Crash, Bang, Wallop!

 

One Step Removed

How many programs have you got on your PC, and how many of them are potentially unsafe? It is unlikely that that you can answer the second question, at least not without installing a small freeware utility called Should I Remove It? There’s no need for a long winded explanation, it does precisely what it says, firstly analysing all of the applications installed on your PC then ranking them according to safety, usefulness and user ratings. Red means get rid asap, amber suggests it is worth further investigation and green means it’s okay. You can zap the red flagged items straight away by clicking Uninstall or the ‘What is it’ button to find out more. It’s not a cure-all or quick fix but on any well-used PC there’s bound to be a few undesirables that at best are just wasting space, at worst doing all sorts of unmentionable things without your knowledge or permission…

14/07/14

 

Peruse Your Processes

Even if you are not using your PC, behind the scenes all sorts of things are going on and it is these hidden processes that can really slow your computer down by keeping the CPU busy. Most processes are essential for the well being of your system and the programs that are running but now and again there’s one that takes more than its fair share of your computer’s resources, and that’s when things can go wrong. Identifying rogue processes, and keeping all of the others under control is a tricky business, but here’s a free utility, called Process Tamer, that does a lot of the hard work for you. It displays, in real time, what’s occupying the CPU, and you can use it to set priorities and rules, regulate the CPU load and keep a detailed log, so you can see if your taming measures are having any effect. Observe all of the usual precautions when installing this utility, and if you want to keep tight control of the installation choose the manual extract option.

30/12/13

 

Hard Drive Head’s Up

Hard drives are pretty reliable these days, which is a good thing, obviously, but it can lull you into a false sense of security. If, or rather, when your HDD fails it could be a very nasty surprise indeed, even if you had the foresight to keep everything backed up. So how useful would it be to be forewarned of an impending drive disaster? It can be done, and a free tool from Acronis, called Drive Monitor, is designed to give you an early warning of potential problems, giving you the time to get it fixed, or prepare a replacement. It runs in the background, using a mixture of PC diagnostics and the drive’s own monitoring features; if it detects anything untoward a notification appears in the System Tray and you can take appropriate action

29/07/13

 

Error Judgement

We’ve all been there… Windows throws a hissy-fit and displays a totally incomprehensible error code. You can try Googling it, though like as not all you get are thousands of hits from others, also looking for an explanation. Here’s an alternative, it’s called, simply, Error Messages For Windows, and it is a free, one-stop database utility for stock Windows error codes, from XP up to W8. Not only that you can also display a list of the error messages for your version of Windows. Now don’t get too excited, it only converts the error code into a semblance of English, and it certainly doesn’t tell you how to fix your problem, but armed with a few relevant keywords it may at least help you to refine your search and hopefully, point you in the right direction.

15/04/13

 

Gentle Tweak

I normally steer well clear of programs that purport to solve computer problems or improve performance. They rarely do any good, and in a few cases, may carry toxic payloads that can actually make things worse, or cause a nasty infection. I am still of the opinion that there are no magic one-stop solutions for computer woes, but I have been mildly impressed by a little freeware utility called Tweak Me. It doesn’t make any exaggerated promises it can’t keep, and it doesn’t perform miracles, but what it does do, it does well. It cleans out the clutter, helps streamline the Startup files, tidies up your Context menus and fixes some of the most common system faults. None of these are going to fix a sluggish or unstable PC, but combined these small steps can all help to keep things running smoothly, and it may even liven up you PC, just a little. As usual with freeware utilities you need to keep your wits about you during installation. Go for the Custom option, and deselect the very kind offers to install a toolbar and take over your Home Page – unless you want it to of course… Otherwise it’s all plain sailing and I’m pleased to see that the first thing it does, before making any changes, is set a System Restore point, so if anything goes wrong it can be easily undone.

