Tag Archives: Repair

Drive-ing Me Crazy!

Sometimes the strangest problems have simple solutions…

My computer recently slowed to a crawl for no apparent reason. A full malware scan revealed nothing, but I noticed something – The hard drive activity light was on constantly, even when I was not using the computer. Hmm. Time for a look under the hood.

One of the best improvements in modern versions of Windows is in the Task Manager. Windows has always had this tool, but it has gotten a lot better at showing resource usage and performance data.

How do we launch this very valuable tool? Well, as with many other Windows features, there are several ways. I usually launch it with the keyboard shortcut Ctrl-Shift-Esc (That means hold the Ctrl and Shift keys and press the Esc key). Two other ways are right-clicking on the Taskbar, which gets you the following menu:

Right-click on the taskbar gets you this. Your menu will look slightly different.

Right-click on the taskbar gets you this. Your menu will look slightly different.

Another way is to click the Start button and type “task manager,” which gets you this:

Screenshot 2016-06-03 12.02.10

Any way you do it, you’ll get the Task Manager window, which will open at the “Processes” tab. This is the tab for finding and killing unwanted or unresponsive programs, or finding out what’s hogging resources.

The tab we need right now, however, is the next one over, the “Performance” tab.


As you can see, this gives the usage level, in percent, of CPU, memory, and drives, and network performance in Mbps or Kbps. As you can also see, I actually have three hard drives in my system. Well, my “E” drive was showing 100% usage – Even though I wasn’t doing anything to access it (It should have looked more like the above picture).

So, I naturally thought I had a drive going bad. I quickly backed up everything not already backed up, and ran a battery of tests on the drive, which all came back saying the drive was disgustingly healthy. Hmmm. There were three things that could be wrong; The motherboard drive controller, the drive itself, or the drive cable. A new drive would’ve cost me around $100, and I’m not about to replace a motherboard if I can help it, because it’s not only a lot of money, but a lot of work. I did, however, have plenty of spare drive cables lying around, so I replaced the cable, and What Do You Know? Problem solved! First time I ever had a drive cable go bad, but it does happen!

Moral of the story? Always try the simplest, cheapest solution first before you start throwing money at a project.

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Does What It Says!

I’ve recently discovered a new PC repair tool that can be used by professionals and amateurs alike: Easy Recovery Essentials.

I recently had a problem with my own computer that prevented it from booting. Not usually a problem for me, except my main PC is set up to dual-boot. This means that I have both Windows 10 and Windows 7 installed on the one machine. It also means I’m not too familiar yet with Windows 10’s Boot Manager. The boot manager is what does the magic of giving you a choice of Operating Systems when the PC starts.

It seemed that somehow the boot manager had become corrupted, which meant that I couldn’t boot into either version of Windows. I could get the old Windows 7 boot manager, which then proceeded to tell me that I did not have Windows 10 installed. When I tried to boot into Windows 7, I got an endless loop. I was dead in the water.

After considerable online searching, it appeared that nobody else I could find had a solution, either, but my searching kept leading me back to this site:


Well, the first thing I saw was, “Guaranteed to work or your money back!” Wow, I thought, somebody that actually stands behind a product like this, in the 21st Century no less! This is a “magic” recovery boot disk that purports to have several automatic and manual ways to repair a PC, plus a web browser and file access for backup purposes.

I wasn’t holding out much hope, because I thought to myself, “This is designed to fix simple problems. It won’t work with my setup.” But, there was that money back guarantee… And I was out of ideas. And they only wanted $20 for it. And there was that money back guarantee. And my only other alternative was to reload Windows (both versions!) completely.

I whipped out my Visa card and downloaded the program, burned it to a CD (There are options for USB drives as well), stuck it in my computer, and ran the automated repair. Rebooted… And got a Blue Screen of Death. Yeah, I knew it wouldn’t work, I grumbled to myself. But then something told me to run the disk again. Rebooted after the second run, and whaddya know? The sucker is fixed! Finally, a product that just “does what it says on the tin,” as our friends in Britain like to say.

