PC won't boot? Forgot your Windows password? Or just sent your boss a nasty email? PC Advisor leads you through the recovery process for some of the more common computing catastrophes.

With computers, sooner or later something always goes wrong – it's merely a matter of when and how seriously. PC Advisor has plenty of tales of woe to share – you wouldn't believe how badly Vista screwed up one of our PCs recently. But rather than harp on about that we've focused on serious but all-too-common computing traumas that have afflicted many of us over the years.

If your computer won't boot or your data's gone astray, panic is sure to follow. In your haste to solve the problem you might find yourself making things worse. We want you to be prepared for such a scenario, so this standby guide ought to be filed somewhere close by. The next time a piece of hardware or software takes an unexpected holiday, consult these pages for how to deal with some of computing's most devastating debacles.

Of course, this advice won't solve every technology-related problem you may come across, but it includes some neat tricks you may not have thought of – such as freezing a bad hard drive to get it to boot one last time so you can retrieve your data, baking your wet mobile device in an oven set on low to bring it back to life, and putting a delay on your outbound email so you have a chance to reconsider the flammable diatribe you've just penned.

Invisible PCs?

If you can't see your PCs on a network, Windows is probably at fault. But the source of the problem could also be hardware. If you can access the internet the chances are that the problem is not your PC's hardware or drivers.

In this case, start by going through the various Windows settings to see which has gone awry.

If you've never been able to see other PCs on the network, check they're all part of the same workgroup. And note that Vista changes the default workgroup name. Select Start, Run, type sysdm.cpl, and press Enter. Click Computer Name, Change and look at the Workgroup field.

Next, look for duplicate IP address assignments, another common problem. Windows will usually give a warning about one PC being assigned an IP address that's already in use. A router and/or PC reboot will often solve this. Check that manually assigned, static IP addresses haven't been set on some systems in the same area the router uses to assign automatic IP addresses – check each PC individually via Start, Run, ‘cmd /k ipconfig', Enter.

Running Windows Update on all systems could solve this problem, too – particularly on XP PCs. As always, check cabling and Wi-Fi settings. And, it sounds silly, but is the computer you want to reach actually switched on?

Finally, ensure the printers or folders you're trying to access are shared and have the appropriate permissions for clients to read. You'll need to log in as an administrator. For folders, go to Windows Explorer, right-click the folder you want to share and select Share. For printers, go to Start, Printers and Faxes (Printers in Vista), right-click the printer you want and choose Sharing.

Sharing in Vista is quite different from XP. Make sure network discovery and file and/or printer sharing are turned on in the Network and Sharing Center.

Once these issues are remedied, the problem should not crop up again. If it does resurface, a reboot is in order.

Accidentally insulted your boss by email?

You may be tempted to use the 'recall' command if your email client has such a feature. Don't use it unless you are positive it works and the boss hasn't already read your email. Nothing adds insult to injury more than a reminder of an ill-judged message you sent. Recall functions often fail, anyway.

A straight face-to-face apology is the best option. Resist the urge to say sorry via email - you'll seem insincere. The phone is marginally better than email - a handwritten apology and a small gift may help!

How to avoid email blunders

Self-control is your friend. Double-check message recipients before you click Send to avoid accidentally forwarding your private rants to the person you're complaining about.

Set email to delay sending and receiving messages so mail isn't immediately delivered. In Outlook, click Tools, Options, Mail Setup. Deselect 'Send immediately when connected' and click Send/Receive. Change the 'Schedule an automatic send/receive' option to 10 minutes.

Quick links

Invisible PCs?

Accidentally insulted your boss over email?

Computer won't boot?

No internet?

Identity stolen?

Pop-ups everywhere?

Lost files

Spills and accidents

Dead drive

Locked out of Windows?

Speechless?

Computer won't boot?

Determining the cause here is half the battle. Is it hardware- or software-related?

First, check all cables to ensure everything is hooked up tight – including the electric socket. Does the power supply turn on? Listen for its fan or your hard drive spinning. If you hear nothing, your power supply probably needs to be replaced. Test the voltage output with a power-supply tester. Check whether the socket is at fault, too, by plugging in another device.

If your power supply is okay but nothing appears onscreen, plug in a different monitor to ensure it's not your display that's blown. If the replacement monitor works, try replacing the video cable. If that doesn't work and your hard drive spins normally, your graphics card is probably at fault.

Replace it and, while you're inside the case, ensure that all the fans work at startup. You may have excess heat issues.

If your monitor is working but you detect no hard drive activity and see no display – or you see a display but the PC can't get through bootup – reset the CMOS. Shut down the PC, unplug it, ground yourself and take out the battery on the motherboard. Wait five minutes before resetting the CMOS jumpers as advised on the manufacturers' website. Now reboot your PC.

