PC owners know that every computer has a unique assortment of components, applications and peripherals. Nevertheless, certain things–including a host of common PC problems and mysteries–are part of the shared experience of computer ownership. The editors at PCWorld have seen and solved hundreds of PC mysteries, ranging from balky printers to diffident video players to persnickety file attachments. Most of the answers to these tech questions are simple and straightforward, so we’ve taken the liberty of compiling some of the most frequently encountered PC mysteries into a single list that we’ll update regularly. Following each question we provide a short response that summarizes what we know. For a more detailed explanation and some helpful tips, click the links in each answer.
Why is [Program X] always running when I start my PC?
Windows maintains a list of programs that automatically run every time you boot up your computer. Some of these startup programs (such as antivirus utilities) are beneficial, but many of them are not necessary and can slow your PC as they run automatically in the background. Speed up your boot time by disabling Windows startup programs.
Why does my PC keep making a grinding sound?
This can happen for a lot of reasons–and unfortunately almost all of them are bad news. The most likely answer is that a fan or hard drive in your PC is starting to die, causing it to spin off-kilter. PCWorld contributing editor Lincoln Spector wrote a smart guide to pinpointing the source of a grinding-sound problem in this Answer Line column. No matter what the cause turns out to be, you should immediatelyback up your hard drive, just in case.
Why do I need administrator access to delete certain files?
That requirement is just a security precaution: Windows 7 insists that you have administrator access in order to modify or delete files when doing so might affect other people who use the computer. If you need to delete something and you don’t have the password to get into the administrator account (if you bought the PC used, for example) here’s how to gain administrator access without a password.
Why did Windows come bundled with so many unwanted programs?
For once, Microsoft isn’t to blame. Most PC manufacturers stuff new computers with extraneous trial versions of games, movie players, antivirus utilities, and other software. If you want to get rid of this bloatware, here’s how to remove preinstalled software from your PC.
Why won’t Windows allow me to delete a certain file?
I updated my hardware drivers and now my PC is acting funny. What happened?
Though it’s a good idea to download the latest drivers for your components, occasionally a buggy or beta driver update may degrade your PC’s performance. If that happens, try to roll back to a previous version of the driver that you know is safe; if you can’t do that, you’ll have to uninstall the problematic driver entirely. Our walkthrough of how to uninstall drivers in Windows explains how to perform a rollback and how to uninstall a driver.
Windows typically keeps critical system files hidden from view to make it more difficult for untrained users to modify or delete them, and thereby inadvertently cause a system error. Usually the only hidden files are ones you shouldn’t tamper with (such as your boot.ini file); however, if you need to find a file or folder and you think it might be hidden, check out our tips on how to view hidden files and file extensions in Windows.
Why doesn’t my iPad charge when I connect it to my computer?
Your PC’s USB port doesn’t supply enough juice to charge a new iPad quickly–but you can still charge your iPad gradually. Some USB ports, however, like the ones highlighted in red below, have a higher trickle charge rate to help you charge smartphones, tablets, and other external devices.
Why does a video play on my desktop but not my laptop?
UItimately your USB ports can be any color your motherboard manufacturer desires–or all the same color, for that matter–but USB 3.0 ports are often bright blue to distinguish them from older, slower USB 2.0 ports. USB 3.0 devices are backward-compatible with USB 2.0, and the ports look identical, which makes some sort of visual indicator (such as a coat of blue paint or a “USB 3.0” stamp) extremely useful.
In a folder full of digital images, I often see a file called Thumbs.db. What is it, and can I safely delete it?
Thumbs.db is a Windows XP system file that contains the thumbnail cache for a particular folder. You can tweak Windows to get it out of your way.
Why does every digital camera–including the one on my smartphone–store photographs in a folder called DCIM?
What are the .dat files that I sometimes receive in email messages, and how do I open them?
Microsoft Outlook uses a modified version of Rich Text Format (RTF) to preserve fonts and the like, but the format often causes problems for the recipient. We have three suggestions for coping with this situation.
Don’t see your most baffling PC mystery in the list? Leave us a comment and let us know!