Their boot disks come in several types. The inexpensive option is geared to a specific version of Windows, so make sure you order the one that corresponds to your version. There are also “Pro” and “Technician” versions that cost more than $20, may be worthwhile for someone like me, but not necessary for the average home user.

I know I’m probably cutting my own throat by recommending this product, but like a good doctor, I’d rather my customers have options rather than having to pay through the nose every time something goes wrong. It’s the whole reason I write this blog; I want people to have some basic understanding of how things work in the technology sector. Knowledge is power.


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Hardware or Software??

Oh, No! Something’s just gone horribly wrong with your computer! Is all your data lost? Your precious pictures? Noooo! What could be wrong?

Don’t panic. A majority of the time, your data is still there, even if you can’t get to it. It would be nice to know, though, whether the problem is hardware (the hard drive and other physical parts of your computer) related or software (The programs, including Windows, that make your computer run) related.

Here’s a (relatively) easy way to find out.

Let’s back up a minute. When you turn on your computer, the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) on the main board (motherboard) goes looking for some source of boot software. Normally, it looks to the hard drive and finds some version of Windows, and boots from that. If Windows has gone south for some reason, the BIOS usually has no alternative. You can, however (in most cases) also provide an Operating System on a CD or USB stick, and have the computer boot from that. Enter the Boot Disk.

If there’s nothing wrong with your PC’s hardware, a boot disk will allow you to start it even if your Windows installation is completely hosed. This will not work if your PC is getting no power, the video has failed, or the motherboard or processor has gone bad. It will work even if your hard drive is shot, but in that case, you will probably have to go to a profe$$ional for the data recovery. Since roughly 95% of computer problems are software-related, it’s worth a try.

There are a number of options – free and paid – for boot disks. You can boot from a Windows installation disk, which might tell you whether your computer hardware is working properly, but won’t help you get your files back.

What you need is a CD (or USB drive) that has a self-contained operating system so you can back up files as well as see if your hardware is working. Sometimes these don’t work for a variety of reasons, but often they do, especially on older machines.

Two that I use frequently are Hiren’s boot cd and a popular version of Linux known as Ubuntu. Now, both of these are pretty huge downloads, so if you have a slow connection be prepared for a couple of hours of downloading. Your completed download will be an .iso file, and you cannot burn this directly to a CD. You’ll also need a program such as Imgburn to “unpack” and burn the file to a bootable CD.

If you don’t have a CD drive, you’ll need a tool such as Rufus to make a USB drive bootable.

You’ll also need to configure your BIOS to look for an operating system on the CD or USB drive. It’s not a bad idea to do this ahead of time. Just set the BIOS to always look for boot media on a CD or USB first, and the hard drive second. If it finds nothing to boot from in the other drives, it’ll go straight to the normal Windows installation. Note that this will slow down the boot – by a few seconds – as the BIOS looks in those other places.

Whew! Now you have an alternate way to start your computer, just like the pros do! While both of the OS downloads I mentioned earlier do not work exactly like the Windows you’re used to, either will allow you to copy, read, and delete files, as well as possibly diagnosing whatever problem you might be having.

For even more empowering technology info, read my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now!

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It Died on the Operating Table

A relative of mine recently was having strange things happening with her computer. It ran very slowly, and various errors occurred. This is usually a symptom of either malware or just poor maintenance, but there can be other reasons, too.

Turned out in this case, despite the fact that 95% of all computer failures are software-related, this was a member of the 5% – an imminent hard-drive failure. After a couple more startups, the machine refused to boot.

Did she have a backup, I asked. Umm, ‘fraid not. That’s it, You’re Fired! Well, you can’t really fire your relatives (Especially when they’re paying you!), so I told her I’d get her important data off the old drive.

