Whether you’re dealing with your dad’s decade-old computer or your own
custom-built gaming rig, troubleshooting PC problems is a part of
everyday life. Before you make that $50 support call, though, try your
hand at homebrew tech support. We spoke to some of the best support reps
in the business about the most common problems they fix—and how you can
do it yourself.
- 1 Try this first
- 2 My computer is too slow
- 3 Downloads are taking forever
- 4 My machine keeps restarting
- 5 Pop-up ads are appearing on my desktop
- 6 Google doesn’t look right
- 7 My Wi-Fi keeps disconnecting
- 8 I keep seeing ‘There is a problem with this website’s security certificate’
- 9 My printer won’t print
- 10 I can’t open email attachments
- 11 My favorite program isn’t working on my new PC
Try this first
I know it sounds like a no-brainer, but before you do anything else,
restart your computer. Matthew Petrie of Falcon Northwest technical
support says that most of his customers solve their problems with this
simple step. “This long-standing maxim can work wonders,” says Petrie.
checking for operating system updates is important, because forgetting
to do so could significantly impair your PC’s performance.
While you’re at it, make sure that your operating system is fully
updated by running Windows Update. Neglecting updates could deprive you
of important bug and performance fixes.
If you’re having problems with a peripheral, try switching it on and
off. If that doesn’t work, try disconnecting and reconnecting the
device. As a last resort, download the latest drivers and perform a full
My computer is too slow
The first step to fixing a slow computer is to verify that your machine
is the actual source of the problem. Videos that seem to buffer forever,
and websites that take ages to load, may not be your computer’s fault.
Geek Squad agent Derek Meister claims that many people mistakenly
identify a slow system as the problem when “it’s actually not the
computer, [but] their broadband connection.” See “Downloads are taking
forever” below for instructions on how to use Speedtest.net to diagnose a
If the problem is your PC, check whether you have plenty of free space
on the hard drive holding your operating system. Windows needs room to
create files while your system is running. If your hard drive is maxed
out, performance suffers. Now is the perfect time to clear some space.
If your computer’s operating system resides on an overstuffed C: drive, clearing out some space could boost OS performance.
Microsoft’s System Configuration tool is your next-best bet for tackling
slow performance. Many applications launch automatically when your
machine boots up, which can stretch out boot time—especially on older,
slower PCs. Make a habit of trimming the startup items. Open the tool by
pressing Windows-R, typing msconfig, and pressing the Enter key.
Checking the Startup Item and Manufacturer columns is the best way to
figure out which potential performance-killers you can safely disable.
Avoid messing with any of the services and programs that have Microsoft
Corporation listed as the manufacturer. Items such as AdobeAAMUpdater,
Google Update, Pando Media Booster, Spotify, and Steam Client
Bootstrapper are all fair game. Regardless, err on the side of caution:
If you’re not sure what the program or service does, don’t disable it.
Windows’ System Configuration Tool lets you disable programs and services that automatically start when you boot your computer.
Once you’ve made all your changes, click OK and restart the computer. It should boot up quicker and feel noticeably faster.
Downloads are taking forever
Speedtest.net is your best
friend when you’re having connectivity problems. Run a speed test to see
what your download and upload speeds are—ideally they should be at
least 50 percent of your Internet service provider’s advertised speeds,
with a ping under 100 milliseconds.
If the speeds seem solid, make sure that you aren’t inadvertently
downloading or uploading anything. Many torrent downloading programs run
in the background and minimize into the system tray instead of the
A good speed test should give you an accurate assessment of your ping, download speed, and upload speed.
Check your network hardware. Updates for network cards aren’t all that
common, but if your card’s manufacturer offers a newer driver, download
it. Resetting your router and modem can help with connection problems,
too. Most routers and modems have reset buttons, but pulling the power
cable for a second or two can do the same thing. Don’t cut the power for
much longer, or the hardware may reset itself to factory defaults.
Still having problems? Call your ISP, which can tell you whether the
problem is on your end. As a last-ditch measure, the ISP could reset the
master connection to your home.
My machine keeps restarting
Hardware problems are hard to diagnose and solve. First, confirm that
you aren’t just getting the latest wave of Windows updates, which can
automatically restart your computer during installation. Then work on
updating all of your critical system drivers. Your graphics card,
motherboard, and network card drivers are crucial.
“Sometimes it can be viruses, sometimes it can be adware, sometimes it
can be overheating, and sometimes it can be something as simple as
making sure your video card is updated,” Geek Squad’s Meister says.
Is your computer making weird noises? If you’re lucky all you’ll need to do is give the machine a thorough cleaning.