If the PC still isn't functioning, bad RAM could be the culprit. Remove one memory module at a time – or replace each module with a known good one – and reboot after each test. Alternatively, create a free MemTest86 boot disk on another PC (memtest86.com) and try using this to test the RAM.

If none of this works, your motherboard or CPU (central processing unit) is probably damaged and needs replacing. However, your data can probably be recovered by installing your hard drive on another PC. Consider getting an estimate from a repair shop, but it may be more cost-effective to replace the PC. A repair shop might be your best (and only) option if your PC is a laptop.

Finally, if the PC's Bios routine runs but the drive won't spin, your drive may have crashed.

System overload

As dire as these hardware failures can seem, you're far more likely to encounter software issues, such as Windows refusing to start or freezing while it's loading.

If your OS is the problem, boot into Safe mode. As Windows starts up, press the key as directed to reach the boot menu and enter 'Safe mode'. Often, Windows will recover if you boot into Safe mode, then shut down and reboot normally.

With Vista, select the 'Repair Your Computer' option at the boot menu. You'll find choices to aid your PC.

No joy? Try 'Last Known Good Configuration' at the boot menu. This is helpful if you've changed hardware or drivers. Remove new hardware – it may be incompatible – and roll back drivers in the Device Manager. Right-click My Computer (Computer in Vista), click Hardware and choose Device Manager.

If you can run in Safe mode but can't start the full version of Windows, try System Restore – Programs, Accessories, System Tools in XP; Start, type system, System Restore in Vista – to roll back your PC to a happier time. Run an antivirus and antispyware app in Safe mode, too.

If you still can't boot, you probably have heavy-duty Windows problems. Try to boot from an emergency CD using Knoppix (knoppix.com) or Active Boot Disk (ntfs.com/boot-disk.htm), which can help you to see whether your PC will boot at all and to collect any critical files from the drive.

If your PC is still unstable, reinstalling Windows is probably your best bet.

Avoiding hard disk issues
PCs die unexpectedly, so focus on 'what if'. Turn on System Restore, keep your system recovery discs handy, back up often and keep a spare hard drive and power supply.

Using a drive image program such as Acronis True Image 10.0 (acronis.com) or Norton Ghost 10.0 (symantec.com) makes it easier to restore your data.

Quick links

Invisible PCs?

Accidentally insulted your boss over email?

Computer won't boot?

No internet?

Identity stolen?

Pop-ups everywhere?

Lost files

Spills and accidents

Dead drive

Locked out of Windows?

Speechless?

No internet?

Start with issues you can control. Modems and routers are vulnerable to frequent crashes. A simple reboot usually corrects this problem. Try using another PC to reach the web – you could have a faulty network card in the first. If you still can't get online, check if your local network is working. You may need to reboot or replace the router.

Is your cable or DSL modem displaying error lights? If it indicates trouble, unplug it and your router, shut down your PC, wait 30 seconds, plug everything back in and restart. Try resetting your PC connection in Windows. Click Start, Run, type CMD then ipconfig /renew at the terminal prompt.

If you're using a wireless adaptor, try plugging your PC directly into the router via an ethernet cable, or connect the PC directly to the modem to further isolate the problem. Check all cables and replace them if at all possible. Examine cable modems for fraying on the coaxial wiring.

Check with your ISP (internet service provider) about known outages. Your ISP may need to send a reset signal to your modem. At this point, you're probably dealing with a network outage. These are usually temporary, but report it anyway.

To avoid future web-free periods, have a backup dialup number or a Wi-Fi laptop you can take to a nearby hotspot.

Identity stolen?

You'll probably never know how this happened. Scammers use all kinds of methods to steal personal data, grabbing it from discarded bank and credit card statements, skimming cards at a cash machine or slurping financial information entered online.

Cancel all your cards and immediately inform your bank and credit card companies. Request a new account number if necessary. Change all PINs (personal identification numbers). Banks and credit card companies require notice in writing of any compromised accounts, and you'll probably need to sign an affidavit at the bank disputing fraudulent transactions.

Change the passwords for any online banking or other sites you have used for transactions. Call the credit reporting agencies Equifax and Experian and tell them what's happened. You can check your credit report with these agencies for any illegal or inaccurate listings. File forms disputing the reports, as appropriate.

Tell the police, especially if you were physically robbed or have an idea how else someone may have got hold of your cards or bank details. You'll need police reports to back up your story with the credit agencies, as well as for reference purposes.

Future financial security

Check your credit report every year or so. Use strong passwords and PINs. Keep personal details including your National Insurance number – and any other useful tidbits – to yourself. Limit the business you do online to sites you've vetted.

Pop-ups everywhere?

