How to be a tech guru
‘Expert’ is a relative term – by which we mean it’s a term that our relatives use. W’ve spent years being called experts, but the reality is that every family has its own expert. To qualify, you just need to be the youngest adult in the room that owns a PC.
Sooner or later, your grandma or your uncle or your sister-in-law will mention that their laptop is broken or iTunes keeps crashing and you’ll feel guilted into taking a look at it. Whether or not you ultimately manage to fix it makes no difference – you’ll still be the computer expert.
After all, you’ve just spent a frustrating Sunday afternoon downloading drivers or booting in and out of Safe Mode, so you must know what you’re doing.
But this is no way to live. Nobody wants to be that sort of expert. It’s not effective and the hourly rate is terrible.
There are people who enjoy pointlessly fiddling with computers, but you aren’t one of those people – and neither are we.
What we all want is to spend the minimum time fixing computers and the maximum time using them. It doesn’t matter whether you are fixing your own computer, doing a favour for a relative or even fixing computers professionally, the goal is always to find the quickest, simplest fix that works.
That’s the difference between an expert and a guru. A guru can listen to a long, rambling list of unrelated symptoms and decide which ones need fixing and which don’t. A guru Googles quickly for the right answer. A guru understands when to spend time on a problem and when to spend money.
Most importantly, a guru doesn’t spend his spare time swapping RAM or reinstalling Windows – he spends it playing PC games. A guru enjoys all of the kudos of being an expert, with none of the hassle – and we are going to teach you how to be one.
Guru, heal thyself
Let’s start with your own PCs. You need two: a desktop and a laptop (or even a tablet). It means that whichever one breaks, you’ve got another one to use for Googling solutions.
Put the desktop PC on the table, not the floor, and turn the case so it faces sideways. If you have it with the front facing towards you, like most people do, the rear becomes a stagnant tangle of cables that never gets dusted. Some of that dust will get pulled back into the case and coat your motherboard, which means the poor clearance interferes with case ventilation.
Back up both of your PCs once a month without fail. These should be complete clones of the entire hard disk using software such as Acronis True Image onto an external USB drive that is at least as large as the internal drive in your PC. Use a different backup drive for each PC.
Also don’t keep you documents on the internal hard disks at all. Put them in cloud storage, like Dropbox or Google Drive. This entirely saves you from the responsibility of backing up those small, important, frequently changing files, which is most of what you need a backup for in the first place.
Those clone drives are just there for disaster recovery.
How to Google
Knowing the right answer isn’t an especially useful skill. Being able to find the right answer is much more valuable and recognising the right answer when you come across it, is even better.
“Google-Fu” is a martial art that gets better with some practise, but here are some quick tips to help you sharpen your searches.
Don’t Google the question, Google the answer. “Fallout 4 crashes randomly” will give you dozens of forum posts from complaining gamers, but the answers will mostly be a mixture of bland boilerplate advice,requests for detailed crash logs, and suggestions of things to try, with replies saying that this didn’t help.
Instead, Google “Fallout 4 patch notes” and you can quickly skim the list of bug fixes to see if any of them address your problem.
Use the wisdom of crowds. Don’t look for a definitive “right” answer – skim all the sites on the first page or two of search results and look for common patterns. If a fix is confirmed on several sites, it’s more likely to be reliable.
If you’re giving advice to others, it should be: “don’t build your own computer”. From a support perspective you’re just making things hard for yourself. It’s also much harder to claim on the warranty if something doesn’t work, because all the manufacturers will blame each other for any incompatibility.
Don’t ever reformat and reinstall Windows. This is the last apple at the bottom of the troubleshooting barrel. It takes ages, the PC is never the same after, and it won’t fix the issue. If you’re desperate enough to reinstall Windows, you’re desperate enough to get a new PC – which will fix the problem.
Don’t update your drivers, either. This is the first item on every troubleshooting flowchart ever. But this is a stalling tactic dreamt up by customer support hotlines to get you to go away for a few hours.
Unless you know of a specific bug in your current driver release you are personally experiencing and the release notes for the new version explicitly mention that this bug has been fixed, you are simply adding one more variable into the mix. New drivers are as likely to introduce new bugs as fix the old ones.
With this foundation laid, your PCs will definitely never ever break or crash. When they inevitably do anyway, you will find that all computer problems fall into one of five categories.
1. Spontaneous breakage
“It was working fine until I dropped it”
The first category is for computers that abruptly transition from working to not working. This could be the entire computer refusing to boot up at all, or it could be that you can’t connect to Steam, or maybe a game has scrambled textures.
