In the past few decades, computers have gone from a business machine to one of the most important tools in everyday life. Our laptops, tablets and even smartphones are considered computers. We use them at work, for play and even as a way to distract ourselves during moments of boredom. Various types of computers have been designed to fit into almost every aspect of our life. But at the same time, they’re something of a black box tocomnp most people. The more advanced computers become, the more difficult it is to properly maintain or repair them. This has created an increasing demand for computer repair technicians. But what does the job entail?
Working With Similar Concepts and Components
A desktop system and a tablet seem extremely different to most people. But the actual components of these systems, our smartphones, and most other computing devices are quite similar. Therefore, so many computer repair technicians can handle all these seemingly dissimilar devices. Of course, each device has its own nuances. That’s why it’s best to look at computer troubleshooting and repair in the context of shared components rather than devices.
Software and Operating Systems
A computer’s operating system is the bridge between hardware and software. There was a time, not too long ago, when every new digital peripheral shipped with its own complex drivers. These drivers essentially told the computer how to handle any new piece of hardware. Today’s operating systems can handle most of those issues on their own. We simply plug a device into a computer and the operating system will recognize what it does and how to communicate with it. The operating system will even go online and search for a solution when it can’t figure out what to do with a piece of hardware.
Amazingly enough, this is even true for a mobile operating system. For example, if we plug a USB OTG cable into an Android based phone, it will use most peripherals intended for desktop computers. One of the reasons for this versatility is both the operating systems on Android, and Apple’s phones, were originally used on desktop computers. They’re even similar to one another. iOS built on a Unix based system called BSD. While Android uses a Unix based system called Linux. These days almost every computer will make use of a complex operating system with a long development history.
However, the complexity of all these operating systems means a lot can go wrong with them. We often see our computers get slower and slower over time. In fact, that’s one of the biggest reasons people bring in their computers for repair work. Issues with the operating system are among the biggest problems but it’s quite common for us to attribute the issues to a wide variety of other factors.
It’s extremely rare for software to work directly with the hardware on a computer. Instead, almost all software goes through some level of abstraction on an operating system. For example, a program usually doesn’t talk to a graphics processing unit. Instead, the program will use an abstracted API such as DirectX. DirectX, in turn, communicates with the GPU through the underlying operating system. And this is the norm for most hardware. Generally, the only software on a computer that really communicates directly with hardware is the operating system.
As we might expect, this often means that the operating system will become bogged down over time. We tend to install program after program onto our computers. This results in hundreds, or even thousands, of active processes constantly making demands of the operating system.
We don’t just need to know how to diagnose issues with an operating system, we also need to know how to update operating systems and troubleshoot common errors. Part of this involves knowing what new features come with every operating system update. People often assume that their computer is broken after an update simply because its behavior has changed. This can be an actual bug with the operating system update. But it’s also possible for people to do an update at home without knowing what it entails. What appears to be a bug might just be the result of changing methodology within the operating system.
Those of us involved with computer repair generally need to be familiar with all the popular operating systems. As computer repair technicians, we’ll ideally be able to look at a list of active processes and quickly differentiate between important programs and those which are placing extra demands on the operating system. Of course, we also need the ability to find instances of computer worms, viruses, malware, and other threats. These issues are more harmful than the usual software cruft that often builds up over time within an operating system. However, operating system slowdown is a common symptom of all these problems.
Random Access Memory (RAM)
As a computer repair technician, we typically have two solutions to a slow operating system. We can remove the cruft of programs working within active memory. Or we can upgrade the memory, known as RAM, inside a computer. Note that this is not only possible in desktop systems, but we can also increase the RAM in laptops. But we’ll typically see limits to just how far the memory can be upgraded in these devices. This is in large part because laptop systems are highly specialized. Every laptop model is locked down to a single motherboard. It’s generally rare for a laptop to support replacement CPUs too. For this reason, there’s only so much that can be changed on a hardware level.