28/01/13

 

Drive Safely

What’s the worst thing that can happen to your PC? Motherboard, CPU, memory and power supply failures can all be quite annoying, but they’re all fairly easy to fix. If your hard drive turns up its toes that’s another matter, and if it’s a fatal crash all of your data and files could be lost. Of course, if you’ve been paying attention then you’ll have a backup or clone drive handy, but the best option is to avoid trouble in the first place? A freeware utility called HDDScan is one way of doing just that. It’s a diagnostic tool that checks and puts your internal and external drives through a series of tests, and reports on any errors it finds. The odd glitch usually isn’t much to worry about but if run the tests on a regular basis, every few months, say, you should be able to spot worrying trends, well before they cause real problems. For the record it supports IDE (ATA), SATA, SCSI (SAS) HDDs, external USB drives, FireWire drives, RAID volumes, USB Flash and SATA/ATA solid state drives. It carries out Verification and reading in linear and butterfly modes reads and analysing SMART parameters, reading and analysing log pages from SCSI drives, running SMART tests and temperature monitoring.

02/09/12

 

Reset Revelations

Take note of this web address: www.factory-reset.com. One day you are going to need it! Modern digital technology is pretty reliable, but when it goes tits-up, it often does so in spectacular fashion and most of the time the only way to get it back to normality is to carry out a full factory reset. This will return it to its out of the box state, so you can start again. If you’re lucky, and diligent, and saved the manual you may find the factory reset is just a just a case of pressing a recessed button. This is common on things like wireless routers, tablet computers SatNavs and so on, otherwise you may have to press and hold a combination of keys. If you’re unlucky the instruction book won’t help, and that’s assuming that you still have it… All you can do now is hope there’s something on the manufacturer’s website or a forum, or you could try the Factory Reset website. It’s a work in progress and the list of products is growing all the time but don’t expect miracles if your dodgy digital box of tricks is getting on a bit or obscure, but if you can’t find it, and you later discover the reset trick, it’s a Wiki, and you can help others by adding it to the archive.

09/01/12

 

Emergency Flash

When the inevitable happens, and your PC stubbornly refuses to boot, what do you do? Most computer users either panic, get on the phone to a tech-savvy friend, or call in the experts. Well, here’s something to try first, it’s a toolbox to get your PC started, and recover files, all conveniently stored on a USB flash drive that you can keep about your person. Using a USB-based recovery tool also means you’ll be able to start netbooks and notebooks that do not have a CD/DVD drive. The utility in question is the Ultimate Boot CD or UBCD, which is freeware/donationwarea, it’s been around a while, and as the name suggests it was originally a CD based utility, so you’ll need another little program, called the Universal USB installer. Once both programs have been downloaded follow the instructions to install UBCD on your PC and create an ISO file. Alternatively, fire up the Universal USB installer, select UBCD from the drop-down menu, and click download the iso point it at the UBCD ISO file. When it has finished locate the file on your hard drive, select your USB flash drive and click Create. For a full rundown file and follow the prompts. For more details of what’s on the drive and some guidance on how to use it, click the List of Tools link on the UBCD homepage.

29/08/11

 

Better Backup?

Over the years we must have looked at dozens of backup programs. For the most part they work well, though the real problem with backup software is that you never really know if it’s going to work, until something goes horribly wrong. The other problem with a lot of backup software is that you have to fiddle with it, or instigate the backups, so here’s one that should appeal to those who want a reliable way to backup their data, preferably without them having to do anything. It’s called BackUp Maker, it’s free, and once installed you can pretty well leave it to get on with the job. It backs up to CD/DVD, internal or external hard drives – local or network – USB devices and even upload it to the web. It features strong 256-bit encryption, so your data should be safe and if required it compresses the data, so you shouldn’t have to worry about running out of space. All you need to do now is download and install the program, and cross your fingers that you never have to use it…

27/06/11

 

More Disaster Relief

What’s guaranteed to happen when you least expect it and at the worst moment? Pretty obvious really, we’re talking about a hard drive or recordable media failure, and yes, it will happen to you one day, so be ready for it. We’ve looked at several data recovery tools and they all have their plusses and minuses, and no one utility can do everything, which is why we’re telling you about another one, called Power Data Recovery Free Edition.  It's free to home users and covers a lot of ground, including recovering files from an emptied Recycle Bin, but it can also help get back data lost following a virus infection, unexpected shutdown or software failure, and tackle the perennial problem of missing files in a damaged partition, corrupt drive. Of course it’s not infallible but when disaster strikes, you really can’t have enough tools in your armoury.

