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The Complete Idiot's Guide to Troubleshooting your PC

It's taken me over six and a half years to write this book. Since I started the Dr Keyboard column in The Times newspaper in November 1995 I've answered something like 50,000 questions from real people with real problems, an experience which has given me a unique insight into what really goes wrong with computers - an experience I've distilled down into the few hundred pages of this book.

What really goes wrong with computers? Sometimes it's the hardware, sometimes the software, often the wetware (that's you, the human prodding at it) or, almost invariably, it's a combination of all three. The problem is, when Something Goes Wrong, whose fault is it? Hardware and software manufacturers are all very happy to point the finger of blame at each other so how do you, the poor piggy-in-the-middle computer user, pin them down and make them give you an answer?

Unfortunately for you their answer is very often to re-install everything - Windows, your applications, everything. This is akin to taking your car to bits and then re-assembling it because it won't start, rather than checking to see if it's just a loose wire. And, again unfortunately, reinstalling everything will almost certainly cure your problem and there are times when it's the only option. But it should be a last resort, not a first answer from a bored and stupid technical support line person.

So how do you find out what to ask? One of the commonest questions I'm sent is, "Why does my keyboard sometimes stop responding?" The most likely answer is that there's a problem elsewhere on your PC and the non-responsive keyboard is just a symptom, not the problem, but how could you know that without already knowing the answer? The answer, as Douglas Adams famously pointed out, is easy - it's 42. The problem is knowing what question that's the answer to.

So, I've written this book for two groups of people: it's for those who know that there's something wrong with their computer but don't know what, exactly; and it's also for those who didn't know anything was the matter at all but who are in for a big surprise Real Soon Now. If you're not in the first group you're almost certainly in the second one.

I cover all versions of Microsoft Windows from 95 to XP and all aspects of computing from dealing with a completely dead machine to fine-tuning your Internet connection. There are also several chapters on how to help yourself avoid problems in the first place - simple, sensible things you can do to manage your computer, keep it up to date, keep it safe from harm and make sure that, if it does all go wrong, you don't lose anything important.

The book includes many real questions sent to me over the years, along with the answers to them. The experience of answering these questions has taught me that questioners are almost never alone in asking a question - many others will suffer the same problems as you at one time or another, and reading about the solution to their problems can very often help you.

I also point you to the places where, when you're still stuck, you can come for more help. I run a number of websites devoted to helping people find answers to their problems and which contain all the questions I've been asked and the answers I've given since 1995. If you can't find an answer there, I run a message board at www.drkeyboard.net where subscribers can ask as many questions as they like about computers. For the readers of this book, I've set up a special message board forum where you can ask any questions you like about anything you don't understand in this book.

What to do with this book

Although you can dive right in and read this book from cover to cover, you can also use it to help you diagnose just what's wrong with your machine and follow through logically to sort it out. Chapter 1, Basic Techniques covers the first steps to take when you think something is wrong, from checking it's plugged in to decoding those mysterious error messages computer programmers love so much. It's full of pointers to other chapters in the book where you can find more help on specific topics.

Chapter 2, Identifying the source of the problem, helps you really work out what it might be that's causing your problem, explaining how apparently unrelated actions can have an effect on each other - like why upgrading one piece of software will stop another working. This chapter also includes a number of the questions I've answered over the years helping others diagnose their problems.

Chapters 3 and 4 cover setting up a new computer and what's inside the average PC, then chapters 5 to 14 cover different aspects of your computer and the you may have with it, from setting it up in the first place to finding out what's inside it, working out what's wrong with the image on your screen, connecting to the Internet, printing and more. Each chapter starts with a simple description of the subject, discusses some of the sorts of things that can go wrong and what you should think about doing to avoid them. At the end of each chapter are relevant questions and the answers I've given to them over the years.

Chapters 15 to 18 are full of hints and tips on how to secure your PC, how to speed it up and how to make sure that, when it all goes wrong, you at least don't lose anything important and can get up and running with the minimum of fuss and delay. If you follow the advice in these chapters then you'll go a long way towards avoiding the sorts of problems you'll find discussed in the previous chapters.

At the end of each chapter you'll find a selection of questions I've answered over the years, illustrating typical problems faced by computer users and instructions for solving those problems. Sometimes you may find that you have exactly the same problem and can follow those instructions. Often, your problem may be slightly different - but, hopefully, reading the solution to other people's questions will point you in the right direction to finding the answer to your particular difficulty. Where appropriate the questions are divided into sections depending on their degree of difficulty and complicatedness. Sometimes, easy-sounding questions can provoke complicated answers - and complicated questions have very simple answers. If you come across any concept you don't understand, use the indexes to look for more information about it - so, if the answer is "Download and install new drivers", you'll find details on how to do just that in Chapter 11, Connecting to the Internet.

At the end of the book are three appendices. Appendix A contains a complete listing of all the questions solved in the main body of the book, both the direct questions I've answered in those chapters and pointers to the other information contained in each chapter. Appendix B is a Resource Guide with pointers to websites and other books you might find useful in your quest to beat your PC into a lump of something more useful than just a paperweight. Appendix C contains definitions of the terms and abbreviations used throughout the book. If there's a technical term you don't understand, look in Appendix C for an explanation.

Finally, there's such a huge range of software and hardware available - with more coming on the market every day - that it's impossible to cover every possible combination and eventuality, so remember that your particular combination may not be in this book, comprehensive though it is. What is in here will, hopefully, set you on the right track to finding the answer to your question and also give you some good habits which may help you in avoiding problems in the first place.

Good luck solving your computer problem - and remember, if you're still stuck after reading through this book you can get more help on my website at http://www.drkeyboard.net

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