Help is On Its Way

A few tips for finding PC answers with as little hassle as possible.

By  |  Wednesday, January 21, 2009 at 7:59 pm

Steve Bass's TechBiteI get messages yelling–no, pleading–for help: “My PC has [fill in the blank] and I can’t [fill in another blank].” I read all of them and pluck those with universal appeal for use in the newsletter and upcoming blog. Unfortunately, I can’t personally answer every message. (Hey, it’s not that I don’t love you; it’s that I don’t have the time and wherewithal, a word I don’t often get to use, to research the dozen Help! e-mails I get each day.)

The truth is that fairly often the unique, PC-specific problems that ail you are things I can’t replicate on my PC. And believe it or not, I don’t know everything. Just ask my wife.

So this week, I’ll tell you how I find solutions for common computing woes. With my help, and your perseverance, maybe you’ll learn how to find solutions on your own and, of course, stop haranguing me for answers. (I know, it’s the old learn how-to-fish cop-out.)

Quick aside: I was going to embed an animated GIF in this spot. The guy slugs his PC and I thought it was kinda cute. When I tried it,  The animation drove me nuts. So instead, here’s a link to the guy.

Get Answers

First try digging around on your own and seeing if you can find an answer. Or at least a glimmer of an idea that can get you on the right track. Use Google and type in a few words in quotes — experiment without the quotes — that are specific to the problem.

Below are some typical keyword searches I’ve used when digging into recent reader inquiries. Note the variation in the search “jpg not viewable in IE” and “jpg viewing IE” problem. (I’ll have more on Google searching techniques in a sec.)

“SP3 NET Framework”
“sp3 problems”
“is SP3 safe”
“retrieve files memory card”
“undelete files memory card”
“screen color camera color match”
“delete Outlook addresses”
“MSVCRT.DLL error”
“MSVCRT IE error”
“msimn Kernal32DDL”
“kernal msimn”
“Error saving web page”
“export AOL favorites”
“IE maximized”
“IE not maximized”
“loading file accessibility wizard”
“jpg not viewable in IE”
“jpg viewing IE” problem
“Word macro problem”
“Unable to run CHKDSK it cannot lock or open “volume for direct access”
“Eudora embedded crash”
“newer versions of stored pages”
“continue running script”

If you’re lucky, you’ll hit the jackpot and immediately see dozens of hits with links to solutions. My strategy is to then decide which search results seem to be the best. I do that by looking for links that go to mainstream sites — say, PC World or cNET, or maybe a Microsoft Knowledgebase article.

After looking at a half dozen or so links, I look for a similarity in the answers. That gives me a feel for the advice quality and spot sites that have enough credibility to let me trust the answers.

The process I just described sounds easy, and if you’ve got some computing experience under your belt already, it is easy. But I realize you may have some trouble deciphering good from not-so-good advice. What’s valuable, though, is being able to narrow down the problem by ruling out solutions that don’t apply. Then you can take the info you’ve gleaned and use it to create an intelligent question in a help forum.

Unfortunately, your Google experience may be complicated by vast numbers of close, but not-quite-on-target links. If so, you’ll need to fiddle with the search syntax — remove the quotes or leave out (or add) descriptive words. To learn more about Google searching, read Maximum Google. FYI: The article is on the old side (but as I always say, so am I) and some links may be kaput.

User-to-User Online Help

We’re not done yet. If Google doesn’t find a link with an answer, try visiting a help forum and ask if anyone’s experienced the problem. On most of these sites, you’ll need to register to post a question, but that shouldn’t dissuade you — registration is free.

When you do post, don’t waste time with introductory comments such as “I’m a novice,” or “I hope you can help.” Just state the problem as succinctly as you can including other PC behaviors you’ve noticed, the operating system you’re using, security apps you use, and if it’s a hardware issue, the related specs.

Below are some of the help sites I use. Chances are good that you’ll have two or maybe three million sites you think are better; chances are even better that you’ll be agitated enough to e-mail me with your opinions. I’ll post a follow-up with some of them.

  • PC Pitstop is known for a suite of free, online diagnostic tools. Insiders know that its forums are valuable, too, with bright users supplying answers to vexing questions.
  • One of my Tech Editors, Carey Holzman, really likes Protonic for fast, free, personal, private, professional, and accurate help. The value of the site is that unlike a forum, only specific experts can answer your question, so it may take a little longer to get a reply. However, you’re dealing with just one person the entire time who is dedicated to helping you solve your problem. Protonic is completely free.
  •‘s Support Forums offer help to expert users and novices for 15 different operating systems, including all versions of Windows, as well as help for networking, security, and PDAs.
  • TweakXP‘s Forum has forums for XP, Vista (and Windows 7), and separate sections for tweaking operating systems. There are also categories for usability, user interface, system performance, Internet, networking, and tons more.
  • Tech Support Guy has more than 15 very active forums, including ones for hardware, Microsoft Office, and all versions of Windows.
  • Tech Support is good if you’re on the novice side of things. There’s plenty of forum hand-holding on a wide variety of topics.
  • You’ll find lots of forums, but you’ll also have the chance to get live, online chat help on Computer Hope.
  • For you technogeeks who salivate for stuff about deciphering hash codes in error messages and other binary challenges, there’s The Elder Geek on Windows XP, which also features a masterful array of Registry tweaks.
  • Microsoft spits out Knowledgebase articles that talk about problems you might encounter using its assorted products. Keeping up with them is difficult, so subscribe to KBAlertz, a free service that sends summaries of KB articles. Filter your subscriptions based on which of the over 100 Microsoft products you’re using.
  • Your problem could be caused by a bug that occurs after you’ve upgraded an application. For instance, months ago, one of Microsoft’s updates duked it out with ZoneAlarm, a firewall, and some users couldn’t get online. More recently, and still unresolved, Adobe’s Flash Player 10 wouldn’t install if your installation drive wasn’t designated as the C: drive; for some people, the player refused to work with IE 7. For that kind of insight, subscribe to BugBlog‘s RSS feeds, which could save you some grief by telling you about software glitches and supplying work-arounds.

[This post is excerpted from Steve’s TechBite newsletter. If you liked it, head here to sign up–it’s delivered on Wednesdays to your inbox, and it’s free.]


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3 Comments For This Post

  1. StantheMan Says:

    Great to see you Steve.. Glad I know now where to read your awesome and amusing insights..

  2. dt Says:

    did anyone ever tell you you look just like that actor, bob balaban, only older?


  3. Tele lista Says:

    Great to see you Steve. Thank you for sharing that.

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