Computer Troubleshooting for Non-Techies

For Windows and Macintosh

© 2023 by Lawrence I. Charters, Vice President, Strait Macintosh User Group

On June 10, 2023, SMUG held a public presentation on how to troubleshoot problems, for Windows and Macintosh computers. While Windows PCs and Macs are quite different, the troubleshooting process for both are quite similar, and differ in particulars rather than generalities. These are notes from the presentation.

Personal Computers are Personal

  • Personal computers are designed to work.
  • They are designed to be maintained.
  • They are designed to do multiple things.
    • They are more complicated than refrigerators.
      • A refrigerator keeps things cold.
      • A computer can be a game, a typewriter, a filing cabinet, a TV, an encyclopedia, a photo album…
  • With great complexity comes responsibility.

Power – #1 killer of computers

  • Power loss ➡︎ corrupted data, corrupted hard drives
  • Improper shutdown ➡︎ another form of power loss
  • Brownouts ➡︎ almost as severe as a power outage
  • Surge protectors can protect against momentary dips and overages
  • UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supplies) can provide power for a controlled shutdown
  • Always shut down via the operating system, not the power switch.

Someone asked the question: “But what if the computer won’t shut down?” This is a red flag: something is wrong. What, exactly, can be a number of things, but generally speaking, if your computer will not shut down, something is seriously wrong.

With the exception of the screen and the printer, your computer gets information and instructions from a variety of sources. If something isn’t working right, it could be that one of the sources (part) is defective, or the data is corrupted, or possibly the user (you) have made an error.

Internet is not a luxury

  • No Internet – greatly slows booting of computer
  • No Internet – virtually impossible to install operating system patches
  • No Internet – some programs will not work properly, or will be crippled
  • No Internet – subscription programs will not be able to check in, and not work
  • Some of the information “on” your computer is probably really in the cloud (i.e., on the Internet)

When you boot a computer, it spends a great deal of time checking its parts, gathering information from the internet, gathering information from the drive, etc. It takes only a few seconds, but a lot is going on. This brief video shows a log of the various things an Apple Macintosh does in the few seconds from the time it is booted until it asks the user to log in. The video is 37 seconds long, but the process itself is much shorter.

What happens when you boot a Macintosh?

While the particulars differ, a similar blizzard of activity takes place when you boot a Windows computer.

A fairly common cause of computer problems: things are not plugged in properly, or the wrong cable is used. The cables on the left, above, are Ethernet cables, uses for connecting computers to routers. The cables on the right are telephone cables, which should only be used with a landline telephone (if you have one). Your computer has no use for a telephone cable.

Long ago, it was thought that USB (Universal Serial Bus) would end the “cable confusion” common with early personal computers. But USB has morphed from a single type of connector, the Type A (shown in the upper left) to a bewildering variety of incompatible plugs. Aside from the Type A plug, the most used plugs are the Type C (used on more recent devices) and the Lighting cable, used by the iPhone. Using the wrong cable will frustrate you no end.

If a computer is not working…

  • 1. Unplug all peripherals (printers, scanners, external drives, card readers, etc.)
  • 2. Restart the computer
  • 3. Update the operating system 
  • 4. Update applications
  • 5. Check to see the drive has free space
    • Rule of thumb: if your computer has 16 GB of RAM, you should have a minimum of five times that much space free on your drive (in this case, 80 GB of space or more)
  • 6. Check to see if subscription software is current (i.e. if you’ve paid your bill)

What does “up to date” mean? – Windows Part 1

  • Windows 11 – current
  • Windows 10 – supported until October 2025
  • Windows 8 – support ended January 2023
  • Windows 7 – support ended 2020
  • Windows Vista – support ended 2017
  • Windows XP – support ended 2014

What does “up to date” mean? – Windows Part 2

Important: if you buy a new Windows machine, make sure it has TPM: Trusted Platform Module

TPM is a computer chip that helps “sanitize” Windows contacts with the outside world. What does TPM provide?

  • Generate, store, and limit cryptographic keys
  • Device authentication by using information burned into the chip
  • Ensure platform integrity by monitoring boot process

Windows 11 is most secure on a computer with TPM. Not all Windows machines support TPM.

What does “up to date” mean? – Macintosh Part 1

  • macOS Sonoma 14 – coming in Fall 2023
  • macOS Ventura 13 – current
  • macOS Monterey 12 – supported
  • macOS Big Sur 11 – limited support
  • macOS Catalina 10.15 – unsupported
  • macOS Mojave, macOS High Sierra, macOS Sierra, etc. – unsupported

What does “up to date” mean? – Macintosh Part 2

macOS Sonoma 14 requires a T2 security chip or an Apple Silicon processor

  • iMac 2019 and later
  • Mac Pro 2019 and later
  • iMac Pro 2017
  • Mac Studio 2022 and later
  • MacBook Air 2018 and later
  • Mac mini 2018 and later
  • MacBook Pro 2018 and later

What does “up to date” mean? – Macintosh and Windows

  • Computers should be set to automatically install new security patches,  operating updates, and application updates
  • Windows 10 and 11 computers should have Microsoft Defender enabled and automatically updating.
  • “But my cousin’s roommate works for Microsoft in their employee cafeteria and he says wait…”
  • Ignore your cousin’s roommate.

Demo – what kind of computer do I have?

What version of Windows do I have?

What version of macOS do I have?

Demo – turning on automatic updates

Turn on automatic application updates on Windows

Turn on automatic updates to Windows

Turn on automatic updates to macOS

Turn on automatic application updates on macOS

Demo – How do I see what is using time, memory, and bandwidth?

Launching Task Manager on Windows 11

On a Macintosh, you can see what processes are running with Activity Monitor. It is in Applications > Utilities

View CPU activity in Activity Monitor on Mac

Activity Monitor User Guide

Demo – safe boot

Sometimes you just want to know if your computer is alive or dead. One good technique is to do a Safe Boot. A Safe Boot tells the operating system to simply boot up — don’t load anything else, no applications, no utilities, no extras. If your computer can perform a safe boot, your problems are probably due to a lack of memory, or lack of disk space, or a defective peripheral, or Internet issues.

Safe boot (Safe Mode) – Windows 11

Safe Boot – Macintosh

Additional startup sequences are available on Macintosh

These startup sequences can provide a wide variety of diagnostic services.