Computers grow easier to use and more dependable with each new generation of hardware and operating systems but that doesn't mean we never have to troubleshoot them. Today we look at the top five tools for troubleshooting your computer.
Hiren's BootCD (LiveCD, Free)
Hiren's BootCD is an impressive toolkit rolled into one packed DOS-based LiveCD. Sporting over a hundred separate diagnostic and repair tools, Hiren's BootCD can help you do everything from diagnose a memory problem to clone a disk to speed test your video card. If you can't find out what is wrong with your computer after running through all the tools on Hiren's BootCD the diagnostic answer you may end up at is "Time to buy a new computer." A note about Hiren's BootCD: many of the diagnostic tools gathered on the disc are abandonware or older versions of still produced commercial software. The legal status of Hiren's BootCD is murky so Hiren doesn't directly host the disc image himself. You'll need to search Google to find locations like here and here where the disc is hosted.
SIW (Windows, Free)
If things haven't gotten bad enough that you're forced to take refuge with a LiveCD, SIW is a Windows-based diagnostic tool that can help you get to the bottom of things. SIW is incredibly detailed in its analysis, next to nothing is left uncatalogued from the timings of your memory modules to the DLL files loaded to what applications you have set to autorun at startup. Even if you're not currently experiencing any computer issues SIW gives you a really interesting peek inside your computer.
Google (Web-based, Free)
You first reaction to the phrase "computer diagnostic tool" might not be "Google!" but every computer diagnosis begins with the user wondering what the error code or chain or events leading up to the error means. We've solved countless problems around the Lifehacker office by simply plugging in an error code or describing the problem in common terms and letting Google do the heavy lifting. Google tirelessly kicks back thousands of web pages, forum posts, and even old Usenet postings to help you drill down to your specific issue. Google isn't a diagnostic tool in the traditional sense but it should be the first place you stop whenever you have a computer issue. Many of the solutions we've found over the years using Google were extremely specific and pointed us towards using a just-for-that-problem application or tweak we would have never found otherwise.
Ubuntu LiveCD (LiveCD, Free)
You'll find no shortage of LiveCDs but Ubtuntu has a particularly user-friendly LiveCD and many people have experience with Ubuntu outside of diagnostic work; both factors make an Ubuntu LiveCD extra appealing. You can use an Ubuntu LiveCD to test your computer's memory, recover data, or scan your computer for viruses among other tasks. LiveCDs are great for giving you a platform to work off of independently of your troubled system and an Ubunutu LiveCD has the benefit of an enormous community of Ubuntu users and all the accompanying how-to guides and information.
Ultimate Boot CD for Windows (UBCD4Win) (LiveCD, Free)
If you're a Windows user and you're not comfortable going back to your roots with a DOS-based boot disc and you definitely don't feel comfortable with a Linux one then UBCD4Win is just what you're looking for. UBCD4Win's strongest selling point is the stripped down version of Windows XP—Windows PE—which makes it dead simple for Windows users to jump in and start using the numerous diagnostic tools on UBCD4Win. When your version of Windows is flaking out on you it's comforting to jump into a LiveCD version of Windows to continue your diagnostic work without having to mess around with the nuances of using a Linux LiveCD.
Have a favourite diagnostic tip, trick, tool, or tech support site you want to give a shout out? Let's hear about it in the comments.