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: March  2010

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:
  • 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

    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

    • Computer manufacturer HD tests

    • Hard Drive manufacturer HD tests

    • HD tune (either from the UBCD or when HD is slaved into workhorse

    • Chkdsk utility  - from the recovery console  when booted off the OS media

    • Run Scandisk on the HD when booted off the UBCD.

    • Boot off the DOS CD and run FDISK - this will tell you if HD is even recognized. If you get a “No Hard Disk detected” when using FDISK, and you have checked the cables, or reseated the HD, then the hard drive likely failed.

    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 desktop check the jumpers on your IDE devices. Do not ASSUME that the customer did not mess with the jumpers. (Most laptop hard drives do not have jumpers).
    • 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. Download it here.
    • 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. Newer Desktops - at the Dell splash screen, hold CTRL, ALT, and D keys simultaneously. The computer beeps once to acknowledge that the hard drive diagnostics  has been initiated
    3. 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 diagnostics CD for your model Dell and run tests or run
    2.  the HD 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.  IT HAS A HIGH SUCCESS RATE.
    • Disk Investigator is fairly new to me but appears to do a fairly good job. (both free at )
    • A new utility as of 2006, Spin Rite, has not been tested too often by me yet but is advertised as a good utility. See here for information. Other utilities are out there!!
    • In Summer 2010 we will research a newer data recovery program for feasibility of purchase..
    • 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 -  See VISTA Support drop menu at

    • 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

    Here is a link to a good chkdsk document I compiled.  I am working on a BSOD ( Microsoft XP Blue Screen of Death)  document. It is a work in progress.


    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.

    The following IDE information added 7/2005

    Western Digital - EIDE drives

    Hitachi fitness test -  EIDE drives

    Maxtor -  EIDE drives




    CD iso

    CD iso

    CD iso




    WDC downloads

    Hitachi downloads

    Maxtor downloads

    Jumper settings

    Jumper settings

    Jumper settings

    Error codes

    Error codes

    Error codes




    warranty check

    warranty check

    warranty check

    RMA (product replacement)

    RMA (product replacement)

    RMA (product replacement)

    WDC storage devices

    Hitachi storage devices

    Maxtor storage devices





    Toshiba -  EIDE drives

    Seagate -  EIDE drives

    Other  EIDE HD drive  manufacturers

    Diskette - not available

    Use Hitachi utility - see here.



    CD iso - not available

    CD iso

    Fujitsu 2.5" new and Discontinued Hard Drives   

     Other site

    jumper settings

    jumper settings


    error codes

    error codes







    Quantum / Conner

    Toshiba Service and support site

    Seagate Hard Drive support site

    Google search results

    Hard Drive  recovery Utility



    The following SATA information added 7/2007

    Western Digital - SATA drives

    Hitachi fitness test -  SATA drives

    Maxtor -  SATA drives





    CD iso

    CD iso

    CD iso

    Windows version

    Windows Version

    Windows Version

    WED Support

    Hitachi Support

    Maxtor Support



    Hard Drive Troubleshooter.


    Seagate - SATA drives




    CD iso


    Windows Version


    Seagate Support


    Hard Drive Troubleshooter.




    Third party diagnostics or utilities for testing hard dives.

    Hard Drive tune -

    HD Tune is a Hard Disk utility which has the following functions:

    HD Tune is a hard disk benchmarking and information tool. You can use it to measures the raw performance of your drive(s), including transfer rate, burst rate, access time and more. In addition, it provides detailed information about supported hard drive features, as well as current temperature, S.M.A.R.T. Information (if available) and an error scanner. Checks for bad sectors on the hard drive.

    HD Tune can be run while in Windows or from  a CD ( Ultimate boot CD is a great example)

    Pass-Mark Burn-in Test - Computer stability and reliability testing software for Windows & Linux. BurnInTest is a software tool that heavily loads all the major subsystems of a computer with the aim of thoroughly exercising the hardware in a PC in a short period of time.
    available at

    Particle Fury 1.45 - is a fresh new benchmark program for Windows systems that tests your system's memory performance. Available at


    SpeedFan - Tests the computer's hardware temperatures.

    I8kfanGUI  - tests the fan in Dell Latitude / Inspiron / Precision notebooks.




    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.

    * Free Defragmenters

    Two things you might want to do before you defragment a hard drive is removing the temporary files, old restore points, the swap file (pagefile.sys)  file and the Hibernate file. These files can get corrupt occasionally and also use a lot of HD space therefore it makes sense to get rid of these large files before defragmenting a hard drive.  A new pagefile.sys file will be created upon restart and the hibernate file can be recreated by turning hibernate back on. 

    To remove the pagefile.sys file in XP - You need to make the file viewable - open 'My Computer'. open C: Under ''TOOLS',  '  go to Folder options, select VIEW tab.  Select "Show hidden files and folders' and deselect "Hide Protected operating system file types'.  Click on OK.  Go back to C: you should now see the pagefile.sys file. Delete it.


