Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Diagnosing some types of failures remotely can be extremely difficult. Sometimes you just need to have someone get hands-on with the machine.

My machine froze up with some kind of 'insufficient resources available' message. All I could do was turn the machine off. When I turned it back on it said it couldn't find my primary drive. Tried again, and it said "keyboard failure". 3rd time was a charm, and everything seems fine.

Should I be panicking and perhaps shopping for a new computer?

I got a question from a friend this morning that boiled down to something like that.

I told my friend that it was questions like this that are the hardest for me, and the most frustrating. I really, honestly want to help - but...

Well, here's my (slightly edited) response, and you'll see what I mean.

It's hard to say how much you should worry.

To begin with:

  • it could be a software problem.

  • it could be hardware on its way out.

  • it could be nothing. Stuff happens.

In other words, it's either something or it's nothing.

If it's something, then:

  • it could be easily repairable

  • it could be not-so-easily repairable

  • it could be hopeless

"All I've really said is that it could be something serious, or not ..."

As you can see, my answer so far has been pretty useless. All I've really said is that it could be something serious, or not, and if there is a problem it could be trivial, difficult or impossible to fix.

I continued:

My Recommendation:

  • Backup backup backup. Regularly, of course, but if you've not been doing so, start. Think "what would I lose if it died without warning and without recovery?" - if that's a problem you should be backing up whatever you'd be sorry you lost.

  • If it happens again - don't assume it's dead or dying. But at that point it probably is time for someone to lay hands on it and diagnose the problem in more detail. Do you have resources locally for that ?

Really, the only solid piece of advice here was to backup in case the worst happens, and regular readers will know I've been preaching that for a long time, no matter how well things seem to be working.

The last point, though, is one that's been in the back of my head for a long time. The fact is that there are classes of problems - typically suspected hardware problems - where the only way to diagnose is to see the machine, in person. To "lay hands on it", as it were.

And, given the nature of Ask Leo! - that's pretty frustrating.

I can't see the machine.

Sure, in a situation like this sometimes with a clear enough description of the problem I can make some educated guesses, but that's all they are - guesses. This class of problem is frequently impossible to diagnose properly from a distance.

So here's my advice to the average user: have a hardware backup plan. That might mean a backup machine, but more likely it means to seek out a good, local, and easily accessible technician or computer guru. Someone who, if you have a problem, can physically look at your machine and help diagnose it. It can be a family member, a friend, an acquaintance, or even a local business specializing in computer repair.

Unfortunately, in my friend's case, while it's not out of the question, the distances involved are long enough that it's not that trivial for me to be that resource.

For the record, this is a situation where many Apple users have a leg up on things. Since Apple's hardware is proprietary (by and large available only from Apple), Mac owners have been able to take their machines to Apple stores and visit the Genius Bar for - literally - hands-on help with their systems. Apple users within range of an Apple store have a pretty good thing.

I do wish that something similar were more broadly available for other systems as well.

Article C3410 - June 8, 2008 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?


June 10, 2008 4:16 PM

lol Leo, on your tombstone it will read "dammit, I didn't backup enough!"

June 11, 2008 1:10 AM

Doubt it, as soon as Leo dies, I reckon his backup will walk in through the door in optimum condition.

John Daniels
June 11, 2008 10:48 AM

After running around with no good result I called Microsoft direct. 1-800-936-5700 or 1-800-936-4900. It did cost me $50.00 +/- but he took control of the computer on line and fixed the problem once and for all. Hope this helps.

June 12, 2008 7:06 AM

A fewmonths ago i bought an external, USB powered hard drive - 100GB of memory for $50 from ebay. Now I have NO EXCUSE not to back up .......except laziness!

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