With outsourced support now the de facto standard in the IT and ISP industries, do-it-yourself computer repair has gone from being an optional luxury to an outright necessity. You might feel hopeless and abandoned the first time your network connection gives out, but don’t fret just yet. Given the right direction, even the greenest of users can fix a number of common network errors. We’re going to give you all the tools you need to become your own network tech support.
You might be skeptical, but LAN/WAN troubleshooting isn’t all that difficult. Upgrades are easy and cheap—if required at all—and the analysis process is brief and painless, even if you’ve never wired a Cat5 cable or run a command line ipconfig. Even better, many of the steps and instructions are identical in Vista and XP, which goes a long way toward easing the troubleshooting transition, should you switch from one OS to the other.
While sometimes a call to your ISP is unavoidable, when you do have to do it, at least you’ll brandish the knowledge to blaze through all the low-level BS and head straight to a speedy resolution. Don’t let the Internet and networking companies bully you any longer—it’s time to stand up and take matters into your own hands.
Some of the jargon you get from tech support is actually worthwhile. First, if your network connection is on the fritz and you’re connecting through a personal router, remove the router and connect your PC directly to your ISP’s point of entry (e.g., the cable modem). Reboot your modem immediately and then restart your computer. Next, examine your network cables. Is your Ethernet cord crimped or does it have a loose RJ45 retention clip? Replace it. The smallest things can often disturb your connection, and it’s always best to err on the side of caution.
Next, open a command prompt by going to Run in XP’s Start menu or the search bar in Vista’s Start menu and typing cmd and hitting Enter. Type ipconfig and hit Enter. Ensure you’re receiving a proper IP address, subnet mask, and default gateway. If any entry is empty, type ipconfig /release and hit Enter; then type ipconfig /renew and press Enter. Now try to ping the default gateway by typing ping xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx (where the x’s are the numbers in the gateway) and pressing Enter. Note the results. If you can ping your gateway, see if you can resolve a domain name by typing ping google.com and pressing Enter.
Next, test the stability of your connection for 15 minutes by running a continuous ping. At the command prompt, input ping –t google.com and press Enter. After the time is up, hit Ctrl + C to stop the ping. Scan the list and observe any timeouts (a couple is OK, but more than that is trouble). If you still can’t browse, or if you’ve encountered an error during any of the commands, refer to Step 3 for a solution.
Running a home network with two or more dormant computers? Turn off those machines or put them in standby—any additional rigs downloading or uploading information (no matter how minute) will negatively impact your online performance. Therefore, if you want maximum bandwidth, lock out those YouTube-surfing in-laws during your sweet all-night-long TF2 sessions.
Also, as clichéd as it might sound, the most common causes of a bogged-down connection are spyware and malware. If you haven’t done so already, download and install both Ad-Aware SE free edition (http://tinyurl.com/6lzwnk) and Spybot Search and Destroy (http://tinyurl.com/2c4c69); run them one after the other (you can safely ignore the compatibility warnings). You might be amazed at how well these utilities can improve performance.
Now for some housecleaning: For XP, go to the Start menu and then Run; for Vista, go to the search bar. Type msconfig to open the System Configuration Utility. Click the Startup tab and uncheck any boxes except the following (if present): Windows display drivers, anti-virus/firewall software, soundcard drivers, systray, Windows Explorer, and anything listed under Microsoft Operating System. If you’re unsure about a specific entry, take the safe route and leave it checked. Many times, some software, such as Apple’s QuickTime, will start itself with Windows and auto-update in the background, hogging all your precious bandwidth.
Lastly, if you utilize DSL or cable, call your ISP and request a line-test. This is a quick and simple procedure, and while it can only be run from the provider’s side, it can instantly reveal whether your residence is too far from the central office, suffering from severe signal degradation, etc.
To compare your ISP’s stated connection speed with your download speeds, divide the speed your browser reports by 1024. Example: 550KB/sec / 1024 = .537 MB/sec.
If you’ve hit a snag running any of the commands in Step 1, here are a few solutions to the most common errors.
1) You have an IP address, but no default gateway, even after releasing and renewing, or you can’t ping a domain name.
In this case, make absolutely sure you have Windows configured for DHCP (or statically, should your ISP support it). For XP, go to the Start menu, then Run; in Vista go to Start or the search bar. Type control netconnections and click OK. Right-click your active icon (should be the one without a red X) and select Properties. From here, ensure that all boxes are checked and highlight Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) and click Properties. If you don’t have a static IP, make sure there’s a dot in the circle next to “Obtain an IP address automatically.” If everything is set up correctly but your command lines are still failing, the ISP is probably at fault and will need to be contacted.
