Fatal Error: Your PC's down. Now what?

Here are some first steps to pull yourself out of the blue-screen blues.

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Go to the source

David Keyes, who runs Keyes Enterprises, a four-year-old, Liverpool, N.Y.-based online retail shop, says he relies exclusively on Microsoft Corp.'s online help site when problems arise with either his desktop or laptop PCs.

So six months ago, when Windows unexpectedly shut down and gave him the dreaded "fatal error" message, he knew how to get started.

He restarted the computer in safe mode to work directly in the operating system. He then deleted a recent software update -- the most recent change he had made to his computer. Next he ran an antivirus software program, which found and deleted a tracking cookie.

Confident that he had solved the problem, Keyes rebooted his computer, installed the software update and was back online.

Everything worked smoothly from there, although Keyes says the whole project took about three hours out of his normal workday.

If the evidence is pointing to specific hardware or software, visit your vendor's online help center. Microsoft's support site, for instance, can let you search for solutions by typing in the text of an error message or specific problems, such as Outlook blocking some attachments. Trouble with your accounting software? Take a look at support sites such as QuickBooks Pro to search for way to address error messages. Problems with your HP printer? Check out the vendor's troubleshooting site for advice.

Or try a general online search, using your error message or a description of the problem as a search term, to get some advice on how to fix it.

Turn to peers

Filippo Pistone, managing director of Bacchanal Wine Imports Inc. in Port Chester, N.Y., says he frequently turns to the Internet when the computers at his business aren't working right. He just enters in a summary of the problem -- such as "e-mails won't come through" -- and checks out whatever pops up.

"It's amazing how many people have the same issue," he says, noting that he has learned how to troubleshoot various problems based on what he has learned from vendor Web sites and from other PC users posting information in chat rooms.

"It works actually," he says, but adds, "Sometimes that information is not sufficient to solve the particular issues."

True enough, but Meister suggests that having done some of the diagnosis on your own puts you that much further ahead -- in time and dollars -- when you call in hired guns.

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