11/04/11

 

Quick Visual Check

Anyone who has been unlucky enough to suffer from a boot up or hard drive problem should know all about the Microsoft Chkdsk utility. Sometimes it kicks in of its own accord when Windows detects a fault, and very good it is too at detecting and fixing system file and disc errors, but it’s a command line utility, and when it’s running it doesn’t tell you much about what’s going on. CheckDisk GUI solves that problem, it puts a graphical user interface (GUI) on the screen, so you can see what it’s up to, and not only does it tell you what it did, it shows you how long it took. It’s free, and the download is on 800kb, so it’ll be on your PC and ready to use in no time flat.

17/03/11

 

Secure Rescue

So, your PC won’t boot, what next? Unfortunately a lot of computer users just give up and fire up their recovery partition (if they have one), re-install Windows, or replace the drive, all of which results in a total loss of the files and data stored on the disc. There is another option, well several actually, but the first stop for anyone with an unbootable computer and a drive full of irreplaceable data should be a Rescue CD. There are plenty to choose from but you can’t go far wrong with this one, from F-Secure. It is based on our old friend, Knoppix, a lightweight distribution of Linux. Basically all you have to do is download the program, create a CD and pop this into the dead PC’s drive (obviously it’s best to create the disc whilst your PC is still working…). The disc verifies that the boot sector is okay then runs through a lengthy virus and malware check and provides a report on what it finds. It's safe to use and no changes are made to the dicky drive. If nothing is found you can set about trying to fix the problem. It can help with that too, with a selection of tools for more advanced users that lets you access and repair damaged files. Do it now, one day you may need it!

10/01/11

 

Slow Boot Soluto

It’s not a spelling mistake, this freeware program, which claims to be able to solve many slow boot up problems is called Soluto or ‘anti-frustration software’. It’s an ambitious claim to be sure and I'm always wary of programs that reckon they can solve this type of problem, but I have to say this one is a bit different. To begin with it’s free and there’s no crafty demands for money to fix your machine. Second, it is very easy to use, ideal for novices in fact who are wary of delving too deeply into the boot up process, and third, it doesn’t do a bad job. It tells you exactly what's taking up all the time and it should be able to shave at least a few seconds, possibly a lot more off the average PC boot up. It’s a Beta release and all of the usual provisos apply, but it seems pretty stable so if your machine is taking forever to get going it has to be worth a try.

14/06/10

 

Easier Errors?

-One of Windows more annoying traits is the error code box that sometimes appears when something goes wrong. What on earth does 0x80000005 mean? Then there’s the perennial favourite 0x80000008… Of course you can google the code and most of the time you’ll get a good number of hits, and maybe, if you are patient you can sift through them and eventually find out what it means, but here’s a short cut. It’s a small, stand-alone freeware utility called ErrMsg, just type the code into the box and it will tell you what it means. One word of warning, though, it’s not going to tell you how to fix it, and the explanation may leave you no wiser; 0x80000008, for example translates as ‘Unspecified Error’…

10/05/10

 

Lookin Good

LooKInMyPC won’t fix your PC the next time it throws a wobbly, but it might make it easier for you, or someone who knows their way around computers, to track down the fault. When called into action it produces a detailed system profile and diagnostic report about all of the hardware, running services, drivers, updates, startup programs, networks, Internet connections, event logs and a zillion other things about your PC that could prove useful. Save the report when the PC is behaving itself and if things do go awry and help isn’t at hand you can email the report to a knowledgeable friend or tech. You don’t even have to install it on your PC after you’ve downloaded the program you get the option to install it on your hard drive, or on a removable drive or UDB memory stick. Hopefully you’ll never need it (some hope…) but if you do, it’s ready to help.

01/03/10

 

Scan Your Sectors

Is your PC getting a bit cranky? Are you suffering from unexpected crashes and shutdowns? It could be all manner of things but a problem with the hard drive is fairly high on the list, and it’s something you can eliminate, or confirm quite easily with a free utility called Windows Surface Scanner. This freeware utility tests the entire drive, sector by sector, to check the validity of the data it contains and to see if there are any read/write errors, if one or more are detected it will tell you and if there’s a lot of them, then this could be a sign that your drive may be about to fail.

