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

I can't always give a straight answer because every computer is unique.

I've looked at your answers for problems that seem like they relate to mine, but everything seems to be "check this" or "it might be that". Why can't you just give me the specific steps I need to solve my problem. Why can't I get a straight answer?

It's a fair question, and I wish I could. Honestly, I really wish I could give everyone a simple step-by-step here's how you fix it. In fact, when possible, I definitely try to do exactly that.

The problem is that most of the time it's just not possible to be that excruciatingly specific. Specific steps that work for one person may not work for another.

Let me explain why...

What you see when you experience a computer problem are really just the symptoms of that problem. A symptom might include an error message, unexpected behavior or perhaps some lack of expected behavior.

But the symptoms are not the problem, they're just clues.

Consider a similar situation in the medical world: what does it mean if your leg hurts? Most commonly it's muscle strain, but it might also be an insect bite, an infection, a blood clot, cancer or a whole raft of things I can't begin to think of.

We need more information. As the TV doctors say, "We need to do more tests."

The same is true of computer problems. When you report the symptoms of your problem, you're reporting clues that I might use to diagnose the cause of the problem.

Sometimes the clues are enough. More often, though, they are not. Not only are the clues often incomplete, but the same symptoms might be caused by hundreds, if not thousands of possibly different problems.

Kind of like that pain in the ... leg.

Yes, computers are that complex.

"If I can't with some certainty tell you the specific solution, I'll instead point you to tools and give you suggestions as to how you might go about further diagnosing and/or repairing the problem yourself."

Since I can't sit at your computer and diagnose your specific problem, I can't "run more tests" as it were. It's impossible to know exactly what's right for your specific situation. If I can't with some certainty tell you the specific solution, I'll instead point you to tools and give you suggestions as to how you might go about further diagnosing and/or repairing the problem yourself.

Much like that leg pain, resolving your computer's problem might involve understanding more about what you've been doing with it prior to the symptoms appearing, or perhaps understanding that a lot of people are experiencing similar symptoms. It might be a situation that I've never heard of, but knowing the general areas involved, I'll probably have suggestions of things to try or look at.

As I said, computers, like people, are incredibly complex. And no two are exactly alike, no mater how you configure them. Different hardware, different versions of operating systems, different combinations of applications, different customizations, different ways of connecting to the internet, and different ways of using the computer make each one a very unique device. Blanket cookbook solutions to problems are rare. Obviously, I try to find them when I can, but quite often what works for one person's machine will not for another. Guidance on things to try and how to go about further diagnosing the problem yourself, however, does work ... as evidenced by the many people who take that guidance and are able to resolve their issues after visiting here.

Unfortunately, computers are not yet to the level of toasters ... they don't always "just work". Sadly that means each of us will be faced with diagnostic detective work at some point in our computing experience. There are lots of folks like me out here to help, but ultimately it'll take someone at your keyboard to perform the final diagnosis and repair.

Article C2357 - May 27, 2005 « »

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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.

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