Graeme Williams writes "I really need something that will help me diagnose and fix problems with Windows PCs. I provide occasional support for more than a dozen PCs at my local church, as well as the systems at home, and those that arrive in the wake of my children. I don't do it regularly enough to have a clear model of how I should go about it. I really wanted It's Never Done That Before to provide that clear model, but unfortunately I was disappointed." Read the rest of Graeme's review.
After reading It's Never Done That Before, I've got a pretty good idea of what I'm looking for in a book about PC repairs. The first part of my ideal book would provide background information about how a PC works. For example, if you wanted to diagnose a problem that occurred during booting, it would help to know what was involved in the boot process, from the power and power supply to the BIOS and MBR and ultimately to Windows, the registry and the desktop.
The second part of my ideal book would explain basic techniques, such as how to change your BIOS settings. These techniques would form a library which could be referred to later in the book without further explanation. The third part of the book would explain things you could do before disaster strikes, such as backing up your data, and writing down your network configuration parameters, and most importantly, making sure you can actually follow the recovery procedures you'll need when disaster does strike. If you can't change BIOS settings when your machine is stable, you're certainly not going to be able to do it when you're terrified that a hard drive failure has lost Auntie Edna and Uncle Norman's pictures. My recommendation would be to permanently set your BIOS boot settings so that your system looks for a boot CD before booting from disk, but if the extra delay bothers you, you can always change it back. At least you'll know what to do.
Evaluating It's Never Done That Before against my ideal, the real book does better on content than it does on organization. For example, it has a useful chapter on what you can do before disaster strikes, and it has a pretty clear explanation of how to change BIOS settings, but they're not in the same place.
The fourth and final part of my ideal book would explain how to diagnose and repair problems. One of the reasons this isn't trivial is that a book should necessarily focus on the most common problems, but has to leave open the possibility that something unlikely is happening. One of the problems I have with my laptop at work is that when I eat lunch at my desk, the touchpad will interpret dropped crumbs as a continual touch, which immediately makes the cursor uncontrollable. Touchpads are not mentioned in It's Never Done That Before – but that's not necessarily an issue. Many more people will, say, have a hard drive failure than will have crumbs on the touchpad, and the book has plenty of material on hard drive failures. But too much of the book assumes you know what the problem is, instead of systematically going through possibilities – and leaving open the possibility that something odd or unlikely is happening.
One of my systems at home is an old hand-me-down desktop from my son. He had installed a firewire card, which remains, and a sound card, which he removed. I put in a new disk, which I partitioned as a dual-boot Linux and Windows XP system, and attached a external firewire drive. The first problem I noticed was that when Linux boots, it changes the BIOS to disable on-board sound. Perhaps this is some kind of "phantom limb syndrome" for the missing sound card? Some time ago, the firewire card became less reliable – at least, if the drive is on, Windows will black screen during boot. This can be avoided by leaving the drive off until Windows has settled down after booting. Lately, when Windows boots it has started to reset the network file sharing settings for the external drive. I fear that the Windows system on this machine is disintegrating, perhaps in anticipation of Vista.
It's not that It's Never Done That Before doesn't cover any of these areas. For example, it has a considerable amount of material on boot problems, including black screens. The problem is that it's not organized as a fault tree, where you start with no knowledge other than the immediate symptoms and proceed to collect data and rule out possibilities until you're left with the precise cause. One of the benefits of doing this carefully is that you won't prematurely decide whether the cause is hardware or software. Unfortunately, It's Never Done That Before just isn't organized this way.
The lack of organization also manifests itself as unnecessary and sometimes irritating repetition. For example, you get to the Windows Advanced Options menu by pressing F8 during startup. On page 46, the instructions are "When the results of the POST [power on self test] appear on the screen, press the F8 key until the Windows Advanced Options menu appears". On page 48, the instructions are to "immediately press F8 a few times" POST is not mentioned. On page 60, the instructions are to "press the F8 key several times".
The book just isn't clear about how a PC connects to the Internet and how that can fail. One indication is that the material is split between Chapter 13, "Internet Connection Problems" and Chapter 15, "Dealing with Hardware Problems", when there's no way you can know a priori whether a problem is hardware or software. Or for that matter whether the problem is yours or your ISP's.
Figure 13-3 on page 147 is the first of two diagrams related to Internet connectivity. The diagram shows something called a Wide Area Network which you connect to that is separate from the Internet Cloud. I suppose this might refer to the BGP AS you're connected to, but that hardly matters to most people. And having introduced the idea that you're connected to some equipment at your ISP, the diagram doesn't make clear that if you're directly connected to the Internet (without a router), your PC gets an IP address from the ISP's DHCP server, but if you're connected via a router, the PC gets its address from the router, and the router gets its address from the ISP. How do you recognize when your PC hasn't got an IP address from the appropriate DHCP server? This is needlessly hard in Windows XP, because the OS "helpfully" defaults to something plausible and wrong, but the book offers no help in digging you out of this one.
Figure 15-1 on page 169 includes a DSLAM (a piece of equipment at the local telephone company), which is a fascinating detail, but not really something you need to know even if you have a DSL connection. At least in the US, the key thing to know is that DSL wiring problems belong to one part of the telephone company (because it's the same wiring as your telephone) but Internet problems belong to a different part. If you live in the inner city, you're quite likely to have wiring problems (based on my experience with a sample of two and a failure rate approaching one per year), but if you have a problem with your line and you're talking to the wrong group within the telephone company you'll be rebooting your PC and checking network settings until you're blue in the face.
The popularity of wireless LANs has introduced a whole new set of problems. At home, my POSSLQ uses a laptop with a wireless PCMCIA card. As the the wireless router got older, the wireless connection on the laptop seemed to get less and less reliable. After avoiding the problem for a while, I stumbled across the length argument on the ping command, and discovered that the packet loss rate depended on the packet length. I adjusted the MTU and things immediately got a lot better. It's Never Done That Before ignores ping in favor of traceroute (which I find confusing for basic connectivity problems) and so would never solve this problem.
Even a simple LAN requires several systems to be up and communicating in order to connect to the Internet. A short time ago I upgraded the wireless router in my home from 802.11b to 802.11g. By systematically going though all the incorrect combinations first, I was able to verify that the procedure given in the router manual was both necessary and sufficient: power off the cable modem, router and PC, and power up the cable modem, router and PC in that order. I also support a local church with a local area network of about a dozen computers, which seems to have an endemic problem with IP address conflicts. In this case, I leave the PCs on and power cycle the router. These rules and especially the reasoning behind them aren't included in It's Never Done That Before.
I'm a little mystified why the author doesn't recommend making a live CD of your favorite Linux distro. If you have a problem that prevents Windows from booting, it's an easy way to connect to the Internet to look for resources. It's also an easy way to confirm more serious problems. I recently had a computer with a motherboard problem go into a reboot loop with a live CD, which was sort of terrifying, but immediately ruled out Windows as the source of the problem
I guess it's clear by now that I don't like It's Never Done That Before. There's a lot of information in the book which many people may find very useful in understanding more about how their PC works and how it fails. The book may very well help people with simple problems. However, the experience I've had fixing PC problems suggests to me that the book is not structured well enough to lead you through the process of diagnosing and repairing an unknown failure."
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