2) You pinged Google.com continuously but received an extraordinary number of timeouts.
The most common causes for this error are a conflict in an assigned public IP address or large amounts of interference with the connection due to, say, interior power cables running parallel to the residence’s WAN line. Unfortunately, both of these issues necessitate a call to your ISP. However, if you list everything we’ve mentioned above, the conversation should be quick and torture-free, and while interference can take time to diagnose and resolve, assigning a new customer WAN IP should take no longer than five minutes.
If you run Vista, turn off IPv6 if you don’t use it. Doing so will typically result in better overall reliability. While you’re inside your network connection properties (this applies to XP users as well), click the Configure button next to your network card’s name and navigate to the Advanced tab and ensure that these properties (if listed) are set as follows: LAN Power State Link Speed: Disable; Optimize For: Throughput; Speed/Duplex Settings: Full Autonegotiation. Next, click the Power Management tab (if available) and make sure to uncheck “Allow the computer to turn off this device to save power.”
For XP users only, go to Start, then Run, and type gpedit.msc. Click OK. (Note: You must have full admin rights to make this edit.) Find User Configuration and navigate to Administrative Templates, then Desktop, and right-click “Do not add shares of recently opened documents to My Network Places” and click Enable.
It’s also a good idea to disable any unused network ports. Simply type control netconnections into XP’s Run or Vista’s search bar, click OK, and right-click the dormant icon and select Disable.
Flash that router firmware! Browse to your router manufacturer’s website and do a quick download/update search. You should find new firmware in no time. Have an ISP-owned router that runs your LAN? Believe us: It’s worth the dreaded phone call to have them update it—many ISP firmware bundles can instantly solve major download/upload speed issues.
Next, if you use a VoIP router in conjunction with your LAN and you want data packets at peak efficiency, plug in the VoIP router inside your internal LAN, not outside it. Sometimes, running your network through VoIP equipment prior to your personal or ISP router will auto-enable high priority for voice packets. It’s good for phone calls, bad for data throughput and fragging.
If you’re having slowdowns while sorting through network folders or shares, here’s a DWORD that might help: type regedit into Run for XP or Vista’s search bar, and find your way through HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\System\CurrentControlSet\Services\LanmanServer\Parameters. Next, right-click anywhere in the window and select New > DWORD Value. Now name the item SizReqBuf and right-click the entry and select Modify. Select the Decimal option and change the numeric value to 16384. After this, close out of the registry and reboot.
Network cards, like any other peripheral, require drivers. This is a good place to start when trying to repair a dead LAN. Next, if you’ve made any recent changes to your personal router and you’re now faced with a nonresponsive or shaky connection, reset the hardware to factory defaults. Do so by depressing the small (often well-hidden) reset button on the back or bottom of your router with a ballpoint pen for about 30 seconds. After that, release it—your router will now be configured like the day you bought it, sans user-implemented errors. This is actually a smart first troubleshooting step for any networking errors or otherwise wonky behavior.
If you’re still having trouble accessing network shares or shortcuts, see if your computer can resolve other computers’ names on the network. Many routers will contain a breakdown of all attached devices’ info (including the computer name and current IP address), but if your router lacks this functionality, you’ll have to retrieve the data manually off every other rig. It’s easy though— just right-click the My Computer icon on Vista or XP, go to Properties, click the Computer Name tab, and observe the “Full computer name” field. Once you’ve retrieved the necessary data, open up a cmd inside XP’s Run or Vista’s search bar. Try to ping each powered-on computer’s name. If you receive an error stating “unknown host” or “could not find local host,” go back to your run /search field and type control netconnections. Right-click your active LAN icon and hit Properties. From here, double-click Internet Protocol TCP/IP and then click the Advanced tab. Under the WINS tab, ensure that NetBIOS over TCP/IP is enabled. You should now be able to access your sibling network devices.
Some folks wonder if there’s really a difference between CAT5 and CAT5e cable. The answer is a resounding yes. The most important distinction is that basic Cat5 squeezes by on Ethernet and Fast Ethernet but doesn’t support Gigabit. CAT5e, however, is rated for 350 megahertz, making Gigabit support a breeze, while at the same time enjoying full backward compatibility with Fast Ethernet; CAT5e also guards better against electrical interference, making it more robust for tight installations. If in doubt, replace your current wiring with CAT5e. This could save you some headaches in the long run.