    Right-click on My Computer; go to Properties; Advance Tab; select 'Performance Settings'. Select 'advance Tab'. In the Virtual Memory section, select 'Change'. Select the 'No Paging file' button. click on 'Set'. Then click on 'OK, 'OK' 'OK'.  Should be done.  You might need to restart computer.  When defrag is complete, turn on the paging file again.   When setting up a custom swap file,  the minimum size (MB) should be 1.5 times the amount of physical RAM and the maximum size should be no more than 2 times the size of physical RAM, although depending oh available HD space, the maximum end can be higher.

    If you want to really get into it,  use a defrag utility that allows for placing the pagefile.sys at the beginning of the hard drive.

    To remove the pagefile.sys file in VISTA / Win 7 -   You need to make the file viewable - open 'My Computer'. open C:. Under the 'Organize' tab, go to 'Folders and Search options'. Select 'View' tab. Select "Show hidden files and folders' and deselect "Hide Protected operating system file types'.  Click on OK.  Go back to C: you should now see the pagefile.sys file. Delete it.

    To turn off Hibernate in XP - In Control Panel, open 'Power Options', select the Hibernate tab, deselect 'Enable Hibernate'.  Reverse steps after defrag.

    To turn off Hibernate in VISTA - In Control Panel, open 'Power Options'. Search for 'Hibernate' in top right search box.  One of the options it finds will be 'Turn Hibernation on or off''.  Open both drop menus and set to NEVER.  Reboot computer.   ( There is probably an easier way to do this. When I have time, I will find it and update this document). Reverse steps after defrag. 

    Here is another method in VISTA.-

    Another easier workaround for those who’re not comfortable to work with command line is to disable hibernation and hybrid sleep feature in Windows Vista is by using Disk Cleanup wizard tool, the built-in Windows disk cleaner to delete hiberfil.sys file. The hibernation file must be enabled to access the hybrid sleep feature and the hibernation feature in Windows Vista.
    1. Click Start button, then go to All Programs -> Accessories -> System Tools, and run Disk Cleanup.
    2. Choose which files to clean up, either My files only or Files from all users on this computer is fine.
    3. On “Drive Selection”, select the Windows Vista boot drive to clean up. Note that you must select the drive where Vista is installed, which normally is also the boot drive (C:) as hiberfil.sys file will be located on the root folder of it.
    4. Once Disk Cleanup finishes scanning the system, Disk Cleanup for Vista window will open.
    5. Select and tick the check box next to the Hibernation File Cleaner. You can select or deselect other type files to clean or preserve from the available items or options in the list provided.
    6. Click OK button when done.
    7. Hibernation will now be removed and disabled.


    Data recovery from a crashed or failing hard drive

    • I have been using Final Data 2.0  for several years.  IT HAS A HIGH SUCCESS RATE.
    • Disk Investigator is fairly new to me but appears to do a fairly good job. (both free at )
    • A new utility as of 2006, Spin Rite, has not been tested too often by me yet but is advertised as a good utility. See here for information. Other utilities are out there!!
    • 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.

    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.


    Identify components in a Dell

    Fortunately there are various methods in identifying the components in a Dell computer

    • Device Manager - right-click on 'My Computer' , 'Manage' , Device Manager.
    • Windows XP System Information (start, programs, accessories, system tools, system information)
    • Third-party utility  Belarc Advisor, provide information on your hard drives that may not be available in Device Manager or My Computer. This utility shows all applications installed, hardware installed, and software licenses.
    • Original Dell configuration ; 'Original System Configuration ' tab, enter Service TAG of the computer.  This also provides the Dell part number for most of the computer components.

    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. Never release software applications or software license codes registered to PSU without approval.  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 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 utilities we use to do this are Belarc advisor and Magical Jellybean Key Finder.  Either utility works very well. Using these utilities, we can contain the customer's license code. We can then use our CDs with their license code.

    Belarc advisor - Builds a detailed profile of your installed software and license codes hardware, missing Microsoft hot fixes, anti-virus status, ...

    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, Server 2003, Server 2008, Office XP, Office 2003, and Office 2007 family of products.


    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.

    • XP Recovery Console - Recovering Windows XP 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.
    • Ultimate BOOT CD - is a bootable CD which looks like the Bart PE CD, (discontinued in 2006) with many additional utilities, that allow you to repair and diagnostic almost any computer problem.  Additional utilities can be added to the Ultimate Boot CD ( UBCD) as well. We customized  the most recent version considerably to meet our needs. If you would like a copy of our UBCD, email me at I will tell you how to obtain it and at what cost. ( probably around $ 5.00).
    • Slipstreamed XP or VISTA CD.  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 - 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 very 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 . Web Site:   Memtest is also on the UBCD.
    • 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.