The Importance of Proper Troubleshooting

Many years ago I was not a geeky ITD GA who went around trying to fix technology problems here at GSLIS…  I was simply a geeky High School student who loved to play with computers.  I remember begging my mom and dad to get us a new family computer.  The new Powermac G4 towers were so cool!  They had room for an Iomega Zip drive and two bays for CD/DVD devices!  Not to mention the fact that it would be about 3 generations newer than our old 68030 Mac that was currently slowly chugging away for us.

So, realizing that I probably wouldn’t shut up until they got something and realizing that our old computer wasn’t cutting it any more my parents ordered a new G4 tower.  It was so shiny!  I immediately tore into it and started setting everything up.  But a week later… it stopped working.  The little disk-with-question-mark icon would just sit and flash at me.  So I started troubleshooting.

I was able to start the computer up off of the CD-Rom, so I knew that the computer itself worked.  I tried resetting the PRAM and any other key combination that might start the computer in a different matter.  Finally, I opened up the computer and started it up, looking at the hard disk itself.  The disk seemed to be dead.  At least it wasn’t spinning!  So I pulled the hard disk out of the computer, examined it (there really wasn’t much to see, but I was 16 and exploring) and then plugged it back in.  This time I plugged in a different power cord.  It worked!

Well, I had just done my first troubleshooting project.  It turns out that the particular power cord the hard disk had been hooked up to had been bad somehow!  So we went back to using our computer.  For about a week… it was broken again.  Again I went through my troubleshooting ideas.  I started it up off of removable media.  I tried plugging different power cords into the hard drive.  It must be a dead hard drive!  Finally, we took the computer to our authorized Apple repair center and asked them to replace our hard drive.  A long weekend and $80 later, the computer shop could find nothing wrong with our hard drive.  (It cost money because the warranty only covers problems they can find.)

Now I was really ticked off.  Yes, our computer was working again, but why couldn’t the computer shop find anything wrong with it?!  For the next couple of months there were no problems with the computer.  And then…  That dang questioning disk was back!  Now I had an idea.  Let’s try hooking the hard disk up to the same cable as the DVD-ROM drive.  Bingo, we have success.  After several months of no hard disk issues, I had finally found my troubleshooting solution.  The port where my hard drive would normally be hooked up must be bad.  We could keep running the hard disk on the same port as the DVD-ROM, but that could slow down the system a little bit.

The solution I came up with was to order a new IDE controller card to install in the computer.  Once it arrived via UPS (I got to sign for it!) I eagerly snapped it into place and then tried plugging my hard drive into one of the two IDE ports it provided.  Wait… what the heck… why isn’t this working?  I tried unplugging the cable from the motherboard port that ran up to my DVD-ROM drive and plugging it into the IDE controller card.  Hmmm… that works.  I tried (for the first time) plugging my DVD-ROM drive cable into the “bad” port.  There were no problems with the computer.

Have you guessed what had happened?  It turns out there was nothing wrong with the hard drive at all.  There was also never anything wrong with the port that I was connecting the hard drive to.  The problem was the cable that connected them together!  I had grabbed that same cable out of the cabinet when I got my new controller card and was trying to connect the hard drive to the controller card with a bad cable.  When the computer shop people tested my hard drive, they hooked it up to a different device that said the drive was good.  When they tested the motherboard, they plugged in a different cable that showed there was nothing wrong.  When I did my own troubleshooting, all of my models had left the cable out of the equation.

After running to radio shack and buying a new cable, I was in business.  The computer ran like a champ and never had port issues again.  And I had learned a valuable lesson that day:  Don’t forget to check the little things when you are troubleshooting, because it might be that a big problem has nothing to do with the big devices.

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