RAM is the option we choose to improve our laptop. But there’s only so much we can do with the combination of memory, CPU, and motherboard. In fact, many laptops no longer even support RAM upgrades. This is because laptop size has become a highly competitive feature. Companies often save space by fully integrating every element of a computer into a single board. These single board computers often have static RAM and even hard drives.
RAM presents some other issues too, and this is one of the more difficult to troubleshoot problems in a computer. People usually assume RAM is a one size fits all solution. Or at the very least they’ll assume that the data rate is the only aspect of RAM that they need to watch out for. But RAM comes in a variety of different specifications.
The underlying operating system can often compensate for normally incompatible RAM. But doing so will slow down memory access. This can be seen with damaged RAM as well. Being able to grab RAM that’s verified as pristine can speed up the troubleshooting process to an impressive degree.
Hard Drive Issues
As computer repair technicians, we also need to be comfortable with hard drives. This might seem like a simple concept at first. After all, aren’t hard drives just plug and play devices that store files? It’s true that they generally operate in that way when everything is working correctly. But a lot can go wrong with hard drives. One of the biggest problems is that hard drives store data differently depending on which file system is in use. Every operating system supports a wide variety of different file systems. However, none of the major operating systems support all the most popular formats by default.
We tend to think that hard drives are broken because we can’t get data off them onto our new computer. But the reason often comes down to incompatible file formats. This has become common with the advent of high-capacity USB drives. For example, someone with a Mac might use a USB drive formatted with APFS. But once formatted with APFS the drive won’t be usable by default on a Windows based computer.
We often need to repair hard drives as well. And a surprising amount of repair work can be done on a software level. When we troubleshoot a seemingly broken hard drive, we’ll often find that the problem is just an easily repaired issue with the partition tables. Other times we’ll need to move data from a damaged hard drive to a replacement.
We seldom need to work with a computer’s bios. But as a computer repair technician, you will need to know how to work with a bios on both specific and general terms. For example, we’ll usually need to know which key combinations trigger bios configuration on the major platforms. Bios configuration is something of a hidden secret of computer repair. It’s seldom needed. But when we do need to work with the bios, it’s typically the only viable solution to a problem. On top of that, it can provide more detailed information about the underlying hardware than we’d find from an operating system’s diagnostics.
Working With Various Peripherals
Operating system advances have simplified the upgrade process for peripherals. We often need to plug a USB device into the computer before it works perfectly. Bluetooth based devices are often just as easy to install. But there are some common problem areas in the computing world. Printers are known to be quite fussy. When we troubleshoot a printer it’s common for special drivers to be needed. What’s more, getting an accurate diagnostic on a printer can require special third-party software that’s unique to every brand.
The Art, Science and Technology of Troubleshooting
Of course, there’s one essential part of a computer repair technician’s process, the methodology. When we troubleshoot a computer it’s often as much an art as a science. Over time we can develop a knack for computer diagnostics. We start to see beyond a symptom and into the deeper cause. One obvious issue will likely exist with many fewer notable problems. For example, a slow computer might also be excessively loud. Experience teaches that a stressed fan and slow performance typically means that the CPU or GPU has issues.
In general, we begin by noting a particular problem and coming up with the most probable explanations for an underlying cause. The secondary issues, like the previously noted loud fan, will then help us weigh the probability of each potential cause. We then finish the troubleshooting process by developing tests which would prove or disprove any given hypothesis. Once we’ve discovered the true source of the problem, we can leverage our skills and experience to begin the repair process.
From start to finish, the diagnostic and repair process will leverage our skill, ingenuity, and imagination. One of the most exciting aspects of the field is that it’s always changing. This makes it an ideal match for people who love solving problems and helping people get through difficult situations.
Interested in learning more about troubleshooting and repairing computers as a career? The Computer Technician Networking Specialist program at Hunter Business School is designed to prepare computer networking students for entry-level positions in the fields of electronics, computer technology, and networking. Students build their own computers and use them in the learning process.
Contact us today to find out more on how to become a computer repair technician on Long Island.