The First and Best Way to Troubleshoot a Fussy Device

The First and Best Way to Troubleshoot a Fussy Device

I’m almost surprised I have to write this, but when my friends and roommates come to me with technological quirks to solve, I always hit them with one answer off the top of my head. And more often than not, it’s the single thing they need to do to fix any issue they’re having.

Since we’re closing out reboot week here at Lifehacker, you can probably guess what that answer is: “Have you power-cycled it?” I sometimes then have to clarify what I mean: “Did you turn it off and turn it back on again?”

While it sounds like I’m just grumpy, or trying to keep my friends from pestering me when I’m watching YouTube or playing games — occasionally true — this advice is the first tool in my own arsenal whenever I encounter a software or hardware issue. I shut the problematic device down, wait a few seconds, power it back up, and see if that fixed the issue.

Why does this work so well? Simply put, you’re resetting the device, and its software, back to a known state — theoretically. Any quirky and temporary modifications you’ve made, or any software oddities caused by you or some other external factor, should disappear. Nothing in your device’s memory should persist, since it’ll be powered off. You’re basically resetting all of your device’s connections, whatever they may be, and it should return to performing the normal way it previously has. That’s especially true if it’s a simpler device (a network switch) compared to a more complex one (your laptop).

As computer science lecturer Rob Miles wrote in a 2016 article:

If we give the computer too many tasks to run – or a set of physical events occur in a sequence that the software writers weren’t expecting – then tasks can get “stuck” in memory. Computer scientists talk about a “deadly embrace” that occurs when task A is waiting for task B to do something, and task B is waiting for task A to do something, causing them both to get stuck.

In addition, as tasks run, they fetch and use resources such as computer memory and, over time, the arrangement of these resources will become fragmented and harder to manage, just like it is difficult to find things in an untidy bedroom (which is probably why your parents made such a fuss about it). A reboot may also be a temporary fix for problems caused by hardware that is becoming unreliable, particularly if things start to go wrong when components get hot.

Modern operating systems are very adept at spotting and removing stuck processes and also work very hard to keep things tidy, but sometimes a computer can reach a state where the best thing to do is start again from scratch. A reboot removes every task and then restarts with a clean slate.

Of course, there are a few caveats to the “reset it” technique, much as there would be with any troubleshooting attempt. You might need to reset more than one device depending on the issue you’re having. For example, if you get the dreaded network connection error icon in Windows 10’s taskbar because your Internet zapped out, you’re going to have quite a few devices to potentially restart: your computer, your cable modem, your router, the wireless extender nearest your laptop, et cetera.

When you reset a device as part of your troubleshooting, try to shut down using whatever “power off” or “reboot” commands it offers, rather than simply pulling the plug in and out of the wall. While this isn’t a big deal for some devices — your network switch or your wifi router — it can be a big deal for, say, your network-attached storage device (which is really more like a mini-computer than anything else). Whenever you can, use your device’s UI to power it down.

And as we’ve shown, restarting a device might not have the same effect as fully powering it down and powering it back up again. Usually, the former is fine, but if you’re dealing with a device like a fussy Windows PC, make sure you’re not hibernating your system when you actually mean to restart it. If you’re ever unsure that restarting your device doesn’t seem to be doing anything, try this: fully power down your device, unplug it (if applicable), wait a minute, plug it back in, and power it back up.

The order in which you restart devices as part of your troubleshooting matters, too. For example, if I’m having an issue with my internet connection, I’ll usually start by restarting my desktop computer. I’ll then try power-cycling my network switch. Next, I’ll hop into my router’s settings and turn it off, and then turn off the mesh access point that my desktop is connected to. (I connect my desktop PC to a mesh access point over Ethernet, and that access point connects to my primary router wirelessly.)

I’ll wait a bit for the primary router to hop back online, and then I’ll power up the mesh access point. Finally, I’ll power up my PC and see if that made everything better. If not, I’ll go into my cable modem’s settings and restart it. And if that still doesn’t fix the issue, I’ll shrug my shoulders and assume I’m stuck in the Comcast penalty box for an undisclosed amount of time. In actuality, though, I probably repeat this full process two or three more times until I feel I’ve really exhausted my options.

As you can see, there can be an art to shutting your devices down and turning them back on again, based on what kind of a problem you’re dealing with and what device you’re using. Regardless, this should be the first thing you try whenever you’re facing just about any kind of a weird technological issue — except, maybe, if your mechanical hard drive is making any kind of clicking or grinding noise. (Copy your data off ASAP.)

In fact, I’m going to go reboot a device right now, because my Google Home app now thinks my smart speaker is missing. I bet I know just what it needs.

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