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Troubleshooting Basics for Windows


While backups might seem like a tedious task, having a current backup is the best preventive measure you can take against any computer disaster. If a file is accidentally deleted or your computer suffers a hardware problem or is stolen, your data are safe and can be restored.

Which data are important? System software and software applications can be re-installed from their original disks. Primarily, it is the documents that you have created or acquired that would be difficult and time consuming (or in some cases, impossible) to recreate or re-acquire. 

Here are some different ways to back up your computer:

  • Burning CDs or DVDs.
  • Mirroring or synching files to an external hard drive.
  • Using a network backup service.
  • Using a Zip drive.
  • Backing up on a tape drive.

Points to consider:

  • Using CDs, DVDs, Zip disk, or an external hard drive to back up files requires consistent effort and a detailed labeling system.
  • Using back-up software helps to automate the process by allowing scheduling; the program keeps track of what needs to be backed up.
  • Centralized back-up services over the network are automated and keep track of when and what files need to be backed up. The backups are not in the same place as your computer, so if there is a fire, flood, or theft, your data is backed up and safely stored in a different location.
  • We do not recommend using a USB key for reliable storage of files. You can use these to transfer a file from one device to another, but do not depend on having a copy of an important file on that device. They wear out and break frequently.

For more information related to this topic, see:

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Installing New Programs

Installing new programs or upgrading an existing program can occasionally cause computer problems. It is a good idea to upgrade a program only if you really need or want the new features in the upgrade or are having problems with an older version, not just because it is the latest and greatest version.

If you do install new software, always make sure that no other application is running before you start the installation. If an application is running, then a system file may be locked that the new program needs to update and you may run into problems. It is also good practice to restart the computer before you re-install the new software, then restart again after the new software has been installed.

If you wish to remove a program, you should uninstall it rather than dragging it to the Recycle Bin. Click Start, Settings, Control Panel, then double-click the Add/Remove Programs Control Panel (Windows 7 and Vista, click Start, Control Panel to access the Programs Control Panel). Highlight the program you wish to remove, then click the Add/Remove button. If a message appears that refers to deleting shared files, always keep the file or files. Do not delete them.

If you start installing a program, but before the installation process is complete you decide to cancel the installation, click Cancel. Do not just close the window. Clicking Cancel will clear your computer of any files that may have been installed before you cancelled the operation; if you close the installation window, files may be left on your computer that could cause problems.

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Many computer viruses are designed to attack Windows computers. We recommend you have a virus protection program installed on your computer to avoid these attacks. Symantec Endpoint Protection or SEP is the antivirus software Computing Services supports. It is available to members of the Dartmouth community from the Software Downloads web page. The virus program should be set to scan floppies, CDs, your hard drive, or any file downloaded from the Internet. In addition to installing the program on your computer, it is essential to schedule daily updates to the antivirus software so your computer is protected from new viruses. Scheduling should be done at a time when your computer is running and on the network.

While an antivirus program that is installed and configured correctly will protect your computer from most viruses, you should use caution when opening enclosures from e-mail. Even if you know the person sending the enclosure, if you were not expecting to receive a file from them, it is a good idea to contact them and ask if they intended to send the attachment, since many viruses mass mail themselves and often the sender does not know the virus is being distributed.

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System Utilities

CheckDisk (ChkDsk) and Disk Defragmenter are two utilities Microsoft provides with its operating systems for routine maintenance on drives. Check Disk is a disk analysis and repair program you can use to check your hard disk for logical and physical errors. ChkDsk checks and fixes problems in the following areas:

  • File Allocation Table (FAT).
  • Long file names.
  • File system structure (lost clusters, cross-linked files).
  • Directory tree structure.
  • Physical surface of the drive (bad sectors).

Make a backup before running ChkDsk. To start ChkDsk for Windows XP, click Start, then Run. In the Open box, enter cmd, then click OK. For Windows 7 and Vista, click Start, single click Search Programs and  Files. Enter cmd and press Enter.  A terminal window will open. At the prompt, enter chkdsk, then press Enter. If there are errors after the check is completed, contact the IT Service Desk at 646-2999 or your department's IT support office. If there are no errors, enter exit, then press Enter to close the terminal window.

Disk Defragmenter is a utility that defragments files that have been spread over a hard drive in non-contiguous sectors. This can significantly increase the speed of your computer. You cannot defragment network drives, assigned or substituted drives, or drives compressed with utilities other than DriveSpace or DoubleSpace. You should make a backup of your files before running Disk Defragmenter.

To start this utility, click Start, Programs, Accessories, System Tools, then Disk Defragmenter. Select the drive you want to defragment. The utility shows you how fragmented the drive is, and tells you whether defragmenting is recommended. Click Start if you want to defragment the drive. This can take a long time! However, the defragmenting can be stopped at any point.

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Safe Mode

Windows XP/Vista automatically starts up in Safe Mode if there are problems with the computer (i.e., the registry is corrupt), or if it detects that the system startup failed. Safe mode can serve as a way of diagnosing problems such as viruses. You can force it to run by pressing the [F8] key when the message "Starting Windows" appears. 

Safe Mode loads only standard device drivers for the mouse, keyboard, and standard VGA. When the desktop is displayed, the words "SAFE MODE" appear in all four corners of the desktop. The screen resolution will be set to 640 x 480. You can make changes to the configuration, then restart the system to see if the changes you made corrected any problems.

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Windows Update

Microsoft provides an easy way of downloading updates to their operating systems, as well as other common Microsoft desktop applications via the Web. To manually access the Windows Update Web site, start Internet Explorer, then select Windows Update from the Tools menu. If you do not have a link to Windows Update, the Web address is  Note that you must use Internet Explorer to access the Windows Update page; you cannot use a different web browser (e.g. Firefox).

To ensure that critical updates are downloaded and installed in a timely manner, we strongly recommend you set the Automatic Updates Control Panel to automatically download and install "critical" updates for your system on a daily basis. Your computer needs to be on at the time you set the updates to run, and some updates may require a restart of your computer. It is always a good idea to save or close any open files when you will be away from your computer for any period of time to avoid losing your work.

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Check Connections

If you are having problems with your keyboard, mouse, monitor, or any other peripheral such as a printer, turn off your computer and the component, unplug the component, then plug it back in. Turn the component on first (if it is a peripheral such as a printer), then turn the computer back on to see if the problem has been corrected. It is not uncommon for a cable between the computer and a component to become loose or disconnected. If you continue to have problems with that device, try another similar device from another computer or try your component on another computer.

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Last Updated: 2/1/13