks, while RPGs and AK47 rounds slam into the side of the building.

It's a brutal, dispiriting business that pleases no one, least of all your neighbour, who thought you were supposed to be the expert. To avoid this horrific scenario, you must not allow yourself to fall into the trap of using your time to try and save your neighbour money. Wherever possible, opt for the fastest, simplest solution, regardless of the cost to him. Here are some examples:

Neighbour: I upgraded the RAM yesterday and now my PC doesn't seem to boot.
You: You should get a new PC.

Neighbour: I get this strange message on the screen when I start Windows.
You: You should get a new PC.

Neighbour: Crysis seems to slow right down whenever the children are surfing the internet upstairs.
You: You should get a new PC.

Neighbour: Can you help me install Vista SP2?
You: You should get a new PC.

Neighbour: How do I change the desktop wallpaper?
You: Get a new PC.

Neighbour: How do I…
You: NEW PC!

And relax...

So there you have it. PC troubleshooting distilled down to an essential oil that you can dab alluringly behind each ear.

With the secrets I have revealed here, you are equipped to solve any computer problem ever. If I catch any of you writing the back pages of any major computer magazines, there will be trouble, but otherwise this gift is yours to do with as you wish.

But there is one secret I haven't revealed yet and it is this: nobody really knows what the hell they are doing when it comes to computers. They are all much too complicated to figure out properly and once you stumble on the thing that makes that particular problem go away, who is going to obsessively go back and double check that removing the fix really does make the problem come back?

If you manage to keep your PC running tolerably well until it's time to buy a new one then you're a winner. After a few years of doing this with different machines, you may develop a feel for the lie of the land. But none of this really amounts to actual expertise.

And if that's true for you, then you should remember that it's doubly true for that guy at work who is always upgrading his PC and hanging out in the tech forums. PC troubleshooters are charlatans of the worst sort… Except for me, of course. I am an actual PC genius.


First published in PC Format Issue 226