Random reboots. Long delays between taps and apps opening. My smartphone resisted as I tried to use it for work. Thanks to experience, I knew that most computing devices benefit from a hard reset, which worked for my phone — until the problems reappeared. Thankfully, Apple issued an update for the latest iOS and my phone was normal again.
Sometimes, things do not work and it is annoying.
Our computers, tablets, smartphones and various computing peripherals work more reliably than in the past, but things still go wrong in unexpected and frustrating ways. Knowing how to deal with those annoyances makes life with technology less stressful.
Often, the best response is to reboot, reset or cycle the power of a device. The “hard reset” clears device memory and restarts a device.
Cycling the power or resetting the device solves minor problems with cable modems, network routers, printers, scanners and other hardware. More than once, I’ve “fixed” our home theater projector by cycling the power.
When power is cycled for a networked hardware device, this often resets the network connection information, such as the Internet Protocol (IP) address. When the device reconnects to the network, data flows without a problem. Our two HP LaserJet printers seem to suffer from network issues at least once a month. Turning off the printer triggers Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP), allowing our home server to properly allocate network settings to the printer.
Printers and computer monitors often stop working because of their cables. Cable issues have always been common culprits, especially with the 36-pin Centronics IEEE-1284 parallel printer cable. The flat metal pins attract dirt and sometimes they flatten and fail to make a good connection. Universal Serial Bus (USB) cables suffer the same design challenge. Look at the cable ends and if the flat gold connection pins feature dark streaks of dirt and oil, clean the connectors with a swab dabbed in rubbing alcohol.
Serial data ports and cables, known as D-subminiature connections, frequently suffer from bent pins, which can be fixed using needle-nose pliers. The D-sub series connectors are specified as DA through DE, with DB-25 the standard for IBM-PC serial devices. Many people erroneously call all the connectors DB, such as the common DE-9 and DA-15.
As a technician, I have spent countless hours cleaning parallel adaptors and straightening serial cable pins. Even today, a great many video devices use 15-pin connectors with fragile pins.
Rubbing alcohol also cleans mouse and trackball rollers, if you have one of the rare mechanical devices still available. Surprisingly, a “jumping pointer” often turns out to be a dirty mouse roller.
Compressed air still comes in handy for keyboard issues, since dust and pet hair seem to find their way under keys. If a letter repeats too easily or refuses to appear on screen, start troubleshooting with a good cleaning of the keyboard.
I recommend blowing out the insides of desktop computers with compressed air at least once a year and more frequently in dusty offices. Dust and debris can clog any vents and fans inside the computer, leading to overheating and random crashes.
After cleaning the internal components, also check to make sure that nothing has come loose inside the case. Press gently on any expansion cards, double-check the RAM and test any power connectors. Select a starting place and work your way through the components until you verify that every connection is properly secured.
Sometimes, a computer problem isn’t hardware. With software and operating systems, a reboot might solve basic issues.
Way back in the 8-bit era of Apple II, Atari and Commodore computers, you could reset the computer or resort to a toggle of the power switch. With DOS, you learned the “Three Finger Salute” of Control + Alternate + Delete to reset an IBM-compatible computer. When CTRL+ALT+DEL failed to work, the power switch was a last resort.
Today, CTRL+ATL+DEL opens the Task Manager in Windows, allowing you to exit a stubborn application. When applications hang on an Apple Macintosh system, Command + Option + Escape allows you to force quit an application or the Finder.
More complex problems with older Macintosh systems sometimes resolved with a reset of the Parameter RAM (PRAM) or Non-Volatile RAM by restarting the computer and pressing Command + Option and “PR” or “NV” keys. I haven’t had to reset PRAM or NVRAM since owning an original iMac.
When applications start having problems, consider if this is isolated to one program, a set of related programs or all software installed on a system.
For various reasons, the temporary caches on a computer drive can cause crashes and unusual behaviors. Applications leave behind these “temporary” files for a variety of reasons. In particular, web browsers collect and store a lot of data. On our Apple computers, we use the free Onyx utility to empty software caches and resolve potential application issues. On Windows, Piriform’s CCleaner offers similar features.
The Windows Registry seems prone to problems. The Registry stores settings for Windows and most applications on a Windows computer. Rose City’s Registry First Aid software solves more complex problems that CCleaner misses.
Apple computers have no equivalent to the unified Windows Registry. Instead, individual applications and operating system components store their preferences as “plist” text files on Apple computers and devices. To locate plists, open any Finder window and press Shift + Command + G for “Go to Folder.” In the input box, type “~/Library/Preferences” and click OK. These hidden preference lists should be edited or deleted only by an expert technician.
I use disk utilities when software problems appear widespread. On a Mac, I use DiskWarrior to rebuild disk catalogs if Apple’s Disk Utility fails to repair a drive. On Windows, also use the included tools first. Right-click on a drive’s icon, select Properties, the Tools tab, and click the “Check” button. This runs the ChkDsk (“Check Disk”) program. Tools from drive vendors, such as SeaTools from Seagate, can recover data from some drive failures. Drives, including solid-state drives, fail long before other computer components.
When one program has problems, I reinstall the software. I do this with apps on my iPhone and with applications on our computers. Curiously, the problematic applications tend to be the most popular programs from Adobe. Reinstalling tends to solve random crashes in Photoshop or Illustrator for several months at a time.
Resetting power, checking cables, cleaning input devices, running maintenance utilities and reinstalling software are simple ways to solve many annoyances. It still surprises me how many issues vanish after trying such simple fixes.