Tech Tips: Sometimes It's the Computer's Fault!

Doug Hayman, DO-IT staff

Computer users often think that every problem with their computer must be the result of their own technical incompetence. While there are a number of user errors that lead to problems, some issues people face are out of their control. A challenge is how to distinguish between user error and things beyond your control.

Case in point: Years ago I went to install a voice modem and accompanying software for a user with limited use of her hands. I inserted the CD-ROM, which brought up a screen with multiple icons to choose from, one of which clearly said "Install Voice Modem Software." I clicked it, waited for the installation to finish, and rebooted as instructed.

Upon restarting and opening the software, it didn't come up with a title indicating that it was voice modem software, but merely modem software. I assumed that I had rushed the install and picked the wrong icon.

I uninstalled the software and reinstalled, carefully choosing the voice modem icon. Once again I had no voice modem software installed upon completion of the install process. Then, unlike many new users, I said to myself, "What if the menu on this install CD is wrong?" So I chose the non voice modem option, and—you guessed it—that option installed the voice modem software properly.

This wasn't a cheap, low-budget, no-name modem and installer. It was the leading maker of modems at the time. The computer doesn't make mistakes per se, but computers are made by imperfect humans. Both hardware and software are prone to errors in their creation.

If Random Access Memory (RAM) chips are manufactured with a physical flaw, they can cause errors in whatever process the computer is involved in where memory this used. The user could reinstall the operating system and all other applications and still have problematic use of the computer; and, if the hardware only impacted occasional processes, the user might have no idea why problems popped up from time to time.

Memory is usually tested upon manufacture and should be tested prior to installation as a sub-component in a computer. Some bad RAM chips do get through and into a consumer's machine. Oddly enough, there are software programs that will do diagnostic testing of a computer, including the memory chips, but if that testing software utilizes the memory to test the memory it is akin to self-diagnosis of a cognitive deficit.

Memory errors should be considered when other diagnostic steps have proved unsuccessful. Most computer problems are the result of flaws in software. Although firms do software testing to try and rid their programs of bugs, testing to find them all is too costly, consequently, consumers are put in the position of being unwitting software testers for products that have been rushed to market. (I've got it on good word from an industry insider that one well-known word processing program shipped to retailers with 10,000 known bugs.)

Numerous forums on the Internet are invaluable to the end user scratching her head wondering why the program is acting up. Others who have been there before you can share what they were able to do to work around problems or, in some cases, let you know that there isn't currently a way to do what you're trying. This can make it possible for you to stop pounding your head against the wall and answer the question, "Am I crazy or is this program messed up?"