Basic Computer Troubleshooting

- with a focus on Dell computers in the PSU campus environment 

Computer Repair Center staff should read the Shop Workers Guide prior to reading this document.

by Tom Morin

Initial release: August 2008

Most recent edit: June 2, 2015

I am always revising this document with improvements and additions. Check back for revisions. Major revisions will be noted in Revisions section.

It is intended for use by Plymouth State University Computer Repair Center staff and is written with the type of equipment we service  in mind

This document includes:

  • Troubleshooting Computers - Introduction
  • Overheat issues
  • Examples of Troubleshooting
  • Troubleshooting Hard Drives In Windows XP / 2000 / VISTA
  • Symptoms of a failed or failing hard drive:
  • If the laptop starts running slow:
  • Procedures used to verify hard drive status
  • Dell Hard Drive Diagnostics in Windows XP
  • Data Recovery
  • Dell Diagnostics
  • Hard Drive Diagnostics software tools
  • Defrag Utilities
  • Data recovery from a crashed or failing hard drive
  • Using FDISK - a DOS command
  • Permanently Erase a Hard Drive
  • Identify components in a Dell
  • Identify / Retrieving Software licenses in a computer
  • Dell Quick Diagnostics
  • Request a set of original CDs for a Dell computer
  • Software Tools for Troubleshooting
  • Support sites of the larger computer companies
  • Revisions - only major changes will be recorded.


    Troubleshooting Computers - Introduction

    There are basic guidelines when troubleshooting a computer problem, whether it is a hard drive or any other problem.

    1. Identify the problem (gather information from the customer to identify the nature of the problem).
      •                 Can customer show you the problem?
      •                 How often does the problem occur?
      •                 Has any new hardware or software been installed recently?
      •                 Does the problem occur in a specific application? 
    2. Isolate the problem.
    3. Correct the problem
    4. Verify corrective action taken
    5. Document your steps. This is useful for two reasons. For you or others to refer back to  on the next possible service call for the same equipment  and because you may not be the only one servicing the computer and the next person will need to know what steps you have taken.
    6. Follow-up  - contact the customer  after they take back the equipment and see if they are problem-free.

    *** Some problems are hard to duplicate, especially intermittent hardware or software problems.  Refer to customer's information on exactly what error message or problem occurred, what applications was the customer using, how many applications were open, etc.....  Sometimes the computer works fine in the shop.  but when the customer takes it back, the problem returns.  This is always frustrating to the customer, and technician. Could an externally connected peripheral  that the customer has have caused the problem? Communicate with the customer as often as needed.

    Overheat issues   

    As computers ,especially laptops get faster, keeping them from overheating is very important.     ***

    Dell diagnostics has a fan test and there are third-party fan test utilities as well.  Google ' computer fan tester'.   Here are a few utilities to test the temperatures of the computer fan and other hardware -


    Examples of Troubleshooting:

     If your computer does not turn on.

    Most problems involve a common sense approach to isolate.

    Troubleshooting Hard Drives In Windows XP / 2000 / VISTA

     If you have a computer with a hard drive (HD) that you suspect may be faulty, there are methods you can use to determine this. This first section will use general procedures, and not those specified by a particular PC manufacturer. 

    Review the following sections for assistance:

    1. Symptoms of a failed hard drive

    2. Procedures to verify  hard drive status

    3. Dell hard drive diagnostics

    4. Hard Drive diagnostics software tools


    Symptoms of a failed or failing hard drive

    • During POST: HD not found or HD not detected error
    • During POST: Device not found message
    • During POST: No Operating System found
    • During POST: Drive 0 operating outside normal…… message
    • Clicking sound from hard drive / hard drive area of computer.
    • Computer keeps rebooting  or  computer takes excessively long to boot up
    • Computer  runs slower than normal.   
    • System Blue Screens  or system freezes

      If the laptop starts running slow

    If a laptop starts to run slow there are basically just a few reasons for it

    1. Battery is near end of life and is slowing the laptop down ---  | do  you have a spare battery  /  remove battery - does lapto pseem to run faster
    2. Laptop is infected with malware and/or virus  - use a restore point and / or triage / run malware utilities

    Procedures used to verify hard drive status If the hard drive status is in question, use the following suggestions for verifying the status.

