Seven classic PC symptoms

And how to fix the underlying problems

As a small-business person, you might bemoan the fact you don't have 24/7 IT support like your larger-scale competitors. Don't panic. You can solve many of the most common computer problems yourself. Here are some snafus you can tackle on your own, thanks to the advice of the support staff at several major hardware and software vendors:

Symptom: Sluggish response time

Could be: A software problem.

The fix: Run a full antivirus scan to make sure you don't have any malicious software tripping up your computer.

If malware isn't the problem, get into your System Configuration utility and look at whether applications are continuously running in the background that don't have to be, such as an application you rarely use that's constantly looking for updates. Then uncheck it, freeing up resources.

"This tool will allow you to disable any third-party programs that will perform functions when the computer starts up," explains Michael Obenshain, technical lead for support escalations in the customer service and support group at Microsoft.

If you don't find the applications that are slowing down your computer -- or this step doesn't help -- check with vendors to see if you need any software updates.

Also, run a disk defragmenter, which reduces the amount of fragmentation in the file systems, thus freeing up space.

Sometimes a computer is slow because of hardware problems, Obenshain says. Run a Check Disk utility (chkdsk) to see if there are any bad spots on the drive. The program will mark those spots as bad, and Microsoft won't write to them anymore. (He suggests that you do this monthly anyway, noting that lots of bad spots indicate that your hard drive is failing.)

Symptoms: Distorted video, crosshatched lines on your monitor, sudden loss of power

Could be: Overheated components in your computer, such as the central processor, which will kill power to the machine, or the graphics card that connects to the monitor.

The fix: Turning off your computer and letting it cool will resolve the problem temporarily, but it doesn't fix the underlying cause, which is often dust inside your computer, says Bill Bivin, community liaison for the Community and Conversations group at Dell. Get out your manual, or get to the manufacturer's Web site to find instructions on dusting out your computer. (And keep up a regular dusting schedule to avoid future problems.)

Symptom: Computer won't boot up

Could be: A software issue.

The fix: Sometimes the inability to boot up and get into the operating system indicates a corrupt system file, says Bob MacDonald, vice president of technology services for Staples' EasyTech service. Some off-the-shelf diagnostic tools will scan and, if possible, repair the problem.

The alternative, though, might be to reinstall the operating system -- a time-consuming task that could mean data loss, particularly if you're not backing up regularly, he says. More advanced diagnostics and repairs are best left to IT professionals, who can usually protect against data loss.

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