Explaining Troubleshooting

Unfortunately, troubleshooting computer and digital device problems is all too common an occurrence. But how does one explain the concept of troubleshooting?

Fortunately, there is a wonderful analog in the real world: physicians. Troubleshooting is what your doctor does for your body’s aliments, and for the most part, the process is the same. It starts with a review of the symptoms and when they started. Then, knowledge-based analysis kicks in: how are the symptoms related? Are they related, or are they coincidentally occurring at the same time? What are all the possibilities that could be causing them? The treatment — the fix — is based on the diagnosis, which sometimes requires additional research.

With a computer, this process works the same way. Troubleshooting is something that a computer can attempt to do itself, but often, this task still falls to the owner/operator. Here’s an example…

One night my computer stopped producing sound from its speakers. No sounds, no music, nothing. It simply worked one day but then not the next.  (And yes, the speakers’ power light was on and they were plugged into the computer. It never hurts to check the basics.)

I first used the Troubleshooting program in Microsoft Windows, but it failed to identify and correct the problem. So, I started the above process, asking myself: What changed in the last two days on this computer? Did any updates or patches get automatically installed? Did I install any new programs? Did any drivers get updates? (These concepts are topics I cover in later chapters of The Ultimate PC Primer.) I remembered that there was one update that was installed a few days back. I asked myself, “Could it have modified something dealing with the sound? Is it possible I didn’t notice the adverse effect of that immediately because I haven’t turned on my speakers in several days?” The more I pondered when the problem started and recalled the last time I could actually confirm the speakers produced sound, I began to form a preliminary diagnosis: that the update had indeed caused the sound to stop. I decided to do a little research and confirmed that the previous software update indeed might require the computer’s audio driver to be updated on specific models. (Drivers are also something I briefly discuss in The Ultimate PC Primer.) I decided I’d ask the computer to check for a new driver for the audio device, figuring that it couldn’t hurt, since I could hardly do anything to make the audio problem worse. In the end, there was an updated audio driver available, it installed successfully, and my computer’s sound problem was fixed.

In some ways, I was lucky that my diagnosis was correct and the treatment was successful. So while the story ends well, it still begs the question: why did the problem begin at all? Well, as I note in the final chapter of The Ultimate PC Primer, computers are enormously complex. Software vendors cannot always guarantee that one piece of software, update, patch, or program will not conflict with another. And while computer operating systems have begun to take this into account — the Windows Troubleshooter is a case in point — to a certain extent, computer users are still expected to be their own PC doctor and “figure it out.” And like real doctors, it’s the knowledge acquired with years of practice and access to up-to-date information that often make all the difference between a successful diagnosis and treatment and just another shot in the dark.

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