If you're having persistent pop-up problems, spyware or adware is probably at work. Unplug your PC from the network or disable your wireless connection. Boot into Safe mode by pressing the key you're prompted to during boot-up (often this is F8).

Run a complete system scan using your antivirus software. Then run Ad-Aware (lavasoftusa.com) and Spybot Search & Destroy (spybot.info), and fix all the problems these apps uncover. Restore your internet connection, reboot and run both programs again after updating them with the latest definitions. Consider using an online virus checker, too.

If you have a truly nasty infection – some spyware runs amok even in Safe mode – then you may need to use HijackThis. Getting your PC back can be a lengthy process.

If all else fails, try using System Restore to roll back your operating system to a happier time or even reinstalling Windows.

Staying one step ahead

Use common sense. Don't click on strange attachments, pop-ups or links on dodgy sites. Raise IE's security settings (go to Tools, Internet Options, Security) or switch browsers. Keep your antivirus and antispyware programs up to date. Turn on System Restore. Disinfect your PC at the first sign of trouble, since spyware tends to snowball, and save current copies of your security applications on a USB drive or optical disc for easy access.

Quick links

Invisible PCs?

Accidentally insulted your boss over email?

Computer won't boot?

No internet?

Identity stolen?

Pop-ups everywhere?

Lost files

Spills and accidents

Dead drive

Locked out of Windows?

Speechless?

Lost file?

Deleting a file doesn't really erase it. There's a good chance it's recoverable, even if the file is no longer in the Recycle Bin.

Immediately stop using the PC in question. Close all open programs and stop any real-time indexing services such as X1, Google Desktop or Windows' own indexing service. These could overwrite the file you're trying hard to recover.

Try an undelete program such as File Scavenger or Undelete.

Start thinking about where copies of the file might live. If you emailed it to someone, it may be in your Sent files or you could get them to bounce it back to you.

Photos and video files may still be on your memory card or camera, or uploaded to a sharing site. Look through the files lurking in temp folders on your hard drive.

With certain versions of Windows Vista, you can use the Shadow Copy feature (switched on by default) to restore your files. Right-click the folder where your file was and select Restore previous versions to retrieve your documents.

Best backup next time

Nightly backups will make this problem a thing of the past. Programs such as Undelete keep track of erased files until they are overwritten, making recovery easier.

Had a little accident?

Water and electronics don't mix, but a little spill doesn't have to mean your gadgets are totalled. If the device is still on, turn it off immediately and remove any batteries, CDs, SIM cards, memory cards and so on. For a laptop, remove any modular components such as PC Cards and removable optical drives. Dry off any visible liquid with a towel.

Depending on how comfortable you are with the process, disassemble the device as much as possible and as quickly as possible to improve your chances of recovering it. This is essential if you can hear trapped liquid sloshing around inside.

Your goal is to get the device completely dry, inside and out, as rapidly as you can. Try one or several of the following – but be cautious as there are some radical ‘cures' here that could do more harm than good. These moves may invalidate your warranty.

  • Desiccants will absorb moisture: Put the device in a sealed bag with several brand-new silica gel packets. Uncooked white rice or even salt – securely wrapped in tissue paper, mind – are another option
  • Just heat it Put the device on a car dashboard – ensure it doesn't get hotter than about 150 degrees – to evaporate moisture. An oven on its lowest heat is a riskier option. Simply carrying the mobile phone or iPod in your trousers pocket may make it warm enough to do the trick, as can a hair dryer on its cool setting. Make sure the battery is removed if you try any of these tricks
  • Alcohol attracts water: Again, this is not a trick for the faint hearted. Completely submerge a wet gadget in a container full of alcohol (99 percent rubbing alcohol, not the standard 70 percent). It will bind to the water and pour out or evaporate. Do this quickly as alcohol can damage some kinds of plastics
  • No drain strain: If the device has (or is) a keyboard, turn it upside down for a while and give the unwanted liquid a chance to drain out
  • Sticky stuff: Fizzy drink spills require a cleanup as well as a dry out. Open the affected device and swab it with a cotton bud dipped in 99 percent rubbing alcohol – otherwise the electronics are likely to short-circuit from the goo trapped inside

How to avoid a fried phone

Avoiding spills is hard, but damage limitation is possible. Cover gadgets with waterproof housing – you can get plastic covers for keyboards. Keep liquids and your electronics away from each other, or take some precautions if they're likely to come into proximity with each other.

Quick links

Invisible PCs?

Accidentally insulted your boss over email?

Computer won't boot?

No internet?

Identity stolen?

Pop-ups everywhere?

Lost files

Spills and accidents

Dead drive

Locked out of Windows?

Speechless?

Dead drive?

Whether it was dropped, overheated or died of old age, the hard drive is possibly the most failure-prone part of your PC.

