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Hardware, software ills make for difficult diagnosis 

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #663  July 9-15, 2002; High Tech Office  column

You probably think you know the difference between hardware and software, right? Hardware is the physical stuff; your computer, its hard drive and memory, the monitor. Software is the contents of your disks, the operating system and programs and your saved data.

At least that's the theory. When it comes to solving problems, though, it's rarely so clear cut, which must drive technical support staff crazy.

Here are a couple of stories:

I do most of my work on a 13 month-old Compaq notebook. (Note: that's one month over the basic warranty period.) Although it came out of the box loaded with Windows ME, I erased everything on the drive and installed the much more stable Windows 2000, along with downloading a bunch of drivers from Compaq's Web site. I also upgraded the RAM from its base 128 MB to 312 MB.

Everything worked fine for just over a year. Windows 2000 delivered its promised stability and robustness, and with the additional memory it was reasonably perky.

Suddenly, it all changed. Seemingly innocuous actions like clicking on a link on a Web page or opening an e-mail message would crash the system. A blue screen full of text would appear but disappear too quickly to read and then the system would stop. I couldn't restart it without unplugging the power cable and removing and replacing the battery.

This was happening several times a day. Very irritating.

The little bit I could read on the mysterious blue screen seemed to be referring to memory problems.

Sounds like a hardware problem, right? I tried replacing the add-in memory card but the problems continued, and the memory card from my notebook worked fine in another unit. Removing the add-in memory and running with just the factory-installed RAM helped, but didn't eliminate the shutdowns.

I had purchased an extended warranty, and contacted the number on my warranty card. Their tech support, upon hearing I had replaced the operating system that came with the unit, stated that they could not offer any support until I restored that system.

I grumbled. As with most computers, running the system restore CD overwrites all your stored data and system customizations. But I backed up all my data, erased everything, and restored Windows ME. The problem disappeared.

Crossing my fingers, I erased the hard drive once again, and installed a new, clean Windows 2000 system. Everything ran fine. As long as I was on a roll, I erased everything once again and installed Windows XP. After installing applications and restoring my data files, everything's fine.

One problem that seemed to be hardware was software-related.

On another system, my four month-old CD-rewrite drive seemed to be having problems. Often, it simply wouldn't eject discs unless I restarted the computer and ejected the disc before Windows had a chance to load. (Secret: CD and DVD drives have tiny holes. Poke a bent paper clip in to force the drives to open.) Again, it sounds like a hardware problem, right? My long-suffering retailer gave me a replacement drive without complaint. (It also replaced my notebook memory when I thought it was problematic.) The new drive showed the same symptoms, a clue that the problem wasn't hardware-based at all. Most Windows systems have a handy but hidden utility: MSCONFIG.EXE. It shows programs loaded on startup. When I checked it, I found that someone (I wonder who?) had turned off the DirectCD utility that runs in the background on many CD-RW drives. I restored the checkmark next to that item and restarted. With DirectCD loaded, the drive ejects discs on command every time.

The moral: Hardware can fail. But when your computer system starts acting odd, all too often, your hardware is fine. All too often, reinstalling your operating system, software drivers, or add-in programs will make the hardware get back to work.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan