Years ago, when I fixed computers at an electronics store, I rather enjoyed being viewed as some kind of magician. Other people didn’t know just how easy many computer repairs can be, which kept me very busy in the repair shop. And from what I’ve seen in my Internet travels since then, people are still wary of trying to fix computer problems themselves. This is why I picked up Troubleshooting & Maintaining Your PC All-In-One for Dummies with great interest. Could this book be the one that let the simple-computer-repair "cat" out of the bag?
Fixing things "six ways from Sunday"
This book promises to be "six books in one." The "six books" (actually, six sections of one rather large book) are Hardware, Software, Laptops, Internet, Networking, and Maintenance. Each begins with an overview of the most common problems, and then describes each problem in detail and gives instructions for finding out what’s actually wrong. The book then walks the reader through the solution, and in most cases makes the process sound easy enough that most people won’t be afraid to give it a try. As with all Dummies books, the tone is lighthearted. Author Dan Gookin has written a lot of the books in the series, and he’s got the balance of humor to serious information down pat. And, since there is a lot of serious information to be covered in this book, that really helps to ease the reader into the process. Overcoming the fear of messing something up worse than it already is is the most important step in doing your own computer repairs, and having clear instructions in front of you goes a long way toward giving the new computer repair person confidence.
The most problems, the most solutions
As one might expect, the Hardware and Software chapters are the biggest in the book. Each chapter has subsections for common problems, and starts off with an overview of what’s supposed to happen and what could go wrong. The Hardware section starts out with a chapter called "Let There Be PC" that is divided into sections that give a quick overview of common problems. Each of these sections has chapters titled "What happens" and "What can go wrong." These introductory chapters point the reader to more detailed information later in the book. This is a very helpful resource and it makes finding the solutions very easy. Then Troubleshooting & Maintaining Your PC All-In-One for Dummies moves on quite logically to why your computer won’t turn on, and walks the reader through possible non-invasive fixes (like making sure the power cord is plugged in, which is something nearly everyone, no matter how experienced, has encountered at least once). Then it works its way gradually into operating system issues, shutdown issues, storage issues, video issues and the many problems one can have with peripherals. It’s not till page 145 that the book suggests that it might be time to open up the computer case, allowing the reader to build up some confidence for that along the way. Once the "Oh my gosh, I have to open up the case" issue is dealt with, fixing problems with loose cables, heat buildup and the power supply seems pretty simple. The book also explains how to add more memory, more cards, and more storage, all of which are simple tasks that can appear scary to the newcomer.
In my experience with computer repair, software problems seem to drive people crazy more often than hardware problems, and for good reason. Despite all of Microsoft’s best efforts, Windows doesn’t always behave the way most of us think it should, and Microsoft’s programmers seem to love error messages that are either too cryptic to understand or don’t tell you what’s really wrong. The Software section takes a careful, reasonable, step by step approach to each common problem, which is absolutely the best way to think things through. It walks the user through computer jargon like programs, processes, and services, explains Safe Mode and how to use it, and then does a good thorough job of showing the reader how to be an efficient troubleshooter. It deals with user accounts and User Account Control, system resources and data recovery, and then deals with the Registry. I found it rather odd that several pages of instructions on editing the Registry ended with a stern warning not to mess with it. That’s an excellent warning, but why tell people how to mess around with the Registry (even with instructions to back it up first) and then say Don’t Do It? Although the Software section does deal with other versions of Windows, its primary focus is on Windows 7, and quite frankly, I think this section alone is worth the price of the book.
Thinking smaller, thinking bigger
The section on Laptops is arranged in the same order as the previous sections, beginning with power and startup issues common to laptops. It talks about heat buildup and the problems that can cause, and mentions cooling devices that may be useful. There’s a section on the Windows Mobility Center, which is something I didn’t know existed till I read the book, but will be checking regularly from now on.
