Baby Boomers remember a time when they could look under the hoods of their cars and name the parts. Now, looking under the hood becomes an exercise in locating the battery and windshield washer fluid reservoir among the hundreds of boxes, wires and tubes that are a mystery. Many also remember a time when the only components you had to know anything about were the ones you could see. With computers today, this is never the case. Now, you get errors referring to components that you did not know you had, let alone what they do. Never before have there been so many parts in your PC. And, when you get an error message about one of them, it becomes apparent how much we don’t know about what goes on inside.
Why do I care?
There are two occasions on which it is good to know what goes on “under the hood” on your PC, when something breaks and when you are considering upgrading to a new operating system. All of a sudden, you start getting a strange error message. Rather than throw up your hands and call your computer support provider, you decide to follow the troubleshooting directions. Chances are, unless you are a technician yourself, you end up more confused than when you started. One of the reasons may be that the troubleshooting documentation is talking about a device that you’ve never heard of and tells you to check the manufacturer’s website for more information. However, if the fix is reinstalling a device or downloading a software fix, it would be good to know before you spend hundred dollars for something that, if you had known, you could have done yourself. Even if the ultimate answer is that the PC itself will need to be opened up and a component replaced or repaired, you will be able to furnish the information to the person doing the repair. The more you know about the problem, the less likely you will be charged for unnecessary work.
If you have used computers for a few years, you understand the joy of getting a new and improved operating system, only to become too familiar with the problems that follow. When operating system developers and manufacturers Microsoft start a buzz about a new operating system, what we hear about is all the great new features and problems that will now be fixed. What we do not hear about are the changes in the operating system that may cause some PC components to start behaving badly. There are a standard set of requirements a device like a USB port must meet to be installed in a variety of manufacturers computers. It is assumed that if it meets this level of compatibility it should work. However, the slightest change in the operating system could cause a problem. And, the problems range from the device not functioning optimally to the device not being recognized at all. Furthermore, it might not affect all brands of the same type of component the same.
These issues most commonly arise with a new operating system, but can crop up, as well, if a patch or upgrade is applied to the current operating system version. At the heart of these problems are the drivers. Each internal component, such as a hard drive or sound card, and each external device such as a printer or scanner, require some sort of translator or driver between it and the computer’s operating system. Ideally, when you upgrade your operating system, the drivers for each of these components should be updated as well. However, this doesn’t happen as easily as we think it should. And, so we are sometimes left with a partially operating computer. Was there a way to know ahead of time what components we have and whether or not they will be compatible? Yes.
How do I do it?
Four methods of determining what is actually living inside your computer are:
1. Accessing the System Information Menu
2. Examining the Set Up menu at boot up time
3. Running systems diagnostic tools
4. Using information from the make/model/serial number label on vendor website screens to locate specific parts.
The steps to access the System Information menu on a PC are relatively the same on Windows XP and Windows Vista. They are:
1. Click on the Start button,
2. All Programs,
4. System Tools, and
5. System Information.
Let’s say the error was about an IDE controller. If you expand the Components category and then the Storage sub-category, you’ll find IDE. Selecting this will tell you what you want to know.
The second method for identifying components that aren’t easily identifiable is the system set up or BIOS menu. When you start up your system from the powered off state, a message will flash, usually across the bottom of the screen letting you know what to do to enter the system set up menu. Most of the time, it will be pressing a function key, like F2. In some cases, there is actually a button specially designed for this purpose, such as a blue button on some laptop models. This function will give you the information you need for identifying the motherboard and BIOS (basic input/output system), both of which can be useful to know during the troubleshooting process.
Another way to determine what components are in place for your system is to run PC diagnostic tools.
DrWatson is a common program that is installed on many computers when you buy them. However, there are others, freeware and otherwise. Before choosing a PC diagnostics tool, insure that it is virus free and appropriate for the operating system you are using. In many cases, these programs will provide better, more understandable, troubleshooting information than your operating system and better guide you in resolution.
Lastly, if you are familiar with the component type that is causing you problems, such as an error indicating that the computer’s fan is malfunctioning. Take the make, model and series information and look it up on a few popular computer parts websites. This should give you a part or list of parts that could be used on your particular computer as a replacement. It is a good idea to check more than one to see if they agree. If you see the same part manufacturer and model number show up in several places, chances are it is correct. You may find some inconsistencies as computer manufacturers may have chosen to use several brands of the same component.
Creating a Components Inventory: Your Crystal Ball
Here is a list of devices it would be good to catalog for your computer:
- CD/DVD (Optical)Drive
- Cooling system (Fans)
- CPU (Central Processing Unit)
- Graphics Card
- Hard Drive
- Parallel Port
- PC Card (PCMCIA)
- Power Supply
- Serial Port
- Sound System
- USB Ports
When you are thinking of upgrading to a new operating system, look for industry intelligence as to what types of devices might be failing or, at least, misbehaving. Then look up the specific components you have, to identify any pre-emptive steps you could take, such as locating new drivers or troubleshooting procedures that have already been disclosed. Getting out in front of a problem can mean less emergencies and headaches.