Help Yourself: Ten things to do before you talk to a techie

1. Update your system.

Make sure that you are using the latest drivers for your hardware-and that you've installed all the Windows Updates-and check for updates to any applications you use, especially any that seem to be related to your current computer problem.

Microsoft is always updating Windows with minor patches and bug fixes. Depending on whether you use Windows Automatic Updates, keeping the OS up to date may require some diligence on your part. In Windows XP, select Start | All Programs | Windows Update. (Other programs will often include update options on their Help or File menus.)

2. Check your connections.

This may sound obvious, but check all the cables to make sure they are plugged in securely. Don't ignore this step. USB, printer, and serial cables have a way of working themselves loose and causing problems. Also make sure all the boards are seated properly and the cables connected inside your PC. If you get a beeping tone when you boot, and no video, start by opening the machine and reseating the graphics board in its slot.

3. Reboot.

Windows sometimes get into a confused or panic state, and by simply rebooting you can clear the memory and set things straight. Similarly, if you're having a problem connecting to the Internet, try rebooting your cable/DSL modem and router by unplugging them. But this isn't something you should have to do often. If you find yourself rebooting your router once a day, the problem is a bit deeper.

4. Roll back your system.

Windows XP and Windows Me offer System Restore, which lets you roll back your computer to an earlier configuration. By default, Windows creates periodic checkpoints either on a scheduled basis or when you make changes to the system. In case of a problem, the System Restore wizard lets you step back to a prior state when your system was running better; it won't delete data files, but it will restore system files and Registry entries. To get to the System Restore wizard, go to Start | Accessories | System Tools | System Restore.

5. Roll back drivers.

Remember when we said to update your drivers? Well, sometimes that can backfire on you. If something breaks when you update a driver, you should use the Driver Rollback utility, which works much like System Restore but only on a specific device driver.

To roll back to a previous driver, open the device manager (Control Panel | System | Hardware | Device Manager), select the device with the driver you want to roll back, right-click, and open its Properties. Under the Drivers tab, you can update, roll back, or uninstall the driver.

6. Narrow down the problem.

Try to isolate when and where the problem happens. If, for example, you discover your printer isn't working from Word, check and see whether it works from Notepad or IE. Many times the problem is just a wrong setting.

If your USB camera stopped working when you plugged in your printer, try removing devices and putting them back one by one to see exactly when the problem occurs. Maybe you can print when you first boot up, but it seems to go haywire after you send some faxes? Does the problem occur all the time or only after the machine has been running a while? Is the problem repeatable? Observing what situations lead up to a problem can be a great help in determining what is causing it.

7. Know your system.

Resolving a problem over the phone requires a series of questions, often having to do with the specific hardware, OS, and software you're using. Know the model numbers for all your hardware. You can access CPU and memory info by selecting Control Panel | System. Drill down from here into Hardware | Device Manager for information about other devices such as your sound and graphics cards.

Try to remember and new software, no matter how small or insignificant, that you've installed or noticed lately. It can also help to jot down any services running in the background. To access a list of what is running on your Windows XP system, press Ctrl-Alt-Del and select Task Manager. You can also get very detailed info from Start | All Programs | Accessories | System Tools | System Information.

8. Check for IRQ conflicts.

IRQs (interrupt requests) are hardware connections that the CPU uses to receive signals from a device. If two devices are using the same IRQ, they can conflict with each other and cause crashes. In most cases, IRQs are assigned automatically when the PC boots. Occasionally, a device may want a specific IRQ, even though this causes a conflict with another device. To view a device's IRQ listings, open Start | Control Panel | System and select Device Manager. Find the device (sound card, modem, whatever); right-click on it and select Properties, and click the Resources tab. You will see a list of resources: I/O range, memory range, and IRQ. Some devices let you configure these; other configurations are automatic. You will see the conflicting-device list. Note the IRQ and any conflicting devices. Sometimes swapping two boards or moving one farther away will fix an IRQ conflict.

9. Access crash logs.

When a crash occurs, an app called Dr. Watson saves info about your memory and configuration to a crash log file. In Windows XP, the default location is C:\Documents and Settings\All Users\Application Data\Microsoft\Dr Watson. The crash log is a text file called Drwtsn32.log, which can be read in Notepad or sent via e-mail to a tech support person. Dr. Watson can also create a crash dump, which contains similar information but is readable only by a debugging utility.

10. Back up your data.

Before you start following directions over the phone and tearing your system apart, make sure you have a backup of all your important documents, e-mail, and other data. Although many fixes will be as simple as downloading a new driver, you'll be glad you have a backup if you find yourself reinstalling the OS. You should also have your original CDs around in case you need to reinstall apps.