Nothing will stall your workday faster than a dropped network connection or recalcitrant peripheral. There's a good chance that just a few tweaked Windows settings will get you rolling again. With some luck, the tools built into the OS will be all the help you need. And if Windows' diagnostic tools come up short, there are some other resources at your troubleshooting disposal.
Diagnose network disconnections in Vista and XP
One of Vista's most useful new tools is the revamped Network Diagnostics utility. When a Web page won't load in Internet Explorer, you may be prompted to run the utility by clicking Tools > Diagnose Connection Problems. You can also open the program by clicking the network icon in the system tray, choosing Network and Sharing Center, and clicking Diagnose and Repair in the left pane.
Some problems the program will fix automatically, but it may also display instructions for correcting the glitch manually, or it might simply point to Vista's Help and Support file. The tool can't diagnose problems outside of the local PC, such as your ISP's servers being down, but it helps you determine whether the source is in your system or something else.
XP's Network Diagnostics tool lacks the troubleshooting chops of its Vista counterpart, but it can help you pinpoint the location of the failure. To run it from Internet Explorer, click Tools > Diagnose Connection Problems. To open it without IE, click Start > Run, type %windir%\network diagnostic\xpnetdiag.exe, and press Enter.
If everything checks out with your PC's network settings, ping your ISP's servers to make sure the connection is working. Click Start > All Programs > Accessories > Command Prompt, type ping cnet.com (or any domain name), and press Enter. If your network link is working, you'll see four lines of replies, followed by a list of ping statistics. A failed ping test indicates a lost connection to your ISP. Before you get on the horn to your ISP, try turning off your router and then turning it back on again. This is sometimes sufficient to reset the device. If that doesn't reestablish your network link, it's time to get on the phone to the company's support line. (To get a more detailed look of the path packets take from your PC to a Web site, type tracert, the domain name, and press Enter to see a list of all the stops the packets make along the way to their destination.) When you're done, type exit and press Enter to close the Command Prompt window.
Fixes for AWOL hardware
If a printer, monitor, or other device starts acting up, make sure all cables are plugged in tight, and all adapter connections are nice and snug. You might think it's an urban myth, but it happens: about a year ago I thought my hard drive was toast, but it turns out an internal cable had come loose. (Also make sure the danged thing is powered on; that happens too.)
It's easy to tell someone to update their drivers, but it's not so easy to do, especially if the device is more than a year or two old, and the hardware vendor has abandoned it. First, you have to search the vendor's site for the latest driver for that specific model, and after you find and download it, you have to open Windows Device Manager, navigate to and double-click the entry for the device in question, and then run the Update Driver wizard, pointing to the new driver when prompted to. On top of everything, there's no guarantee the new driver will solve the problem.
You may have more luck using System Restore to turn back the clock to a time when the device worked, but this is no guaranteed fix either. Another longshot is running Windows' built-in troubleshooters. In my experience, they're a waste of time: I must've tried the troubleshooting wizards dozens of times over the years, and not once were they any use. You'll find them in the troubleshooting section of the inappropriately named Help and Support Center: press F1 from the desktop to open the app.
Rather than looking to Windows or the device's vendor for help diagnosing your problem, your time may be better spent searching one of the many Web forums for the category of product. Two of my favorites are those at Tom's Hardware, and CNET's PC Hardware Forum.
Tomorrow: automate your online storage without spending a dime.