Modern computers have safeguards that shut down the system if a
component is overheating, which can be the cause of frequent restarts
when you’re running resource-intensive programs or video games.
Pop-up ads are appearing on my desktop
If you’re not running your Web browser and are still getting pop-up ads
on your desktop, you’ve most likely installed adware—a program that
displays unwanted ads. Although benevolent adware exists, most of the
time adware is up to no good. Getting rid of it isn’t easy. “There’s a
ton of little system-utility tools out there that promise to clean up
everything, with names like PC Speed-up, PC Speed Pro, PC Speedifier,”
Geek Squad’s Meister says. “A lot of times those programs are not going
to do much. Some programs will work, others are snake oil.”
downloading programs that offer to speed up your PC or clean up your
registry. Instead, use a trustworthy adware scanner like the free
version of Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware tool.
Running a full scan with credible antivirus software is your first step.
If that program doesn’t find and remove the adware, turn to Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Free,
a great utility for removing all types of malware. Just make sure to
disable your standard antivirus software before running it.
“Multiple antivirus programs working at the same time will often result
in problems,” Falcon Northwest’s Petrie says. “You only want one active,
real-time antivirus scanner installed, but it doesn’t hurt to run an
additional ‘on demand’ virus or malware scanner.”
Searching online for the name of the advertised product can sometimes
yield solutions from fellow victims. If all else fails, there’s always
the nuclear option: a complete system reinstall. It might take a long
time, but it’s the only surefire way to remove adware or spyware.
Remember to back up all your personal files.
Google doesn’t look right
Browser hijackers are a particularly nasty breed of malware. Such
programs take over your Web browser and can stealthily redirect your
Google searches and other queries to fake pages meant to steal your
personal information or to further infect your system.
Running a real-time antivirus utility is the best way to stay safe. If
your browser has already been hijacked, uninstall the browser and use
your antivirus program in conjunction with Malwarebytes to remove the
My Wi-Fi keeps disconnecting
Spotty wireless connections can be a puzzler. Is it your computer? Your
router? Your ISP? Try a few things before calling your Internet service
Windows Network Diagnostics may not always solve your problem, but it will usually point you in the right direction.
Confirm that your computer is within range of your wireless router. Weak
signals mean weak connections. Next, make sure your PC’s wireless card
has the latest drivers. Try letting Windows troubleshoot for you by
right-clicking the Wi-Fi icon in the taskbar and selecting Troubleshoot problems.
I keep seeing ‘There is a problem with this website’s security certificate’
Sometimes the biggest problems have the easiest fixes. According to
support technicians, the lion’s share of issues are due to an incorrect
The problem is probably with your computer.
Website security certificates sync up with your computer’s clock. Old
computers in particular run the risk of having a dead CMOS battery—the
watch battery in your computer that keeps its system clock ticking.
Click the clock in the system tray and select Change date and time settings to correct any issues.
My printer won’t print
Let’s assume that your printer’s drivers are up-to-date, and that it has
enough paper and ink or toner to print. Try turning the printer off and
on. Unplug the printer and plug it back in. Check your printer’s print
queue by looking for the printer icon in the system tray and
double-clicking it. The print queue shows you the status of each job as
well as the general status of your printer.
The print queue is your best bet for troubleshooting printer problems—just make sure that ‘Use Printer Offline’ isn’t selected.
Ensure that ‘Use Printer Offline’ isn’t checked. Sometimes, printing
while your printer is turned off can cause Windows to set your printer
to work offline, and that can stall jobs sent later.
I can’t open email attachments
If you have ever encountered an attachment that you couldn’t open, it
was probably because you didn’t have the software necessary to view the
If you don’t have Adobe Reader or another PDF-compatible program, you won’t be able to open that TPS report.
The usual suspect is the .pdf file, for which you can download a free
PDF reader. If your problem involves a different file format, a quick
search on the attachment’s file extension (the three letters after the
period in the filename) should tell you what type of program you need.
If the attachment lacks a file extension (which might happen if it was
renamed), adding it back should set things right.
My favorite program isn’t working on my new PC
Before you call tech support, make sure that the software you’re trying
to run is compatible with your operating system. Older software might
not function on Windows 8, and an app created for Mac OS X definitely
won’t run on your Windows PC. A 32-bit program might run on your 64-bit
operating system, but it doesn’t work the other way around.
Not all file types work on Windows. For example, files that have the .app extension run exclusively on Mac OS X.
If an online game balks, you might be missing the required plug-ins—Java
and Flash are the usual culprits. Most browsers will alert you to
install these items if necessary.