    First level of steps to take if possible

    Second level of steps to take

    • Get into setup (CMOS).  Is the HD detected? Is Date / time correct? (if date / time are not correct, the CMOS battery may be bad).
    • Reseat the hard drive and/or the hard drive connector (on both the system board and hard drive)  and the power cable.
    • If a computer does not recognize or "see" a hard drive, a sure fire step to help isolate the problem  is to install a known good hard drive into the computer or install the suspect HD into another similar computer and see how it acts.  (I keep a spare desktop IDE HD and SATA HD and a spare laptop IDE and a spare laptop SATA HD with just the DOS system files on it which allows it to boot to c:\. This will tell you if the computer can boot off a hard drive).
    • If you want to Defrag the hard drive, use jkdefrag.  It is on the Hiren device
    • Sometimes a HD can be ‘fixed’ using the HD manufacturer’s utility or by doing a low-level format on the hard drive but if the hard drive has bad sectors, repairing them, if possible, is usually a short-term fix.  I uses two different utilities  for low-level format (Eraser and PC Inspector's E-Maxx ). Each of which will perform a low-level format but E-Maxx will not work on SATA hard drives.   These utilities will irreversibly WIPE the HD of all data. It will be as if the hard drive was new. No data will be retrievable after using these utilities.  After performing a low-level format,  run FDISK from a DOS prompt and create a partition and run the diagnostics utility again.  If the hard drive still fails, replace it!!!
    • Google the error message you are encountering.

    ---------------   END OF SECTION ---------------  


    Dell Hard Drive Diagnostics in Windows XP, VISTA, and Win 7

     Dell installs diagnostics software on their computers original hard drives  but if you reformat the hard drive, replace the hard drive or delete the diagnostic partition, you will lose the built-in diagnostics and will need to run it off the Dell Diagnostics CD / DVD.

    If a Dell customer loses their original CDs that shipped with the computer, and they are the original owner of the computer, they can request a replacement set of the CDs from Dell at usually no charge. Customers can go here to request their replacement CDs.

    Here is a Dell technical note: How to run the HD diagnostics on a Dell computer: Here is a summary of it:

    To utilize the build-in Dell diagnostics use one of the following methods:

    1. Most Dell laptops - when power is off, press and hold the Fn key while turning laptop on, then release both keys.
    2. All Dells - During POST, press F12 for “boot options”.  When the menu appears,  select Diagnostics to run the DST diagnostics. This will run a quick test of most of the hardware in the computer. When complete, it will prompt you to enter the diagnostics partition, if present.  Again,  if you deleted the partition or installed a new HD,  this partition may be gone and only the abbreviated DST diagnostics will be available. If you get a Dell diagnostics error code, write it down!!
    1. Boot off the Hiren USB key and run HD tune to check for bad sectors
    2. The Hard Drive manufacturer diagnostics.


    Data Recovery

    For data recovery from corrupt or damaged hard drives

    • For use in Windows XP, 2000, VISTA and Win 7

    • I have been using Final Data 2.0  for several years. Only for Windows systems. It is installed on our work stations.  I am not sure it will work on a slaved Windows 8 hard drive.
    • In Summer 2010 we purchased a new utility called data rescue for both the PC and MAC
    • Here is a document for data recovery procedures in the shop.


    Dell Diagnostics

    Dell puts  considerable resources into providing adequate diagnostics for the end user and technicians.  One only needs to use these resources to become proficient.

    Some of these resources  are:

    • Built in diagnostics ( multiples methods for entering these tests)

    • Diagnostics CD provided with the computer  - and a way to get the original CDs incase you lost them

    • Diagnostics LED panel on the computer -  refer to service manual/users guide of the computer model when referencing  diagnostic LEDS

    • Hardware Troubleshooting wizard   - See Dell Support drop menu at

    • Troubleshooting wizard - Problems with VISTA on a Dell? - See VISTA Support drop menu at


    Web sites for reference

    • Research the issue  online



    Hard Drive Diagnostics Software tools

    Below are links to hard drive diagnostics from the manufacturers. Links are given for the diskette version and the CD iso image.

    Defrag Utilities


    A badly fragmented hard drive will slow down processing time. Windows XP, VISTA and Win 7 have built in defragmenter utilities but there are third-party utilities that work great!