23/11/09

 

Digging for Lost Files

I must have had a charmed life because very few of the many storage devices and media that I use have failed. Nevertheless, I am ready for it when it happens and I now include a small freeware utility called DiskDigger in my armoury of recovery tools. It works on any media that can be read by your computer, including USB drives and memory cards, CDs, DVDs hard drives and so on and it works on all file types. It can retrieve accidentally deleted and corrupt files and apparently it even works on drives that have been formatted or have bad sectors. The program file is small and can be run from anywhere, including another memory device so there’s nothing to install. Let’s hope you won’t ever need it, but I suggest that you download a copy now, just in case…

28/05/09

 

USB and Memory Card Rescue

It may not be the ultimate free data recovery tool around but when the microchips are down and your USB stick, digicam memory card or CD has thrown a wobbly then you may be thankful that you have Encopy in your utility toolbox. Encopy is a data recovery program that can extract files from damaged or corrupt media. It’s very easy to use, and thorough, with plenty of user options that will give you the best chance of retrieving something useful from your mangled memory or dodgy discs.

20/04/09

 

Explore Your Computer
Windows has a number of diagnostic and system monitoring tools built in but this one, called
System Explorer puts everything you need to know about your computer, and what’s it doing now, and in the past, into one very convenient and easy to use package. Here’s just a taster of what it can do. You can view information about running processes, startups, Explorer, IE Add-ons, uninstallers, drivers, services, connections and open files. You can check which programs and files were opened, and when, take snapshots of your Registry and later compare them if something has gone wrong to see what’s changed. It uses fewer resources than the Windows utilities and there’s even a portable version that you can run from a pen drive. Try it, get to know it and one day it could save you a lot of time and trouble if your PC throws a wobbly…

06/11/08

 

Oops – I Wish I hadn’t done that!

Wouldn’t it be great if you could turn back time? Well now you can – at least as far as your computer is concerned  -- with a utility called Undelete + and the really good news is that for a limited time it is absolutely free. Undelete + is a file restoration utility that recovers data that has been deliberately or accidentally deleted from your hard drive, even if you used the nuclear option of holding down the Shift key (deleted files bypass the Recycle Bin).  Undelete + understands all common file systems (FAT16/32,NTFS/NTFS5), and works on all types of media (hard and floppy drives, USB memory sticks and CF, SmartMedia, SD and most types of memory card).

30/10/08

 

Audit Your PC

How much do you know about your PC? Yes, I know Windows tells you about the hardware and you can see what programs you have on the All Programs list, but that’s just scratching the surface. What, for instance, is the make and version of your PC’s BIOS, what peripherals are attached, how much of your memory is in use, when was your PC first switched on and how many times have you booted it up, what is the make, model number and size of your hard drive, and just how many programs are still on your PC that you’ve forgotten about?

 

These and hundreds of other even more interesting questions can be answered by a small freeware utility called WinAudit. It generates a full audit, including an extensive hardware and software inventory, performance and fault logs, network statistics and much more besides, and you don’t even have to install it, it will run from a pen drive or CD. If you want to know what’s going on under the bonnet, give it a whirl, you will probably be surprised by what it finds!

10/03/08

 

Restoring Confidence

If the number of emails and letters I receive on accidental deletion of files is anything to go by we’re in suffering an epidemic of ‘butter fingers’… Picture files on memory cards are by far the most popular files to get zapped by mistake but it affects everything, from Word documents to album tracks, and I can’t deny that I haven’t done it myself, but when it happens the worst thing you can do is panic. If you do the chances are you make the situation even worse, so when you’ve erased a file, and you want it back the first thing to do is check the Recycle Bin. If it’s not there then there is still a very good chance all or part of it is still on the drive, and this little freeware program, called Restoration could get it back for you.  The program is small and runs from any file location, even a memory card, so it doesn’t mess around with Windows. All you have to do it tell it which drive to scan and a few moments (or minutes) later – depending on the size of the drive, it will report back on what it has found. You can then save the recovered file in a new location on your hard drive, and if you are lucky, it will still be readable.

