Curing random errors when installing Office 2013

I got lots of random errors installing Office 2013 when I went to do it, including error code 112-4 and error code 0-4, and some other install errors mostly ending in 4 that aren’t documented on Microsoft’s web site. Although previously undocumented, these errors are fixable. Read more

Using the OSI model to troubleshoot video

I was at church on Sunday and the video projection wasn’t working. After a few minutes of watching everyone struggle, I volunteered to take a look, and working together, we were able to get the video working again using a simple, repeatable methodology: Using the OSI model to troubleshoot video.

I’m going to share that methodology now.

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Don’t forget the .NET Framework when troubleshooting

I’ve been troubleshooting a program that’s written in a combination of Java and .NET (yes, now I’ve seen everything), and the program misbehaved. It misbehaved a lot, and the vendor was confused too. About four hours in, one of us had the idea to uninstall the .NET Framework 4.0 and install the newest .NET Framework 4.5.1. The 4.5.1 framework is designed to be backwards compatible with multiple predecessors.

It turned out to be the miracle cure that had eluded us.

I’m not really a sysadmin anymore, and I’m several years removed now from my days as an everyday sysadmin, but now I remember that .NET is very cranky. If you don’t have the version installed that a program wants, the program will malfunction in a bad way. And the version you need isn’t always the version the vendor says you need.

Far be it from me to say you should install every version of the .NET Framework all the time just in case you need them, but if a vendor prescribes a specific version, stepping forward or back a version or two probably isn’t a bad troubleshooting step. And while the very early versions were mutually exclusive, recent versions of the framework can coexist, so you can install multiple versions if you’re afraid of breaking stuff.

How I fixed an infuriating printer problem

Windows 7 and my HP Laserjet 4100 weren’t getting along. And I was pretty livid about it. I paid $125 for my Windows 7 upgrade, and for that money, I got to mess around for 4 days trying to get better-than-1997 functionality out of what’s supposed to be the latest and greatest. I was about ready to trade it even up for a copy of Windows ME and Microsoft Bob. Because at least then I’d be able to print.

I finally fixed the problem, but finding the solution wasn’t easy. So I’ll present the symptoms and the ultimate solution here.

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Fixing my b0rken WordPress installation

A little over a week ago, WordPress started acting weird. First, it just got dog slow. Then my site stats page started freezing until I scrolled down and then back up again. Then I started seeing a WordPress.com logon screen on my site stats page. I had to look that account up. Thank goodness for Gmail. Then my Akismet spam filter quit working. Then my stats page stopped working entirely.

I lived with it for a couple of days. I figured maybe WordPress and Akismet had changed something. Or maybe my Linux distribution had. And maybe some update messed things up, and some other update would come along and fix it. No such luck. Read more

Completely bizarre computer problems? Check your system date

PC Magazine’s editor in chief wrote a long column late last week talking about his weird computer problems and a Quixotic quest to fix them. Among other things, his antivirus wasn’t working, and Windows wanted to be activated and wouldn’t let him. He thought he had a virus, but all his scans came up clean.

It turned out his computer thought it was 2013. The date and time were right, but the computer was trying to live three years in the future. Read more

Operating System Not Found, Missing Operating System, and friends

So the PC that stored my resume got kicked (as in the foot of a passer-by hitting it) and died, and the backup that I thought I had… Well, it wasn’t where I thought it was.

Time for some amateur home data recovery. Here’s how I brought it back.This machine ran Windows 2000. The first trick to try on any machine running any flavor of Windows is to boot from a DOS boot disk containing FDISK.EXE and issue the command FDISK /MBR. This replaces the master boot record. A corrupt MBR is the most common malady that causes these dreaded error messages, and this is the easiest fix for it.

That didn’t work for me.

The second trick is to use MBRWork. Have it back up the first sector, then have it delete the boot record. Then it gives you an option to recover partitions. Run that, then run the option that installs the standard MBR code. I can’t tell you how many times this tool has made me look like I can walk on water.

No dice this time either.

Next I tried grabbing the Windows 2000 CD and doing a recovery install. This has brought systems back to life for me too. Not this time. As happens all too often, it couldn’t find the Windows 2000, so it couldn’t repair it.

The drive seemed to work, yet it couldn’t boot or anything. I could have and probably should have put it in another PC to make sure it was readable. But I didn’t have a suitable donor handy. Had there been such a system, I would have put the drive in, checked to see if it was readable, and probably would have run CHKDSK against it.