    * In XP:

              XP  defrag method 1

    • Start -> Programs ->Accessories->System tools->Disk Defragmenter
    • Start\Run\dfrg.msc
    • Open My Computer, Right click on the on the local volume, select properties, On the Tools tab select defrayment now.

              XP  defrag method 2

    • Open 'My Computer'.
    • Right-click on C: select Properties
    • Click on 'Tools' Tab
    • Select 'Defragment Now'

                XP defrag method 3

    • Download and run JKDefrag from the desktop

    * In VISTA and Win 7:

    • To find Disk Defragmenter, go to Start Menu -> All Programs -> Accessories -> System Tools.
    • Us the Hiren USB  key and run one of the defragmenter utilities

    Before you run a defrag utility on the hard drive ( recommendation is to run it from the Hiren USB key) is to use the HD triage cleanup form to delete all the temp files first - makes little sense to defrag what may be several Gigabyte of temp files.


    Data recovery from a crashed or failing hard drive

    • I have been using Final Data 2.0  for several years for Windows systems. Slave the client HD into a work station and run Final Data on the HD.
    • We started using Data Rescue 3 in 2012. It is installed on the work stations and the shop iMACS.
    • Here is a document for data recovery procedures in the shop.

    Using FDISK  - a DOS command for creating or deleting partitions

    • FDISK is a DOS utility that is still used to create partitions on a  new hard drive or to delete partitions.
    • We have Win98 Diskettes as well a bootable CDs with the Win98 files on it. They are in the CD kits.
    • When booting off the diskette or CD, simply type 'FDISK' at the c: prompt.  The options in FDISK are self-explanatory.

    Permanently Erase a Hard Drive 

    In order to permanently erase a hard drive's data (also know as a low-level format), use one of the following paths.

    We use a hard drive wiping piece of equipment that can securely wipe up to four hard drives simultaneously.

    To wipe an individual hard drive while keeping the HD in the client's computer:

    If a hard drive is badly infected and you will be re imaging the computer, I like to perform a low-level format of the hard drive.

    If you can not take the hard drive out of the computer, refer to these two documents:


    Identify components in a Dell

    Fortunately there are various methods in identifying the components in a Dell computer (i.e.  wireless device manufacturer/model).  knowing the manufacture and model of  install components is useful  if you are reimaging a computer and the Windows DVD doe snot have the device's driver.  If a freshly imaged computer installed the network driver then windows updates might install any unknown device's driver.

    Identifying / Retrieving software licenses from a computer.

    First of, let me say that we will abide by all software licensing laws.  If we know a license code is illegal, do not use it.  If you suspect it may be illegal, ask how we can prove it. The following procedures for retrieving and reusing license codes on the SAME computer are permissible under the licensing laws, unless the license code is already illegal.

    When a customer needs Windows OS reinstalled, or their hard drive needs to be replaced,  the customer usually does not have their CDs and/or licenses for the installed programs, such as Windows XP/VISTA/Win 7  / and Microsoft Office. Typically we will only install Windows operating system, unless they provide additional CDs and license code. (Windows license codes are placed on a sticker on outside of case by manufacturer. Sometimes these stickers are peeled off or faded).

    If a customer does not have their Windows license code or Office license code, we can retrieve this information if their computer boots up to the desktop. The utility we use to do this is Magical Jellybean Key Finder. It has a free version as well as a licensed version.  Either utility works very well but the licensed version of Jellybean is required for Windows 7 and Office 2013 ( Note: some versions of office 2013 will not reveal its license code) Using these utilities, we can contain the customer's license code. We can then use our Operating system media with the client's  license code.

    Magical Jellybean Key Finder - a freeware open source utility that retrieves your Product Key (cd key) used to install Windows from your registry. It allows you to print or save your keys for safekeeping. It works on Windows 95, 98, ME, 2000, XP, Vista, Windows 7 Server 2003, Server 2008, Office XP, Office 2003, Office 2007, office 2010 and Office 2013 family of products.

    Note:  Office 2013 license codes can be  be difficult depending on how it was purchased.


    Dell Quick Diagnostics

    Dell computers either have quick diagnostics built-into the image or on a CD they provide with the computer.