24/01/08

 

Protecting the Windows Registry

This tip is for advanced users. As I have said on numerous occasions the Registry is the heart of Windows and the place where all of the most critical configuration settings, and much more besides, are stored. Even a simple mistake can make your PC unusable so it should be off-limits to novices and tinkerers. However, it’s very easy to get at, so if you are at all concerned about its security, and you know your way around Windows System files you should block access to it. To do that open the Registry Editor by typing ‘regedit’ (without the quotes) in Run on the Start menu, highlight a key, right-click and select Permissions. Click on the account you want to restrict and tick Allow or Deny as appropriate. Repeat as necessary for each of the main keys

26/09/06

 

Warning Noises, Don’t Wait for the Crash

You should listen to your PC, and we’re not talking about MP3 tracks but the noises it makes when you first boot up, and whilst it is running. Any change to the sound of your PC should ring alarm bells. A low level whine that gradually disappears after a while is almost certainly the first sign of a CPU cooling fan failure. Get it seen to immediately, when it finally dies, and it will, the CPU can go into meltdown in less than a minute. At best it will automatically shut down and you’ll loose whatever you were working on; at worst the chip could fry and you’ll face a hefty repair bill.

 

A sudden increase or change in hard disc chatter could be a sign of trouble to come, or more likely a badly fragmented drive, either way make sure your backups are in good order then at your earliest convenience run Defrag and the hard disc Error Checker (right-click the disc icon in Windows Explorer and select the Tools tab). Noisy CD/DVD drives could also be a sign of wear, though a lot of the time it’s down to cheap and nasty discs, so try switching brands. If the noise persists replace the drive as it may well be on its last legs.

18/09/06

 

Cold Remedy for Dead Drives

Here’s a weird little tip that has been doing the rounds for a while -- I first heard about it in the late 1980’s -- and over the years quite a few people claim to have temporarily revived a dead or dying hard drive simply by popping it in the freezer for a few hours.

 

The drive should be tightly sealed inside a 'ziplock' plastic bag, to prevent condensation and left in the freezer compartment for at least two or three hours. It’s not a permanent fix and once back inside the case the drives apparently work long enough for the user to recover data, maybe 20 minutes to half an hour. Obviously this isn’t going to work for all types of hard disc failure -- and there are plenty of serious faults freezing cannot help with -- but if you have exhausted all other methods, and you need to recover an important file in a hurry then it has to be worth a try.

29/08/06

 

PRINTING SYSTEM INFORMATION

While your Windows PC is working normally you might like to make a permanent ‘hard-copy’ record of its configuration. It may not mean much to you now but it could prove useful to you later or to an engineer diagnosing a problem. Here’s what to do, open System Properties by pressing Winkey + Break (or right-click My Computer and select Properties) then click Hardware > Device Manager. Click and highlight the Computer icon at the top of the tree then go to the Actions menu and select Print. Your Printer Properties dialogue box will open, click Print and it should start. Keep the printout in a safe place; you never know when you might need it. 

 

STICKY DRAWERS

Sounds unpleasant but it could happen to you…More PC users are making their own CDs and DVDs, and dressing them up with printed labels. The trouble is the adhesive on some of these labels can soften if left in the drive (it gets quite warm in there) and if it starts to peel the drive tray can get stuck. No amount of pressing the eject button is going to free it up and the only solution is to manually open the drawer. Pretty well all CD and DVD drives have a emergency release latch, just look for a tiny hole on he front panel, it’s usually underneath the loading draw. To open the draw switch off the PC and find a paperclip, open out one end and gently poke that into the hole, when you meet resistance press it in another millimetre or so and the draw should pop open enough for you to be able to pull it all of the way out and retrieve the disc. If the label has got stuck to anything open the draw very slowly to avoid it sticking and tearing. Remove the label completely if you want to use the disc again and this time use a CD pen or marker.

 

MANUAL REGISTRY BACKUP

Before making any changes to the Windows Registry or using any tool or utility that can affect it I strongly suggest that you make a backup of the Registry and if you are using Windows XP create a new System Restore point.  This is easy, go to Start > Programs > Accessories > System Restore, select ‘Create a Restore Point, then Next and follow the prompts.

 

To manually backup the Registry go to Run n the Start menu, type ‘regedit’ (without the quotes) then OK. Select Export on the File menu; give the file a name (e.g. today’s date) then click Save. Should anything go wrong double click the saved *.reg file in My Document and your Registry will be automatically restored.

