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Dealing with Drivers and Other Tales of Hardware Troubleshooting (part 4)

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4. Test for Bad Memory (RAM)

Bad memory can manifest itself in anything from frequent error messages and crashes to your system simply not starting. Errors in your computer's memory (RAM) aren't always consistent, either; they can be intermittent and can get worse over time.

Problems due to using the wrong kind of memory are not uncommon; to find out which type of memory you should use, consult the documentation that accompanies your computer or motherboard. If you have no such literature, check the web site of the computer or motherboard manufacturer and find out for sure before you just jam something in there. Odds are, your friend's old memory modules not only won't work in your system, but they're probably responsible for that burning smell, too.

The first thing you should do is pull out each memory module and make sure there isn't any dust or other obstruction between the pins and your motherboard (use a dry tissue or lens-cleaning paper; don't use any liquids or solvents). Look for broken or bent sockets, metal filings or other obstructions, and, of course, any smoke or burn marks. Make sure all your modules are seated properly; they should snap into place and should be level and firm (don't break them testing their firmness, of course).

The second is to use the Windows Memory Diagnostic Tool.

The third method of testing for bad memory is to go to your local computer store and just buy more. It may only be necessary to buy a single additional module, because most likely only one module in your system is actually faulty (make sure you get the right kind). Next, systematically replace each module in your computer with the one you've just acquired, and test the system by turning it on. If the problem seems to be resolved, you've most likely found the culprit—throw it out immediately. If the system still crashes, try replacing the next module with the new one, and repeat the process. If you replace all the memory in your system and the problem persists, there may be more than one faulty memory module, or the problem may lie elsewhere, such as a bad CPU or motherboard (or you may even find that you're not using the correct memory in the first place).

You can, of course, also take this opportunity to add more memory to your system (possibly replacing all your existing modules). Adding memory is one of the best ways to improve overall system performance; see the "How to Buy Memory" sidebar, next, for more information.

How to Buy Memory

There are no two ways about it: the more memory, the better (at least up to a point). Adding more memory to a computer will almost always result in better performance, and will help reduce crashes as well. Windows loads drivers, applications, and documents into memory until it's full; once there's no more memory available, Windows starts pulling large chunks of information out of memory and storing them on your hard disk to make room for the applications that need memory more urgently. Because your hard disk is substantially slower than memory, this "swapping" noticeably slows down your system. The more memory you have, the less frequently Windows will use your hard disk in this way, and the faster your system will be.

The nice thing about memory is that it is a cheap and easy way to improve performance. When Windows 3.x was first released, 32 MB of RAM cost around a thousand dollars. The same quantity of memory (and a faster variety) available at the release of Windows Vista costs less than a ticket to the movies.

The type of memory you should get depends solely on what your motherboard demands—refer to the documentation that came with your motherboard or computer system for details. There are many different brands of memory, and some are simply known for better reliability and stability. Some motherboards require more expensive varieties (and some even demand certain brands), so do your research before you buy.

That simply leaves one thing to think about: quantity. In short, get as much memory as you can afford. Like everything else, though, there is a point of diminishing returns. 1 GB (1,024 MB) is probably the lowest amount you should tolerate on a Windows Vista system.

Lastly, memory comes in individual modules, which are inserted into slots on your motherboard. The higher the capacity of each module, the fewer you'll need—the fewer modules you use, the more slots you'll leave open for a future upgrade. Sometimes, however, lower-capacity modules can be a better deal (costing fewer dollars per megabyte).

5. Don't Overlook the Power Supply

Every time I encounter a problem that seems to have no reasonable explanation (on a desktop PC, that is), the culprit has been the power supply. I'm beginning to think it's a conspiracy.

Say, all of a sudden, one of your storage devices (hard disk, tape drive, etc.) starts malfunctioning, either sporadically or completely. You try removing and reinstalling the drivers (if any), you replace all the cables, and you take out all the other devices. You may even completely replace the device with a brand-new one—and it still doesn't work. Odds are your power supply needs to be replaced.

Your computer's power supply runs all of your internal devices, as well as some of your external ones (i.e., the keyboard, the mouse, and most USB devices). If your power supply isn't able to provide adequate power to all your hardware, one or more of those devices will suffer.

The power supplies found in most computers are extremely cheap, a fact that ends up being the cause of most power supply problems. This means that it doesn't make too much sense to replace one cheap unit with another cheap unit, even if the replacement has a higher wattage rating.

Power supplies are rated by the amount of power they can provide (in watts); most computers come with 200–300W supplies, but many power users end up needing 350–400W. The problem with power ratings, however, is that most of those cheap power supplies don't hold up under the load. A cheap 400W unit may drop under 300W when you start connecting devices, but better supplies can supply more than enough power for even the most demanding systems, and will continue to provide reliable operations for years to come. A well-made power supply will also be heavy and have multiple fans, as well as being a bit more expensive than the $20 landfill fodder lining most store shelves.

Possible exceptions are portable computers, which may not have user-replaceable power supplies. However, the need for increased power is generally only applicable to a desktop system that can accommodate several additional internal devices, so the matter is pretty much moot.

6. Fix USB Power Management Issues

Power management is a common cause of USB problems; if Windows is able to shut down your USB controller to save power, it sometimes won't be able to power it back up again, which will prevent some USB devices (especially scanners) from working.

To prevent Windows from "managing" power to your USB controller or devices, follow these steps:

  1. Open Device Manager (devmgmt.msc).

  2. Expand the Universal Serial Bus controllers branch.

  3. Double-click the USB Root Hub device, and choose the Power Management tab.

  4. Turn off the Allow the computer to turn off this device to save power option, and click OK when you're done.

7. Fix Printer Problems

A lot of people are having trouble printing in Vista, but nearly all their problems can be narrowed down to two areas: cables and drivers.

If you're experiencing poor printing speed, errors, or garbled output, eliminate any USB hubs you might be using, and plug your printer directly into your PC. If you're out of USB ports, consider connecting your printer directly to your network.

As for drivers, the problem that plagues many printers is that the drivers provided by the printer manufacturer try to do too much, and as a result, bog down your system (and your printing) with extraneous programs and dialog boxes. If Windows Vista supports your printer out of the box, consider abandoning the fancy drivers that came with your printer in favor of the plain-vanilla ones Microsoft provides.

Otherwise, many common printer problems involve incorrect paper: use laser paper for laser printers, and inkjet paper for inkjet printers—avoid the "multipurpose" junk. Also, the ink cartridges in inkjet printers are usually cheaply made and therefore are one of the first things to fail; simply installing a new ink cartridge will fix many printing problems. Better yet, discard your disposable inkjet printer and replace it with a nice, fast, color laser printer.
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- Crashes and Error Messages (part 3) - Manage Startup Programs
- Crashes and Error Messages (part 2) - What to Do When Windows Will Not Start
- Crashes and Error Messages (part 1) - Viruses, Malware, and Spyware
- Migrating User Data : Understanding User Data
- Working with Windows Installer : The MSI Package Lifecycle
- Managing Windows Vista : Backing Up Your Files & Restoring Backed-Up Files
- Understanding the Capabilities of Windows Installer (part 2) - Managing the Windows Installer service
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