It doesn’t matter what stopped working. The important part is that it stopped suddenly. Spontaneous breakage is the easiest problem to diagnose.
It occurs because something changed. Either a hardware component failed or you added something that was incompatible. Identify the last time you can definitely say the PC was working, and the problem must lie with something that changed since then.
Uninstall any new software or restore your PC back to the previous full backup and see if the problem goes away. Then repeat any Windows updates and reinstall programs one by one until it returns.
If you haven’t added anything recently and the PC broke anyway, you can be sure a hardware component has failed. If the PC won’t boot, you can usually tell which component is dead by how far into the boot sequence the PC gets.
If you aren’t sure, you should replace the RAM, PSU, graphics card and hard disk – in that order. This is so you check the easiest components first, not the most likely. Your assessment of likelihood is probably wrong, and you’ll save time in the long run if you get into the habit of checking the easy things first.
You might think a game with messed-up textures can only be caused by a faulty graphics card, but RAM and PSU faults can both cause this as well, and they are both much cheaper to replace.
You’ll replace some perfectly good components this way. So buy upgrades, rather than exact replacements. That way, all your wrong guesses are at least upgrading your PC – and you can hang on to the parts.
2. Reproduce calamity
“Every time I try to use it, it just crashes”
If you can reliably crash an application or generate one of those error messages that end-users were clearly never meant to see, then congrats! You have found a bug.
Finding bugs is a well-paid job, so if you enjoyed finding it consider a career in software quality assurance – though you have only found one so far, so don’t get too carried away.
There is generally nothing you can do about a bug except report it to the developers (if they give you an easy way to do this) and hope and/or pray that it gets fixed in the next version.
In the meantime you’ll just have to work around the bug, but at least you don’t need to waste any more time looking for a solution. After all, most of the developers won’t either. (That’s satire, that is.)
3. Creeping badness
“It just keeps getting worse and worse”
‘Badness’ nearly always means normally, the solution is just to put up with it. Like promises of youthful skin, the solutions offered on the internet to speed up your PC are scams for the feeble-minded.
There is no ‘weird old trick’ that Microsoft doesn’t want you to know about for speeding your PC up. Microsoft is extremely invested in making your PC run as well as possible, and if removing old entries from the Registry made a significant difference, Windows would already do it for you automatically.
You can make your PC run a little faster by upgrading your RAM to the maximum it supports, removing programs from the start-up group (especially you antivirus software) and uninstalling programs you don’t need.
But most of the slowdown comes from the inexorable bloating from Windows updates building up over time. If you want a noticeably faster PC, buy or build a new one.
People complain heat output has got worse over time – especially from a laptop. Older laptops run hotter because they are trying to run newer games on older hardware, so the CPU and graphics card are running at full power often. They have also collected dust on the motherboard and fan blades, which interferes with cooling.
You can’t do anything about the former, except upgrade. We’d argue you shouldn’t do anything about the latter either. We’ve never dismantled a laptop and felt things were in better shape afterwards.
If your laptop is running hotter, don’t use it on the bed, and hope the graphics card doesn’t blow before it’s time to upgrade. Remember, heat by itself isn’t really a problem.
4. Random weirdness
“Sometimes it just freaks out for no reason at all”
There are three kinds of random fault: loose connections, overheating and memory errors. You can tell the difference quite easily. If it freaks out when you pick it up, it’s a loose connection: some component or wire internally isn’t quite making the connection it’s supposed to be, or at least isn’t doing it reliably.
If it freaks out when you’ve been watching films or playing games for a while, perhaps accompanied by overly enthusiastic fan noise, it’s overheating. Everything else is a memory glitch. You can fix memory glitches by replacing RAM and the other two kinds usually can’t be fixed, so you should just replace the RAM anyway, in case you were wrong about which kind you have.
Random weirdness that happens only extremely occasionally isn’t worth doing anything about. For instance, if our PC reboots itself spontaneously once a week, we would rather take a few calming breaths and get on with my life than waste several days hunting down a fault that is extremely hard, if indeed possible, to reliably reproduce.
On the other hand, if it reboots five times a day then this is frequent enough not to count as random, and more to the point it’s damned annoying. You can treat this sort of fault as Spontaneous Breakage and take appropriate measures by referring to that section.
5. Ominous portents
“I’m sure it’s infected”
We have learned to listen to the symptoms, not the diagnosis. Some people are convinced their PC is constantly under attack and see every unexplained behaviour or error message as irrefutable evidence of a virus infection or a hacker. If you are one of those people, then stop it!
