Technology is great until it breaks and you have to spend hours trying to figure out what's wrong before you can even fix the problem. Often times the entire ordeal will take even longer because you've failed to consider the obvious, or a particular strategy that worked in the past. Here are our top 10 tactics for diagnosing and solving the many problems that occur with your computers, smartphones, web sites, and more.
10. Disable Crap You Don't Need
When something goes wrong, it's probably your fault. Computers certainly have their issues all on their own, but more often than not you're going to cause a problem yourself. For example, AdBlock -- as great as it is -- can cause web sites to look like they're not loading properly (or at all). It can prevent video playback if you have video ad blocking enabled, too. It should work, in general, but it's not perfect and screws up from time to time. The same goes for any drivers or extensions in your computer. Sometimes you'll install something incompatible by accident. Keep track of what you do and look at the third-party stuff you're using to test and see if it's causing the problem. Often times you can figure out which extension or driver (or whatever) is the problem by going down the list and considering if it relates to your issue.
9. Take a Break
If you're working on a frustrating problem for more than 10 minutes, it's probably a good time to take a break. Take a walk, get a cup of coffee, or do something else that will take your mind off the issues. Focus is only good when it won't lead to an aneurism. Sometimes you just have to take a step back so you can approach the issues a bit later with a fresh perspective. It can be hard to do, but it's often necessary.
8. Talk It Out with a Troubleshooting Buddy
When you're stuck and don't know what to do next, sometimes the best way to figure it out is to talk about it with someone else. Under ideal circumstances you have a troubleshooting buddy you can bother to discuss the problem and hopefully get some suggestions as well. If not, non-techies aren't so bad either. Discuss the issue with them. Explain it to them in terms they'll understand. It doesn't matter so much if they can offer any help. The fact that they're listening and you're thinking about the problem in different terms can often lead you towards a solution -- or at least the beginnings of one. If you're stuck and don't know what to do, stop searching online and talk it out. After a few minutes you should have some new ideas to try.
7. Make Sure It's Not Just You
When a website isn't working, sometimes it's not the internet. Sometimes it's just you. How can you tell? You could ask a friend or just use something like Down for Everyone or Just Me? Go there and type in the website in question. DFEOJM.com will let you know if it can reach the page or not. If it can't, it'll report that it's down for everyone. If it can, you might want to restart your router and, if necessary, start looking into other possible causes.
6. Check Your Logs
Logs are your friend, even if you don't know half of what they're saying. When they seem like a foreign language, even a quick glance can tell you what might be causing the problem. You might not understand the error codes or any of the details, but you should be able to see if the error pertains to a specific application or task. This will, at least, give you a lead to investigate so you can focus on discovering what the problem really is. If you're running Windows, here's a tutorial on finding your log files. If you're on Mac, just open the Console applications in Hard Drive > Applications > Utilities. If you do understand log files, then you're in really great shape (and probably do not need to be reading this tip.)
5. Perform Regular Maintenance Tasks
Regular maintenance is important, whether you're on a Mac, Windows, or Linux PC. Sometimes the issue you're seeing is the result of a permissions error, a bad cache file, hard drive fragmentation, a messy registry and so on. Obviously these issues don't apply to every operating system, but performing maintenance tasks for your specific OS (guides linked earlier in this paragraph) can often clear up the problem. And, if you make these maintenance tasks a recurring duty, you may not run into some issues at all.
4. Set Up Remote Access
Whether you need to fix an issue on your own computer when you're away or you're helping out a friend or family member, setting up remote access makes a huge different in the troubleshooting process. When you can't be there, it's as close as you can get. There are many options, too. You can simply set up VNC or use a service to take the hassle out of the process. Many chat apps like Skype and iChat have screen sharing features as well, so you're bound to be able to get through if someone else is around. When you can't be there to troubleshoot the problem yourself, remote access is the next best thing.
3. Use Alternative Search Engines When Looking for Help
Google's great, but it's not the best place to go for everything. More geek-orientated search engines like DuckDuckGo tend to turn up better results when you're looking for troubleshooting assistance. When you're trying to find someone else with your problem, you want a search engine that's going to dig up plenty of forum posts with discussions and, hopefully, solutions. If your primary search engine isn't turning up what you want, try DuckDuckGo instead.
2. Hit Up Helpful Q&A Web Sites
When you're not sure what to do or who to ask for help, there are places online designed to solve your problems. There are plenty of specific forums, but sites like StackExchange offer a focused format for asking questions and getting answers on a variety of topics. (We have a few other suggestions as well.) If none of those sites do the trick, you can always email us. We're always on the lookout for good Ask Lifehacker topics, so if your issue is broad enough it may be a good problem for us to solve for you.
Seriously. We often forget to do it and it regularly solves the problem. It doesn't matter if it's an old Super Nintendo, a brand new laptop, or your smart or dumb phone -- restarting is, in most cases, the first thing you should try when there's a seemingly unsolvable problem. Remember to do it and save yourself a lot of trouble.