A Word on Windows

It never looked like this on my screen...

It never looked like this on my screen...

Recently, my brother wrote me with some information I had requested, then he added this note to the end of his message:

Also, I wanted to ask you something. I might be getting a work at home tech support job soon. I just have to take a couple more tests, which would be pretty cool so I could just work at home and do animations in my free time (and get paid a lot more or work where ever I want and move around a lot). It would be great, but I wanted to see if you knew of any good web sites I could use for quick reference on how to solve various PC and windows issues. It’ll be Windows based so I’ve partitioned off about 30 gigs of hard space on my Mac and installed Windows Xp so I can meet their requirements for my home setup. They say they don’t expect their techs to know everything, just how to find out and troubleshoot (which I think I’m fairly good at) but if you had any good tips or reference sites it would really help me. I’m probably going to try to take the test by the end of the week. Wish me luck.

Thanks for your help and hope you’re doing well. I’ll talk to you soon.

I’ve been a Windows user for a long time. My family started on Macintosh with an old Power Mac (version 7+ or something, I can’t remember), but at school we went from Apple IIe to Windows 3.1 to Windows 95, and my first computer ran Windows 95 (since that’s what the rest of the world seemed to be running, it seemed like a good idea at the time). My brother went with Macintosh (smart kid) most of the time, but as his note indicates, he will be using Windows if he gets this new job. So, I wanted to share my response with you.

I’ll be happy to share my experiences with Windows with you. You’re in for a bumpy ride. Please pardon my wordiness, I’m rather passionate about this subject.

Things you should know about Windows:

1. Windows DOES randomly change settings, corrupt things and lose things for no apparent reason, all by itself. It’s not ALWAYS going to be the user’s fault.

2. Many of the bugs people will experience are completely unique to them because their problems are a result of a condition that is created by thousands of individual factors that are unlikely to have conflicted on any other machine (software installed, drivers installed, versions of drivers/software installed, hardware configuration being used, the list is endless). A simple illustrative example was the Windows XP Service Pack 1 (or 2, I can’t remember). People who had already installed software at the time of installing the service pack experienced major problems, but people who installed their service pack on a wiped (or empty) machine had no troubles at all. The simple order of installation was the crucial factor that caused systems to either crash or perform better (there was no in-between).

3. Most of the bugs in point 2 have no practical “solution,” (other than erasing the hard drive and reinstalling the operating system, which is a pain in the butt) but the user may be able to find a way to simply work around the problem and “live with it.” Ex. For several months before my Windows XP laptop had a fatal crash (the hard drive was corrupted beyond repair) the sound card would randomly fail to initialize properly. I would have to restart the computer two or three times until the sound card would magically work. I have no idea how the error was occurring, and dozens of hours on tech support would have likely made the problem worse.

4. Tinkering with settings in an attempt to solve a problem will almost always make the problem get worse, even if the same changes didn’t make things worse on another computer. This is not to say that things don’t sometimes get worse before they get better, but if you become so bold as to ask a person to change any settings, be prepared for a major meltdown and some crazy combinations of swear words.

5. Most Windows users are complete retards that barely know how to turn their machine on.

Point number 5 above leads me to write the following list-

Top 3 problems you will deal with the most:

1. After having worked as a freelance tech support guru for over a decade now, (including my time at Radio Shack) I promise that people really do leave things unplugged, uninstalled, or unfinished and somehow expect them to work. I once solved a “faulty” cable box problem by plugging it into the wall. I once fixed a “broken” cordless telephone by putting the battery in (no, not replacing a dead one, PUTTING one in). On several occasions I have helped people get their hardware working simply by installing the drivers they didn’t install (people CLAIM they read and follow instructions, but they often miss important steps and think they did everything they were supposed to). Even after fixing these “major problems” for people, many of them refused to admit they did anything wrong. They still muttered on about how the instructions should have been more clear or the device was poorly designed (I can only assume these are the same people that would sue MacDonald’s for serving hot coffee that didn’t say it was hot).

2. If it’s not a problem having to do with point 1, sometimes it’s something someone did wrong later down the road. People go into folders and delete random things that don’t LOOK important, but then when things stop working right they blame the computer. In Windows, ALL installed software MUST be removed by going into the control panel and using the ADD/REMOVE SOFTWARE tool (if not, the elusive “registry monster” will become angry, and nobody wants THAT). Every physical doohickey the computer interacts with (whether it be internal hardware or an external device) MUST have an up-to-date driver or it won’t function properly (drivers and the registry are the two biggest sources of headaches and problems in Windows).

