Two times two is five

In fixing a computer, you must narrow the problem down to being one of two types: hardware and software.

A software problem is a genuine bug in a program, where clicking something ordinary produces an unexpected and often inexplicable result, like incorrect output or a funny error message and a crash. These problems are often fixed by updating the software to a newer version, or replacing it with something equivalent.

A hardware problem is a faulty video card, or a failing hard drive, which often mainfest themselves in software-problem-like ways (programs glitch or crash) as far as the user is concerned, but are part of an overall pattern that can point to hardware. A dying hard drive can cause a computer to run slowly, programs to crash on startup, Windows not to start up at all.

It’s important to differentiate between the two, and recognise that one may look like the other. One can also cause the other; bad memory can corrupt data to the point where Windows doesn’t start, and you’ll still have to reinstall after replacing the faulty RAM.

There are also, I’ve come to realise, two types of computer users.

The first type will say they know just enough about computers to get themselves into trouble. They are often wrong about this, and their computers will be clean as a whistle, with very few desktop icons, they’ll know how to email spreadsheets to people, they’ll ask intelligent questions (and be honest about the dumb ones) and they’ll eagerly listen to every word you say with deep fascination and concentration. These are my favourite customers.

The second type are more than happy to admit they tinker with their PCs, often without knowing what’s happening or how it can affect things. Then, when they show you the computer you built them and it’s got scratches and cat hair all over it, they’ll arrogantly accuse you of selling them a useless antivirus program and that they clearly have a massive infestation of some sort. Then you’ll discover they’ve moved the folders for those apps out of C:\Program Files\ and into C:\Documents and Settings\Greg\Desktop\Spies and Nasties\, and argue til they’re blue in the face it’s not their fault Spybot doesn’t load anymore.

This second category of user brings me to my point: There’s a terrifying, third kind of computer problem you can encounter. Console modders will be familiar with the concept of a semi-bricked device – not quite a dead write-off, not quite alive enough to be usable, hovering between this world and that in a curious limbo state.

They don’t sleep, they don’t communicate, they walk aimlessly forever unless you cut their heads off, and they can’t be brought back. I’m talking about zombies. There’s nothing you can do except to step back, nuke from orbit, and start all over again.

One lady dropped her computer about a foot onto a concrete floor. No cracks in the case, no cracks in the motherboard, no bad sectors on the hard drive, nothing verifiably wrong with it, but it… ran… slowly. Installing XP would take three hours. It’d take minutes to get to the desktop. Everything would work, but at a snail’s pace. We sold her a new computer.

One old guy did something to Device Manager or the drivers, and his computer wouldn’t recognise PS/2 mice. USB mice were fine, PS/2 keyboards were fine, but that PS/2 mouse was an unknown device and nothing could ever be made of it. There was no fix – this was not a problem that sensible, normal people have with their computers, so nobody had ever written a fix for it. We reinstalled Windows and told him not to do it again.

Another guy ordered a computer with four gigs of RAM last week – specifically, two twinpacks of 1GB DDR2 made by G-skill. Because the days of random memory incompatibilities are long over, we agreed, and he brought it back a week later because it bluescreened five times a day and it was essentially unusable. We narrowed it down to the RAM, and G-skill told us we should’ve bought a 2x2GB kit instead of using four 1GB sticks to ensure compatibility. We put the Gskill RAM into other computers separately (they work fine when there’s not four of them together) and sold the guy RAM of a less-picky brand.

When a printer’s quick setup guide tells you not to plug the printer into the computer until you’ve installed the software and it instructs you to do so, do what it bloody well says, because if you plug the printer in first and Windows starts in with the “oh crap, where’s the software for this thing?” dance, you’ll need someone with a steady hand, deep knowledge of Windows, and a twinkle of danger in their eye to make things right afterward. I don’t know how anybody can be proud to sell a consumer-targeted inkjet made by HP, because troubleshooting those things is like trying to debate philosophy while being repeatedly hit in the face with an angry wombat.

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