When a computer will not boot, all is not lost as far as accessing the hard drive’s data. The machine can be started with a Boot Disk, a CD or flash drive containing an independent operating system. If even this doesn’t work, the hard drive can be removed from the computer and hooked up to another, working computer. I did that, and copied her documents to a folder on another drive. When the copying procedure was at about 80%, the drive died completely, so she got most of her data back, but not all.

Let this be a lesson. Your computer’s hard drive is where everything, including those “Baby’s first steps” photos, and everything else important to you is stored. If you haven’t backed up (copied, not moved!) that important stuff to another location, you will be heartbroken if your hard drive fails without warning. Sometimes, data can be retrieved from a failed drive, but that requires a specialist and can run into thousands of dollars. Protect your data!

Lesson number two is that hard drives can be monitored for general health. All modern hard drives have something built into them called S.M.A.R.T. (Self-Monitoring And Reporting technology), which monitors around two dozen parameters of the drive’s health and can sometimes predict a failure before it occurs. (This does not absolve you from doing backups!)

If you like to keep your system clean and not install any more software than absolutely necessary, there is a way to use a built-in tool in Windows to check SMART attributes:

First, open a Command Prompt window.  (Press the Windows key, type Command Prompt, and press Enter.)

In the black Command Prompt window, type the following commands, pressing Enter after each line:


diskdrive get status

If all is well, you should see “OK” displayed for each drive on your computer. Admittedly, this is a little geeky. For a more informative and user-friendly way to monitor your hard drive, I can recommend two free programs.

My favorite is Crystal Disk Info, an easy to understand program that gives you status on your drive(s) and can run in the background for continuous monitoring. The only con about this program is the “installed” version comes bundled with adware, so I recommend only downloading the “non-install” version from the above link. This is a zip file that can be extracted to a folder on your hard drive and then run.

A very close second, and one that is free of any adware, is Acronis drive Monitor. This one is also very easy to use and will show drive health in percentages. It also can monitor drive health in the background. They do ask for a name and email address before downloading; they will undoubtedly send a few emails advertising their backup products (which are quite good- although they don’t have any free backup programs).

More info on backup strategies here:


For even more empowering technology info, read my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now!

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The Most Common Laptop Repair

Here's what happens when you forget that the laptop's plugged in.

Here’s what happens when you forget that the laptop’s plugged in.

You’re running late, and you need your laptop. You grab it off of your desk and go running out the door. Four feet from the desk, however, the laptop comes to a screeching halt while you keep going. The laptop crashes to the hard tile floor while you wonder what just happened. You’ve come to the end of the power cord that was still plugged into the laptop, and now, at the very least, you’ve probably done serious damage to the power jack on the machine.

Nothing on a modern laptop computer is particularly robust, and power jacks are no exception, unless you happen to be lucky enough (and wealthy enough!) to own one of Apple’s laptops. They invented and patented a magnetic power connector that releases cleanly if someone trips on or otherwise yanks the power cord. The bad news is they refuse to license the technology to any other manufacturers. Bad Apple! Where’s your sense of Civic Responsibility?? Well, they’ve got a right to do that, but the sad thing is, no other manufacturer has come up with a system as good that doesn’t violate Apple’s patent, so the rest of us are stuck with having to be much more vigilant.

Power jack repairs are the most common repair done on laptops, and usually cost $100-$150 in labor costs, because the machine has to be almost completely disassembled to replace the jack. All that for a $2 part and a moment of carelessness.

Your only defense against this horror is to be always cognizant of where the power cord is. Never run it across the floor where your dog, your kid, your husband, or your wife can trip on it and drag the computer onto the floor. Try to never be in such a hurry that you forget to unplug everything from the laptop before picking it up. And let’s hope someone invents a better system.

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If You Can’t Fix It, You Don’t Own It!

I read an article recently about farmers raising the demand for older tractors. The reason? A new tractor can easily cost $100,000, and that’s for a mid-range model. That’s not the real issue, though. The real issue is when some $2 electronic doohickey fails right in the middle of harvest season; You can’t exactly tow your combine down to the dealer, so the factory has to send a specialist out to diagnose and repair it… And that $100,000 investment sits idle for several days, right when it’s needed most.

