Microsoft has made it easier to browse for help when one of its products acts up. The revamped Fix It Solution Center boils troubleshooting down to three steps: pick a product (optional), choose a fix in one of eight categories (and handful of optional subcategories), and then view or run one of Microsoft's many proposed solutions.
Of course, the real test is whether these auto-repair tools actually do any good. I haven't done enough testing to form an opinion one way or the other. However, the online Fix It tools differ from the troubleshooting utilities built into Windows 7, Office, and other Microsoft products, so at the least they broaden the universe of possible automated fixes for software snafus.
Still, you may have a better chance of finding a solution to a specific problem by searching by keyword on the Microsoft Support site.
Taking Microsoft's troubleshooting advice
I ran several of the Fix It Solution Center's performance and security tools on a Windows 7 notebook. Even if they don't actually fix anything, the troubleshooters provide a wealth of information about your system. For example, the Internet Explorer Performance and Safety tester indicates the time each of your Internet Explorer add-ons takes to load. I'm not sure where I would find this information elsewhere. The IE tool also lets you disable the add-ons you don't need.
The IE Performance and Safety tester takes only few seconds to run, after which you are presented with Microsoft's suggested tweaks. In addition to recommending that I disable some IE add-ons that were slowing the browser down, the tool suggested that I enable Data Execution Prevention, which I wasn't aware was disabled.
After suggesting and implementing the settings changes, the Fix It tool asks whether the problem has been fixed and provides links to the Microsoft community and support sites where you can search for other possible solutions. The applet also offers to contact a Microsoft support professional for help with the problem, although you may have to pay for the privilege.
Likewise, the Windows performance tweaker lets you prevent programs you don't need from starting automatically, among other options.
The categories of Fix It solutions include Desktop, program, and file management; games, audio, video, and images; Internet and networking; hardware and software installation and upgrades; printing, faxing, scanning, and sharing; performance, errors, and crashes; and security, privacy, and user accounts. In some categories you'll find several dozen potential fixes, while in others there may be only one solution offered.
Other software auto-fix options
Windows and other Microsoft products have their own built-in troubleshooting tools that bear little or no resemblance to the Fix It troubleshooters. For example, Windows 7's Action Center Control Panel applet alerts you to system problems via an icon in the taskbar's notification area. You can also use the Action Center to view the machine's security and maintenance status.
Click the Action Center's link to the Control Panel's Troubleshooting applet to find about a dozen options for fixing problems related to program compatibility, hardware and audio, networking, security, Windows Update, performance, and power usage. (Information for troubleshooting Vista and Windows XP is available on Microsoft's TechNet site.)
When it comes to problems with Office applications, you're not likely to find much help in the programs' built-in help systems. (Note that Office 2007 apps include a built-in diagnostic routine; see the Microsoft Support site for more information.)
You could attempt to sort through the links on Microsoft's support site for Office 2007 and 2010 or the equivalent site for Office 2003, but if the Office Fix It solutions don't help, your best bet may be to use the repair feature of the Office installer.
To do so, open the Control Panel Programs and Features applet (Add or Remove Programs in Windows XP), select your version of Office, click the Change button at the top of the list, select Repair in the wizard that opens, and follow the wizard's instructions. The Microsoft Support site provides more information about repairing Office 2010, Office 2007, and Office 2003.
Even if your system appears to be running well, you may benefit from using Microsoft's Fix It and other diagnostic tools. Most PC users rely on automatic updates of their system, security, and application software. But programs sometimes conflict in ways their vendors can't predict. Few of these software glitches slam the brakes on your system--but they are likely to slow it down a little or a lot.
That's why your PC now needs a regular tuneup to keep running smoothly--just like your car. In an upcoming post I'll compare Microsoft's Fix It tools to other free online PC diagnostic services.