    To access the Dell quick diagnostics:

    • Press F12 during the prompt to do so  in POST
    • On newer Dell laptops, hold down the 'Fn' key then press POWER
    • On newer Dell desktops, during POST,  hold down the CRTL,ALT, D keys to access the 90/90 hard drive diagnostics.
    • Boot off the diagnostics CD that shipped with the Dell. If you lost the CD,  some diagnostic ISO files are available for download through the Drivers Download page

    See this Dell Technical notice for reference:  How to Run the Hard Drive Disk Self Test( DST) on a Dell Computer .

    Article ID: 


    Date Published: 


    Last Revised: 



    Request a set of original CDs, which include the  operating system, Drivers/diagnostics CD. The original CDs that shipped with your computer can be requested from Dell. As of 7/10/2008 the link is here.    This link seems to change therefore if the offered link is broken,  go to and search for "how to request backup CDs"


    Software Tools for Troubleshooting 

    As mentioned above, one must isolate the problem to a specific hardware component, or software as the source of a problem.  For a few examples, check here. Here are a few software "tools" we use to determine the source of a problem.

    • Recovery Console - Recovering Windows  using the Recovery Console
    • XP repair -  A Repair install will replace the system files with the files on the XP CD used for the Repair Install. It will leave your applications and settings intact, but Windows updates will likely need to be reapplied.
    • Hiren Boot device  is a bootable USB key or CD  which looks like the older Ultimate BOOT CD  and Bart PE CD, (discontinued in 2006) with many additional utilities, that allow you to repair and diagnostic many computer problem.  Additional utilities can be added to the Hiren  as well. We customized  the most recent version considerably to meet our needs. Note: Our current Hiren ( April 2015) does not work with Windows 8
    • SFC / scannow, chkdsk and scandisk are utilities built into Windows. You should check  them out -  Need i say ' google it'!
    • Slipstreamed XP or VISTA CDNot really used any more - A slipstreamed CD has most of  the updates post-service packs  (XP SP3 and VISTA SP2). This is a essential tool when imaging multiple systems as it prevents the need for downloading all the updates from Microsoft each time you re-image your computer.  One can also incorporate other programs into the CD as well.  Here is Microsoft's site on slipstreaming.  Third party sites (and there are a lot of them) usually have better information than Microsoft sites.  The Microsoft Office CD can also be slipstreamed as well.  For examples, 'google' the term slipstreaming!
    • Bootable DOS CD - While DOS is long forgotten, a CD burning software program such as Nero (get Nero Demo here) or Roxio will mage a bootable CD, using files from a Win 98 or DOS diskette. This is useful as most computers do not come with a 3.5" diskette drive now.
    • Mem Test - Tests memory modules.  If you think your memory is bad, and you have two or more modules, test one at a time.  If a module fails, test it in another socket .   Memtest is also on the Hiren Boot device in the FIRST menu.
    • HD Tune - evaluates the hard drive for bad sectors. web Site: . HD Tune is also on the UBCD.
    • Defragment - If your computer runs slow and you want to defrag your hard drive, jkdefrag is a good free utility to run. There are other free ones. Google ‘defrag utilities’. A defrag runs faster when the hard drive is slaved into another computer or when you boot off the UBCD and defrag the drive.
    • Software Image Library - Build a library of clean, fully updated images of computers.  For Example,  we have over sixty images of Dell models with fully updated images.  This saves countless hours of not needing to download operating system updated and component drivers. Only the Windows XP license code needs to be changed.  Since we sell just 5 or 6 Dell models each year, we see the same models regularly for service.
    • Simply search for the problem / error message in a search engine such as or or one of many discussion groups.
    • General software cleanup.  We use this step-by-step form as a guide  when cleaning a computer's HD of junk files, spyware ,and viruses.  We have versions for XP,   VISTA, and Windows 7.

    Support sites of the larger computer companies

    Company  **




    Knowledge Base





    select here

    Apple Forum

    Apple iPOD



    select here

     iPOD forum




    select here

    Compaq Forum




    select here

    Dell Forum




    select here


    Hewlett Packard



    select here

    HP XP Forum

    IBM Thinkpad



    select here

    IBM ThinkPad forum




    select here

    Lenova forum




    select here

    Microsoft Forum





    MSDN forum




    select here

    Gateway Forum




    select here

    Toshiba Forum




    select here

    Sony Forum

    ** For additional links to company support web sites' visit the Product Support drop menu at


    - Since initial release of this document, no major revisions have been made.