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Last week, when a client called “Holmes” picked up his repaired system, I chuckled a bit. Am I a kind of “Dr. Watson”? Or rather, Sherlock?

Maybe so, because fixing computer problems is often detective work. Let me share some insights into the detective work of computer troubleshooting.

First of all, it is important to get all the facts. What happened? When? Did anything else happen before? A recent Windows update? Hardware change? Unusual message on the screen?

As one of my employees often says, “A man's life ... often depends on a mere scrap of information.” 

Computer problems are usually caused by either a hardware or software glitch, sometimes both.

Once in a while, my diagnostic procedure pinpoints hardware errors caused by bad RAM chips or motherboard issues. The main source of hardware problems, however, is more likely a failing hard drive. Hard drives generally do not just suddenly stop working but gradually get slower and start corrupting files and data. 

I recommend that the hard drive should be replaced after three to five years. The best upgrade is to have the much faster and more robust solid-state hard drive installed.

You should also make regular backups onto an external hard drive or into the cloud to minimize data loss. When working on a computer, I make a temporary backup of a client’s hard drive so we can restore it to the way it was when the system came in, just in case something goes south during the repair process. 

If the hardware checks out fine, the culprit is probably lurking in the software. Software updates, especially for Windows, are supposed to fix known issues and add functionality and security, but sometimes they create new problems. (No programmer is perfect, and there are just too many variations and system configurations to test completely.)

And then there are the “bad guys” -- viruses, malware, adware and more that can badly mess up a system. They need to be cleaned out and all traces removed.

The most difficult cases are problems that occur only sporadically. If it can be reproduced, then you have a good shot at identification and solution. If it only happens once in a while when you change a parameter, then you have to wait; when it pops up again, try your best. 

Here, again, it takes intuitive detective work. Analyze the information you have and try to narrow things down. There are log files that one can check and tools to run. Sometimes, I have to replace components one by one and hope for a change for the better.

This is why I try to get as many details from the client as possible. Try taking a screenshot when the problem happens, perhaps with your cell phone. It helps a lot if you write down the time when it happened and what you were doing just before it occurred. Sometimes the problem is simply a “user error.”

In any case, once I think a tricky problem has been resolved, I try to explain the cause and tell the client what to do or not to do so it won’t happen again.

If you prefer to attempt fixing a computer problem yourself, you can try Googling for answers from the “big oracle of the 21st century,” i.e. the internet.

The challenge here is to ask the right questions, otherwise you get too many unrelated answers. Be aware that some computer help websites are “bad” and may inject viruses into your system. And a blog solution might not help you at all, even though it helped others. Please apply common sense and be careful when downloading tools, especially those marketed as “free.” They might look legit, but could be malicious.

Decades ago, I was taught to never change a running system, but nowadays one can’t avoid updates. Windows 10 updates itself, whether you want it to or not (you can only postpone it for a little while). And unfortunately, if there is a virus or something nasty hiding in the system, the update can mess up or freeze everything. 

Going back to Sherlock Holmes, it’s good to remember his maxim: “When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” 

This definitely applies to computer detective work. Once you’ve dealt with the probable and excluded the impossible, then you have the best chance of catching and eliminating that pesky computer bug.

Klaus Fuechsel founded Warrenton’s Dok Klaus Computer Care in 2002 and is known for his German-American humor and computer house calls. He and his award-winning tech team work hard to save data and solve their clients’ computer cases. Any questions? Ask the Dok at 540-428-2376 or Klaus@DokKlaus.com or go to www.dokklaus.com .

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