3. All problems that do not fall under 1 or 2 can be traced back to conflicts or errors among drivers or registry entries. This is a fact of life. Most of the time, if it is a driver problem and simply updating the driver doesn’t fix the problem, a true (expensive) professional will be needed. For the registry, there are several free or almost free registry cleaners that can often fix problems of immense proportion, but if they can’t get the job done, a professional will be needed.

Conflicts and problems in the registry and drivers are difficult because 1) it can be impossible to find where the problem is and 2) it is equally difficult to restore things to a working order.

I have been researching problems before and found that installing Game X after already having installed Software Y can cause a software conflict that eventually leads to the hard drive malfunctioning. Sometimes, people will have a system that is configured and set up just right, and it works for years, then they install some new “updated” version of something that actually downgrades a driver, and the whole system gets thrown out of whack.

So, here are some things I generally ask myself about each new problem before I begin researching a solution:

1. WHEN did the problem begin?

2. WHAT changes were made to the system about that time? (New software/hardware added, a new device plugged in, an update installed, something was downloaded off the Internet, something changed [a setting, a configuration, the wallpaper, anything at all], etc. – even if it wasn’t anything NEW, if something was CHANGED, you need to know about it.) Because Windows is made by the devil, there may be no logical explanation for the new behavior. If the user doesn’t recall any changes being made to the system, move on.

3. You need a detailed description of EXACTLY what happens, the complete behavior of the system under the new, faulty conditions. Is the system running slower (the processor is over worked, possibly running a virus or malware in the background); are there any pop ups (you need the exact text, error title and any numbers associated with the errors), compared with how things used to work before, how are they working now (boot times changed, shutdown times changed, program launching changed for each or every program); if the error messages contain “Abort,” “Retry,” “Fail,” buttons, what happens when each one is pressed? If the computer shows the blue screen of death, there are usually detailed error messages on those screens (you’ll want the text of those messages as close to verbatim as possible) and some kind of error number or code.

Sometimes, in the process of collecting data about the problem, the solution will become clear (i.e. – something needs to be plugged in, something needs to be updated/installed). Most of the time, though, data collection just isn’t enough. There are some basic things you can do to check to see if the system is healthy (the Device Manager, found by right-clicking the My Computer icon and going to the Hardware tab, is VERY helpful for hardware problems), but if the routine tricks don’t work (you’ll just have to learn those by experience, I can’t enumerate them) you’ll have to look for the solution online.

Once I’ve compiled as many details about the problem as I can (and determined that a routine fix won’t work), I go to my number one resource for finding the solution to my problem: Google. I don’t use any specific resource, I don’t have any special website (other than Google) that I go to, I just search Google to find the solution.

I generally begin by typing out (or pasting in) the complete error message text into the search bar. Google limits its search strings to a certain number of characters, but the search string is long enough to pull up very unique results for long strings. (In case I lost you with the term string, it’s a computer term for anything that isn’t numerical or specially formatted data – a text message is a string, your name is a string, etc. You probably knew that, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose you.) If the text you searched for was too long but you didn’t get a good result, try removing common words that Google doesn’t search for anyhow (when you do the search, Google tells you that small words like “it” are removed – so do your search without those words). That way you can get a more meaningful representation of the message you are searching for.

Many times, just searching for an error’s text will take me to a site where someone has experienced the same problem and fixed it, or it takes me on a ride chasing after someone who has solved it (sometimes, you’ll find a blog post where someone experienced the problem, but the solution will be buried deep in the comments for that post).

The same technique works for error numbers, or even a short description of how the problem occurred (if the user remembers that everything worked fine before they installed WoW, try searching “error after installing world of warcraft”). Again, you’re looking for someone else who had the problem, someone who has solved the problem, or my favorite: forums run by those expensive experts.

Windows has a set of forums for just about any error you could be looking for. Most of the time, by typing in the error text or code/number one of the top results will take me to a Windows or Microsoft site. Finding the answer in those forums can be daunting since most of the time they use language and terms only the “experts” would understand. However, if you can find (and understand) the solution on an official forum like that, the solution will often work better than some of the other ones (some of them are only temporary fixes).