If the drive spins but behaves erratically, you probably have data corruption caused by a failing drive. Try the following steps to recover and copy your data before the bad drive dies.

If you're using an IDE drive, check your data cable is connected properly. If it is, try a new cable. IDE cables are cheap and prone to having their insulation stripped by the metal edges inside a PC case, shorting the cable.

Try booting with a Knoppix CD or another boot disk to find out whether the drive is readable. If it is, back up the data to another drive and reformat the original disk.

You may have bad sectors; try using HDD Regenerator (dposoft.net) to locate any. Download the demo and burn it to a bootable CD. If the free demo finds bad sectors, it's probably worth paying for the full version to recover the bad sectors and make the drive usable.

TackTech's website features manufacturer-specific utilities for virtually any hard drive. Find out which company made the drive that's failing, then download the appropriate diagnostic application. These free tools can be a major help in diagnosing problems on a drive and repairing them. The Hitachi, Western Digital and Seagate tools (in that order) will best work on other manufacturers' hard drives.

Data-recovery software can attempt to salvage lost files, but it can cost anywhere up to £200. File Scavenger (quetek.com) and Stellar Phoenix (stellarinfo.com) are both worthwhile.

If the hard drive will not spin at all, you can still try a few tricks to revive it.

While ensuring you don't tap or whack it (which will cause data loss), hold the drive in your hand and rotate your arm outwards quickly, parallel to the orientation of the platters – as if you were throwing a Frisbee. Repeat several times. Make sure not to bang the disk on anything. This may just solve a problem known as ‘stiction' (static friction), which can prevent drive platters spinning.

Try attaching the drive to a high-wattage power supply. The extra burst of juice could jar it into spinning up one last time.

The 'freezer trick' is an old standby if you have a drive that is clicking but not spinning: Put the drive in a plastic freezer bag – and wrap it in a paper towel for extra protection against moisture – to keep water out.

Freeze it for a few hours. Let it thaw back to room temperature after you take it out. Mop up any condensation you see. There's no agreed-upon length of time to freeze it, but start with an hour and work your way up to 24 hours to see whether you can make the drive spin up one last time.

Remember that if you do get a dead drive spinning, don't let it stop until you've copied all your data. It's unlikely to work twice.
If all else fails and you need data off the hard drive, your last, best hope is to send it to a data-recovery service such as Ontrack (ontrack.co.uk) or DriveSavers (drivesavers.com). It isn't cheap, but it may be worthwhile.

Hard drive health tips
Ensure your backups are up to date. Mirror a second hard drive so you have a real-time backup with minimal risk of data loss.
A cheaper aid is to monitor your drive's health with the HDD Health utility (panterasoft.com), which can predict most impending crashes.

Locked out of Windows?

If you've lost your XP login password, try logging in under another account with administrator privileges. Any administrator account can reset the password of any other account.

If you're not using the XP icon-led login screen, try logging in with the account named Administrator. But if you're using the XP login screen, try pressing Ctrl, Alt, Delete to reach the old, NT-style screen, which should allow you to type in the username.

If no other account exists on the PC, you'll need a third-party tool such as Ophcrack. Using another PC, download it from ophcrack.sourceforge.net and burn it to a disc. Boot from this CD and watch Ophcrack go to work. Based on extensive password tables, it can recover most passwords in a matter of minutes, for all the accounts on a PC.

There is a tool that can reset your password if everything else has failed. Such tools generally involve a small risk of data loss or corruption, however. Offline NT Password & Registry Editor and Emergency Boot CD both include bootable CD versions, and are fairly self-explanatory if you're comfortable working with the command line.

If you've lost a Bios-level password, try resetting or bypassing it. Try backdoor passwords as listed here. Or try resetting your CMOS, to cause the Bios to reset to its default state.

Speechless?

Whether a corrupt file or a dodgy laptop is at fault, your nerves are shot if you're expected to give a presentation without your slides.

Of course, you could brave it and forgo your pictures. Everyone hates PowerPoint and at least you'll be able to prove your flexibility and ability to handle setbacks if you do without the crutch of slides and continue immediately.

Back in reality, if you have to have a presentation and a quick reboot doesn't help, try OpenOffice. You can download and install it in 10 to 15 minutes. A copy stored on a USB key is a good emergency option that can be used on any PC.

To avoid future presentation dilemmas you should bring printouts of all the slides to use as handouts, and pack the aforementioned OpenOffice Portable as a precaution.

Quick links

Invisible PCs?

Accidentally insulted your boss over email?

Computer won't boot?

No internet?

Identity stolen?

Pop-ups everywhere?

Lost files

Spills and accidents

Dead drive

Locked out of Windows?

Speechless?