Provided Windows is updating automatically and you have changed the admin password on your broadband router from the factory default, avoiding viruses and hacking is mostly a question of not being an idiot when you click links.
If your browser homepage has changed by itself, or you can’t open google.com, then you may have a browser hijack. This is malware, but it isn’t a virus or Ebola. Download the Microsoft Malicious Software Removal Tool and be done with it.
Tech Guru Tools
As a Tech Guru, you have to do more than diagnose the problem. You must also consider who is asking for your help and choose the best solution. By that, we of course mean the best solution for you.
For family members, you need the quickest resolution, because they will come back to haunt you if you don’t fix it on the first try. Swapping RAM modules around is a quick and safe thing to try, but reformatting and reinstalling Windows will be much like cutting the head off a hydra: you may fix the original problem but three more will grow in its place, as you try to restore all the drivers for their 15-year-old printers and off-brand sound cards.
With friends and neighbours you are much less invested, so wherever possible you should recommend new kit. My experience is that this is generally what they are hoping you will do anyway. Your pronouncement will be used as bargaining leverage with their spouses or parents, to justify a big spend. If you try and save them money, they will resent you for it and the next time their PC breaks, you’ll be blamed for not euthanizing it last time.
If you are fixing computers for customers, your overriding priority is to safeguard their data. Before you so much as open Device Manager, you should clone their entire hard disk onto a removable drive of your own. This will feel like a ridiculous precaution every single time, until you actually need it, whereupon it will feel like the best advice anyone has ever given you. Remember: if data is lost for any reason while you are sat in front of the keyboard, you will be blamed. Cloned hard disks are like save points: you can afford to be more adventurous, if you know you can hit F9 and reload.
Is that all? Are you really a Tech Guru now? Of course you are! Gurus don’t have all the answers, they just know how to remain calm under fire while they look for one. They know where to look and they know the answer when they see it. You can do all these things and all that you need now is the self-confidence to carry it off.
If anyone tries to call you an expert, by all means deny it. But if they call you a guru, just smile knowingly and humbly.
Learn to program
Programming is an extremely helpful skill for a Tech Guru. Lots of command line operations become easier if you know a little programming, particularly in Linux – but much more importantly, it teaches you what a computer really is.
Programmers are like Neo: they don’t see files and icons, they see resource handles. Memory isn’t just a quantity, like the fuel in your tank. It’s a collection of discrete integers and floats and strings. When you understand how the house is built, you’ll know which walls you can safely remove and which will bring the ceiling down on your head.
Programming means debugging, and the mindset you for it is the same as for diagnosing every other computer problem. Programming is like classical music theory for computer troubleshooting. You can teach yourself to strum some chords without it, but you won’t become a great musician that way.
As soon as you can write a simple program, more complicated programs lose their mystique. And if you can write even a modestly useful app or a mod for a game, then your computer itself will be demystified to a degree that’s impossible to overstate.
Programming is such a useful skill that it should be compulsory for all five-year-olds, never mind aspiring Tech Gurus. Happily, programming is easier to learn now than ever. Python is a good language to learn first – it’s a widely used, serious language, but designed to be readable and simple. You can learn the basics for free in a few weekends at Google’s Developer website. If you can complete a sudoku you can learn Python.
Learning the boot sequence
When your PC is switched off but still plugged into the mains (or laptop battery), the motherboard still receives power on the 5-Volt standby rail, providing power to the circuitry that monitors the power button.
Pressing this button signals the motherboard to tell the power supply (PSU) to fire up and pulls the voltage to 0V on the reset pin for the CPU. This puts the CPU into a known start state, with default values loaded into all the registers, and sets the instruction pointer to the start address of the BIOS.
Between 0.1 and 0.5 seconds later, the voltages from the PSU have stabilised and it signals this by putting +5V on the Power Good line. This tells the motherboard to release the reset line, which allows it to return to +5V.
The CPU begins executing the Power On Self Test (POST) in the BIOS or UEFI code. This initialises the RAM and the PCI bus. If there’s a problem you’ll receive a series of beeps – a single beep indicates a pass, and control then passes to the video card, which executes its own video BIOS initialisation routine. Once the video subsystem is working, control comes back to the BIOS or UEFI and you’ll see a summary screen or pretty splash screen.
While this is displayed, each drive is checked until it finds a bootable one. Control passes to the boot loader program stored on this disk, which copies the Windows kernel and basic drivers into RAM. The Windows logo appears, the boot loader copies the registry into RAM and loads remaining drivers. The boot loader hands off to the Windows kernel and the login screen appears.