There’s advice on buying a laptop bag, and sensible precautions to take when you travel, and a short section on laptop maintenance, which in this case mostly means cleaning things off without causing damage. While it talks about buying more memory and larger hard drives, it doesn’t go into detail about how these things are installed. I think either there should have been a generic explanation of how these hardware updates are done, or there should have been a warning to leave these things to an experienced technician. Some manufacturers make memory and hard drive replacement a lot easier than others, and laptop users should be aware of this.
Web woes and beyond
The Internet section is fairly short, but packed with useful advice. I especially liked the section on broadband modems. A lot of Internet-connection problems can be solved with a bit of knowledge about modems, and this section could save plenty of time and frustration trying to get through to your ISP’s call center. Many people would consider this worth the cost of the book. There’s also a good long section describing common problems with dial-up connections, and this also is well worth reading. I also liked the descriptions of how to ping, something else that can put you one step ahead of the ISP call center. There are nice clear descriptions of a whole host of common browser issues, but unfortunately those are limited to Internet Explorer, without any indication of whether the same general techniques will work on other browsers as well. With the increasing popularity of Firefox and Chrome, I thought those two deserved at least a mention. At least the section on email is kept fairly generic, which I thought was a plus. There’s a good section explaining malware and how one’s most likely to get it, and good solid advice on what to do should you find yourself in trouble. Again, though, the instructions for avoiding phishing should have mentioned more than Internet Explorer. The section on Windows Defender is aimed primarily at Windows 7 users, although the author provides a URL for people using Windows Vista and Windows XP to locate their versions of the software free from Microsoft. There’s also a section devoted to using Windows Explorer for ftp access, but honestly, having tried that in the past, I wish the author had mentioned a few of the great free ftp clients out there, most of which are easier to use. The Networking section is aimed primarily at Windows 7 users as well, but there are clear instructions for Windows Vista and Windows XP users. Troubleshooting & Maintaining Your PC All-In-One for Dummies goes into great detail about all the problems one might have in connecting and maintaining a home network, and should be a major time-saver and all-around resource for keeping things running smoothly.
Maintenance and more
The Maintenance section goes into a wealth of detail about making backups and restoring from them, which should be required reading. I also liked the section that deals with cleaning up your hard drive and removing space hogs that don’t need to stay there. (I started out with a 32 meg, yes, meg, hard drive, so I’m still all in favor of removing mass quantities of junk.) I was somewhat surprised to find a section on disk defragmentation. Nowadays, experts are not so certain that drives need defragmenting, especially since the newest versions of Windows take care of that automatically, but the information could be very useful for people who are using older versions of Windows or older hard disks. I was amused to find a section on cleaning your computer in the Maintenance section, but that goes along with the how-to-clean instructions in the Laptop section, and could provide an incentive for dealing with scummy keyboards, fingerprint-marked screens and dust-filled cases.
Likes and dislikes
I think it’s obvious that I liked this book. In fact, writing the review took longer than usual because I kept stopping to put Post-It flags on the pages I wanted to come back to and apply to my own computers. The author’s light-hearted approach makes dealing with a wealth of very serious information as pleasant as can be. Everything is covered in detail and in a way that can give the reader confidence to carry on. There wasn’t much not to like, actually. I mentioned the problem with telling people how to mess with the Registry and then warning them not to do it, and the fact that non-Microsoft programs were completely shut out. While it certainly would not have been feasible to explore other software in the same detail as the Microsoft offerings, I do think some alternatives should have been mentioned, with URLs to find them.
Not that I want to put my fellow computer repair people out of business, you understand, but I really think everyone who uses a computer more than just casually, and who doesn’t have work related restrictions on what they can do, needs to get this book. Even if you decide not to fiddle around with your computer, knowing what is likely to be causing the problem can save a lot of time when it comes to asking a professional to fix it. And if you do decide to do the work yourself, well, pretty soon you’ll discover what a lot of computer repair people learned long ago—this stuff is easy. Really. All you need is the directions.