Having worked in the IT support business for many years, we get all sorts of IT problems to deal with. While these issues are sometimes complex, there's a few things that any computer user can do before having to pick up that phone and contact your IT support team of choice.
Computers do just go wrong sometimes. Occasionally, this is a hardware problem. However, the failure rate on these parts are generally measured in years. More often, the problem will be software related. Sometimes this is due to direct intervention on the user's part, and sometimes it just goes wrong for (seemingly) no reason at all.
Therefore, we've compiled a list of 3 IT support hints and tips that will hopefully aid any computer user in completing the most remedial remedies. The tips below are general, but some of the specifics are Windows only, as this is where we tend to get most requests.
1 - Have you tried turning it off and on again?
Yes, we know it's a cliché, but there's a reason for that. If your computer has started doing something strange for seemingly no good reason, this is the first thing any IT support person will tell you to try. Yes, it's a cheaters way out of a problem, and if the problem continues to occur after you've done this, then there's a bigger problem to resolve. However, computers do often just get themselves tied up in knots after a while - especially if they've been left on for a long time. Turning it off and on again gives the computer a clean sheet to start with, and a lot of the time, you'll find your problem has solved itself. There's (almost) no situation where this will make a problem worse, so the first course of action is generally to reboot like a pro!
2 - Check your disk space
So you've rebooted, but your machine is still acting up. One thing that can often cause a machine to act unpredictably is if your hard drive is almost full. The computer is always trying to write important stuff to it, and if it runs out of space, it doesn't like it. To check this in Windows, just double click the "Computer" icon on your desktop. Recent versions of Windows will highlight problems in this area by indicating the disk space level with a big red line underneath the drive labelled "C". You can always check this in more detail by right clicking that drive and going to "properties". This will give you a breakdown of how much free space you have left. If the pie chart here indicates you have very little free space, then you need to take action.
Files can end up anywhere on your hard drive, but you'll generally find that most of the space is being used in your documents, desktop and downloads folders. Have a look in these and see if there's anything you can delete (or move to another hard drive if you have one / move to online storage). Also, make sure you've emptied your Recycle Bin - just right click it and pick "Empty Recycle Bin".
Windows does tend to accumulate its own files in other places as well. There's an easy way to clear these out. Open the start menu, and just type "disk cleanup". Make sure "C" is selected, click OK. A box will appear with a few options - some of them ticked. Just click OK here, and Windows will delete all the stuff it knows is safe to delete. There's also great tools online like CCleaner that will perform a similar function, but is much more thorough about it.
3 - Check for viruses, spyware, malware and the like.
Another common issue we deal with is machine that have been compromised with one or more of the evils above. By far the best idea is to always remain vigilant and hopefully avoid infection with one of these in the first place. Currently, these are mostly spread via email. These emails often purport to be from banks, phone companies, the Post Office, Amazon and many others. They often come with zip file attachments that contain these attacks. It is almost certain that you will never get a legitimate email from one of these major companies with a zip file (unless you know of a specific reason otherwise). Be wary of any email with a zip file attachment - even if it is from a known source. If you're unsure, ring the person that sent you the email to check they definitely intended to send you an email with a zip file.
Alternatively, the email may contain links to sites designed to try and steal your details or compromise your machine in some way. Hover over the links in the email, and your email client should tell you where that link will take you. Does this look right? For instance, if these email is seemingly from Amazon, does the link start http://www.amazon.co.uk/, or is it something else?
If one of these does slip through your net through this method or via some other attack, all is not lost. There are some free tools that will clean up the problems caused by most of these nasties. These days, Windows comes with "Windows Defender", which is a reasonable first line of defense against viruses and spyware. However, this is not bulletproof (indeed, no real-time scanner is).
It is difficult to be specific about what indicators of infection you may see. Really, you just have to be on the look out for anything "odd". Browser windows popping up unexpectedly. The machine running much slower all of a sudden for no obvious reason. Anything that seems to be happening "on its own".
When we suspect a machine is infected, there's a few tools we frequently turn to: Malwarebytes, Superantispyware and Spybot. Install these and let them scan your drive. They will let you know if they find anything dubious, and try and solve the problem. A lot of the time this will fix the issue.
Once these tools report a clean bill of health, be sure to run them again a week or so later. If new items have been found, this would suggest there's probably a bigger issue here, and there's something hidden in your computer that's enabling easy reinfection. At this point, it's probably worth getting a professional to take a look.