Lacking a suitable donor, instead I located an unused hard drive and put it in the system. I booted off the drive just to make sure it wasn’t a hardware problem. It wasn’t–an old copy of Windows 98 booted and dutifully spent 20 minutes installing device drivers for the new motherboard hardware. So I powered down, installed both drives, and broke out a copy of Ghost.

Ghost, as I have said before, doesn’t exactly copy data–what it does is better described as reinterpreting the data. This allows you to use Ghost to lay down an image on dissimilar hard drives. It also makes Ghost a fabulous data recovery tool. Ghost complained that the NTFS log needed to be flushed. Well, that requires booting into Windows (and I think that’s all that’s necessary), but I couldn’t do that. It offered to try the copy anyway, so I chose that. So it cranked for about 15 minutes. I exited Ghost, powered down, and disconnected the bad drive. I powered back up, and it booted. Fabulous.

Now I can use Ghost to copy the now-good drive back over to the drive that was bad in the first place. I’ll do that, but sending out the resume takes much higher priority.

Fixing a computer that shows the wrong partition size after resizing

So, I’ve got these Windows 2000 boxes that didn’t have enough space, so I resized some partitions. No error messages, no problems. I reboot, and the drives still show their old size, even though in Disk Administrator they show the right size.

What gives? Microsoft acknowledges this issue in Windows XP, but hasn’t released a fix yet. But these aren’t XP, they’re 2000.

I’ve got a crazy solution.

If you have a copy of Ghost by Symantec, take a Ghost image of the partition that’s sized wrong. Then, immediately after creating the image, write the image back to the partition you just Ghosted.

Makes no sense, right? Well, but Ghost doesn’t do a bit-by-bit copy. It makes sure it gets good copies of your files, but it saves an interpretation of the partition, rather than the partition itself. So when it writes it back, minor errors that were there before get wiped out.

Now, why there can’t be a disk utility that does this same thing to a partition without the imaging runaround, I don’t know.

I just know I’ve brought a lot of computers with weird disk problems back to life over the years by making Ghost images of them and then writing the image back. This one today is just the latest in that long line.

CD-ROM troubleshooting under Windows 9x

Occasionally, a PC’s CD or DVD-ROM drive will stop responding for no known good reason. Sometimes the problem is hardware–a CD-ROM drive, being a mechanical component, can fail–but as often as not, it seems, the problem is software rather than hardware.*
Troubleshooting an IDE CD-ROM drive that quit working is pretty much the same under Windows 95, Windows 95B, Windows 95OSR2.1, Windows 98, Windows 98SE, and Windows Me, whether you have a Compaq, Dell, eMachine, eMachines, Gateway, HP, IBM, Micron, Packard Bell, Sony, or clone PC.**

In an effort to avoid tech support calls about DOS games, most computer manufacturers load DOS-mode CD-ROM drivers in a file called config.sys. This reduces tech support calls but increases the chances of software failure by about a million percent. Open My Computer, navigate to Drive C, and locate the file config.sys. (It might just say “config”.) Rename it to something else.

Don’t reboot yet. Often, this will solve the problem in and of itself, but frequently there’s another problem on Windows 9x boxes.

Sometimes Windows has trouble deciding whether to use the driver specified in config.sys or its own built in driver, so it’ll bluescreen. Then, the next time you boot, it adds a key to the registry that disables the CD-ROM drive entirely and makes the rest of the computer run about as fast as a Studebaker.

Nice of it, eh? To check this, click Start, then Run, and type regedit. Double click on HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE, then navigate to System\CurrentControlSet\Services\VxD\IOS. You’ll probably see a value named “NoIDE.” Right click on it and select Delete. Reboot. Your drive will likely come back to life.

If neither of these things work, you can determine for certain if the problem is hardware or software through a couple of methods. If your manufacturer gave you a restore CD, try booting off it. Hold down the shift key while it tries to boot in order to prevent it from doing anything nasty to your system–you just want to see if it boots up. If it doesn’t boot, you’ve got a hardware problem. Replace the drive. If it does boot, either try the above directions again, or you’ve got a problem I’ve never heard of.