 

 

QUICK DIAGNOSIS

A totally dead PC is very rare so if nothing happens when you power up for the first time check the obvious – the rear panel on/off switch, the ‘On’ switch connections on the motherboard and the two power cables from the PSU to the motherboard. If the fan is running then the mains supply is okay, if not it could be the cable or mains fuse. If the PC bleeps more than twice there may be a problem with the memory module, make sure it is properly seated. If the PC bleeps but the screen remains blank check the monitor is on and the cable is securely connected. If the PC won’t boot from the Windows CD-ROM check the drive’s power and data cables, also enter the BIOS program (press the Del key at boot up) and verify the CD/DVD-ROM drive is listed as a ‘Boot Device’. If you are using an alternative operating system or an older version of Windows you can use a Windows 98 emergency recovery disc to partition and format the drive.

 

 

PRINTING SYSTEM INFORMATION

While your Windows PC is working normally you might like to make a permanent ‘hard-copy’ record of its configuration. It may not mean much to you now but it could prove useful to you later or to an engineer diagnosing a problem. Here’s what to do, open System Properties by pressing Winkey + Break (or right-click My Computer and select Properties) then click Hardware > Device Manager. Click and highlight the Computer icon at the top of the tree then go to the Actions menu and select Print. Your Printer Properties dialogue box will open, click Print and it should start. Keep the printout in a safe place; you never know when you might need it. 

 

 

SAVING HABIT

Video editing programs are hugely complex applications and can really put a strain on your computer hardware and operating system, pushing both to their limits so crashes and lockups are not uncommon. It is vitally important that you get into the habit of saving your project every 15 to 20 minutes otherwise when the inevitable happens you will end loosing your work and wasting a lot of time and effort.

 

 

TOO MANY PROGRAMS

A common cause of Windows crashes or lock-ups is too many programs running at the same time. You might be lucky and get a warning that something bad is about to happen – a slow running program is a sign of impending danger  -- but you can keep an eye on what is happening, and possibly prevent a crash, using a simple utility called the Resource Meter. It is quite well hidden.  From the Start button select Programs, then Accessories and click on System Tools. Double click on Resource Meter and a small bar-graph icon will appear on the Taskbar, next to the clock. Placing the mouse pointer over the icon will give you an instant readout of the percentage of resources being used, better still click on it and a set of three bar graphs will appear. Problems can occur when any of the three meters fall below 25%. If that happens you should close one or more programs, not forgetting to save any open files first, reboot and all should be well again.   

 

 

LIGHTNING REACTION

Thunderstorms can be fatal for PCs. Strikes on nearby overhead cables and sub-stations can send high voltage 'spikes' down mains supplies, frying computers and other electronic devices. It's sensible to switch your PC off, disconnect the mains plug and telephone modem lead during a thunderstorm, even if it's not directly overhead. If that's not possible then it is worth investing in surge protection devices, for the mains and telephone connections. Protection devices, built into mains sockets or multi-way adaptors are relatively inexpensive -- £20 to £50 -- compared with the cost of PC and loss of data. Telephone line protectors start at around £40 and are readily available from PC stockists.

 

 

KEEP YOUR (PC) COOL

Make sure your PC is well ventilated as the combination of a hot office and poor airflow can result in erratic behaviour. Check that the fan is working properly and if there is a build-up of dust around the grille, clear it with a clean paintbrush. Use a vacuum cleaner hose to suck out fluff and debris from the back of the machine. Remove any clutter from the front and side ventilation slots. Don't forget the monitor, now would be a good time to file those papers that are piling up on the top and blocking the vents. Peel off any stickers and furry creatures that could obstruct cooling air.

 

 

THE COLOUR OF DEATH

This tip won’t stop the dreaded 'Blue Screen of Death' (the error message that heralds a major system crash) from appearing, but you can change the colour and make it a more restful shade.  Use Notepad to open the System.ini file in the Windows folder. Scroll down to the section that starts ‘[386enh]’ and at the end type the following two lines, paying attention to the spacing, capitalisation and spelling:

MessageBackColor=

MessageTextColour=

Now you need to add a number or letter (hexadecimal code) after the equals signs for the background and text colours, the choices are: 0 for black, 1 blue, 2 green, 3 cyan, 4 red, 5 magenta, 6 yellow, 7 white, 8 grey, 9 bright blue, A bright green, B bright cyan, C bright red, D bright magenta, E bright yellow, F bright white, and here's hoping you never see the fruits of your handiwork…

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