Farmers are, as a rule, very self-sufficient people that often repair their own stuff. But when your tractor, or your truck, is a rolling computer and you’re at the mercy of the factory and the dealer, that’s no longer possible.

The price of older tractors is going up because smaller farmers want something they can repair in the field, themselves, instead of waiting for the factory rep to show up in his own good time. No longer happy with just selling you the product, they want full control over it for life, Including telling you when it’s no longer fixable, because they’ve stopped supporting it.

Manufacturers like John Deere can get away with this because of something called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA for short.  As is true of many things, the DMCA seemed like a good idea when it was passed in 1998. It’s intent was to bring copyright law into the 21st Century by addressing things such as Operating Systems and digital files.

This law has since been excoriated as one of the worst attacks on Freedom, ever. It turns out that bypassing a manufacturer’s security on, say, a tractor’s on-board engine management software in order to repair it is considered by this law to be a breach of copyright, and thus a crime. If a farmer changes the engine timing on his own tractor, that makes him a criminal.

Because it turns out that Farmer Jones doesn’t own his own tractor. Oh, sure, he owns the chassis, engine, and tires, and he’s the one who has to make payments on it, insure it, and buy fuel and oil for it, but John Deere owns the software code that makes it run, without which it’s just a very expensive lawn ornament.

This needs to change. If I pay money for something, I expect to own all of it, and be allowed to modify it to my heart’s content. What if book publishers made it a crime to underline passages in their books and fold over the pages?

This is why there is an Open-Source movement. Open-Source means that anybody with the knowledge to do so may modify the code. The author of the code can still sell the software, so he still makes money, and he still owns the copyright (Like the book publisher), but if someone else needs/wants to modify it, it can be done, legally. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is at the vanguard of this movement.

More information:




For even more empowering technology info, read my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now!

Click here to read all about it.

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Failure is not an Option… It’s a Standard Feature!

When making big-ticket buying decisions, one factor that should be considered is repairability. When buying a car, you might look at cost of service and repair after the warranty expires. You might read reviews on reliability.

Do we ever consider repairs when buying tech products? We probably should. Too many folks just throw things like phones away when they break, adding to consumer waste and cluttering up landfills with valuable stuff.

A serious problem sometimes arises when we decide to take our phone, laptop or other how-to-repair-broken-laptop-screenselectronic product to an independent shop for repairs, however. Some manufacturers, notably Toshiba and Apple, treat their service and repair documentation like it’s a matter of National $ecurity, and refuse to release it to anyone but an “Authorized Repair Facility.” You probably know what that mean$.  Unless it’s under warranty, it’ll cost way too much to fix.

The automotive world is under the constraints of a Federal law that forces them to make service manuals available to independent shops and do-it-yourselfers. It’s a great pity they didn’t choose to do the right thing without needing to be forced; I would happily give my business to a car company that made factory service manuals available.

Well, there is no similar law forcing tech companies to make their service manuals available, and I’m not suggesting we need more laws. What I think we do need is customers that are willing to vote with their feet and refuse to buy things that may be non-repairable simply because of a lack of data.

One hopeful sign is the emergence of websites like Ifixit.com. The only club the manufacturers have for beating you over the head is the copyright on their manuals. If someone on the outside has the audacity to take a product apart and write their own manual, there is nothing the manufacturer can do about it. That’s what Ifixit does, and that’s how small shops like mine can stay in business. Support them if you can, and you’ll be helping me, too.

HP, Dell, and Lenovo (Formerly IBM) all make service manuals available free of charge on their websites. Until things change, I will recommend these brands over either Apple or Toshiba products.

Apple: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2014/03/28/ios_repairs/

Toshiba: http://www.wired.com/2012/11/cease-and-desist-manuals-planned-obsolescence/


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