If you don’t have a system restore CD, you can accomplish basically the same thing with a DOS boot disk. You can get one of those from bootdisk.com. Boot off the disk, pay attention to what drive letter the CD-ROM got (usually D: but it can vary), insert a data CD, and type the command DIR D: (substitute the drive letter that came up if it’s something other than D:). If you get an error message, you’ve got a hardware problem. Replace the drive.

Windows NT, Windows 2000, and Windows XP are immune to the problems I described here. If the drive quits working under one of those operating systems, either your drive lens is dirty or you’ve got a bad drive. Cleaning kits are hard to find and overpriced. As I write, an Artec 56X IDE CD-ROM drive costs $19 at Newegg.com, so outright replacement doesn’t cost much more than cleaning.

* Yes, I realize this is yet another boring troubleshooting entry. Having nothing interesting to say today, I’m writing entries that I know will get me Googlejuice down the road. Analysis of my early stuff and of some of the comments on this site has made me realize there are still some gaps in the Farquhar back-catalog.

** Yes, this is another paragraph written with the express design of getting hits from Google. If you can think of any search term I might have possibly left out, well, that’s what the comments are for.

Spontaneous system reboots

Steve DeLassus asked me the other day what I would do to fix a PC that was rebooting itself periodically. It’s not him who’s having the problem, he says, it’s someone he knows. He must be trying to show up someone at work or on the Web or something.
So I gave him a few things I’d check, in order of likelihood.

Static electricity. A big static shock can send a system down faster than anything else I’ve seen. Keep a humidifier in the computer room to reduce static electricity. If you’re really paranoid, put a metal strip on your desk and connect it to ground (on your electrical outlet, not on your PC) and touch it before touching your PC. Some people metalize and ground part of their mouse pad. That’s a bit extreme but it works.

Power supply. This is the big one. A failing power supply can take out other components. And even if you have an expensive, big-brand box like a PCP&C or Enermax, they can fail. So I always keep a spare ATX power supply around for testing. It doesn’t have to be an expensive one–you just want something that can run the machine for a day or two to see if the problem goes away.
Overheating. Check all your fans to make sure they’re working. An overheated system can produce all sorts of weird behavior, including reboots. The computer we produced our school newspaper on back in 1996 tended to overheat and reboot about 8 hours into our marathon QuarkXPress sessions.

Memory. It’s extremely rare, but even Crucial produces the occasional defective module. And while bad memory is more likely to produce blue screens than reboots, it’s a possibility worth checking into. Download Memtest86 to exercise your memory.

CPU. If you’re overclocking and experiencing spontaneous reboots, cut it out and see what happens. Unfortunately, by the time these reboots become common, it may be too late. That turned out to be the case with that QuarkXPress-running PC I mentioned earlier. Had we replaced the fans with more powerful units right away, we might have been fine, but we ended up having to replace the CPU. (We weren’t overclocking, but this was an early Cyrix 6×86 CPU, a chip that was notorious for running hot.) Less likely today, but still possible.

Hard drive. I’m really reaching here. If you’re using a lot of virtual memory and you have bad sectors on your hard drive and the swapfile is using one or more of those bad sectors, a lot of unpredictable things can happen. A spontaneous reboot is probably the least of those. But theoretically it could happen.

Operating system. This is truly the last resort. People frequently try to run an OS that’s either too new or too old to be ideal on a PC of a particular vintage. If the system is failing but all the hardware seems to be OK, try loading the OS that was contemporary when the system was new. That means if it’s a Pentium-133, try Win95 on it. If it’s a P4, try Windows 2000 or Windows XP on it. When you try to run a five-year-old OS on a new system, or vice-versa, you can run into problems with poorly tested device drivers or a system strapped for resources.

Another good OS-related troubleshooting trick for failing hardware is to try to load Linux. Linux will often cause suspect hardware to fail, even if the hardware can run Windows successfully, because Linux pushes the hardware more than Microsoft systems do. So if the system fails to load Linux, start swapping components and try again. Once the system is capable of loading Linux successfully, it’s likely to work right in Windows too.

Troubleshooting advice: When you suspect a bad component, particularly a power supply, always swap in a known-good component, rather than trying out the suspect component in another system to see if the problem follows it. The risks of damaging the system are too great, particularly when you try a bad power supply in another system.

And, as always, you minimize the risks of these problems by buying high-quality components, but you never completely eliminate the risk. Even the best occasionally make a defective part.