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[ The PC Guide | Troubleshooting and Repair Guide | Diagnostic, Troubleshooting and Repair Tools ]

Diagnostic Software

The use of diagnostic software tools can save you a great deal of time. While in my experience these tools do not usually identify what the cause of a system problem is, they often provide hints or at least valuable information about what is in the system and how it is working. Some of these are free or are included with common operating systems at no additional charge, while others are commercial products that range from affordable to rather pricey.

Here are some common software diagnostic tools that you will want to consider including as part of your troubleshooting arsenal:

  • Power-On Self Test (POST): I am cheating a bit here because this isn't a separate diagnostic utility; it is in fact built into your system BIOS and it runs every time you start up your PC automatically. It is often the best indicator of system problems; make sure you pay attention to its audio and video messages. Don't disable its error-reporting functions unless you really need to.
  • MEM.EXE: This simple utility, built into recent versions of DOS and also Windows 95, provides you with details about your memory configuration, as well as what is currently using your memory. It is especially useful when run with the "/C" parameter (use the "/P" parameter as well to make the output pause when it is scrolling).
  • Microsoft Diagnostics: Better known as "MSD.EXE", this is a small DOS utility that takes a brief inventory of the contents of your PC and shows them to you in a text-based format. This is very useful for seeing what disks are in the system, how much memory is installed, and also for checking system resource usage such as LPT ports and IRQs. It will show you what type of BIOS you are using and also what UART chip you have in your serial ports. MSD.EXE is included in later versions of DOS.

Tip: MSD.EXE will work on a Windows 95 machine but is not normally installed as part of the normal Windows 95 installation. You can find it on the Windows 95 CD however and then copy it to the C:\WINDOWS\COMMAND directory to make it work.

Warning: MSD.EXE can give incorrect information when run from within Windows. Shut down to DOS mode before running it ("Restart the computer in MS-DOS mode")

  • The Windows 95 Device Manager: This is the most useful tool for identifying system configuration and resource usage information under Windows 95. To access it, open the Control Panel and select the "System" icon. Then select the "Device Manager" tab. You will see a graphical "tree" structure showing you all of your PC hardware. If you select "Properties" while "Computer" (the top-level item) is selected, you will be able to see all the IRQs, DMA channels and I/O addresses in use in your PC; very useful for resolving resource conflicts! The same "Properties" button, pressed after selecting a specific hardware device, will show you driver information, resource settings for the hardware item chosen, and much more.
  • Norton System Information: This utility is similar to the Microsoft Diagnostics, only more detailed in its later versions. SI shows a great deal of information about what is in the PC, going well beyond what MSD gives you, but really is still an information utility as opposed to a true diagnostic. This program is part of Symantec's Norton Utilities.
  • Microsoft ScanDisk and Norton Disk Doctor: These programs are used to check for hard disk problems. This includes file system corruption and hard disk read errors. They should be used when hard disk problems are suspected.
  • Norton Diagnostics: This utility is meant to go beyond the System Information program and actually perform tests on the hardware to identify problems. It includes tests of the processor and motherboard and system memory, and will identify some types of resource conflicts. In reality it is still quite limited in terms of the numbers of problems it will find.
  • QAPlus: QAPlus from DiagSoft is a more advanced diagnostic suite that comes in several flavors, depending on what you need to do and how you want to do it. This is a more expensive package but can give you much more detailed information about your system and help identify problem situations as well.

Next: Diagnostic Hardware

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