Also, remember that many of the more severe problems (especially software conflicts) may have been addressed by an official Microsoft Patch. By finding, downloading and installing the correct patch, things will magically return to a good state (though, in my experience something ELSE usually goes wrong as a result of installing the patch – but don’t worry, there’s usually a patch for THAT too).

Honestly, that’s all I do. If I have to spend more than an hour (or up to three hours if it’s my personal computer I’m trying to fix) trying to find a solution, and I still can’t find it, I give up. The thing is this: sometimes there just isn’t a solution. You could opt to call in an expert and pay a bunch of money, but if you’re followed all of the steps above and it was fruitless, the expert will likely end up telling you that you can fix it by paying anywhere from $500 to $2000 to repair this or replace that. It’s not worth it. The trend these days is for cheaper, better computers (HP makes a Windows notebook/netbook for under $500, and there are comparable desktops for the same price).

If the system is still under warranty, that means it’s not completely out of date and they should go ahead and repair it under warranty (unless their warranty is stupid and doesn’t cover mysterious, random meltdowns). If the warranty is expired, and it’s got a problem they can’t live with, they should back up as much data as they can and get a new computer.

Windows sucks. Everybody knows that. There are a lot of things that aren’t good for us but people do them anyway. Smoking is bad, but people do it. People know that MacDonald’s isn’t all that healthy, but we eat there anyhow. Microsoft hasn’t put out a reliable consumer operating system since Windows 3.1 (that I know of) and yet they continue to outsell Macintosh. Now, Macintosh computers are beginning to have troubles, and it’s beginning to look like there won’t be a safe operating system to turn to in the near future.

Basically, I’m saying that you are going to be doing the most futile work there is. Working tech support in the Windows environment is like doing janitorial work in an old building with completely rusted internal piping. You’ll know that the building should be condemned or gutted and rebuilt from the inside out, but all you can do is replace the cracked faucet washers and dust the shelves. No matter how much you clean things up and replace washers, there will always be leaks and water damage to the ceiling.

So, when I say that I wish you luck, I’m not just wishing you luck on the tests. I don’t mean to get you discouraged, I think the job could be very fulfilling (especially if you’re only the first step in a multi-tiered system and you can forward people up the chain after determining that you don’t know how to do something). I just hope you don’t let them expect too much out of you (or that YOU don’t expect too much out of yourself). This is going to be one of those jobs where sometimes you just have to leave it at that and say, “oh well, I did what I could but I couldn’t fix the problem because Microsoft screwed up.”

In Microsoft’s defense, their operating system is old and complicated, and most of its infrastructure was designed at a time when processor speeds were constant and nobody dreamed of what we’d be using computers for in the future. I don’t hate Microsoft, I just hate that Windows is so unreliable. When it works right, it’s wonderful. I really don’t mind it. It’s those inexplicable errors and bugs that pop up for no apparent reason that really get to me.

One final note: Not long ago I read about some 9-year-old girl from India that became the world’s youngest Microsoft Certified Professional. I thought to myself, “If a 9-year-old can do it, I can do it.” I did some looking into it and decided I didn’t want to be Microsoft Certified.

If Microsoft Certification is what you are going for (I’m not sure what kind of test you’re going to take) then the article I linked to above has a link to the official site for the certification. There you will find a whole section on preparing for an exam. Even if you’re not going to be certified, looking through some of their test preparation resources will definitely come in handy for whatever test(s) you may have ahead. Here’s the link to the Microsoft site:

http://www.microsoft.com/learning/mcpexams/register/default.mspx

I hope at least a little bit of what I have written for you helps. If you need clarification on anything, or any additional information, just let me know. I love you and will talk to you later.

I’m sure some Microsoft Fanboy out there (yes, you, the only one) is going to get all upset at some of what I said here, or perhaps I’ll offend a nice older person who is ignorant when it comes to computers and thinks I feel superior to them. Look, I don’t think I’m better than you just because I might know more about computer, and I don’t think I know everything. I readily (and happily) admit that there are many things I don’t know, can’t do and am not good at. I have, however, successfully managed to resolve many technical problems in my short life, and I get better at it every time I give it a go. I may not have stated the facts in the way that would have made you feel like you had rainbows in your eyes, but all I’ve done is stated facts mingled with some opinion-laced thoughts on the facts. If you’ve got a problem with my opinions or the way I stated them, that’s fine. Leave a comment. Just remember that it’s all in good humor from my seat, and nothing you say will hurt me. 

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